Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On Faithfulness

This is the sermon I preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as we continue using the Narrative Lectionary. It was a frightfully difficult sermon to write as this is a Text of Terror (see Phyllis Trible), and I wish I had preached this amazing message from Teri Peterson on what the Word of the Lord is, but retelling Abraham's story as I did, reminding the congregation of where we are in this story, really worked. Check it out:
Gospel Reading: John 1:29-36

The Binding of Isaac: Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-19 (NRSV)
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him..

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 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.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 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.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.


Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, we give you thanks,
because even when we don't understand your teachings,
even when it is so difficult to interpret stories about you,
you are beside us, willing to explore with us once again.
This morning we ask that you move among us, so the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts,
provide a clearer glimpse of your saving work in our lives. Amen.

The summer Tuesday night night small group study focused on the History Channel's miniseries The Bible. Many of us were fascinated by the visual interpretations of the stories, and I was impressed by the way characters were given depth in the New Testament stories. However, there were some places in which I wondered how closely the directors of the film actually read the Bible. One of those places was in the story of Abraham. Abraham is portrayed as strong, sure of himself and of God's presence with him. Many of us here today probably agree with this portrayal, placing Abraham on this pedestal of epic faithfulness. And this story of the binding of Isaac, alongside Abraham's willingness to leave his homeland, is the story we cite to support such a portrayal. See Abraham, so trusting and faithful, he could pass the horrific test God has set before him.
The scene of the Binding of Isaac from The Bible miniseries.

Except when you really read the bible, Abraham is not all that trusting and faithful. I feel like I'm blaspheming when I say that because of the way I have been taught since my Sunday school days that Abraham is the epitome of faithfulness, but just look back at the story with me. Abraham's story begins in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, when he is still called Abram. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2 NRSV). So Abram, his wife Sarai, who will eventually be renamed Sarah, set out with his nephew Lot and their household goods and servants toward Canaan.

We don't know how much time passes, but textually, only six verses after Abram's blessing, in the face of famine, Abram leaves the land God has promised his descendants and goes to Egypt. Leaving the promised land is not the act of unfaithfulness, of course, not in the face of famine. The act of unfaithfulness comes when Abram gives his wife to Pharaoh. Abram claims that because Sarai is so beautiful, if they don't pretend to be siblings, Pharaoh will kill him so he can take her freely. We don't know how true this is, but we do know that giving away Sarai makes Abram very rich. We also see that Abram understands himself to be the sole receiver of God's promise.1 Already, so early in the story, he has misunderstood God and shown himself in not an entirely flattering light, to say the least. But God does not give up on him. God rescues Sarai, restores her as Abram's wife, and Abram and Sarai leave Egypt to make yet another new home for themselves.

Some time later in chapter thirteen and again in fifteen God reminds Abram of the promise first made to them. First God shows Abram the land that will be his and his descendants', then says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” (Genesis 13:14-17 NRSV). God tells Abram not to be afraid, that he will have a son. Here, though, Abram stands up to God, pointing out that promises are nice and all, but it didn't look like he was going to have a child anytime soon. Then, and I love this detail, God brings Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5 NRSV). Can you imagine sitting under the stars with God? What a spiritual high that must have been?

But the spiritual high, that intense moment of closeness to the Divine--- it does not last. This time it is Sarai, tired of hearing God's promise through the words of a husband who had already discarded her once, whose trust in God slips, and she puts forth her slave woman Hagar to have a child for her. The text does not tell us much about Sarai, but she must be in a dark place because she abuses Hagar so badly that Hagar runs away. Hagar does eventually return, at God's prompting, and gives birth to Ishmael.

But God's promise is not just to Abram, but to Sarai as well, and neither of them seem to understand that. So in chapter seventeen, God comes to Abram again with such power that Abram falls on his face before God. God then renames the couple Abraham and Sarah, and reiterates the blessing of a homeland and multitude of descendants (Genesis 17:1-8,15-16 NRSV). What is Abraham's response? He laughs at God. It was not possible for Sarah and Abraham to have a child together, Abraham informs God, encouraging God just to accept Ishmael as the sole child of blessing. But Ishmael is not the only son for Abraham in God's plan here. So God again says that Sarah will give birth to a son, and in the next chapter even gives a timeline for the birth!

