Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Terrible Test

Genesis 22:1-14
June 29, 2014

            In her book My Sister's Keeper, author Jodi Picoult tells the story of Anna, a 13-year-old girl, who was born to save her older sister.  Literally.  Her older sister, Kate, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia when she was two.  Along with chemotherapy, she will need a bone marrow transplant.  Her six-year-old brother, Jesse, is not a good match.  So the parents, Sara and Brian, make a decision.  They see a geneticist who configures a combination of their genes into a perfect match for Kate.  That match is Anna. 
            The minute Anna was born, her cord blood was harvested for Kate.  Kate goes into remission, and everything should have been fine from that point on.  Except it wasn't.  Kate relapses.  More is needed from Anna.  Every time Kate ends up in the hospital, so does Anna.  But Anna isn't sick.   Now Kate's kidneys are failing, and she is undergoing dialysis.  She needs a kidney transplant, and the perfect donor shares a room with her:  Anna.  But Anna is tired of being treated as Kate's spare parts.  So she sees a lawyer and sues her parents, primarily Sara, for medical emancipation.  She wants the right to determine what will happen with her own body.
            The driving force for saving Kate is her mother Sara.  Her fierce determination to save Kate overshadows everything else.  I have not had a chronically sick child, but I can imagine that it would be consuming to say the least.  So I can sympathize with Sara to a certain extent.  But in her constant push to make Kate well, she sacrifices her two other children.  Jesse is a troubled young man who is playing with fire to get his parents' attention.  Sara has essentially given up on him.  And Anna, born to save her sister, is denied her own childhood.  She starts to excel at a sport and wants to attend a summer camp, but Sara says no because what if something goes wrong with Kate.  Sara will spare nothing to save her child, something that any parent, any person, can understand.  But that nothing that Sara won't spare is Anna.  Sara seems willing to sacrifice Anna to save Kate. 
            A story about sacrificing a child is the story before us this morning.  While I might begrudgingly give Sara in My Sister's Keeper a modicum of sympathy for the choices she makes, I have none to offer for the story that is before us today.  The story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of the most appalling stories in scripture. That's saying a lot because there are a number of appalling stories in scripture.  In my opinion, anyone who tries to portray our Bible as nothing but sweetness and light just hasn't read it.  The story of Abraham and Isaac is, to paraphrase theologian Phyllis Tribble, a text of terror.  In his novel, Son of Laughter, a retelling of the Jacob story, Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner referred to this story.  Buechner imagined that even as an old man Isaac was still traumatized by this terrible event in his life.  Given what we now know about the effects of abuse and post-traumatic stress, it isn't hard to believe that this may have been true for Isaac.  What kind of nightmares would you have after your father almost sacrifices you?
            As I prepared to try and preach this passage, I couldn't find any commentator who could dismiss or write off the horror of this story.  For it is indeed horrible.  In our version, the story begins with the words "After these things, God tested Abraham."  What are these "things"?  Abraham has been promised by God that his descendants will be more than the stars in the sky and the dust on the ground.  The name Abraham means "father of many" or "father of a multitude."  But Sarah, in her jealousy over Abraham's son Ishmael with her handmaid, Hagar, forces Abraham to send them away.  Abraham does what she asks, and sends his son and his mother into the desert with paltry supplies and little chance of survival.  God steps into that situation and saves them both, but now God is putting Abraham to the test, a terrible test. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac and bring him to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there.  Abraham does what God commands.  He takes Isaac, who carries the wood for his own sacrifice, and travels to Moriah to the mountain that comes be to known as the Temple Mount.  As they are making their way, Isaac asks his father about the sacrifice.  We have the wood, the fire, the knife, but where is the sacrifice for the altar?  Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burn offering, my son.”  When they reach the place Abraham builds the altar, lays the wood on it, and binds up Isaac.  He takes the knife and prepares to kill his son.  At that moment the angel of the Lord calls out to him.  Just as Abraham answered God and Isaac with the words, “Here I am,” he answers the angel the same way.  “Here I am.”  The angel of the Lord tells Abraham to stop.  He is not to lay a hand on the boy.  God now knows that Abraham fears God.  God now knows that Abraham has placed his complete faith in God.  At that moment, a ram appears in a thicket nearby.  Abraham unbinds Isaac and sacrifices the ram instead.  Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide.” 
