The Binding of Isaac

sermon on Genesis 21:1-3,5-6; 22:1-14
Word of God, word of life? This is a hard reading so near the start of the Bible and of this Narrative Lectionary year. We’ve just gotten past the sort of mythical ancient events and characters, starting to arrive at people who will provide the context of our specific story. Yet here may be one of the hardest stories in the Bible. That says something amid this book that doesn’t shy away from the human horrors of war and slavery and starvation and rape and pride and greed and politics and family feuding and all the rest. Still, this story is among the hardest, not least because it’s not evils that are against God’s will, but appears to be requested by God.rembrandt angel abraham

Knowing the context makes it even more tragic, even harder. Abraham is really the first main character in the Bible’s story. He’s a progenitor, an ancestor, the forefather for almost the entirety of what comes afterward. But identifying him in that role of forefather was absurd because he had no children. God had promised he would be the father of many nations, but he had to protest and argue and wonder and keep trying fruitlessly. Even up to age 86, the father of…nobody.

His wife Sarah sent her slave Hagar as an alternative effort toward the promise. These women drive the story at that point, while this central biblical character Abraham is like breeding stock from ABS bulls. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, whose name means “God hears” and through whom Muslims trace the story. But this firstborn son of Abraham wasn’t chosen, either by God or by Sarah, who resented Hagar.

13 more years passed until three guests, three angels came to visit. Abraham fed them a meal and they said he and Sarah would have a son. Sarah was eavesdropping and laughed, perhaps delighted, perhaps incredulous (since she herself was 90 years old at this point).

Though they’re old—“as good as dead,” they’re called later in the Bible (Rom4:19)—we heard today that Sarah gave birth to laughter, literally—the meaning of the name Isaac. Finally, the promise is coming true! Of God’s word that they would be matriarch and patriarch of the faith, of a great nation, this blessing that would extend more than the stars of the sky.

And yet instantly piled onto that story and stifling the laughter comes the binding of Isaac, the near-sacrifice. God tells Abraham to kill his son, his only son, this son whom he loves. It’s a remarkable story, for its sparse details, for the little bit that is said and for all that isn’t. We have no idea how old Isaac is, for example.

It says they walk for three days. At the end, Isaac himself carried the wood that would burn. Did he expect what would happen with that knife? What were Abraham’s thoughts on the three-day journey? Much less the question: what did he or didn’t he say to his wife, the mother of his child, before leaving?

At the crux of the story Isaac and his father talk to each other for the only time. It’s often pointed out there are no words of them speaking to each other after this horrific event, but there were also none before. Their only dialogue is the question, “Where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” And the answer, “God will provide.”

As they walked on together, one commentator says it is the longest and heaviest silence in the Bible. What does Isaac suspect? What does Abraham fear or hope? What is going on within and between them? Is Isaac resigned or overpowered when Abraham ties the ropes around him? We can’t understand it. Presumably Abraham didn’t really understand it. Certainly Isaac couldn’t have understood.

It’s cruel and unusual. After that century of waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, as Abraham continued trusting God, kept hoping this dream, this expectation of parenting would come true, for that to be revoked so suddenly in the story, not only as those who have lost a child to tragedy but demanded at his own hand. Awful.

And Sarah’s absence in this part of the story feels glaringly painful. She had trusted and hoped in the promise with Abraham. Just as the dialogue between parent and child ceases after this story, so also between spouses. We have to wonder if Sarah’s laughter departed forever, even if her son Isaac came back from this experience without a scratch, if it annihilated her joy and may even have extinguished her life itself; the next mention of Sarah in the story is at her death.

So what to do with this?

There have been many explanations. That it’s an old violent patriarchal culture is a bad excuse. Some have said it’s a story for the Israelites turning away from neighboring nations’ practice of human sacrifice for animal sacrifice instead. This spot is later labeled as the location of the Jewish temple, that center of sacrificial worship (2Chr3:1). Others observe it’s inappropriate to view sacrifice as the animal substituting for a human death. But even if this is a story about animal sacrifice, why—for the love of all things good—was it told like this? Couldn’t the story have been less brutal, less fearful, somehow not hinting at horrendous child abuse?

Accentuating that horror, the model has been perversely flipped by Christians, moving it back to human sacrifice. Jesus gets labeled both as the ram who is substituted for you, dying in place of you. But he also gets labeled as the son, that where Abraham didn’t kill his Isaac, God the Father didn’t spare his Son. Awful, awful stuff. Correctly labeled divine child abuse. Terrible.

