Sunday, June 29, 2014

Faith or Senior Moment

Genesis 22:1-14

Week after week I do my best to bring you an authentic interpretation of the text.  There can be no dispute that my understanding of scripture is influenced by my cultural background, my educational training, and my experience in life.  My desire is to be true to the Word, but I come to the text with all of life’s experience placing a filter upon my eyes and heart. 
With this in mind allow me to say there is nothing easy about the story of Abraham going to the mountain to sacrifice his son.  If we don’t pay attention to the details, Genesis 22 appears to be a great example of one man’s faith and his ability to follow the instructions of God.  But we have to pay attention to the details, for it is in the details that we wrestle with the mindset of Abraham, the complexities of God, and finally the demands this text places on one who dares to claim to believe in the Almighty.
The story unfolds on many different levels.  I remember hearing the sacrifice of Isaac as a child.  It was presented as the ultimate expression of faith.  Abraham was tested by God.  The scenario was simple.  Who do you love more, God or your only child?  When I first encountered this story, the love of a child had no real meaning.  I was nine years old, it was Sunday morning and Yahweh was the guy.  I was constantly reminded that God was King, God was in charge, God knew things I would never understand and all I had to do to stay in the God’s good graces  was to do whatever the Lord demanded.  In order to do this, I was told to love God and love my neighbor.  There was nothing terrible complicated about that.  Of course I loved God.  I went to church every Sunday.  I prayed at every meal and before I went to bed.  I saw the sun rise, the seasons change and knew all of this happened because of God’s plan for creation.  As for my neighbor, he was my best friend.  We played together, went to school together, spent weekends together and attended Church together.  Of course I loved my neighbor.  If God tested me, I would always be up to the task.  I would remember Abraham as the example of what it meant to trust God.
But children grow up and the demands of being faithful become increasingly more complex.  Let me conduct a little test.  If God suddenly appeared before us this morning and asked that we sacrifice our first born to prove our faith, what would we do? 
How many of you would comply with God’s wishes and begin plans to sacrifice your first born?
How many of you would deny the request made by God?
Now we have officially entered into the complexities of this text.  From my vantage point, as a father and a grandfather, I don’t know how on earth Abraham could have placed his son on that alter, lifted up a knife and planned to plunge the weapon into Isaac’s heart.  That may be faith, but it seems to be faith blinded by everything God claims to be.  I understand that Christianity holds sacrificial obedience as practically sacred, but Abraham did not place himself on the altar, and   Abraham did not insist on taking the place of the child.  In fact I cannot find it in my heart to identify Abraham’s actions as anything other than cowardly.  Do we really want to worship a God who would ask us to sacrifice our youth as a test of loyalty?  That is a very loaded question which has many complicated implications.
Why would Abraham do what he did?  Let me give you a couple of explanations that you may or may not find helpful.
The most attractive but I believe the least helpful is to remember that we are talking about a very primitive culture where sacrifices were not uncommon.  To the original readers of the text the death of a child was common.  In this culture children were not considered to be human until they reached their 12th birthday. Half the children born died in their first year of life.  Children then were not held in as high esteem as children today. But let us not forget this was no ordinary child.  Isaac was a child of promise, the heir of a great nation.  The entire story of Abraham revolved around the birth of Isaac and what the parents went through in order that this birth might occur.   Also, while the sacrifice of children was prevalent in other cultures, that was not so among the Hebrews.  Each Hebrew child was considered precious because each child was understood to be the bearers of destiny.  From the bulrushes of Egypt to the insanity of Herod, every precaution was taken to spare children from death.
