Genesis 22:1-14 and Matthew 10:40-42
If I chose the readings… when we are baptizing Noelle and welcoming so many members of her family as guests… and, it turns out, so many other guests also… Well, I wouldn’t not have chosen our Hebrew Scripture passage today.
The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac– it’s sort of a harrowing backdrop when for proud parents presenting their daughter, having her baptized, as one of the many things they are doing, have done, will do for her well-being, for her to have the most promising of futures.
The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac– it’s a harrowing story by any reckoning. As our intro. to our Hebrew Scripture reading said, it doesn’t just paint a bad picture of Abraham, it’s a surprising picture of God too. Not just surprising– it’s insane. Leaves God looking far from loving.
Not exactly the big picture you’d project on the day we welcome Noelle into God’s family.
Now the second reading, from Matthew, that’s more like it… A message of welcome, wherein there’s room enough for all, rewards pretty much everywhere, and even the smallest gesture is important. It seems much more apropos for a Sunday like today.
But for us at Old First, these lessons are the beginning of our first summer sermon mini-series. Later in the summer, we’re going to look at two other sermon runs — “What Gets Between Us and God,” and “Strife and Differences in the Church.”
Our visitors can probably already tell, we’re more interested in being real here than pretending, more committed to relevant honesty than mild-mannered, “nice” religion. So, yes, sometimes things get in the way, cut us off from recognizing God’s presence AND believe it or not, we also have differences among us around here. Banish the thought, but sometimes it even gets to strife!
But today, our problem is this story of Abraham and Isaac and God. At the least, it reminds us that ours is not really a neat and tidy little religion that is clear-cut, sensible or country-club respectable all the time. Nope, this is an ugly story, even if it’s not really about ugliness.
Beloved, sometimes our stories, like our lives, get off the track. But those stories, like our lives, often find their way back on the track. That’s the possibility of redemption. …Even in a thicket on a top of a windswept mountain. Even wherever you see a knife in the air over your wide-eyed, unbelieving stare…
Today is the first of 3 three weeks on “How We Are to Organize our Households.” That’s a good message for a baptism Sunday.
Because, Nicole and George, what you are about to promise here today, is that you will raise Noelle, provide her with the upbringing and the experience so that in time, at her confirmation, she can affirm for herself her faith in God as we know God in Christ Jesus.
While I believe explicit religious education; Sunday School, Annemarie; prayers in the family– and all those outward trappings of religious teaching and practice go a long way towards introducing children to the faith, they are raising them in the faith, I was struck last week, Father’s Day, by the prayers of thanksgiving for the Fathers without whom we wouldn’t be here and for Fathers who, well, struggled, but never quite became the Fathers their children needed. And some of those Fathers who did really well were not at all religious. And some of those Fathers who failed us were quite religious…
We can stand on principle and act all incredulous, even outraged that God in our story would ask anything so barbarian of Abraham. But, by this point in the holy story, Abraham has already cast his first born and that child’s mother, Hagar, into the desert with no way to survive. And God countenanced that, only at the last minute to provide Hagar with water to keep the child from dying.
Abraham, which the biblical text tells us means “the father of multitudes” turns out to be a father whose parenting is questionable. And God, well, God’s right there with Abraham all along?
If the story of Abraham’s parenting is meant to illustrate, as the text indicates, that God is the one who provides, with Ishmael and Isaac, we see God’s provision is only way into the game, when all other hope is gone, longer than makes sense to us who hope to look to God as our Provider.
Sacrificing our children? Once, stuck with this passage for a bible study, I simply asked, “How can we moderns make sense of an ancient primitive story, barbaric as a belief that God requires human sacrifice?”
One woman answered quietly. “He still does.” I responded, “What do you mean, Millie?”
She talked about her son Victor. The first generation after her family came to NY from Puerto Rico. How he’d thrived. They’d sent him to college.
But then Victor joined a very conservative church. Married a woman from that church. And now, she said, “It’s always so tense, Victor and his wife so disapprove of my faith and this church, of me… Because of God, it’s like we aren’t family anymore. They don’t really trust me with my grandchild. Hardly let me see him.”