Let me be clear that I don’t believe or agree with that view of Jesus. But it’s reinforced by our appointed paired Gospel verse—even though the Narrative Lectionary is a recent innovation, and shouldn’t have some old lack of awareness—that verse pointing to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, words we’ll sing again at communion, a meal about sharing life, not taking it. Yet that verse is applied as a thread to connect this story from Genesis into the Gospel of John’s theological lens for the year. I disagree. And I’d prefer a different paired verse. Maybe Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice” or “Let the little children come to me” or “save us from the time of trial.” Instead we’re pointed again to slaughter and sacrifice and innocent suffering.

The most terrifying aspect of this story isn’t confronting death. For a long time we’ve dealt with situations of war or capital punishment or extreme self-protection or the routines of our daily meals. Any of those, we might trace as logical causes for death. But that it’s God’s request here just seems senseless and capricious, impossible to understand. In a similar moment, Job declares, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). But we might well be more like Job’s wife who suggests he “curse God, and die” (2:9).

This perhaps honest yet troubling portrayal of an unpredictable God wanting a random test leaves us wondering about God’s will, with two competing edges in this story—God tests, and God provides, the opposites of a God who would give and a God who would take away, promising versus demanding, desiring life or death.

In that way, this is the ultimate intense story of that struggle and that constant question of our faith: How does God relate to things not going how we want? What we even term as the “miracle” of childbirth is especially fitting for this emotional question, for the enormous hopes and fears, for all that goes right and the catastrophically tragic that can go wrong. Some of you, some of us have held this question of God’s nature around longing for children and through pregnancies and as children grow and things go well in life, or they face problems. If getting our hopes fulfilled is a blessing from God, when the opposite happens, is that a punishment? A test? Simply an outcome of a capricious God? Would we say through every situation that it happened because God chose for it to happen, that God is in control?

What about when our faith conflicts with what we like or desire or would choose? Some ancient rabbis tried to explain away the story by saying that Abraham didn’t actually hear the voice of God telling him to kill Isaac. But God does ask us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise. We wake up Sunday morning, setting aside this time in our schedule. We put money in an offering plate. We offer peace to each other. We eat with strangers and call them siblings. Today we have events about imprisonment and immigration. We address those issues not through legal wisdom or economic insight, but because we believe God is calling us to stand against society’s norms, though this request from God may be inconvenient for us and unpopular with others.

But that isn’t exactly conceding how horrendous this story is, of God asking for the death of a child. I want us to trust and declare that faith should never lead us to violence, to say that God asked us to kill even an enemy, much less a family member.

That raises the confounding question of why Abraham didn’t argue. Three chapters earlier, he had a long debate with God, arguing that God should spare and not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. But for some reason Abraham doesn’t bother to argue for the life of his son. I think that could lead to seeing that, rather than God testing Abraham, there’s an element in this story of Abraham testing God, proving whether God would stand by God’s promise, whether God would remain faithful to Abraham. I like that notion certainly better than of God testing us, though I’m not exactly sure how testing God has application in our lives, other than perhaps finding confidence in Abraham’s results.

In the end, I don’t have and don’t want to offer a resolution to this story. It needs to remain perplexing and even fearful, to stay challenging. Though I always wrestle to find and share good news in the Bible passage, with this one I can only say thank you for holding onto the hardness with me. With this one, I’m just left wondering how honestly we need to face our struggles, wondering whether the promise was worth it, if Sarah’s laughter ever returned.

 

PRAYERS

Faithful God, we yearn to trust in your goodness, that you provide in our needs. Reassure us of the promise and save us from the time of testing. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Your relationship with us is connected to the land and specific places and through animals. Give us wisdom to treat them honorably, as we honor you. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

You extend your blessing to the nations. We pray that where threats of violence and patriarchy and intimidation still reign, that we can be your people of love and peace. We pray today for conversations about criminal justice and how we welcome our immigrant neighbors. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of sacrificial love, we pray for those who have lost their laughter. We pray for those who struggle with pregnancy. We pray for those who deal with any kind of abuse. We pray for the hard relationships in our families and with loved ones. We pray for those overcome by natural and other disasters. We pray for all who are ill and grieving, especially for … Amid all these situations, hold us in your loving presence. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of our ancestors, we thank you for the faithful stories of our forefathers and foremothers. We pray that your stories of promise continue through the generations, especially today as we begin a new year of Sunday School. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Holy, holy, holy God, fill us with discernment and compassion, that we may understand your will and strive for justice and love on earth as it is in heaven, now and forever. Amen.