            Abraham passes his test.  Isaac is spared.  God is worshipped.  We should see this as a happy ending, yet it’s hard to be happy when we read a story of God, our God, demanding this kind of test of Abraham; even more demanding it of Isaac.  No amount of happiness at the end can transform this into a happy story.  It is a terrible story of a terrible test. 
            One commentator paraphrased a Yiddish folktale concerning this passage.  Why is it that God speaks directly to Abraham about sacrificing Isaac, but it is the angel of God who stops Abraham from doing what God commanded?  Because it is believed that the angel of God supposedly looked at God and said, “If you are going to demand such a thing, than you will have to do it yourself.” 
            Even the angel of God was horrified.
            It is a terrible story about a terrible test, yet this story has had a profound impact on both Judaism and Christianity.  In Judaism it is known as the Akedah or the binding of Isaac.  In that tradition Abraham’s faith and obedience are emphasized.  In our tradition, it is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice Jesus makes.  God tests Abraham by asking him to willingly sacrifice his own son, but in the end it is God who sacrifices his son.  I know that both aspects of this story are important to our faith today.  Abraham was obedient and faithful.  He was willing to do what God asked, even though it seemed contrary to what God had promised.  He was meant to be the father of a multitude, but he had sent his first son away, and now he was being asked to sacrifice his remaining son.  How would he become the parent of this supposed multitude if he must lose his sons?  But Abraham trusted that God would provide, and so God did. 
            The story of Jesus’ atonement for our sins is foundational to our faith.  Jesus willingly carried his own cross and submitted to a cruel and inhumane execution on our behalf.  God sacrificed his son so that the world might be saved.  God provided the means for our salvation, our redemption, at the cost of the Son; indeed at the cost of God’s self. 
            Another way of viewing this event in Genesis is by understanding that child sacrifice was an innate part of the culture surrounding Abraham.  We read in many other passages in the Old Testament and we hear it from the prophets that God expressly forbids child sacrifice.  One reason that this test of Abraham may have been preserved is to show the cultural switch from an acceptance of child sacrifice to the forbidding of it.
But we read this story in an age when child abuse is rampant, when extremists hear and interpret stories like this literally.  The abuse and killing of children is a reality.  So I think we have to be very careful about trying to justify this story of Abraham and Isaac theologically or culturally. 
            This is a terrible story about a terrible test.  I can find no way to soften it.  I know that I am not alone in this.  I read a story of a student preacher who attempted to preach this passage.  Halfway through her sermon, she gave up and began to weep.  Her sorrow gave the congregation permission to do the same.  Together they wept at the tragedy of this story, and for the tragedies that seem to engulf our world, our societies, and our lives.  One observer of this moment said that by doing this the preacher actually preached good news. 
            I won’t ask that of us today.  But I do see one point in this tale that gives me some hope.  Abraham named that place, “The Lord will provide.”  Another translation of that is “The Lord will be seen.”  I know that in this circumstance God is the initiator of this almost tragedy, but remembering that God is seen, is present in the tragedies that we cause gives me some measure of comfort.  God is present when our children are sacrificed to violence that we not only allow to happen but perpetuate with our actions and our inaction.  God is present in our mourning, our lamenting.  God can be seen when all we can do is weep.  God is present when we are faced with awful choices.  God is seen and present in our midst at the most traumatic moments of our lives.  God is present, not just as a casual observer, but as One who comforts us, and loves us.  There is no easy or satisfactory way to read or understand this story of God and Abraham and Isaac.  But even as we struggle with this terrible test, may we also be faithful, trusting that God is in our midst.  May we trust, like Abraham did, that God will provide.  Let all of God’s children say “Amen.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Seven Days

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
June 15, 2014/Father’s Day

I saw an interesting compilation of two pictures the other day.  Both pictures were of two girls.  In the first, a girl, dark haired, dark eyed and wearing a traditional head covering, was standing in front of a blackboard writing out some sort of lesson.  In the other picture, the young girl, fair skinned and red-haired, was looking into a microscope.  There was nothing particularly extraordinary about either picture.  But it was the captions that went along with both pictures that gave them their power.  The young girl at the blackboard was Muslim.  The caption for her picture read something like, “What Muslims are most afraid of.”  The caption underneath the picture of the young girl looking into the microscope read, “What Christians are most afraid of.” 
