The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 8
4th Sunday After Pentecost
2 July 2017
Our first reading this morning sets up a shocking picture of relationships, faith, and expectations. There is little if anything that we can say to make either God’s command or Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac palatable, nor much more that we can imagine that could heal the memory of this incident in the ongoing relationship between father and son—nor realistically between husband and wife, since Isaac is not likely to keep silent about this little expedition with his father.
As with last week’s story, there is a lot here that we have to ignore in terms of gender inequalities, the value of children, and relationships of power if we have any hope of understanding the kernel of hope that lies somewhere under the mass of historical and cultural baggage. The expectancy of reaching adulthood in Abraham’s time in human history was at best tenuous. The hope in his culture was only that one might have at least one surviving male child to carry on the life of one’s own family line. As might have become clear from last week’s reading, women were part of the holdings of the house, they were the property of the Patriarch. Children were similarly the property of their parents; a commodity to ensure that one had adequate labor for the provision of the household as well as security in ones old age. As might be recalled from the book of Job, all of Job’s children were killed in a fire that destroyed his household, and part of the restoration of Job’s prosperity at the end of the story was the replacement of all of his children. Despite the horror with which we look on the losses suffered in these types of stories, the historical and cultural significance is tied not to human relationships but to economics and the hope for legacy, the future longevity of the family line.
Like I said, this offers little comfort to us today as our whole understanding of family is based on relationship rather than commodity and economics.
I would suggest, however, that this was little comfort to Abraham either. By this point in his life, the story tells us that he is over 100 years old. Recalling last Sunday’s part of the story, he had been called on to eject his first born son to the elements of the desert, to cast him out of his household in the promise that his second and promised son, Isaac, would be the father of a great nation to forever guarantee Abraham’s line and family. Now he’s being told that this second and promised son, his most precious commodity, his most precious possession, the gift he’s been given by God, is to be sacrificed back to the one from whom the promise had come. The rules of the game have suddenly been changed by what seems at this moment to be a betraying and capricious God. The pairing of today’s Psalm with our first reading gives voice to the despair that Abraham might have been feeling, as the psalmist cries out, “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?… Look upon me and answer me, O LORD my God; give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death…
We might imagine the silence in the conversation that the story omits. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” “Uhhhh… Come again? What, seriously? But you promised… do you have any idea what Sarah’s going to do to me if I come home without our only child? Oy, I am in so much trouble!” And yet he sets out, just as he set out from his homeland of Ur at God’s command, somehow trusting that God would make things right, despite the absurdity of it all, and despite the despair, terror, and growing doubt that mounted with every step. Isaac is Abraham’s most precious commodity. He is the life savings for retirement. He is the pension, the insurance that guarantees his legacy. Here, Isaac is the rich man’s possessions from the gospel story of Jesus telling the rich young man to go and sell everything he owns and then come and follow him. He is the one thing that might stand between Abraham and his relationship with God, and so God asks him to choose whether God or worldly security would be his highest priority. As with his willingness to leave Ur, to cast Ishmael out of his household, to wander the perilous desert awaiting the coming of God’s promise, Abraham again chooses to walk the path of faith despite his doubts and fear. Unlike the rich young man, Abraham doesn’t walk away from the challenge, but meets it, and both his faith and his hopes for legacy are affirmed and blessed as God answers with an alternative. As with last week, there is little help for us in seeing this as a story of God’s abiding love, or as good news, but stories like this throughout the old testament demonstrate the limits of human despair, trust, faith, and God’s presence through all of it—good and bad. For me, I want Abraham to have heard wrong. I want his misguided obedience to demonstrate the strength of his belief, and I want God to be shocked when Abraham binds and readies himself to kill his own son. But since the text doesn’t support this, I have to take comfort in the dismantling of this kind of household structure in favor of the relational model that Jesus describes and commends to us as more faithful to God’s intentions for us as relational beings. I have to take comfort in the changes in culture and history that, even by Jesus’ time, no longer supported a good news reading of losing one’s children and having them replaced as an equal economic exchange. However, despite my visceral reaction to the circumstances of the story, as a story of faith it does certainly demonstrate that Abraham put nothing before his relationship with God.
Our Gospel today gives a very different picture of God’s call to us. Coming at the very end of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as they set out together in ministry, this is also the most hopeful element amidst recognitions of the difficulty of preaching God’s abundance and radically-equalizing love in a world tied to systems of power, domination, hierarchy, and mistrust. As we heard last week, Jesus recognized the radicality of his message to the ears of those in the cultures in which he lived, taught, and worked to bring God’s reign into fruition. He knew that the call of the Spirit was one that served as a sword to cleave the social conventions of his day from God’s call to love and serve every child of God in the fullness of their dignity and without distinction. In that same light, today’s short reading is a bold promise and teaching about the other, about the reception of God’s abundance, learning to live into it, and acting on it. It is, in kernel form, the germination of the seed of the Spirit that is spread from one to another— about those who receive the kingdom and give it away in turn.