 

 

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sermon for Animal Sunday

(Job39:1-12,126-30; Psalm104:14-23,31; 1Corinthians1:10-23; Luke12:5-6,22-31)
(http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/united-states-ecumenical/wisdom-series-canimals)
 
For a couple decades, Dave Rhoads, an emeritus professor from the Chicago seminary, has been among the most important inventors and instigators for this ecological edge in Lutheran churches. (He’s also a friend of Joyce Anderson’s from her church in Racine.)
Fitting this Animal Sunday, Dave tells of a dream where he was going to receive communion and found himself next to a snake, and then a person next in line, and then a raccoon with its paws extended, then a bird at communion eating bread crumbs.*
Perhaps that’s an image to keep in mind for this day, and is among the reasons we ourselves are receiving communion each Sunday of this season, even without bears and turtles lined up with us, still a reminder that we are in communion with all creation—not just with wheat and grape, but with pollinators and soil microbes and deer along the roadsides that lead to markets and grazing blackbirds and sunshine and rain and so much more.
But if you’re still feeling that we’re a mainly human contingent gathered in church this morning, then you may yet turn your faithful attention to the words we have from Psalm 104. This is no Isaian (65:25) “peaceable kingdom,” where the wolf lays down with the lamb and the lion eats straw like an ox. No, in Psalm 104 the lion still eats ox like a lion. Those young lions lurk and prowl at night to find their food, food given to them by God, just as the grass is given for cattle and grain for us. It may not be a utopian dream in Psalm 104, but it very much is a faithful “topian” vision. It’s not a “utopia” (literally meaning “no place” or “not a place”) but is firmly rooted in place, in the actual topography of our lives amid this world. With that, the Psalm sees God not only as some distant goal, but as fully engaged and caring about these different and disagreeing creatures here and now. So the lions still get to be carnivores. And humans get wine. (Though, for full disclosure we’re not the only ones who enjoy alcohol; cedar waxwings eat fruit that has hung on trees too long and fermented, until they can even get so tipsy they can’t quite fly on course. Though it’s not that birds need a DUI patrolling squad car—an absurd notion, but which we’ll reflect on more later.)
Anyway, just as we heard in another beautiful and expansive selection in Job that portrays members of creation far from humans, Psalm 104 also nicely attends to distinct habitats as blessing from God for biodiversity, the varieties of life. God grows trees for birds. God created night for nocturnal animals. From our Darwinian understanding of natural selection we may question which direction this actually proceeds, but nevertheless Psalm 104 is onto something in its attention to specific habitats with the thriving of species.
Among that, I especially have been enjoying what we read from verse 18, “the stony cliffs are a refuge for the badgers.” Instead of “badger,” other translations use the odd animal terms “coneys” or “hyrax.” So I sent a note this week to one of my Old Testament professors, Diane Jacobson, who worked on this translation for our hymnals. Since it relates to our own shared habitat, I asked her, “can the Wisconsin Badger fans amid my congregation claim blessing with the appearance of these badgers?” She replied that was, “remarkably insightful and clearly part of original authorial intent.” So there you have it, a special divine nod to Bucky.
Whether it’s as playful as that or not, I also love Diane’s translation in verse 22, where the night ends and the sun rises and, as she phrases it, the lions “lay themselves down” in their dens. It seems a poetic reflection of that old bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep.” Though we’re awake at different times and eat different things and rest in different places, still the echo in that verse ties our lives to the lives of lions, refusing to let them be too separate from us. We can see other animals as our siblings, as part of this vast family.
But that may confront us with the Gospel reading, which seems to play family favorites. Last week I’d said that our God doesn’t care “exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.” This would seem to be yet another example of why I should read ahead to the next week’s lesson and actually pay attention to what Jesus says before I open my big mouth. Or maybe it’s an example of the interplay of Scripture, how it doesn’t all say the same exact thing, but does disagree or is in situational dialogue with itself. So last week’s readings portrayed God’s delight in cavorting with Leviathan the sea monster, though it was harmful to humans. But today Jesus promises that “you are of more value than many sparrows” or flowers of the field or ravens. One reading seems to say humans are just one among many, amid the mix of this grand family of creatures, and the other says you are most valuable.
So what would make Jesus say we are more highly valued by God than sparrows? We certainly can’t say you’re cuter than a tiger cub or more precious than pandas. It may be claimed that, just as we feel special kinship looking into the face of a chimpanzee, that we’re valued because we are more like God, though I’m particularly reluctant to make that argument. Indeed, as categories of creature or Creator, we’d have to confess we’re more like chinchillas or alligators or poinsettia plants or moon rocks than like God.
Instead, might the value be by body mass, that big creatures get more attention than little ones? That’s often our human tendency, to count and notice the plight of megafauna like elephants or polar bears or whales, but to be less invested in smaller creatures.
Or maybe lifespan gives us more value, where mayflies only last for a day, or rabbits breed three times per year and are mature at four months old, or why Jesus mentions sparrows, that typically live only to 4 years or so in the wild, just as Aldo Leopold noticed chickadee mortality rates were more than 50% after a single winter.
Or maybe another factor in our value and associated with our lifespan is our place in the food chain, that it takes a lot of mosquitoes to feed one bat, or rabbits to feed a hawk, that there are fewer snakes than mice and fewer mice than grasshoppers. Or in your case, that it takes a lot of salmon, who ate even more herring or crayfish, which had to eat scads of larvae or plankton.
To try on a completely different version, though, of why God would value us differently than lilies or sparrows, it might be because of what we’re capable of, or what our potential is. This is true in both negative and positive ways. To return to the absurd drunk flying cedar waxwings, they don’t need police to pull them over for imbibing too much fermented fruit because they won’t do much harm that way, whereas we need laws about drinking and driving because we are all too liable to harm others.
Or, in an apparently more benign perspective, what we cause in getting this bread and wine here today may be terribly destructive. That process may be destroying other life and interrupting cycles of well-being and altering the habitats that other animals depend on. Fields may be covered in pesticides and insecticides that help our grain and grapes to grow, but harm other life and, we’re learning, will even wreck the health of the soil. It’s still a fairly new thing to think of healthy dirt. More, our roads not only bear risk for the deer standing alongside them, but also carry vehicles that are polluting the air and changing the climate of the planet, even for those animals that live far, far away from direct human presence.
And there are those birds of the air that Jesus mentions. My life may be of more value than many sparrows (and our habits benefit house sparrows and crows and seagulls). But I wonder about trading the value of my life, what it would be not to count myself more than, for example, an extinct passenger pigeon. I wonder what I’d trade to be able to see flocks that block out the sun all day. Or to see an auk or 12 foot tall great moa of New Zealand or a Carolina parakeet that was exterminated for the benefit of making hats or an ivory-billed woodpecker that simply didn’t have enough old forests.
Or if I wouldn’t actually trade my life for a bird’s, what would I sacrifice? We figured out how to make do without DDT in order for bald eagles again to soar over our Wisconsin lakes and figured it may be okay that cranes cause crop damage. But what else of my life would I change or give up for the wellbeing of another creature?
That question may be the reason we hear the assigned reading from 1st Corinthians today. There’s nothing very natural or animal-ish in there, but maybe it is the guidance from Jesus that we as faithful humans have a spot in creation not only to cause harm but to ask what we may sacrifice for others (or for “otters”), following the way of the cross that doesn’t try to claim my own life is more valuable for being hoarded, but finds the worth in community of God’s blessing.
Perhaps that’s a perspective of our value, in assessing what can go wrong, and also in figuring how to do better. We’re valued because God strives so much to redeem you. Weighing whether comfort and convenience, our worries in life of what we eat or wear, that this is not worth the loss of life, I’m offering the last word to Aldo Leopold. From his speech at Wyalusing State Park, this is for “the funeral of a species,” on a monument to the passenger pigeon:
We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that [humans] are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us…a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures;…of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.…
These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact [and this potential], rather than in [synthetic] nylon or [computers or nuclear] bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.**
 
