Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Supply Priest Sermon

Here is my supply priest sermon I gave at St. Stephen's-Grand Island

Proper 8, RCL Year A
“The Gods Must Be Angry”
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

I was here earlier in the month, and I know some of you were not here at that time because it the weekend of the big rain and some of you were home pumping water out of your basements. I joked the week after when folks in my home parish asked me how my “supply priest” gig went, that I did not actually expect the town of Grand Island to actually live up to its name, but with all the water that weekend, I think you did.
Perhaps it is fitting then that like the inexplicable deluge of rain we have had lately, the Sunday readings the past few weeks have included some Old Testament stories that have, likewise, included some seemingly inexplicable events.
Last week, if you will recall, the Genesis story that was read involved a rather sordid affair between Abraham and Sarah, who had schemed up to a rather horrific idea about getting rid of their slave Hagar and her son Ismael by throwing them out into the desert (presumably to die) so that Abraham's legitimate son, Isaac, would be the sole claimant to Abraham's inheritance from God.
Poor Ismael was the victim in that story, as he was the son of Abraham and Hagar. If you go back and read that story sometime, you'll notice that Ismael was never called by name throughout the entire sordid affair, no doubt an ironic play on the literal meaning of his name.
Ismael literally means “God will Hear,” and it was only God (not Abraham, Sarah, or even his own mother Hagar) who knew and heard Ismael's name and his cry of distress in the entire story.
Today's story is another disturbing incident concerning Abraham and one of his sons. This time his son, Isaac, is the child involved. I use the adjective “disturbing” because it is disturbing for two reasons: 1. its a story about a man sacrificing his own child, and 2. that God is telling him to do so to test him. This is hard for our modern ears to understand or even to hear.
The traditional interpretation of this story about Abraham usually involves making Abraham out to be this larger-than-life saint that has so great a faith in God that he is willing to sacrifice even his own son, the same son the story tells us “whom he loves.”
Abraham in this story, at least on the surface, seems to be rather rather jaded, as if he is just blindly following orders. And modern critics are quick to point out that if he really loves his son, how could be possibly even consider such a horrendous thing? The 19th Century Christian philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard, rather pompously referred to Abraham as “a shining knight of faith” that was so blinded by that faith that he succumbed to a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” In other words, Abraham was a sociopath, as he simply turned off his conscience.
I think Kierkegaard was intentionally being extreme in his characterization of Abraham to make his own philosophical points in the novel he was writing.
The fact remains however that these questions about Abraham's character certainly merit some discussion for this disturbing a tale is not quite as clear as it would seem to be, especially if all we have to go on is this rather simplistic understanding of the story that we were told in Sunday School when we were 6 years old, as if Abraham was simply “following orders” because of his great faith and was not ultimately concerned with the consequences of his own actions. This story, if we care to engage it, is much more nuanced and complicated than that.
For those of us in modern times, the whole concept of child sacrifice is so horrid it is quite literally unthinkable for us. Thankfully, the reasons why child sacrifice is sociologically unthinkable to us are pretty easy to track down. In our day and time, children are largely viewed as the reason we exist.
They are the hope of the future, the innocent in need of protection. We are completely on the other end of the spectrum from Abraham's time in how we revere children, almost to the point of making idols out of children.
For example, take this election year. If you want to get elected to public office, you have to kiss babies and be photographed or filmed doing such. That's just what people expect. (And that's also probably the closest you will ever hear me discussing politics in a sermon.)
Likewise, you all have no doubt seen all seen advertisements (especially political ads) with pictures of darling little children. Like most forms of advertising, it is (of course) a type of manipulation to entice people to buy something, but research has shown it's usually a slam dunk in terms of public opinion if you can invoke an image of a cute little kid or baby of some kind into an ad or commercial. Americans love kids, that's just who we are...at least in theory.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that being protective of children is a bad thing. The point that I am making here is that to understand this particular story from the Old Testament, you have to temporarily suspend this modern view of the centrality of children in our society, for that is indeed a very modern idea.
Certainly if you have ever read accounts of the Industrial Revolution where children were horribly abused in factories and were forced to work basically as little more than slaves for 12 to 14 hours a day or more in the most awful of conditions, you understand why modern thought errs on the side of viewing children as a gift from God and in need of social welfare and protection.
