Yesterday we were in worship with our friends at Church of the Atonement, Westfield. I served there as Curate 1993-95. I was ordained there and Marco and I were married there! It was fun showing our kids landmarks of that chapter of our life! Below: the Rector of COTA, The Rev. Nancy Webb Stroud in the pulpit, and the not so newly weds, in lovely Stanley Park.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Most of us know the story of the Good Samaritan. He’s the guy who rescued a mugging victim on a wilderness road, without wondering who that victim was. Does loving our neighbor mean helping a stranger? Yes, of course. This teaching of Jesus that has entered our culture so completely that it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But this parable is one of the ways God shaped our world to be what it is today.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” — Genesis 22
The same is true of today’s Genesis reading. These are hard Bible words for us to hear: their cold-blooded brutality makes our ears tingle. They confirm our worst fears about human nature and contradict what we think we know about God. But let’s remember what Dr. King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let’s look at how these words push the universe towards justice. Let’s hold them up as a mirror of our human situation. Let’s listen to them as words that have changed the world, and words that will change the world.
Many scholars believe ritual mountaintop child sacrifice was acceptable four thousand years ago in the place where Sarah and Abraham lived (2054 BC). Even 1400 years later, the Lord spoke through Jeremiah (19: 3-5, 609 BC) to condemn this evil practice.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon [Judah and Jerusalem] that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. (19: 3-5, 609 BC)
An epic rant against a great evil! God used Jeremiah to deliver urgent messages: this business of building the high places of Baal to sacrifice little ones must have been going on. But thus says the LORD, “nor did it enter my mind.” We can wonder: has something changed God’s mind since the episode on Mount Moriah? What is going on?
We don’t know the mind of God, of course. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. But the weight of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience makes us sure that God is love. So what is going on here?
In the culture Isaac was born into, God’s instruction to Abraham didn’t go against the culture. Remember how Sarah resisted the news that she would bear a child in her old age? That was countercultural. She knew countercultural when she heard it but she didn’t say a word about this project. Neither did Abraham’s servants, nor even did Isaac make much of a fuss when he started to suspect what was up. What was countercultural? The scholar Gil Baillie put it like this:
What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done. (Violence Unveiled, Crossroads, 1996)
What was countercultural? Abraham’s servants, his friends, and even Isaac, expected him to return alone. But he came back from Mt. Moriah with Isaac!
God repeatedly says “no more of this!” when we, God’s people, think it’s somehow holy and life-giving to sacrifice somebody. We do this sacrifice because we’re afraid of something.
Abraham was afraid of losing God’s favor. But right at the moment of deadly violence, the word of the Lord stopped him. The word of the Lord said “no more of this!” and gave him the courage to buck his culture and obey.
In Jeremiah’s time the people of Jerusalem were afraid of being hauled off into slavery, and hoped that sacrifice might somehow change their fate. God used Jeremiah to shine the light of truth on that sacrifice in 609 BC, and say “no” to it.
When the people of Jerusalem demanded, “crucify Jesus, crucify him!” they were, rightly, afraid of Herod, the Romans, and their high priests. They hoped that choosing Jesus to catch the violence of their culture might save them.
But Jesus was the worst sacrificial victim ever. He didn’t die quietly. Instead, he gently forgave the ones who tried to kill him. In his dying he gave even the Roman squad leader the courage to recognize the pointlessness of the sacrifice: “Surely this man was the son of God.”
And in his glorious resurrection he makes clear the way for you and me, for humanity, to escape the need for sacrificial violence, just like the angel did for Abraham. His resurrection, once and for all, says “no more of this.”
But, even with this example, we still act like human sacrifice will solve our problems. In the late 1600s a 20 miles south of here, some of our neighbors became afraid they were losing God’s favor. A great panic ensued. Those folks thought they had to act fast. They had to restore public order and with it God’s favor. They accused many people of witchcraft, then tried and killed them.
But Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, had second thoughts. Four years after the trials he heard his son say something, just like Abraham heard Isaac say “where is the lamb?” Judge Sewall’s son recited the words of Jesus to the temple Pharisees from Matthew:
But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (12:7)
A year later, in 1697, he publicly repented of his part in the witch trials and publicly begged forgiveness from his neighbors. It was far too late for the victims, of course, but this one judge did witness the suffering of victims and hear God’s word “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
In this age, we human beings continue to be willing to sacrifice people for what we understand to be the public order. For example, consider the endless parade of shootings in schools.