** found in A Sand County Almanac
 
(PRAYERS)
Rejoicing with all creation, let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need.
God of all creation, with all creation we join in praise. And as Francis of Assisi preached your word to the birds, we pray you open our ears to hear other creatures preaching you to us. We also give thanks for these favorite animals in our household or larger family of earth now (PAUSE) Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray today as one among many, as one species surrounded by millions. So we think of those who are close, like the chickens and chickadees, crows, raccoons, and coyotes, and those farther away and more foreign to us, in jungles and deserts, on mountains and in the depths of seas. In all of this, we ask your blessing on these creatures and sustenance in their habitats. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We give thanks for political movements that care for creation, for 100 years of the National Park Service, for the Endangered Species Act, the Department of Natural Resources, for nations working together on climate change, for organizations that motivate us to take up this challenge. Expand our hearts and strengthen us for sacrificial love. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
We pray for the health of creatures who are at risk, for snow leopards and orcas, rhinocersoses and manatees, for karner blue butterflies and kirtland’s warbler, for those suffering from too much rain–for farmers, those with flooded homes, and creatures around there. For all these places of concern, for animals as well as the people we worry about and which we name now, silent or aloud (PAUSE). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Celebrating the beauty of creation’s habitats, we also celebrate the beauty of these quilts that surround us today. We praise you for the blessing of hardworking and deeply caring hands that have made them, and pray for all the places around this world where people will receive them from Lutheran World Relief. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
In the promise that you chose us and, in the fullness of time, will gather all things on earth into your embrace, bring us with all creation around your throne in eternal praise. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Gather all these prayers and whatever else you see we need as we join together with these concluding words:
Jesus Christ, teach us to empathize with Earth. Make our spirits sensitive to the cries of creation, for justice from the land, the seas, and the skies. Jesus Christ, make our faith sensitive to the longing groans of the Spirit in creation. Jesus Christ, make our hearts sensitive to the songs of our kin, celebrations from the sea, the forest, and the air. Christ, teach us to care. Amen
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Vacation from Jesus?