The one who welcomes the prophet and recognizes them as a prophet is the one who receives the prophet’s reward, which is the gift of the Spirit, the good news of God’s reign, the abundance of God’s unconditional, inexhaustible, radical love. The one who welcomes the righteous person and recognizes them as a righteous person is the one who receives the righteous person’s reward, which is the indwelling Spirit, the good news of God exemplified in the life of one who has been profoundly changed by their faith and is living their life as an example of God’s reign, a living example of the abundance of God’s love. Finally, the one who gives a cup of cold water to another in need acts as a disciple, acts on the Spirit’s call to be Christ’s agent in the world, acts to bring God’s reign to life in the world, acts to make the abundance of God’s love known, and, by so doing perpetuates the reward of God’s abundance by spreading it to others who continue the process again and again.
The Trinitarian relationality from three weeks ago may be familiar in this reading, as in the divine dance, God’s desire for us is answered in our own bodies as a passion aroused in us to love and serve those around us in return. The call of the spirit awakens in us as we experience God’s enlivening call through another. Answering God’s call, we breathe in God’s spirit, which becomes a part of our very being, and breathing back out, we begin to move in time with the dance as we take up the Spirit’s call and continue to reenact God’s love and abundance in our own lives, drawing countless others into the dance.
Foreshadowing our reading from Song of Songs next week, it is the taking in of the beloved, becoming one, and the generation of new life in the outpouring of divine love that draws all of creation into the divine dance.
Again, lest we think relationships are simple, our first reading, as well as our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that much of our understanding of God, and of how we respond to the Sprit’s call (or run away from it) in our lives is tied to the relationships that have formed us, socialized us, and which teach us what is honorable and what is shameful.
This past week, I served as chaplain for a week of summer camp on Lake Tahoe at Galilee Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Glenbrook Nevada. Coincidentally, the theme for camp this summer is the Upside Down Kingdom—a theme that taps into the teachings of Christ that turned the unjust systems of his world on their heads, and taught people a new way of being in relationship with one another and with God. In my role as the spiritual director for the week, I had the opportunity to speak with that week’s campers—7-11 year olds last week—about a different aspect of that kingdom each day—what God’s kingdom looks like, who is a part of it, how we bring it to life at camp, and how we can bring that experience of mutual love, support, compassion, friendship, and adventure back home with us. It’s pretty much the same thing I try to do each Sunday here at Calvary as we gather together as an intentional community united by Christ and seeking to live into Christ’s teachings and example to us. We come here for refreshment, for fellowship, to listen to and ponder the sacred stories that still teach us new things about our relationships with God year after year, and to be nourished for the coming week as we seek to live out God’s love in a world that still needs a lot of turning on its head. It’s a calling that each of us experiences in a different way, and each according to the gifts with which God has blessed us.
I don’t know how others experience the call of the spirit in their lives. I know from the story of Abraham’s life that he experienced it as something so powerful that he was wiling to give up everything he had to pursue it. I know from the story of Paul’s life that he experienced it as a blinding transformation that overturned everything he had worked for and against in his life, and changed everything he thought he knew. For him it turned weakness into strength, shame into honor, and death into life. And I know for Jesus it was a call to radical relationship that brought him to share God’s love and abundance in liberation, freedom, and recklessness that shocked and disturbed his world so violently that they killed him out of fear of a God who loves too intimately, too unconditionally, too recklessly, and too equally. None of these examples had an easy call from the Spirit to follow, and yet for each of these, as for so many others in stories of faith throughout the Bible, and as well as for each of us as we seek to live into our own unique callings from that same unsettling, overturning, and wily Spirit, when each has taken up their own personal call to enter into the divine dance, it has been transforming in a way that makes the ups and downs of life in relationship with God and others around us the ride of a lifetime.
Relationship isn’t always easy. Life isn’t always easy. Faith isn’t always easy. But the rewards of living our lives in love, and in service to those around us, teach our hearts a new way of understanding the world as Christ understood it—as the beloved, yearning with bated breath to be loved, fulfilled, and animated by the passionate breath of God’s Spirit that calls ceaselessly to every yearning heart. We are called to no less a life than one that invites the world around us into the dance.
This week, as we approach the celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence—fuelled by the desire for equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, let us be mindful of the ways in which our contemporary world is still in search of these ideals, the ways in which God’s upside down kingdom can still challenge the systems of domination and oppression right here in our own neighborhoods as well as in the US and beyond, and the ways in which the Spirit calls each of us in our daily lives, work, and world to make a difference.
May we seek the rewards of answering the Spirit’s call, to live a life of love in any and every work that fills our days.