A second explanation would be that Abraham knew and trusted that God would spare the child.  Do you think Abraham’s hunch was enough to convince Sarah?   The couple is called on to prove themselves to God once again.  They know in their hearts God would not take this promised child.  But they dared not call Yahweh’s bluff. Abraham tells the mother not to worry.  They will go along with the game. Certainly at the last moment God, rejoicing over Abraham’s faith, would present a substitute for the boy.  The father and son go off into the mountains, leaving Sarah at home.  God does provide.  Isaac and his faithful father returned home to the loving arms of the anxious but relieved mother.  That sounds plausible except for one very important detail.  Abraham and Isaac returned to an empty home.  While they were in the mountains, Sarah died.  The Midrash tells us that she was overcome by a broken heart.
  If I read the text correctly, a heavy hearted Abraham went to the mountains feeling certain he would return without Isaac. It would be hard for me to come up with any other explanation for his actions. The critical question concerning Abraham was, why did he believe killing Isaac would fulfill the wishes of God?  What does this say about Abraham?  Equally important, what does this say about God?
I might be on very shaky theological ground here, but I find that the command and the promise of God are in contradiction with each other.  The promise of God is that Isaac would be the beginning of a great nation.  But the command of God was for Abraham to kill the promise, ending the birth of Israel.  Certainly the argument could be made that Yahweh is a jealous God demanding complete loyalty.  Certainly one could suggest in the eyes of Abraham and Sarah the child had become more important than God, therefore the test.  But I refuse to believe this argument.  I believe the command of God and the promise of God are never in contradiction.  If we follow God’s supreme directive to love one another, even the consideration of taking the life of an innocent human is wrong.      
I would like to suggest Abraham was not exhibiting faith but rather was having a senior moment.  If you are under 60 you have no idea what I am talking about.  Trust me, when you are over 60 you had better start putting your car keys in the same spot every night because if you don’t you may find yourself walking to work. When you are over 60 church directories with pictures are really important because it is amazing how quickly familiar names seem to vacate your mind.  When you are over 60 all of your security codes become the same four numbers, and just to be on the safe side you write them down and insert them in your wallet. 
Abraham had a senior moment.  He forgot that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and steadfast in love. Abraham forgot that God celebrates life.  Abraham forgot that God abhors death especially the death of a child.    When God suggested that the life of an innocent child was to be used for a sacrifice, the great father of the Hebrew people had a brain freeze.  No questions were asked, no dialogue took place. Abraham just loaded up the donkey, fetched Isaac and headed for the hills.  If this was faith then it was blind faith.  God gave us free will.  When we use that gift we are expected to do so with our eyes wide open.  Abraham failed the test when he refused to question God’s ungodly command.
In an equally familiar story you might remember that God informed Abraham that the city of Sodom would be destroyed because of its wickedness.  Lot, the nephew of Abraham resided in the city.  Abraham goes to great lengths to argue with God over the destruction of a city of sinners.  Do you remember the discussion?  Abraham bargains with God if 100 righteous folks can be found in Sodom the city would be spared.  Then Abraham reduces the number to 50.  Finally he had God agree on a final number. If 10 righteous folks could be found, the fire storm would be called off.  So why did this man who argued for the lives of some pretty unsavory characters fail to offer any resistance at the demand that his innocent son be sacrificed?  Why did he give in so easily? Why did Abraham fail to observe the Torah?  Why did he not say to God, “If I kill my son, I mutilate the very image of God?  If I kill my son, I break your sacred commandments.  If I kill my son, I renounce all that is sacred; I renounce life.” 
Why did Abraham lose his voice?  Why could he not find the will to fight for his son?  How could he have been so overcome by the moment?    How could he have forgotten that the basic principal of this God called Yahweh was life over death? Perhaps choosing the mores of culture have always been easier than selecting the radical demands of this God who celebrates life.
I suspect each of us, in a weak and regrettable moment, sacrificed our children for the god of fortune, the god of fame, or the god of pleasure.  That is what a lesser god demands.
The God of Abraham always chooses life.
                                 To that God be the glory!    Amen.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Old Testament Family Values

