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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Making the Gospel Connection

The Sacrifice of Isaac - Caravaggio

Pentecost II – June 26, 2011 
All Saint’s, Rehoboth Beach
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

On first blush, there seems a serious disconnect between the lesson from Genesis and the Gospel reading from Matthew. 

How does one get from the reportedly divinely inspired attempted sacrifice of Isaac to these words of Jesus: “.  .  . .  and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." 

And, whatever does Paul mean when he writes, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification”?

This lesson from Genesis falls especially heavily on the ears and heart, especially after the conviction this week of former Lewes pediatrician, Earl Bradley, who was found guilty of twenty-four counts – involving seventy-five children – of first-degree rape, second-degree assault, and sexual exploitation of a child. Even though justice has been done, it’s still horrifying. That it comes this close to our doors makes it, at best, disconcerting.

Moving from divinely sanctioned murder, through sin and salvation, to Christ-directed kindness to children would be a huge stretch if you didn’t know the whole story of Abraham and Isaac. The story of this father and son neither begins nor ends with this passage.

Because this is a sermon and not a bible study, I’ll try to be very, very brief – just to put things into context.   

Abraham and Sarah were in their old age when Sarah was finally able to conceive and deliver Isaac. Prior to that, Sarah had given her Egyptian slave, Hagar, to Abraham to conceive a child (and you thought ‘surrogate pregnancies’ were a modern idea). 

Hagar delivered a male son, Ishmael, but after Sarah had Isaac, she had Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael, so there would never be any confusion that Isaac was the legitimate heir.

Hagar and Ishmael almost died in the desert, but Abraham reports that God told him that he would care for Ishmael and “make a nation of him” as well. God heard the cries of the child, we are told, and took pity on them both. Hagar and Ishmael spent out their days in the wilderness in Paran, and Ishmael became an expert with the bow.

Now, supposedly, all of these things were done because God was ‘testing’ Abraham. Well, at least that’s the way the ancient mind understood all these things. 

Me? I’m not buying it. 

We’ve seen 'modern' minds like David Koresh of the Branch Dividian Sect in Waco, Texas and Warren Jeffs who established a 1,700 acre ranch in the middle of a West Texas prairie he called “Yearning for Zion” where he married off 15 year old girls to 50 year old men because, he said, God told him that this was “God’s plan”. Besides, it’s right there in the Bible. See?

I don’t know why Abraham did what he did. I don’t know if he was so overwhelmed with feelings of guilt about what he had done to Hagar and Ishmael that, in a moment of insanity he heard God direct him to ‘sacrifice’ his son Isaac to God. And then, when he came to his senses and understood what he was about to do, he again ‘heard God’ tell him to stop. 

Or, perhaps, in retrospect, he understood the interruption of this insanity as divine intervention.

Who knows? Only God knows for certain. 

What we do have is this ancient story which, when pieced together with bits and pieces hidden in the next few chapters, we learn that Isaac did not escape unharmed from this incident. 

And, neither did Abraham. Or, Sarah.

What we know of Isaac isn’t until much later – when he meets Rebekah, who will become his wife.  He had been living in the Negeb, which, interestingly enough, is where Hagar and Ishmael were also living. 

It’s speculation, of course, but it seems that Isaac had been so traumatized by this incident with his father that he could no longer live with him or his mother. It would appear that he sought solace and refuge with his stepmother Hagar and his stepbrother Ishmael.

Indeed, nowhere in Genesis do we read that Abraham and Isaac ever saw each other again after this traumatic, horrifying, near-death incident. When his mother Sarah dies, there is no mention of Isaac being present to mourn his mother.  

All we know is that Abraham went through great pains to get a wife for Isaac – sending his servant Eliezar all the way back to Haran to find a woman who was suitable for Isaac, adding an interesting command.

The woman whom Eliezar selects for Isaac’s wife must come of her own free will.

Free will? How interesting that Abraham insists that the wife he chooses for his son will be allowed that which Abraham denied Isaac. 

Apparently, Abraham has learned a hard lesson from this incident. By the grace of God, we grow in wisdom and grace and generosity.

You can read the story of Rebekah and Isaac for yourself, but we what we learn is that Isaac loved Rebekah. In all the stories in Hebrew Scripture, here is no other couple about whom this is written.

Isaac loved Rebekah. 

You won’t find ‘Abraham loved Sarah’. You’ll read that David lusted after Bathsheba but not that he loved her.

Isaac loved Rebekah. It’s a great gift – to be able to love and be loved after what can only be considered a traumatic experience at the hands of his own father.

