St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Pentecost 3 2014 Sermon
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Corby Varness

The first part of the sermon was dramatized in the form of a Godly Play Lesson:
 
--This is the story of Abraham, the father of the Great Family.  He and Sarah went from Ur to Haran then on to a new land.
 
(rocks)
--And when they came into the new land, Abraham went up on a hill at Shechem to pray and God was there.  He prayed to God at Bethel and God was there.  Then they pitched their tents in Hebron and God was there too.
 
(sand, stars, dust)
--God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be the mother and father of a great family.  The family would be as many as there are grains of sand in the desert, stars in the sky and dust in the land.  But Abraham and Sarah had no children.
 
(three strangers)
--Then three strangers came out of the desert and told them that they would have a child.  They were very old.  They laughed.  The child was born and they named him “laughter”, Isaac.
 
(wood)
--Isaac grew and when he was a boy, God appeared to Abraham and said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  Offer him as a burnt offering upon the mountain.”  The next day he cut the wood and took a donkey, two helpers and his son, and began to walk towards the mountain.  On the third day they could see it.
 
(bowl of fire and knife)
--Abraham told his helpers to stay there with the donkey, and he and Isaac went on alone.  Isaac carried the wood for the offering.  And Abraham carried a bowl of fire and the knife.  Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide.”
 
(twine)
--When they came to the place for the sacrifice, Abraham tied up Isaac.  He picked up the knife and was about to kill him for the sacrifice when an angel came and said, “No.  You do not need to do this.”
 
(ram)  
--Then Abraham looked, and there was a ram caught in the bushes.  God provided the ram for the sacrifice.  Abraham untied Isaac and they went down the mountain.  The angel called to him again and said, “God says, ‘I will make you the father of a great family… as many as the grains of sand in the desert and stars in the sky.  And I will make of you a great blessing, because you obeyed me.
 
(cave)
--Then Sarah, Abraham’s beloved wife, died, and he buried her in a cave at the end of the field near the Oaks of Mamre.  After Abraham helped find a wife for Isaac, he died, and was buried in the cave beside Sarah.  Isaac and his wife Rebekah had twins, Esau and Jacob, so the Great Family grew.
 
 
This story raises a lot of questions:  What kind of God would order a father to sacrifice his son, his only son?  How does Abraham feel about this?  Does his wife Sarah have any idea what they are up to?  What was Isaac thinking as he carried that wood for the sacrifice up the mountain?  More than anything, I wonder how could God let this happen?   How could God play such a cruel joke on his beloved son Abraham?
           
I find myself asking these same questions when I hear that my best friend’s sister has been given six months to live.  What is God thinking?  Where is God?
           
Today’s perplexing, thought provoking story is left out of many lectionaries.  But this passage from the Hebrew bible is considered a foundational text for all three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  Got that?  Foundational: our faiths are built on this text.  Even Bob Dylan sang about this story: "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.'  Abe said to God, 'You must be puttin' me on!'"
           
When we read Bible stories like this, we struggle to understand them.  Let me tell you two interpretations of this story:  A Jewish view is that God needed to test Abraham to be really sure that he could be the father of the Hebrew race.  Abraham trusts that God will provide.  He trudges doggedly up that trail, binds his son and prepares to stab him.  The ram appears and voila, all is well.  God provides an alternative sacrifice.  God is happy, Abraham is happy, maybe Isaac is a little disgruntled.  You think?
           
A Christian interpretation uses this story as a foretelling of the death of Christ.  Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain, Christ carries the sacrificial wood of his cross up the mountain.  God provides a lamb for the sacrifice, Jesus is the lamb of God.  Like Abraham, God sacrifices his only son.
           
These two explanations seem to wrap up this dark story in a nice box with a big bow.  I find them too neat, too facile.  Perhaps the value of this story is that we are forced to question God.  When I was a young girl, I questioned virtually every aspect of my faith, much to the annoyance of the nuns who taught me catechism.  They wanted me to be quiet and just accept whatever they taught me.  Blind faith!  That didn’t work too well for me.
           
You know, Isaac, this son of Abraham, who was almost sacrificed, went on to have two sons, Jacob and Esau.  Jacob is famous for wrestling with God, all night long and being left with a limp as a consequence of that night.  I love this image of wrestling with God.  This is symbol of a very active, embodied faith.  I don’t want a faith of neatly wrapped boxes with big bows.  I don’t want a faith of trite biblical interpretations, handed to me as fact, literal, inarguable fact.  I want a ‘wrestled with’ faith, where we engage the text, much like Hebrew scholars who argue and discuss and wrestle with the Torah.
           
The Episcopal approach to reading and interpreting the Bible is unique compared to many other Christian denominations.  We acknowledge the Bible as the Word of God and we believe it should be looked at in the context of our own time and place.  We believe that each person can build a personal relationship with God and to enable that, God gave us reason.  Using reason, we must sort out the text of the Bible and what it means to us.
           
The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer that calls on God's people to not only hear, but to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" Holy Scripture.  It is not meant to be easy to digest.  Some of these stories give us indigestion!  The word is something to chew on.  We chew on scripture on Wednesday mornings at Bible Study.  I hope we chew on scripture on Sundays in our readings and sermons.  I believe that God is pleased with a faith that is arrived at through this chewing, through questions, through doubt.  I’m so grateful to be part of a tradition that allows for this deep engagement with these holy texts.
           
So back to Abraham.  Despite everything I’ve just said, let me try to wrap this up for you.  I like the Jewish interpretation: Abraham trusted that God would provide an answer to his dilemma.  When God called, Abraham answered; “Here I am.”  This trust, this willingness to be present in the face of danger and fear, this is faith that somehow, everything will work out, that God knows the outcome and even though we can’t imagine it, somehow, good will prevail.  My grandma used to say, “No hay mal que por bien no venga.”  There is no bad from which good does not come.  This is a faith statement that somehow, God will provide.  That is all we can do, isn’t it?  Trust God.  Amen.


 
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