The implied message is that Muslims fear girls learning, and Christians fear girls learning science.  I know that these pictures and their captions are based on broad stereotypes of people of faith.  Yet stereotypes are conceived in reality.  Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl, was shot in the face by members of the Taliban, not only because she wanted to be educated, but because she outspokenly believes all girls should be educated.  The young Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their school by an extremist Islamic group who believes that the education of girls goes against God’s will.  These are radical views, and it is unfair and wrong to paint all Muslims with that same brush.  Again, though, we see how that stereotype has been lived out in the real world.
But the picture of the young Christian girl looking into a microscope has a basis in reality as well.  However for many Christians it’s not just the fear of girls learning science, it’s any Christian, male or female, learning science.  Again, it is unfair to paint all Christians with such a broad brush when it may be a minority of Christians who espouse a fear or mistrust of science.  But that is how we are seen by the non-Christian world.  That is how Christianity is often parodied and lampooned.  With the battle between creationism and evolution being publicly and loudly fought in many school systems, it’s not hard to see why we’re seen as being opposed to science.  Much of that fight is grounded in the passage from Genesis we have before us this morning.  Is this story of creation fact, meaning that all theories of the Big Bang or evolution are false?  What is the real answer?  Who wins?  Creationism or Evolution?    
Actually, I don’t think that’s the question that we’re meant to consider.  I know that I’m the one who brought it up, but now that I’ve got you thinking about creationism and the fear of science, I’m going to ask you to set all that aside.  Because this sermon is NOT about whether creationism is true or false.  It is not about evolution or whether God created the world in seven days as we understand seven days.  What I really hope is that we can see a deeper truth in this story, and that maybe we can recognize that the power of this story lies in its beauty.  Because that’s what I think it is, a beautiful story.
Already, I’m going to be in trouble with someone because I referred to the first account of creation in Genesis as story.  Yet as the adage says, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”   If I’m already in trouble for calling creation a story, then I might as well go all the way and call it a myth.  Yep, I said it.  Myth.  But in saying that, in calling this creation story myth, I am asking us to consider the idea that myth, story, and metaphor is not about fact or fiction.  To call this account of creation myth or mythical is not a claim of untruth.  Some of the greatest truths I’ve learned in my lifetime have come through the power of story.  The writer in me knows that I have been able to tell the truth about something through story or poetry in a far greater way than any term paper of fact I’ve ever written.  Facts are important, but I’m not trying to make a case for facts.  I’m trying to make a case for truth.  I think that while they work with one another, they are really different concepts.
Having said that, though, here is a fact we know from scholarship:  there are several creation stories from ancient peoples.  In our tradition, in Genesis, we have two accounts of creation.  These other creation stories or myths bear resemblance to our own; stories of the first peoples, great floods, the leaving of innocence and taking on the knowledge of good and evil.  That means that our creation story is not the only one.  But even without taking those other stories into account, Biblical scholarship has identified four unique and distinct sources of narrative that make up the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Those four sources are known as JEPD, or Jawhist, Eloihimist, Priestly and Deuteronomic.  Our passage in Genesis is from the P or Priestly source. 
While I am limited in my knowledge of the background of these terms, I do know that one priestly function is to offer blessing.  Blessing is not only fundamental to this story of creation it is infused in in its every aspect.  Each act of creation by God is a blessing.   Essayist Debie Thomas writes that God not only creates, but after each act of creation, God pauses.  God reflects on God’s creation.  God sees creation and calls it good.  Blessing. 
So it seems to me that for seven days, whether they are our 24 hour versions or something different, God creates and blesses and creates and blesses.  The rest that God takes on the seventh day is also a blessing; a blessing and a model that we don’t take seriously enough in our non-stop, busy lives.
