What was God thinking?

Proper 8A (RCL)
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Ugh. I don’t know a single preacher who likes preaching on this story from Genesis, except maybe Soren Kierkegard. SK wrote Fear and Trembling as an extended meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac, as a way of writing about his decision not to marry his fiancee Regina. His faith in God required him to give up the one thing he loved, just as did Abraham’s faith. SK also hoped to receive her back again after giving her up, but it was not to be. Not sure that’s the kind of faith in God I want to have.

We are not told what Abraham thought about the whole business, nor what Isaac thought. I wonder if Abraham and Isaac ever spoke again after the event. There are a couple of observations that help make a little bit of sense of the story.

i.) It appears to me to be a “just so” story at some very primitve level. The OT in a number of places speaks of the first born male of any mammal (humans inlcuded) being dedicated to God. A donkey or other work animal can be redeemed with a lamb. Human males can also be redeemed with a lamb. Does this story speak of a time when humans thought that God required the sacrifice of the first born male child, but then discovered that God did not desire the death of the child but provided a way of redeeming the child? The Passover story seems to suggest a similar redemption: while the Egyptians still sacrifice their first born sons, the Hebrews substitute a lamb, painting the blood on the doorpost. That would also make some sense of the prophets’ outrage at the continuing practice in Israel and Judah: we are not supposed to be like our neighbors, especially in this regard. The story of Abraham and Isaac would be a way of remembering when the possibility of redemption entered the culture.

ii.) Isaac is about 13 when this takes place. If there were a cultural memory of a time when male child sacrifice took place, this would provide the story for an initiation rite. Older men would take young boys off some distance from their mothers, tell the story, sacrifice the lamb and return. The boys would always carry the memory that they had been restored to their fathers by God.

iii.) The event takes place on Mount Moriah, presumably the same as Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Imagine the resonance with this story that would be in the minds of everyone who presented a sacrifice at the altar of the Temple. By God’s gracious substitution, we have our male children.

iv.) The story, as we have it written, was set down during the Exile. Abraham had been called away from his homeland — he was cut off from his past. Now God tests him by asking his son of him — he will be cut off from his future. Certainly, the Judeans in Exile would have understood Abraham’s despair. And yet, God’s promise is fulfilled. The Exiles can hope that God’s promise to them will be fulfilled.

I think this setting of the story gives us most hope of interpreting it. There were two theologies (at least) in competition during the Exile. The deuteronomistic theology said that the Exile was God’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. God would be demanding Isaac (standing in for Israel’s future) for Abraham’s sin. Isaiah also begins at the same time to write the majestic servant songs, which Christians would later apply to Jesus. The suffering of the servant is somehow redemptive, and not only of the Judeans in exile, but for the whole world. Israel must surrender its exclusive claim on God’s promise so that the whole world may enter into God’s household. Put the story of Abraham and Isaac alongside the story of the exile of Hagar and Ishmael. God’s promise for both is fulfilled, whether in the one case the people of promise had cast out those who they though fell outside the pale, or whether on the other hand, they punished themselves for their putative unfaithfulness. God will bring about God’s purpose of the inclusion of the whole world in God’s promises despite our screw-ups.

If this is a fair way of interpreting the story, then Paul is asking the same thing of us, only more directly. He is asking us to die to sin, to the ways of defining people as “in” or “out” by human standards. We are no more to let those things have dominion over us, but present ourselves to God.

I wonder if there isn’t a huge mistake we make when thinking about offering things to God. Kierkegaard made the mistake of thinking that offer something to God was see it destroyed as far as we are concerned; to lose the enjoyment of it (of course, in Repetition he sees that we can have it back after we have surrendered its enjoyment on strictly human terms). Instead, when we offer something to God, we offer its fruit to God’s purposes, which include our enjoyment of it. When we offer bread and wine, we get it back, transformed for God’s purposes, so that we might feed the world, ourselves included, with that precious food. It’s not about losing the thing offered so much as it’s about participating with God’s purposes, which are always larger than we can understand.

Dying to sin

Proper 7A (RCL)
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

The story from Genesis is one of those stories I wish wasn’t in the Bible. God seems to acquiesce in some very tawdry human decisions, and this one of them. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son Ishmael packing. It is interesting to note, however, that in chapter 17 of Genesis (v. 25) that Ishmael was 13 years old and Abraham 99 years old when they participated in the covenant of circumcision. We’re also told that Abraham is 100 years old when Isaac is born. That would make Ishmael at least 14 years old in this story. But the story, the way it’s told, would lead me to believe that Ishmael is an infant who can be loaded onto his mother’s back, not a strapping lad of 14 or 15 years old.

So, what’s going on? I suspect that this is one of those oral stories that got told around the fire, and probably existed in many forms. Certainly the Quran tells it from Ishmael’s perspective. Perhaps here, it is being set down during the Solomonic monarchy to explain why Solomon, a younger son of David, should have the kingship rather than any of his older brothers. In that case, keeping the chronology of the story intact is less important than making the point.