sermon on Luke9:51-62; Galatians5:1,13-25

I want to invite you to walk through a few steps of my recent conundrum and join in faithful pondering. I ask you to walk and not snorkel with me, because though I want to share thoughts about my trip to Hawaii, this isn’t a travelogue but is spiritual journey. So let’s walk.

Our first stop is among the words we just heard from Jesus. It’s a great set of quotations and interesting sayings. Any of them is eminently preachable and could be full of lots of conversation. I especially like the oddness of disciples who want to command fire to rain out of the sky just because Jesus didn’t stop at a certain village. (Imagine travelling with these guys down the interstate, itching to leave a wake of destruction for every bypassed rest area or unused fast food restaurant as you sped by.)

Then we get to the stuff about following Jesus. It’s insistent and doesn’t paint all that appealing of a picture. Foxes and birds have holes and nests, but with Jesus you evidently have to camp out or maybe be homeless. Then the odd word about the dead burying their own dead, that with Jesus you can’t even go to your father’s graveside committal. Finally, to keep your hand on the plow, as the old spiritual sang it. It sounds awfully demanding.

Which is what got me thinking about Hawaii. I got to lay my head in some pretty swanky resorts, at least for my taste. And I dawdled around the beach sipping tropical cocktails, which seems a whole lot more relaxing and less pressing than the words from Jesus that this all needs to happen now, as top priority, so that even otherwise really important aspects of life still can’t be allowed to get in the way.

So the point of quandary as you’re walking through this with me is whether a Hawaiian vacation is incompatible with following Jesus. Now, please hang with me and don’t just write it off as Midwestern stoicism against tropical ease as a guilty pleasure. I’m certainly not eager to look the gift horse in its mouth, but am nevertheless confronted with Jesus’ discipleship question.

I was reading some Hawaiian history before the trip, which described the difficulty the stern missionaries had in trying to convert the Hawaiian natives, who didn’t want to give up raucous parties and carefree living, didn’t even want to have to wear clothes. There are times that question can be in my mind: is Christianity worth it? Do I really want to follow Jesus if it feels like I’m giving up the good stuff?

Yet we are here together today, which says we’ve already made up our minds to some degree, feeling a persistent tug toward faith. Likely, your weekly Sunday attendance isn’t to weigh whether or not to believe in God, trying to convince yourself that following Jesus is right. You probably already relate more to one side of that answer.

So for the first stopping point on the morning’s walk, we aren’t exactly evaluating whether to follow Jesus. We aren’t asking if trying to live care-free or to spend ourselves partying (much less the question of whether to wear clothes) would be preferable.

And so when Jesus tells us to follow, not to look back, tells us of inconveniences and disruptions and perhaps even some regrets that inevitably accompany discipleship, we’re probably generally not at the point of saying, “Uh, thanks Jesus. But all-in-all that doesn’t sound like it’s for me. Good luck with that though.” We’re ready to take him at his word, to take it seriously, or at least to struggle with what it means.

Which, again, is the question of my trip to Hawaii. Does it square with being a Christian and the demanding lifestyle of following Jesus? At this point, it seems the answer would be no.

That makes me anxious and also grateful to move on to the next stop of the spiritual journey, getting past the disappointing conclusion of this first stop by walking or maybe even running ahead to the next question. See, here, luckily a stray verse from Galatians jumps in to our rescue, or at least to my deliverance and excuse for luxuriously relaxing getaway. Chapter 5 verse 1 floats at the front of our reading, cut off from its surrounding verses, but nevertheless a place I’d throw out my anchor and take harbor from storms of dire insistence. “For freedom,” it says! “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Aha! I like it! Praise Jesus for stop two on this spiritual journey! Sweet relief! This isn’t only about demands and a bleak outlook of discipleship. No! Just the reverse, when I’m trapped in worry and held in bondage by not having done enough of the right thing, here comes a word of blessing, a word of good news, the strength of the gospel to liberate me. Christ has set us free! For freedom!

Just as it was no exaggeration to question the whole Hawaiian escapade with the first word, this upends it to offer a validation for freedom. Don’t submit to the yoke of slavery! Don’t feel oppressed or bound by those restrictions. Don’t let your life be confined in obeying orders, in being burdened by rigorous work. Freedom! This Galatians message comes so vigorously to defend me and my vacation to Hawaii.