The creation of the world is infused with God’s blessing.  I believe that to see the story of creation in this light is to see creation, all of creation, as a blessing.  So let’s not forget that part of that creation, part of that blessing, is us.  We are created, male and female, in God’s image. 
As far as I know, there is no scholarly agreement on what exactly made in God’s image, Imago Dei, means.  Is it the literal understanding that I learned growing up?  God has a human form, so we look like God; specifically men look like God and women are along for the ride?  Or is there a truth that goes beyond a literal understanding? 
Perhaps made in God’s image is not so much about how we look or the physical form we humans take.  Maybe it’s more about who we are or who we are meant to be; who we are created to be.  Maybe being made in God’s image is really a suggestion that, like all the rest of creation, we bear the mark of God’s handprint.  Or to put it in more scientific terms, we carry God’s DNA within our very being. 
I often hear people speak of feeling closest to God when they are in nature.  When they witness some stunning landscape or an awe-inspiring sunrise or sunset, they see God in those moments.  I know that when I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and looked at its colors and depth and vastness, I could see the distinct and glorious handprint of God in its beauty.  But if we too are a part of creation, born of those seven days of blessing, if we carry God’s DNA, then when we look at one another, shouldn’t we also see beauty?  Shouldn’t we also feel close to God because we are close to one another?  Not only are the heavens the work of God’s fingers, as the psalmist writes, but so are we.
Our shared story of creation tells us that for seven days God did the work of creation, pausing and reflecting and blessing as He did.  So let us give thanks for the creation, the blessing of God that is not only all around but in us.  Let us give thanks for those seven days, and may we remember that the DNA of God, the handprint of God is not only found in the earth and sky, the waters and the dry land, it is found in us.  Let’s think long and hard about that when we think about how we should be caring for God’s creation.  God created and blessed the world; God created and blessed us.  It is good.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.”  Amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fabulous Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014

            "We thank you, O God, for the gift of your fabulous Spirit." 
            A former moderator in John Knox Presbytery spoke those words during a prayer at a presbytery meeting many years ago.  This was early on in our time in Iowa, and I was very new to the presbytery, so I never got to know this particular moderator.  But I will never forget the fact that he referred to the Holy Spirit as fabulous.  Whatever else may have happened at the meeting that day is lost to me, but I have hung onto that description of the Spirit ever since, thinking all this time, "maybe I'll use that in a sermon someday."  It looks as though some day has arrived.
            Fabulous is a word I use on a regular basis.  For me it's my own personal aloha.  You can use it to say "hello."  "Oh it's so fabulous to see you!"  You can use it to say "goodbye." "You'll call me?  Fabulous."  It is an all-encompassing adjective of admiration.  "You look fabulous.  You sound fabulous.  Your hair, clothes, mind, fill-in-the-blank, is fabulous." 
            I find the word fabulous to be fabulous.  But while I use it consistently, I've never explored the etymology of the word.  So what does a word nerd do?  She goes to the dictionary. 
            While fabulous is a synonym for marvelous and incredible, it is linked, language wise, to fabled.  Something that is fabulous is fabled.  It is legendary.  Something that is fabulous is so extraordinary that it is found only in the stuff of myth or it is almost impossible to believe. 
            Let me be clear, by using the word fabulous to describe the Holy Spirit, I am not trying to say that the Spirit is not real.  I am not implying that it is mythical or legend.  But it is extraordinary.  The Spirit brings about extraordinary events.  The Spirit effects extraordinary change.  But lets be honest, if we were to hear the story of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit, in any other context than scripture, without any reference to the holy or sacred or God, what would we think?  We might be rather incredulous, because the story of Pentecost, as is the story of the Resurrection, is an extraordinary sounding story.   Some sort of wild wind blows through a group of people gathered in prayer.  This wind fills the house where these people are sitting, and if the wind weren't strange enough, divided tongues of flame appear above these peoples heads.  But the strangeness doesn't end there.  The next thing the people witnessing all of this see is each of these men speaking in the languages of every person represented in that large diverse crowd.  If someone was from Medes, that person heard the Spirit in his or her own language.  If someone was from Athens or Mesopotamia or Carthage or Cappadocia, each person heard and understood the words of the disciples in their own language.  If fabulous stems from fabled, then this was a fabulous Spirit indeed. 