Genesis 21:8-21

        Tighten you seat belts. For the rest of the summer we are going to take a rollicking ride through the book of Genesis. I am so excited. Some of my favorite stories in all literature come from this book. The writer begins with creation, then moves to and from the Garden, the murder of Abel, and the Great Flood. The prologue is neatly tied up with the hysterically funny story about building a tower to heaven.  All of the major themes of biblical theology, i.e. creation, transgression, forgiveness, redemption and re-creation,     are introduced in those twelve chapters. There is even an encore to remind us of God’s sense of humor.
        Those stories are wonderful and worth examining over and over again, but this summer we are going to skip the prologue of Genesis and concentrate on the family of Abraham.  Jewish scholar Elie Wiesel writes, “Once upon a time there lived a man for all seasons, blessed with all talents and virtues and deserving of every grace. His name was Abraham. He was the first enemy of idolatry, the first to rise up against the “establishment”, the first to reject civilization to form a minority of one, and the first to suffer for his beliefs.  Alone against the world, Abraham affirmed that God is present wherever God’s name is evoked. And yet, Abraham was far from perfect.”
        As you might remember Abraham grew up in city of Ur, nowhere near the land of Israel. He had a profitable vocation and was nearing retirement age. In a dream, Abraham received instructions to leave Ur, travel 600 miles across the desert, and start a new life. The motivation for this madness was the promise of a son. For years Abraham and Sarah had dreamed of a family. They believed a child would secure their legacy. But now retirement was near. Abraham had already moved up to the gold tees. The hopes of a son were all but forgotten. Then in a dream, a reckless dream, a ridiculous dream, their lifelong bequest was once again placed upon the table. With nothing more than the promise in a  vision, Abraham and Sarah headed west. Sometimes a dream is all anyone needs.
        If you remember the story, the child did not come immediately. In fact it looked like the child was not going to come at all. To wretch up the intensity of the story we are informed that the couple was approaching their eightieth birthday. I know numbers are a bit skewed in the telling of any Old Testament story, but the writer has our attention. Abraham and Sarah are too old to think of anything other than rocking on the front porch. Even if Abraham could have renewed his Viagra prescription, why would the ancient Sarah have entertained the idea of pregnancy?
        So Abraham decided to step in and help God out. As so often happens when things are not going according to our plan, we step we decide we have a better way of doing things. Can we really blame Abraham? He was getting restless. He had done everything asked of him and still had no son. He begin to suspect the problem was not with him, but with Sarah. Of course wives know what husbands are thinking long before we husbands know what we are thinking. Realizing Abraham would eventually blame her, Sarah initiated a very interesting conversation. “Abraham, my beloved whom I love more than life itself, I know you want a son. If I could give you a son I would, but that seems impossible. So take my good and loyal servant Hagar. Implant your seed within her that we might have a son.” Then Sarah added the kicker, “Perhaps this is what God planned all along.”
Let’s step outside the story for just a moment. A couple of incredibly dangerous things are happening here. First, there is the obvious. You don’t celebrate your 60th wedding anniversary by impregnating another woman no matter who gives you permission. Abraham was supposed to say, “Sarah, love of my life, how could you suggest such a thing? Either we get pregnant together or we don’t get pregnant at all.” That is what Sarah expected hear. That is what God expected hear. But sometimes men can be found guilty of not thinking with their heads or their hearts. Abraham’s response was, “What a wonderful and caring woman you are. I accept your gift.”
        And that answer leads a second observation. So often today when folks are trying to figure out the complexities of sexual ethics, someone will inevitably say, “What we need to do is to return to the family values of the Bible.” 
        ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Abraham had sex with his wife’s servant. Jacob had twelve children by four women and he didn’t even play in the NBA. David committed adultery and had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines and was still considered to be the wisest person in the land.  If that was what the really good guys in the Bible were doing can you imagine what was going on with everyone else? Even so, Abraham should have been bright enough to have seen the hornet’s nest he was creating. Thankfully, our transgressions always give God the opportunity to show us how we are supposed to live.
        Let us return to the story. As we all might have guessed, when Abraham agreed to Sarah’s solution, Sarah had a fit. She wanted nothing to do with a son that was not hers. Abraham couldn’t understand the problem. I can hear him now. “But honey, it was your idea.”
        Meanwhile, Hagar gets wind of the plan and decided to run away. Believe it or not she runs smack into an angel of the Lord who tells her to go back to camp, jump in bed with Abraham       and bear him a son. She is to call him Ishmael, which means, “God hears her affliction”.  Eventually she bore Abraham a son but Hagar was less than thrilled to be caught in this tension between husband and wife. Sarah was furious over the whole episode and Abraham, well Abraham was just happy to play catch in the back yard with his son.
        But then things really got complicated. True to God’s promise, Sarah gets pregnant and has a boy. Abraham was beside himself. Having two sons made him doubly blessed. It also created a problem. Ishmael was the oldest. He would receive the blessing and birthright. He would become the leader of the tribe. Abraham was so overcome with joy none of this occurred to him. But it occurred to Sarah, and she quickly acted on behalf of her son.
        She cornered Abraham and said to him, “Cast out Hagar, the Egyptian, and let her take her son with her.”
I think it is worth noting when there were no children, Hagar was the loyal companion. Now that a second child has been born, the first child somehow threatens to cause great harm to the economic structure of Abraham’s estate. Hagar, who is no longer needed, was seen as an illegal alien who probably crossed the border illegally. Sarah pointed out that Abraham could not possibly grant her the status of citizenship within the chosen people. 
The plan all along was for Abraham and Sarah to have a child. But Abraham was impatient and an outsider was brought in to the plot. The plot thickens with the birth of Ishmael and it boils over with the arrival of Isaac.  The plan all along was for Isaac to be the blessed child but human wants and human desires and human needs and human egos tripped up the best laid plans. And now someone had to go.
I have spent much time in the two great states of Texas and North Carolina. Both states depend greatly on agriculture and both states have a problem finding folks who are willing to work the fields. In Texas this problem was solved by turning a blind eye to folks from Mexico who would work for less than fair wages. In North Carolina, migrant labors have been used to pick the fields of everything from blue berries to tobacco. It seemed to be a good system, at least in the eyes of the owners of the farms. But want happens when the Ishmael and Hagar’s want to be treated fairly? What happens when they want to settle down and become neighbors? Imagine them wanting to be citizens? We who are chosen, we who identify with Sarah and Abraham are never sure they are ready for this new and troublesome development. 
What might the text say to this situation? A thin reading of the text makes the solution quite obvious. Abraham gave Hagar a flask of water and a loaf of bread and said, “You need to go back where you came from.” He probably kissed her on the cheek and told Ishmael to become a man that would make him proud. Then Abraham pointed toward Egypt and told them to be on their way. Soon they ran out of water. Soon all options were gone. Soon it appeared death would be their only companion.
But then Hagar cried out, God heard her cries and the story becomes more complicated. Water was provided. Ishmael was taught how to hunt and with God’s help they turned the wilderness into their home. There is no doubt Isaac was the favored son/nation. But when reading the story please remember Hagar, for perhaps she represents every outcast and refugee of this world. In Hagar those who are rejected find hope for  Hagar represents every exploited maid, every expelled wife, every rejected pregnant woman, and every “illegal” worker.
No one wants to hear their story…. except God, and hopefully…….. us.                To God be the Glory,  Amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Living Water