We highly value the personal right to possess and use powerful weapons. As a culture we seem to have concluded that the routine loss of life is an acceptable price to pay to preserve that right. However strongly we personally deplore school shootings, we continue to have the collective will to accept them, just as the people of Abraham’s and Jeremiah’s times accepted child sacrifice on mountaintops.
For another example, consider the universal human tendency to go to war – to organize ourselves to employ ritual violence – to try to solve our problems. I’m sure you can think of many other examples of the human attachment to violence.
My point is this: the world is still like Abraham’s. We’re not as different from the people 4000 years ago as we think we are. It’s STILL countercultural to do what Abraham did: to bring the sacrificial victim back alive. It’s STILL countercultural to do what Samuel Sewall did: to hear God say “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and act on it. It’s STILL countercultural to say what Jesus said “Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they are doing” to your tormentors.
The moral arc of the universe does indeed bend toward mercy and away from sacrifice. We can still hope that it continues to bend that way. It takes the moral courage of Abraham, Jeremiah, and Sewall, the grace of God, and the example of Jesus on the cross to be witnesses to that bending of the arc of the universe. I pray we may all, by the power of the Holy Spirit, have the courage to respond to the evil of human sacrifice by saying the resurrection words “no more of this!”
Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus Christ.
In today’s Genesis reading Sarah and Abraham are not good life examples for you and me. It is not OK to send members of our households or our stepchildren off into the desert to die of thirst. If it’s your experience in prayer that God is telling you to do something like that, the way God told Abraham to do that, wait! Please check your experience by joining in prayer with other people. To use Bill Nye The Science Guy’s words: don’t try this at home!
Some tough stuff comes up in our readings today, doesn’t it? Sarah and Abraham send away their long-time servant Hagar and her son Ishmael. Jesus tells us he’s come to make family members into enemies, and that he hasn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. Hard-to-hear stuff!
It’s tempting to try to explain away this scripture. But, we need to deal with it face to face. What can we learn from these readings about our human condition and about God’s love for us in spite of our struggles?
This coming summer each Sunday we’ll have a reading from Genesis or Exodus. They’re all accounts of anger and treachery. The threads of this great narrative tell of brother struggling against brother, father against son, father-in-law against son-in-law, and humanity struggling with God. Using this summer’s weaving metaphor here at St. Paul’s, these readings teach us that God weaves a redeemed and holy people out of frayed and broken threads. God does it with the ancient Israelites and God does it with you and me. These Genesis words are a finely polished mirror: We gaze at them and we see our own fears, anger, and acquiescence with evil.
And we also see very clearly indeed what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This summer we’re going to spend time on this moral arc, and see how God’s love bends it, and us, and all creation, toward justice. It’s my prayer that we’ll learn how to respond to God’s push to justice by pushing to justice ourselves. The mirror of these Genesis words shows us the foolishness of our evil, anger, and fear in the face of God’s love.
Back to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their boys. What’s going on in the dysfunctional family of matriarchs and patriarchs?
Sarah’s long-hoped-for miracle baby has been born after her long struggle with infertility. And now he’s survived hid infancy. They’re having a party and laughing: the transition from suckling baby to toddler was a joyful sign of survival to adulthood in those days. We can see the same thing in our history; there are graves of several infants but not many kids from 3-10 in our churchyard.
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
And something sets Sarah off. She sees Abraham’s other son, born of their household servant Hagar, playing with her son, and she’s overcome by harsh emotion. Is she jealous? Is she afraid? Is she angrily trying to give her tribe an advantage over the Egyptian tribe? Who knows?
All we get from the story is that she wants her son, not Hagar’s, to be the family heir, and the inheritor of God’s promise to make a great nation from Abraham. She demands that her husband Abraham get rid of the people she sees as threats. Abraham wants to refuse: sending somebody off into the desert means death. But with the Divine promise that they’ll be OK he agrees, and off they go.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
Like many Biblical names, most of these characters’ names are obvious puns in Hebrew: Abraham: father of the nation. Sarah: princess. Isaac: laughter. But here’s the significance: Hagar’s name doesn’t mean anything in Hebrew. It’s just a strange foreign-sounding name.