We’re free. It would, by definition and at its core seem to indicate we can do whatever we want. Separate from our spiritual journey, that’s also a contemplation as we approach Independence Day, perhaps on a patriotic pilgrimage. What is American freedom about? Is it that we can do whatever we want in this world, to whomever we want? Are there no boundaries or barriers for our behavior? The patriotic question and the spiritual one, the Christian component and the American overlap in pondering this, as we can see. Can we get away with anything? Is the shape of life just in doing what we want, what feels fun, what we can afford, whatever is our heart’s passion or—in slightly different language—to gratify the desires of the flesh?

Uh-oh. We seem to be moving on to a third point in this walkthrough. From first saying ocean-side resorts were off-limits to next saying there were no limits and anything goes so feel free to enjoy, we’re suspecting that there’s something else to face. Or even if we weren’t suspecting it, even if we were content bask under Galatians 5:1 (since it remains the extraordinarily good news of our faith), still Galatians moved on and so must we.

The next verse we heard was this: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” (so far so good. We liked hearing this. Until it goes on:) “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Oh!

Now, I know this is paradox, saying that two opposites are both true, that you’re totally free yet not. I know that is difficult and confusing. And that exactly is what our faith is. That is why we keep pondering and wrestling and reflecting and praying, because it’s not simple or clear-cut. Our faith is neither “all it takes is to do these 10 things” nor is it really “it doesn’t matter what you do.” So our reading first said, “Don’t submit to slavery,” but then turns around and instructs us “through love [to] become slaves to one another.” Both/and.

Martin Luther picked up this dichotomy in one of his most important writings, called “On the Freedom of a Christian.”* His summary was two apparently contradictory statements: “A Christian is a most free lord of all, subject to none” and yet “a Christian is [also] a most dutiful servant of all, subject to every one.”

These two halves, we may split by adding perspectives of other characters: God and neighbors. Let’s try it out for God: even if it was a flagrantly expensive expedition, involving carbon polluting jet fuel and intemperant alcohol and problems of tourist economy, my trip to Hawaii does not and cannot separate me from the love or blessing of God. The gifts of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit are not dependent on how well I behaved. On the other hand, switching direction from God to my neighbor, was Hawaii the best choice, the most loving thing, the way to serve others? Or was it more “an opportunity for self-indulgence”?

This is the weighty matter of faith. So I’m not looking to justify myself, that I got to explore beautifully amazing coral reefs to gain appreciation for an endangered part of creation, or that it was worthwhile because of time with family, or that I supported neighbors who were far away, or that it brings me back refreshed, renewed, ready to serve you.

Neither am I looking for you to excuse me, to say it’s alright. It may feel like that’s what we do in Confession and Forgiveness, but please note that to forgive is not the same as offering excuse. Forgiveness is to say that, even when it’s not right, even though what I spent on this lush vacation is part of confessing “we have not loved one another in deed and in truth,” still that does not cut me off from God, nor from you, since I hope your faithful love continues to surround me.

This is worth weighing, worth considering, a spiritual journey worth walking through, not to feel miserable or condemn ourselves, but (at least in part) because we have many appealing opportunities for recreation this summer and all of us—whether spending freetime close or far, in small amounts of time or large—all are among the richest on the planet, meaning we’re used to a lot of self-appropriated freedom to do what we want and probably need to be re-attuned to the cost for our neighbors, sisters and brother, human and all creatures, who suffer sometimes because of our extravagance and sometimes because of our neglect.

This is what the love of God calls us to, what the body of Christ lives to do, what the Spirit motivates us to do. If we’re not ready to consider the expense of our lives for others, we’d have to wonder whether God is God, whether Jesus is just a pastime, a hobby, whether we’re paying attention in this faith to following at all.

 

*http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1911/1911-h/1911-h.htm#link2H_4_0002

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Bloodsuckers!

sermon on John6:51-58; Proverbs9:1-6

Leeches. Vultures. Vampire blood-suckers. Parasites. Whatever image or term you might use, it doesn’t seem particularly complimentary, this suggestion from Jesus. You can’t help but picture cannibalism as he tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. If you’re squeamish, I’ll invite you now to gird up your loins, because this is not for the faint of heart.

This has long been problematic for Christians. Persecutions under Roman society in the first several centuries of the church often found accusation in these strange words and behaviors. Christians met in graveyards, the catacombs, still gathering together with and surrounded by those who had been killed for their faith. In those gatherings they ate bread they said contained flesh and drank wine they termed blood. And all of this they oddly called a “love feast,” an agapé meal. Lest you think you’ve gotten far from that, you need only look down the hall to Agapé Place. And if you were to claim that all the worship-y fuss is only over a morsel of soggy bread, that first of all sounds foolish and second of all shames the martyrs who were willing to die for the sake of what they saw embodied in the celebrations of this table.