Another man said in that Bible study said, “I lost my son to the bottle.”
A woman looked up– this was during the first Gulf War– and added “we march our young men and women off to war still today.”
Another woman, Stephanie, had started to cry, “My husband left, just walked out on me and the kids.”
Life can be hard to look at; even harder to live.
As hard as this story is to look at, it’s not an unfair depiction of the world we live in… which can get so disastrously off track. And when that happens, because that happens, shouldn’t we ask, “Where’s God?”
Beloved, can faith bring us to Abraham’s God? Not some middle-class, Chamber of Commerce, buttoned up and tucked in Father or a happy, balanced PTA Mom sort of God.
But some wild-eyed, dangerous, top of a mountain God, who we’d find on the front lines with us?
A God who can give and take a child.
Our God who could ask everything of us, and then want more.
Isn’t that the God we’re looking for, the God we need, to make it through this world with all its harrowing episodes?
…The God we want to offer Noelle, to introduce Noelle to, as she begins her journey, wherever life may lead her?
Is it too much of a jump to suggest that more than the outward trappings of religion, and more than any specific religious observance, ….what the child being baptized today and all children, each of us as a child of God, needs– as counterintuitive as it may sound… more important than wisdom, compassion, common sense, and even love of family combined… more important is providing the child with a faith that can cut through all that life’s going to throw at her, a faith with which she can keep the love of God, the love of neighbor and love of self rightly ordered and interrelating.
What this odd episode suggests to me is that those right relations often surprise us. They are not what we expect. Not what our comfort or what custom asks of us. Or what we might want for ourselves.
It’s curious to me that the church is so often used as the champion of traditional family values, a certain, regular arrangement — a mom and a dad, and 2.3 children. but when one looks at the families in our faith tradition, the families in the bible, the families in this very community, it seems to me, as often as not that, families look different from the ideal.
And the point is– it’s not what the family looks like. Or that your family, or your lives, well, live up to anyone else’s standards or style.
Because God doesn’t love people only if they are in the right family configuration. God loves each of us no matter what. Even when things aren’t perfect. When we’re not perfect.
And God wants us to see how precious every last painfully imperfect human is– no matter how horrible the situation is.
It’s ironic, but the story of Abraham and Isaac goes to this extreme, terrifies to hyperbole to make the point that God would NOT sacrifice that child in the wilderness, any more than it’s God’s will to put a child’s life in jeopardy here in Philadelphia because she can’t get the education she needs.
Or that God would think less of a child because he’s got two moms.
Or lives on the wrong side of a border somewhere in the Middle East.
Or anywhere that there’s not enough food to eat or diseases that no one these days need to die of…
Sometimes I think the only way we can make sense of these Bible stories is letting them talk to each other. So, listening in on the conversation between our Matthew passage about welcome and reward and one single cup of water and the Genesis passage of a father leading his sone into the wilderness for sacrifice, is it too much of a translation to suggest that being in right relation with God is about keeping everything else in perspective, so that all those other lesser goods, our lesser gods, good ends, but not ultimate ends are ordered rightly?
…And the truly horrific, it too, somehow comes into perspective. And we begin, ever so foggily, to see a world where God and all the rest of us can embrace, appreciate, cherish and raise us up each and every last human as we really are, not as someone else or the world would have us to be?
That Noelle and all our other kids, indeed all of us will thrive and prosper– such a promise comes from so many specifics, too many little cups of water to even name right now.
But well-being is promised from a faith that focuses on the importance of each person finding their proper place and appreciation. A world that can welcome Christ. And the prophets. And each one of us, however far from prophets we may be. All the way down to the least of us who just needs a drink of cold water.
That, I believe, is what our texts are talking about, what Jesus and God are talking about:
Faith that makes room and welcomes. Faith that saves and rewards. Faith keeps families together and creates communities. Faith demands a world in which none must be sacrificed. Where no one is called to be barbaric. In which we all can begin to do the impossible. Where, in faith, we can welcome other people and God, not as we would have them be, but as they truly are. Down to the littlest among us, even if she needs just a cool sip of water or a symbolic sprinkling. Amen.