This business of distrusting people with funny-sounding names is the great scandal of human history. Throughout history we human beings – all of us, not just women like Sarah — have been suspicious of people from other tribes. We notice, and we fear, people who sound and look different from us. And, throughout history we – all of us, not just men like Abraham – cook up rationales, and sometimes claim divine approval, for acting on our fears. We’re good at it now: passports, green cards, border checkpoints, and all that. We all struggle with this fear of other tribes, this xenophobia and racism, even when we know it’s wrong.
We people have always been willing to egg each other on to make scapegoats of people who are weak and different, to push them away where we can’t hear them cry out for justice. And that brings to the name Hagar’s son by Abraham: y’ishma El … God Hears!
The story of Sarah and Abraham’s dysfunctional family is allegorically the story of the human family. When we make a scapegoats of strangers – by not listening to them, by sending them away – God Hears even when we wilfully try not to hear. God’s love makes our hatred, and even our indifference, pointless.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Muslim tradition teaches that Hagar, and Ishmael and his Egyptian wife, were themselves founders of a great nation. They’re the traditional ancestors of the prophet Mohammed just as Sarah, Isaac, and his wife are ancestors of the Israelites. You’ve probably noticed how Isaiah, other prophets, and Jesus often talk about “all the nations” of the world. God hears the voices of the peoples of the world even when you and I, in our tribalism, don’t want to hear them.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I wonder: what does Jesus mean, in the Gospel, when he says “take up the cross and follow me?” If we’re to follow Jesus faithfully, we’re called to hear as God hears. We’re called do our human best to say “no” to the bad habits of our fearful and angry human family. We’re called to accept our painful personal mistakes and family histories, and live beyond them. We’re called to challenge the families we love to do the same, and to listen when they challenge us. That’s painful. It can be a public disgrace in just the way Jesus’s death on the cross was a disgrace.
By bending our hearts with the weight of that cross, God bends the arc of the moral universe towards justice. By pushing us to accept, repent of, and live through the way we mistreat each other as tribes, nations, and as a species, God teaches us to hear, and to love, as God hears and loves each one of us. God forms us into a loving and holy people, for the life of the whole world. In + Jesus’s name!
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen
Don’t our readings today give us an interesting contrast? They’re bookends on God’s Great Story of creation. The first verse of Genesis starts as time and space are coming into being, when the earth was formless and empty and darkness was on the face of the abyss.
The last verse of Matthew ends on a Palestinian mountaintop, from where you could see the nations of the world of that time: north to Sidon and Tyre, east to the port of Caesarea, south to Gaza, and west beyond the Jordan river. Matthew ends with Jesus’s promise: “Behold! I am with you to the end of the age.”
These readings invite us to imagine the vast span of creation beginning to end, top to bottom, with an expansive view from God’s eyes, not just from our own places in creation. They remind you and me that our human scope is limited, but that God’s Great Story is not.
Where we are, and when we are, God is. And also: before we were, God is. There are places where we can’t go, and there God is.
The vast scope of these readings engenders the psalmist’s sense of wonder asking
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What are we that you should be mindful of us? Creatures born of other creatures that you should seek us out?
What are we indeed? What’s special about us? This Great Story invites us to look beyond ourselves, and to live into the two great commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love all creation and our neighbors as ourselves. There’s more to life than our own interests and struggles. That’s not news, but we do need to be reminded of it.
It would be nice if we could rent out the International Space Station on a Sunday morning and celebrate our worship service there, wouldn’t it? We’d be in a place where we could see all the nations of the world. We’d be lit by ancient light reverberating since that singular instant when God said Become, light! It would be a fitting vantage point from which to hear these words of Holy Scripture and imagine the vastness of God’s creation.
But we can’t manage the rent for the Space Station, never mind the airfare to get there and back. Instead, we’re hearing those vast words here in this building crafted for us by our ancestors in the faith. Let’s remember, they built this building to show us the glory of God. They imagined and then made these windows so you and I might see the love of Christ.