Which of our stories exist in a number of tellings only to get set down by the winning side? Manifest Destiny might be one — how would that look from a Native American point of view? On Wednesday evening, Fr. Nathaniel talked about seeing a session of Canadian Parliament in which the Parliament apologized to Native Americans for the centuries of harm. The presidents and chiefs of the tribes in attendance accepted the apology gracefully. It takes us hearing the stories from all perspectives to bring about peace.

But Jesus, of course, says he does not come to bring peace but a sword. He is setting up a community (or the writers of this bit of the gospel tradition are) that doesn’t depend on father or mother or marriage or children for its identity and continuity. The community comes in for some rough treatment, and so Jesus assures them that God loves them more than all the rest. They have to be ready to dare leaving family, city and all for this new identity.

Paul is making essentially the same point. In baptism, we have died to sin, to those modes of identity that make separations — jew/greek, male/female, slave/free, or whatever the current equivalents are. Having died a death with Jesus, we now walk in newness of life. It’s risky, scary stuff. There is a line in the Romans passage that could be translated, “That which one has died, one has died to sin; that which one lives, on lives to God.” That’s not just about Jesus; it’s about us.

Even the Genesis story redeems itself a little, by having God say that Ishmael will continue to live to God; not very satisfying since Ishmael will come to stand in for those peoples the David monarchy wants to displace. How costly would it be for us to live in newness of life, not divided by christian/muslim, american/foreign, black/white, or fill in you own dichotomy? Perhaps the sword that Jesus brings is meant to sever us from those ways of self-definition and to make possible new ones.

Raising the dead

Proper 6A
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35 – 10:23

Jesus gives his disciples rather startling instructions, particularly if we understand ourselves to be those disciples: “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleans the lepers, cast out demons.” Personally, I can’t say that I’ve done any of those things.

These instructions are set within a larger framework. Matthew places this whole passage between the first sea crossing and the first feeding miracle. Jesus has compassion on the crowds, “because they were harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He is quoting Numbers 27:17, in which Moses prays that the Lord will set over the people a person like Moses, so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew portrays Jesus as a Moses-figure. That fits with the sea crossing/feeding miracles.

Also, between those miracles, Jesus casts out the legion of demons into a herd of pigs which rushes over the cliff and drowns in the sea (like Pharaoh’s army!), calls Matthew the tax collector and eats at his house, and then, while still reclining at Matthew’s house, responds to the request of the leader of the synagogue (what would he be doing at Matthew’s house, I wonder?) to heal his daughter. Jesus is only instructing us to do what he did.

Also, we are to proclaim the kingdom of God. If Jesus’ miracles are any indication, that could be dangerous stuff. Everyone knew there was only one Kindgom that mattered: Rome. The cynic philosphers lived outside (or tried to live outside) the social structures of the Empire. They begged for their food, refused to enter temples, flouted convention. Jesus sends his disciples out with even less than the cynics — no philosopher’s tunic, no extra sandals, no gold, silver or copper, no wallet for the next day’s food. But they went out two by two, where cynics would have been singletons. The cynics claimed that they were living in the true Kingdom, in opposition to Rome. No wonder the Emperors occasionally felt the need to banish the philosophers from Rome.

No wonder, too, that Jesus tells us to that we are sheep in the midst of wolves, so we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We are claiming to live in the true Kingdom, in the face of the Kingdom that surrounds us.

Demon possession, illness, leprosy, even death, had (and have) their social component. An occupying empire pushes all kinds of people to the edges. The two men possessed of a legion live among the tombs. Matthew has had to make some awful compromises to survive; he collaborates with the very regime that probably pushed him off his land through tax debt.

Who are the damaged these days? The people whom our system of acquisitiveness and consumption push to the edges? What compromises do we make? Jesus instructs his disciples to enter whatever house will have them (and presumably to eat there) without asking questions about the “fitness” of the people who live there in religious or political terms. In bringing such people as Matthew, the dead girl and the woman with the flow of blood to the table, without asking questions of their fitness, Jesus heals them, overcomes the social aspect of their condition.

Interesting that the deficit of Abraham and Sarah is met at a meal. Abraham (and Sarah) serve the three men, who ask no questions about their fitness or the fitness of the food, and in the meal, give the promise of a child.

The psalmist asks, how can I thank God for all the good God has done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation. At our meals, both at church and at home, we can raise a cup and thank God that we are made whole by eating together. And then, invite to the tables, both in our homes and at church, those who are dispossessed of whatever it is God intends for us humans.

Does Matthew continue to collect taxes? We’re not told. It’s the meal that heals him, makes him whole. He may still have to do that horrible work to make ends meet, but he has been restored. That’s the work of the Kingdom.