Now, I tell you all of this on a hot Sunday in summer, as a way to explain the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus is pretty clear about his preferential option for the needs and concerns of children. He’s also pretty clear that He is authorizing his disciples to act on His behalf because He has been authorized by God to do all that He does. No longer wandering in the wilderness, we are authorized as His representatives because Jesus has shown us the Way.

St. Paul echoes this theme in his Epistle to the ancient church in Rome. 

We have been given the gift of free will, but that does not relieve us of our own personal responsibility for our own actions. 
“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?”, he asks, “By no means!”, he says, adding, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
Earl Bradley, like David Koresh and Warren Jeffs, cannot blame their behavior on God, no matter how hard they try. 

So, too, must we take responsibility for our own actions as moral agents in this world.  We cannot pick and choose among the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures or the teachings of Jesus as a way to justify actions which oppress or enslave or harm others. 

Indeed, in the great debate over Marriage Equality, which passed the NY Senate on Friday evening and will be signed into law, Governor Cuomo said, 
“The issue here is literally of religious freedom. This is not about marriage in a religious term. This is a civil law issue, and we want to make sure we keep it separate.”

He added, “I happen to be a (Roman) Catholic, and that’s my business. That’s my religion. This is about marriage as defined by government not by religion.”
Even Republican Senator Mark Grisanti, himself a devout Roman Catholic, who crossed the aisle to cast an affirmative vote for Marriage Equality eloquently said, 
"I struggled with the word marriage but I also struggled with the rights of gay and lesbian couples. It boils down to a person can be wiser today than he was yesterday – and I can't deny others the rights my wife and I enjoy."
A person can be wiser today than he was yesterday. 

Everyone has prejudices and biases. Everyone. Including me. 

However, we cannot use bits and pieces of scripture or the tenants of our religious beliefs to bolster or support bigotry and use it to deny the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution. 

Polygamy was widely practiced in Ancient Israel. It is against the law today - well, in this country, anyway.

We are wiser today than we were yesterday.

David Koresh and Warren Jeffs may try to use Scripture to bolster their claim of innocence, but they only have one piece of the story. 

At the end of the day, we have laws against polygamy because it is a legal and moral issue, not just one found in Scripture.  And, because we are wiser today than we were yesterday.

Apparently, so was Abraham.

As one of my mentors once said to me, “You have the absolute right to swing your arms as wildly as you choose, but that right stops at the end of my nose.”

You can’t use the scriptural story of Abraham and Isaac to justify child abuse – or, any form of abuse or violence. 

As Christians, we are followers of Jesus. Not Moses. Not Abraham. Not Paul. Not Peter.


It is Jesus who, taking the whole story of teaching of the prophets together, has authorized us in baptism to be his moral agents of justice in the world. 

We don’t have to like it. We’re even allowed to grumble and moan. (No whining, though. It’s not against the law, but it’s a rule in my house. No whining. And, no sniveling. Just ask my kids.)

However, we cannot – we must not – allow what is right to be subverted by bits and pieces of scripture which we interpret out of the context of the whole story of the history of our salvation. 

We have been given Jesus, who is “The Way” through the wilderness of moral and ethical dilemmas and changing cultural challenges and places us on the path of righteousness and faith so that, in the end, we might enjoy life eternal.

My friend and clergy colleague, Michael Hopkins recently wrote that he was reminded of something the then Lutheran Bishop of the Washington Metro Area said to his Diocesan Convention in Washington many years ago. 
"Progressives in the Church need to remember that God never changes; traditionalists need to remember that God is always doing a new thing."
The challenge of living our faith is contained within the prayer of this morning’s collect: 
Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and the prophets, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns in unity with God and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. 


Grandmère Mimi said...

Your sermon enlightened me and enlarged my store of knowledge, Elizabeth. I hope it was well-received.

And the Caravaggios are powerful, indeed. The artist is one of my favorites, though he often does not paint pretty pictures.

Muthah+ said...

I have always understood the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac was about the change in Middle Eastern custom of offering the first-born as sacrifice. I like your isogesis, however. 8>D

Especially with the situation you have locally, this is a powerful sermon, Sistah--as always.

renzmqt said...

Elizabeth, thanks for the sermon. I am finally attaching myself to a renegade congregation in my diocese who are now home churchng as the building has been sold off. They are tiny enough that they borrow sermons to read and todays was less than satisfying.

Quick question. Can you tell me in a line or two how long these readings have been put together? How old are most of the links in the lectionary?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Mimi - I just got back from a Garden Party at the Church. They were still talking about the sermon. I was great. I worked 'em hard, but they were up for the challenge. I feel blessed.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah - You know, I hope this story did change the custom of human infant sacrifice. There would be redemption in it if that were the case.