John 7:37-39

        In case you haven’t guessed, today is Pentecost. Hopefully that is why some of you are wearing red. If you are not looking for it, Pentecost just kind of slips up on us. There is no baby Jesus, no Pentecost  candles, no Holy Week and certainly no great music to remind us of the significance of the day. To make it worse, Hallmark really lets us down. I didn’t receive a single Pentecost Card in the mail. But then, Pentecost has no Santa, it has no Pentecost baskets, and no one is hurrying home for a Big Pentecost Meal. Pentecost is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of Christian holidays. It gets so little respect that the Methodist Church in Crozet announced today was Pentecost on their bill board and spelled it P-E-N-T-A-C-O-S-T. So, in keeping with the Pentecost Spirit, instead of preaching on Acts 2, I thought we might look at John 7.
        Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty, come to me.” I know what it is like to be thirsty. Some of you are silently laughing because how often have you seen me very far from a cup filled with a refreshing beverage. It is a character flaw with genetic roots. I can never remember seeing my father for more than an hour without a Coke product nearby. I guess it must be one of those Georgia things. But I have been thirsty, really thirsty, and it is not a pretty sight.
        Last summer Mary Dudley and I took a bike trip on the Sky Line Drive. It was one of those uncomfortably hot days when both the temperature and the humidity were well above 90. The ride was to be less than 25 miles. I mistakenly believed two water bottles were sufficient. I was wrong. I was into my second bottle before we reached the turnaround point. I knew the last three miles were down hill so I rationalized if I could make it to the downhill portion I would be fine. The problem is dehydration doesn’t care if you are going uphill or down. Your mind is fried and you start making bad choices. Coming down a mountain road at over 35 mph on a bicycle is not one of those times you want your mind to wander. All reaction times become too slow or too sudden. My last rational thought was to get off the road, lie down and hope Mary Dudley had some water to share.
        “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” Thirst is not always generated by a lack of fluids. Some folks thirst for power, some for knowledge or some for fame. Others thirst for God. Much like a person who is dehydrated, the mind of one thirsty for God often resembles one who is on the verge of madness. Allow me to share a letter by one who became honored with the status of sainthood in our life time.
        Your grace, I want to say something and I don’t know how to express it. I am longing, painfully longing, to be holy in a way that Jesus can live his life to the fullest in me. The more I want him, the less I am wanted. The more I want to love him the more I feel the separation between us. I have only a deep terrible emptiness that can only be God’s absence. I obey God blindly. I go to confessional with the hope of speaking and I have no words. Pray for me, that God might lift this darkness. Sometimes the agony of desolation is so deep that all I can pray is “Sacred Jesus, I trust in Thee”. I thirst for Jesus to quench my dried up soul.
(Mother Theresa in 1956)
        I often have folks come into my office and ask how they might become more spiritual. My first response should always be, “Why would you want to do that?” And then I should ask, “How thirsty are you?”
        We all play at being spiritual. The fact that you are here this morning means that there must be some yearning in your soul to become a holier person. But in this culture of caring for my needs and worrying exclusively about my self-esteem,     how willing am I to release my ego-centric soul to one who only promises a cup of water?  
        Perhaps I should be more than willing to drink the water offered. Our nation has been overcome by an epidemic of thirsty people. There is a dryness in the land, a dryness in our relationships, a dryness in our leadership, and a dryness in our dreams for the future. Part of the problem is we want instant gratification. We want to drink something that works now and face it, we are tired of drinking Kool-aid.
        I have been blessed to have some folks come into my office who were so thirsty they were willing to try anything. The truth is they had already tried a bunch of other options and nothing had worked.  My formula is rather simple. I ask them to give me six months of their life, one hour a week. Each week they have a reading assignment. Most of the hour we only talk about what they read. Sometimes we talk about their week, but not always. Almost every time I have done this, the six month stretches into a year and sometimes beyond that.  Then, at some point I say to them, “You need to keep reading, but you no longer need me.” How do I know when the time is right? Their conversations have gone from what they needed, to sharing how they had become involved with someone who needed a helping hand.
         What on earth is this magic book? Can it be purchased on Amazon, perhaps used, and hopefully in paperback?
I’ll give you a hint, Jesus said, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and out of their hearts shall flow rivers of living waters.”
        After the ascension of Jesus, the disciples returned to the upper room. They read scripture, prayed and worried about their future. They made a decision concerning who would replace Judas, and elected Matthias, once again bring their number to twelve. And then they waited.
        Jewish tradition tell us that Moses was given The Law at Sinai, fifty days after the Passover. So on Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, fifty days after Easter, the disciples once again gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate God’s gift of the Word. In the midst of their celebration the Spirit of God, ascended upon them and their thirst and souls were quenched. Then Peter ran out into the streets of Jerusalem and sang those great words from the prophet Joel,
God will pour out God’s spirit on all people;
                Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
                Your young men shall see visions,
                Your old men shall dream dreams,
                And all who call on the name of God,
                Will be saved.

        Pentecost was never about the disciples finding closure. It was never about them rediscovering their sense of self. Pentecost was and still is about discovering being one with God and one with God’s creation. The Word was placed upon the disciple’s hearts and the Spirit of God ignited that Word into something Holy, something Sacred and something communal. Peter couldn’t help himself. He had to share that which had quenched his thirst. Peter’s tongue became like a river of living waters.
        The Gospel of John begins with that marvelous phrase, “In the beginning the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” At Pentecost the Word became Spirit and entered our flesh. When that happens Jesus will not be confined to just your heart. He will affect your soul and your brain, and your words and your hands. You who were thirsty will become a source of living waters.   
        On October 31, 1982, Mother Theresa spoke these words at the Vatican.
God keeps on loving the world. God keeps sending you and me to prove God loves the world and still has compassion for this world.  We have to be the love of God. Always Remember,
The fruit of silence is prayer;
The fruit of prayer is faith;
The fruit of faith is love;
The fruit of love is service;
The fruit of service is peace.     

May the power of God’s spirit fall on you,
Quenching your thirst,
Making you a river of living waters.
To God be the Glory                   Amen