And still Abraham doesn't get it. A new name, a new son with another one promised, an amazing relationship with God, and still, still Abraham makes pretty huge mistakes. He and Sarah become immigrants again in another place called Gerar, and he does exactly as he did in Egypt, lying to the king about Sarah being his wife. So the king takes Sarah for his own wife, and God again is forced to rescue Sarah and reunite her with Abraham. Abraham is looking less and less like a strong, faithful, confident person and more and more like a dunce and not the nicest guy.

But finally Isaac is born, bringing laughter to Sarah and everyone who hears her story. There is such joy at this point--- surely there is room for two children in this happy family, especially if Abraham is to have children as numerous as the stars. Yet Hagar and Ishmael are evicted, sent out to starve in the desert until God rescues them too. Reading through the story, I wonder why God doesn't just give up on Abraham. Wouldn't you? Abraham is looking nothing like that strong, serene, faithful man the History Channel's miniseries and most of our Sunday school curricula have in mind. He's looking more and more like a normal person who makes huge mistakes, who misunderstands God's call, and who is just generally confused.

It is at this point in the story that “God tests Abraham”.2

Now, let us remember that Abraham, for all the faults I have illustrated here, has an intimate relationship with God, one in which they talk and argue and even just sit under the stars together. Over and over again, God comes before Abraham with a promise. When Abraham disbelieves, when he changes direction away from God by abandoning his wife to the harems of kings, God is there to speak the promise anew and reunite Sarah with Abraham. And then finally, God fulfills part of the promise by giving a child to Sarah and Abraham. And yet, in the midst of such a powerful relationship, full of reminders of promise and miraculous saving deeds, Abraham forgets. Abraham walks away from God.

Just like we do.

Have you ever gone to worship or a concert and left feeling this amazing connection to God, only to go back to work and start gossiping about one of your colleagues the very next day? Have you ever had a conversation with a loved one in which your eyes were totally opened to how much God loves you, only to go home and snap at your kids or partner because someone left his or her socks right in the middle of the floor? Have you ever sat on your front porch to watch the sunset and felt God's love wrapped up all around you, only to ignore another's tears the very same night?

God comes to us every day, all the time, offering us words of hope and trying to get us to live into the promise of those words. Sometimes we recognize those moments, but close our eyes because we're too busy to be too concerned with it all or because to acknowledge them would just be too hard and different. Sometimes we recognize those moments, welcome them with wide open arms, but then forget about them in the face of a new challenge or opportunity as Abraham did when he offered Sarah up to the king in Gerar right after falling to his face in worship to God. And sometimes, just sometimes, those moments may change our lives, redirect us back to God and leave us ready to live into the promise.

We read this over and over again in scripture--- David, a man supposedly after God's own heart, is also a murderer and flanderer, and even Jesus' own disciples are totally clueless most of the time. Yet, when we think of church, we think of people who have it all together. On this Back to Church Sunday we need to remember that we come to church not because of some kind of faithful obedience but because we are all just looking for grace.
The Akedah by Pat B. Allen

So, even though I really struggle with the story of the binding of Isaac, of this image of a God who would demand the absolute worst of a person, I have come to understand that this is not a story about how we ought to have a blind obedient faith like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his only son at God's direction. Rather, it is a story about how Abraham's faith was a struggle as ours continues to be a struggle. Even in the face of miracles, Abraham made mistakes. Even with the words of God ringing in his ears, Abraham forgot God's will for his life. And yet, even when he was not, and even when we are not, faithful to God, God will be faithful to us.

Because, though this story of the binding of Isaac begins with the terrible and confusing words of God demanding an unspeakable evil, it ends with God calling out to Abraham, staying his hand, and providing a sacrificial ram instead. The story ends, as is usual for God and Abraham's relationship, with God speaking words of hope and blessing. “I will indeed bless you,” God says, “and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore...and by your offspring shall all of the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves...” (Genesis 22:17-18 NRSV).

This morning, may you hear hope and blessing in this place, remembering how even when you might mess up, even when you pull away from God, you are in good company. Abraham wasn't perfect either. But God loves him anyway, and God loves us too. God calls us back and offers us opportunities, opportunities as numerous as the stars or the dust on the earth or the sand by the sea, opportunities to reset ourselves so that we can live into that promise of blessing.

1Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Keeping the Promise,” Gender Power and Promise: The Subject of the Bible's First Story (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993), 43.
2See Teri Peterson, “The Word of the Lord??” A Sermon for September 15 (Narrative Lectionary year 4, week 2), Clever Title Here, 14 September 2013, http://clevertitlehere.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-word-of-lord-sermon-for-september.html.

No comments:

Post a Comment