Thanks for your kind words. I really had a good time with the challenge of explaining these three lessons, strung together like this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey there, Renz - I think home churches are the way of the future - as it was in the beginning. Church buildings are nothing but a diversion from mission and ministry. Oh, I still love to visit old, grand cathedrals, but if any money goes into buildings, it should be for that.

I'm not sure I understand your question, Renz. Are you asking when the lectionary was put together? I'll have to check some of my books, but I think it's been around since the post-Constantine shift to state religion.

Bateau Master said...

Now this isn't proof texting - it's sort of the opposite, like text ignoring. Either God spoke to Abraham or he didn't. If he didn't, with whom did Abraham form a Covenant? If he did, do you think Abraham would recognize God's instruction?

Love to read your understanding of Job.

The God of Genesis seems to have mellowed by the time of Herod. The Almighty isn't nearly so touchy about violations of hospitality and wanton sinfulness. Sort of kicks the group punishment paradigm.

Scripture is there for interpretation, I'm sure some of mine are entirely heretical. I am not sure about this one of yours.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bateau Master - I have absolutely no doubt that Abraham believes that God spoke to him, and that the people who heard his story believed that God spoke to him.

My post-modern mind tells me that God does not "test" people in this way - by leading them to do this kind of heinous act to a child. That just doesn't square with the image of God who is revealed in Jesus.

Think about that, for a moment, Bateau Master. Either God is a vicious, pernicious schitzophrenic monster who toys with people's lives, leading them beyond sin to do heinous acts of terror, or God is merciful and loves us unconditionally - longing for us to be reconciled in ourselves and with one another and God - even when our grief or confusion or fear pushes the boundaries of sanity and we end up blaming God for the insane things we do.

That's not ignoring the text. That's loving The Word so much that you are willing to enter into it with your whole heart and soul and mind to find the message for our lives today.

Anonymous said...

Loved the sermon.

Bateau Master said...

I think God grew to long for us to be reconciled with the Creator as we first were. But God didn't know how. For while omnipotent, the free will element made for so many permutations of the now, that God could predict each one, but did not know which would become the reality. The beasts of the fields were easy to predict and follow - us, not so much.

We have thrown God a few monkey wrenches (or the ancient equivalent.) For example: We didn't respond so well after the flood thing. Perhaps a covenant might work? Also, I am sure Jesus was not sent here to be tortured and murdered - we did that - and again changed the relationship with God.

We now have the Spirit to guide us. Often the Spirit is not listened to, thus we have such a wonderful 2000 year history since Pentecost. I know I have not always listened, and wish that element of the Trinity would be a bit more forceful or at least say. "Bonehead, Its Time To Listen!"

So we disagree on much of this, but as a lay person I have the luxury of heretical thinking - funny, they never let me lead adult education! ;)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Please leave your name next time.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bateau Master - So, wait. It's okay for you to have independent thoughts and ideas (or, heresy, as you say) about salvation history and the gospel , but not me?

I don't think so.

It's not disagreement so much as different perspectives. I don't disagree with you, necessarily. I just have a different image of God, based on what I understand and experience of the revelation in Christ Jesus.

walter said...

Yes, Elizabeth, there is nothing of divine in the call of Abraham to sacrifice his Son Isaac. The unconscious god of Abraham in the passage in question must not be interpreted in a pantheistic sense. We are not far from often affirming that the unconscious of the it may be something of divine. If we have said that the unconscious bring with itself the element “also spiritual”, an unconscious religiousness, never and then never it could be surrounded by the aureole of the divine. The fact that exists an unconscious relation with God does not want at all to mean that God may be “in us”, that inhabits in us unconsciously, that fulfills our unconscious. These would be thesis of amateur theology and the Way out of amateur theology is Jesus.

Walter Vitale

ROBERTA said...

Thank you for expanding my understanding of this disturbing story. Now I'm imagining what Isaac's life was like after this incident and how actions have consequences - for the entire family. I like how you brought these 3 strands of readings together for this breathes new spirit-filled life into stale and overly familiar story telling:)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Roberta. If I helped but one person hear the scriptures more deeply and look for the stories within the stories and fired religious imagination.... well.... a preacher couldn't ask for more.

renzmqt said...

Yes, that was my question. My former rector said he thought that some elements of the current lectionary go back to the 1600s prayer book. I was curious if it went back even further. Wondering if we knew at what point, churches were all focusing on the same readings at the same time...just curious, that's all. Thanks.