This was sadly not the case in Abraham's day (as it was in this country not that many years ago). Children were simply viewed as objects, adults in miniature not capable of pulling their own weight and as such were not particularly viewed as anything of much material worth. Children, like slaves and cattle, were possessions, and it was not anyone's business what an owner did with those possessions under his care, they were not viewed as anything special in Abraham's world, simply objects to be exploited.
We must also bear in mind that the world of Abraham's time was a harsh reality. There were no medicines or doctors. There were no social welfare safety nets or crop insurance. If you were a farmer or a nomad, and your crops or the grasses your goats ate failed, chances are you would starve to death. It was that simple. Life was short and harsh, not to mention the any number of other disasters like floods, droughts, wars, or pestilence that could strike at any time, seemingly at random to the minds of people in antiquity.
Again, in modern times thanks in large part to another Isaac (this time Sir Isaac Newton), we generally tend to view nature as orderly, not something to inherently be feared simply because we don't understand it. We believe the world is governed by discernible laws and principles like the laws of Newtonian physics like gravity, rotation of planets, cause and effect, etc. We have also begun to likewise understand the delicate balances ecosystems as well as the engineering feat which we call human anatomy.
But to the world of Abraham, the natural order of the world was primarily viewed not as orderly and governed by scientific principles but was governed by chaos. To antiquity, the world in its most natural form was unpredictable, dangerous, and completely unfathomable, subject to the whims of vengeful gods who were themselves, likewise, chaotic and unpredictable.
The only hope in the minds of such people was to offer sacrifices, bribes if you will, to pacify the gods, who must be angry for why else would all these horrible things happen? Therefore, to bribe the gods, lest they unleash terrible sufferings, the thinking was to offer sacrifices, even children.
I bring up this discussion about Abraham's world, not in an attempt to defend Abraham's actions but to fill in a bit of the back story because if we take a step into his world for a moment, Abraham's actions are a little more understandable. Having said all that about the social context in which Abraham lived, I still believe the story is intentionally trying to shock us by showing that Abraham was still willing to kill his son out of blind faith.
Now, to give you what the radio announcer Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story” I will let you in on a little secret. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) that we read every Sunday completely missed the boat in translating the last verse that we read this morning. I believe that's the key to understanding this story because the translators missed the intentional irony of these stories involving Abraham, and his sons Ismael and Isaac.
The verse as is reads: “So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."
In actuality, the way I think the verse should be translated is “The Lord Will See.”
If you remember at the beginning of my sermon, I referenced that last week we read about Sarah's attempt to be rid of Abraham's illegitimate son, Ismael. The intentional irony in that story was the fact that Ismael's name, which literally means “The Lord Will Hear,”is never actually spoken in the story even though he was the principle character. The subtle point being that God alone knew his name, that “God will Hear” Ismael's cry of distress, even if no one else would.
These week, we encounter Abraham's leap of faith in offering his only remaining son, Isaac. And we are reminded at the end that Abraham named the place, “The Lord Will See.”
The gods of Abraham's world were gods where the only hope of salvation was to pacify them with sacrifices and bribes. Those gods did not really care one way or the other whether the prayers of a suffering people were heard or seen. Those gods were angry.
The shocking thing about this story is not that God might actually test Abraham, a idea which offends our modern ideas of fairness. The shocking element is the fact that God would have cared enough to step and prevent the sacrifice, that He cared enough to see and to hear the people whom he loved. Maybe God was not a deaf and blind statute of stone, maybe God was not a chaotic, angry being up on a mountain.
Even though Abraham was himself deaf to the cry of his son Ismael and blind to the consequences of sacrificing Isaac, maybe...just maybe...God loved Abraham so much that God Himself would hear if Abraham could not, that God Himself would see if Abraham could not, that God Himself would even intervene, even if Abraham could not through his own dreadful past decisions.
Abraham did not deserve that love, just as we do not,
and yet God will hear our prayers,
God will see our needs,
God will overlook our faults,
God will love us, even if we have failed.
May that same God of Abraham who hears, and sees, and loves be with you all now and forever more.
Amen.

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