            But if the story of Pentecost was only a fable or a legend or a fairy tale, then we might walk away from it thinking, "That was cool.  Hope they make a movie version."  But we do believe it happened.  We do believe it's true and real and genuine.  Why?  Because the story of Pentecost is not limited to this one event or this one day.  The story of Pentecost goes on throughout the book of Acts.  The disciples are transformed into apostles.  They find courage and strength they had never exhibited before.  The Peter who stands in our story and speaks to the crowds is not the Peter who tried to walk on water but was distracted and afraid by the waves and wind.  The Peter who preaches this powerful, persuasive sermon that opens the hearts and minds of so many, is not the Peter who grasped Jesus' true nature one minute, yet misunderstood Jesus' purpose the next.  This is a transformed Peter.  All of the disciples are transformed.  Their transformations take hold in the others folks they encounter so they are transformed as well.  And the gospel spreads like wildfire.  Those burning rings of fire above the heads of the gathered disciples, that wild wind that filled the upper room, were signs that the Holy Spirit, the wondrous, marvelous, astonishing, fabulous Spirit, was in their midst and in the world.  Nothing would ever be the same.
            But here's the rub.  I think we tend to live our lives as though everything is the same.  This is true for Pentecost.  This is true for the Resurrection.  We tend to live our lives as though everything is the same.  I know I've asked questions like this before, but what would it mean for us to live each day as though the Spirit, the fabulous Spirit, is moving through the world?  What would it mean for us to live each day confident that not only is the Spirit moving in the world and through the world, but that it is also moving in and through us? 
            Jesus breathed the Spirit into the disciples, and so it is breathed in us.  The Spirit descended like wind and flame into the disciples' midst, and so it descends into ours.  While we speak of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit, we also speak of the Spirit's leading.  One of the points that a commentator made about this passage is that the Spirit is always ahead of the Church.  The Spirit is always leading us, although I think that we organize our churches and our lives as though the reverse were true.  But the Holy Spirit leads us.  And as Peter quoted the prophet Joel, with the power of the Spirit, old and young, male and female, regardless of class or birth, all will prophesy and receive visions and dream dreams. 
            It seems to me that if the Spirit is moving in and among and through us, and if the Spirit is leading the Church, then we are being led to dream.  So what are our dreams? 
            A church that recognizes that the Spirit is leading also recognizes that there is no dream too big, no vision too fantastic.  What are our dreams? 
            Are they dreams of a church that is revitalized and re-energized?  Why not?  Why shouldn't we be revitalized and re-energized?
            Do we dream that our church will once again grow?  Why not?  Why shouldn't our church grow? 
            Do we dream that our neighbors and our neighborhood will see our church as a place to come for hope and renewal and life?  Then let's dream that.
            If we are to be Easter people and Pentecost people, then I think we are to see ourselves as Spirit led.  I know that term makes some of us uncomfortable, because it brings to mind the image of people speaking in random, indecipherable tongues and being slain in some kind of spirit.  Being Spirit led may look like that, but I also think that a Spirit led church is one where dreamers and their dreams are welcomed and encouraged.  A Spirit led church is one that trusts that wherever the Spirit may be leading them, and whatever the Spirit may be leading them to do, they will be given the courage and the ability to follow.  A Spirit led church believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.  A Spirit led church knows that the changes effected by the Spirit are all part of the new thing that God is doing.  A Spirit led church not only hopes for a more peaceful, just world, but acts to make that world a reality.  A Spirit led church is one that knows that the incarnate love of God in Christ Jesus is the underpinning and the foundation of everything we do, everything we say, everything we are. 
            On this day of Pentecost, let us recommit ourselves to being a Spirit led church.  Let us trust and hope and be led by the powerful, personal, wondrous, fabulous Spirit.  Let all God's children say, "Alleluia!  Amen."