But amid that shaming and our own downplaying of beliefs, we shouldn’t lose track of the offense. It wasn’t just in later years, with a nonviolent communalism that conversely threatened empires. Right from the get-go, these words from Jesus were outrageous.

A first note on the translation of these verses is that it says the Jews were having a “dispute” about what Jesus was saying. That’s soft-pedaling it big time. This is a word for all-out ruckus, for fisticuffs, a brawl. That’s the degree of upset at stake here.

To understand that, let’s talk about blood, with an interesting little Bible study. Back in Genesis 9, when Noah came out of the ark, was the first that God told people they could eat meat. (The garden of Eden was strictly a vegetarian paradise.) God then said people had authority to eat animals, but absolutely with no blood
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Blood is particularly holy; as the force of life it’s also a mark of the creator. In sacrifices blood was drained from the animal and poured over the altar, a sign that the animal’s life belonged to God and that our own lives belong to God, the sacrifice signifying giving our lives back to God.

All that went with reiterated warnings, such as this from Leviticus 17: “If anyone…eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the
altar….Therefore I have said to [my people]: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood.”

It was such an important prohibition that it persisted for the church. In the book of Acts, as the mission was expanding and non-Jews were joining the church, there was lots of debate and the first churchwide council to determine standards for these pagan converts. It was gradually decided they didn’t need to be circumcised, which had been the predominant physical characteristic of the people of God, but they did maintain the rule against consuming blood (Acts 15).

This was so vital in Bible times that among the worst name-calling condemnations was to say that somebody was “drunk on blood.” This carries into our own time when we refer to somebody as as lowlife “bloodsucker,” or as “bloodthirsty,” a term that brings to mind pirates or terrorists or barbarians lurking to attack helpless innocents. As Arlo Guthrie sang sarcastically against war, “I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead, burnt bodies. I wanna kill, Kill, KILL!”

So as Jesus tells us to drink his blood, we could see why it would start a fracas among the Jewish crowd. It’s about the most offensive suggestion he could make, filthy and absolutely counter to the central commandments of God, the opposite of how to be in good relationship with God.

If you’re not sensing that offense yet, then here’s this: another bit of our translation that talks about eating flesh isn’t the typical word for eating like when you have brunch. Certainly we’re not talking about silverware and table linens. This is more like the distinction of our word “feed,” for a feedtrough, a feedbag, a feeding frenzy. Indeed, this is a word for beasts, for wild animals, for vultures and jackals that gather to tear apart flesh, for sharks picking up the scent of blood in the water.

Now I still don’t know how offended you’re finding yourself. We may not be picking fights and starting brawls here over what Jesus is saying. After all, we’re Lutherans. Last week I couldn’t even get you to talk. But lest you get ulcers from being all riled up on the inside, we could ask if this is really what Jesus thinks of you: Does he call you bloodthirsty beasts, no better than bloodsuckers like lampreys or mosquitoes, as awful as vampires or pirates, with all the reckless starving frenzy of a Sharknado? We think of Jesus as our host generally in terms of hospitality, but parasites also attach to a host. Is Jesus welcoming you as a plague of parasites? Or is he just being provocative to push your buttons?

Maybe the best place to focus our attention is to realize what Jesus is saying about God. Jesus is saying that God is not the bloodthirsty criminal, not the one who’s out for blood, seeking revenge or to equal some score of ancient bloodguilt. It’s not God whose appetite needs to be appeased by gnawing the bones of victims.
And that means that when Jesus gives his life, he isn’t giving it to satisfy God. It’s not because God demands a death. It’s not that Jesus’ death is a substitution paying for your death. Rather, Jesus is giving his life for you, to satisfy you, to quench your thirst and to put you at peace.

In other terms, maybe it affects how you look at this table and think of this meal. I almost never call this an altar, because altars are where sacrifices happen at the hands of a priest, where a death is given for another’s life. Instead here we have deacons, the ancient word for waiters, who make sure all are fed. We most often think of agapé feasts as being about love and community and sharing and the original church potluck that left nobody out.

But this today reminds us of sacrifice and the blood of the covenant, of God’s faithfulness and your sins. The blood of Christ is shed for you.