They cut all this stone and carved all this wood so you and I, and our children, would experience the wonder of St. Anna and St. Simeon, when he saw Mary’s child Jesus and said, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. Mine eyes have seen the salvation that you have prepared for the nations of the world and the glory of your people.” And we, under Bronson and Bill’s guidance, have renovated this place to pass that wonder along.
Simeon’s imagination is the imagination of our faith – filled by the Spirit we behold the person of Jesus, the Word of God from before time, the Word that comes to us, because we can’t all go to the Space Station. Here we are in a part of the ongoing Great Story beholding it.
Back to Genesis: Its words offer us a fascinating detail of language. In the first verse of our reading the first word is “in the beginning.” The first word of the last verse is “these are (the generations).” And the first word of every other verse of our reading (in Hebrew) is and. “And God said, Let there be light. And God said, let there be a dome.. And God created humankind. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. And. And. And.
And so what? you ask. So this: Linguists call it the “narrative ‘and’”. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, it’s a sign of the ongoing unfolding of God’s creation in time. It’s a sign of the continuity of the great Story of God and God’s people.
In the early part of that Great Story — the part we just read — the unfolding of God’s creation was well under way when God made the creatures that look like you and me, the ones that look like God. Dozens of Ands have gone by already by the time humankind appears on the scene. When we look at the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we see tens of thousands of Ands still to come. And Jacob wrestled with God. And Moses led God’s people out of slavery. And on, and on, until the end of the age. Even though each of us is a vital part of the Great Story, the story is greater than us. Before we were, the Ands were.
Years ago I worked in a high tech company near here. It happened that the visionary founder of the company needed to step down because of his health, so they hired an outsider, Jack I’ll call him, to be CEO. As often happens, the outsider cared about his own personal fortune just as much as he cared about the future of the company. He pursued some Hollywood business opportunities he thought might be glamorous, and he adjusted the finances of the company to benefit himself and the people he brought in. None of this worked very well.
Now my boss there was a strong and wise engineer named Rose. She was hired by the founder to be a keeper of the vision. A great boss she was; demanding, tough, and totally transparent. And one day she challenged this hired CEO. She said, “Jack, I was here before you got here. I will be here after you move on. So don’t mess it up.”
Rose’s vision understood the progression of “ands.” She recognized her personal place, not only in a moment in the history of that little company but also able to see its scope.
And, I’m grateful to her, because she taught me how to catch some glimpses of that same scope. She was demanding, though. She insisted that I do what she did: live in the history of the company and teach others to do that. She modeled a demanding way of working that blended great humility and hard-nosed authority.
I don’t know if she was able to convey that same vision to Jack. Maybe not. He didn’t stay around for much longer.
What’s the point of this ongoing sequence of Ands in the Great Story of creation? These Ands are the rhythm of the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, saying to each one of us that the story goes on: “I was here before you got here. I will be here after you move on. So don’t mess it up.” Can we overcome the temptation to respond like Jack and leave? Can we find the strength and courage to abide in the ongoing rhythm, and, and, and, and? That’s the question posed by our readings.
It’s easy for each of us to be Jacks. We can be short-timers, doing what’s best for us personally. And, indeed, sometimes we must do that. But if we are to live fully in the scope of the Great Story, we’re called to do more. We must embrace the vision of the Story that’s bigger than us. We’re called to not just stand before the face of the vision gaping like tourists. Can we acknowledge that we have the power to “mess it up,” as Rose said to Jack? Can we repent of our destructive power? Genesis said that God gave you and me dominion over creation. What will we do with that dominion? Take the money and run?
On that mountain Jesus said “make disciples of all these nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” He didn’t say “people,” he said “nations.” As his followers we’re called out to do our best to persuade the nations of the world to repent of that power to “mess it up,” to be washed clean of their selfishness. Not just sweet little babies, but nations. This sounds like an impossible calling, doesn’t it?
The good news is Jesus saying we must do it, but we don’t have to do it alone. It’s not all about us. “Behold, I will be with you to the end of the age.” He was here before we got here and he’ll be with us.
Jesus invites each one of us to behold and rejoice in the scriptural view of the vastness of creation. But he has more for us to do than stand there gaping and saying “wow.” He yearns for each of us to live joyfully into our own part of that creation. He yearns for each of us, filled with the Holy Spirit, to abide in his creation to the end of the age.