But here it isn’t just a death that gives you life. It is life that gives you life. Where in other circumstances life is poured out to fill another—Dracula sucks away life or a goat is given as a stand-in—instead with Jesus the one who gives his blood does not stay dead. Again, God is not interested in death. Jesus is resurrected. Though you killed him, he rises so that he can continue giving of his life, at this altar table today and for you always. As the book of Hebrews (ch10) reminds us, this isn’t a sacrifice that needs to be repeated. In Jesus the cycle of death is ended. No other deaths are desired, much less required, by God. God is in the market for spreading life. So even when you gather here and gnaw at flesh and drink of blood, it is for converting you, so that you also become an ambassador of reconciliation, an agent of life.

Further, if you are what you eat, this means you are Jesus. As you eat this meal you and Jesus are becoming one, united, in communion. Jesus gives himself, as he says in this passage, for relationship, so that he may abide in you and you in him, so that you will live because of him, that you will have life in you and will live forever, just as he does.

Perhaps one other thought on these implications. The Proverbs reading said that God’s wisdom is a feast, where you are invited in to celebrate and be nourished for life. Later in that same chapter is an interesting contrast, describing a dinner of foolishness (v13-18). Instead of offering bread and wine, foolishness suggests stolen food and water. Instead of community, it is isolating. Versus a meal for life, it leads to death.

So if the meal we share when we gather here—where Jesus gives his life for you, where you are a guest who is filled with blessing and life and wisdom—if this becomes a model for the rest of our lives and also particularly for the rest of our tables, we could reflect on where we are still subject to the foolishness of deadly selfishness, where our demands still beg for blood: When do our meals nourish community and life, and when is our food junk? What of our food is stolen from those who have labored to produce it, when those who work our fields or serve in our restaurants are paid starvation wages? When California drought is worsened by watering crops, what are we stealing from the life of creation? When our dietary preferences are predicated on corporate feedlots and inhumane treatment of animals, what does that continue to say about our bloodthirst and Jesus’ life in us?

After all, he didn’t give himself just to be relegated to a soggy bite once a week, but to inhabit your existence and to bring you into the grace, love, and mercy of his life, giving himself so that you may know you live in God. That’s what his life is for.

Hymn: Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (ELW #370)

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The Good Shepherd, Sheep, and a Sty

4th Sunday of Easter (John10:11-18; Psalm23; 1John3:16-24)
Two images for this sermon and this Good Shepherd Sunday. First, John Muir began seeking to protect Yosemite first because it was being over-grazed by sheep, eating the place bare. Second, at the Leadership Retreat a week ago, while Tim was teaching, a small voice came from the back of the room: “Big Tim! Big Tim! I just used the potty!” (Three-year-old Ned Redmann)

Let’s clear this up straightaway: We are the sheep. And that means you are not the Shepherd.

That’s a reminder because we tend to picture ourselves as take-charge folks, as independent thinkers, as self-made men (and, indeed, this is too often the dominant, domineering, sexist, so-called “manly” way of thinking and self-made women somehow don’t even get a category). We imagine we know best in looking out for our own interest or think we are generally pretty caring and kind.

But when Jesus says, “I AM the good shepherd,” it means that you are not. We are at best bad shepherds. That gets reiterated all too frequently through scripture, where shepherding was the symbol of rulers, and those rulers tended to be bad shepherds, neglecting the flocks in their care. We’d quickly admit, biblical precedent is right and it’s not just an ancient problem to have self-interested leaders lacking concern for their constituents.

Opposed to bad shepherds, then, we might presume it’s good to be a sheep, at least being fluffy and cute. But the more defining characteristic of sheep is that they go astray following their appetites. Sheep continue grazing, face in the ground, and end up getting lost while they’ve been focused only on filling their bellies. The prophet Ezekiel uses this imagery to accuse us of butting each other out of the way and muddying the waters with our feet, damaging it for those who come after us. We trample and foul it up for others, he says. (see Ezekiel 34) We’re greedy.

This is where we are really sheepish, not to use that term for being shy but for being self-absorbed and ravenous and inattentive to our surroundings. It’s bad enough that we’re making a mess, or to use a good crass version, we’re defecating where we eat; we pollute the place that supplies our wellbeing. The larger systemic ecological problem is that our selfishness also causes harm to the poor people of the planet and to other life trying to survive and future generations of our families and any other creature. We sheep are messing up the place and making it unlivable.

While we’re hanging around these thoughts of the tail-end of a sheep and noticing just how much this all stinks, this is a perfect time to re-examine a word that, I think, gets misinterpreted or elevated to sound more special than it should. The word is “stewardship.” It seems to me that we picture being a steward as something holy, church-y, trying to act like God, which we mistake to mean being important and in charge.

Yet this word begins with a very specific context, and that’s where the meaning of our faith also dwells. See, the word “steward” comes from the Old English “sty-warden,” meaning one who kept the sty, spending their time cleaning up after sheep and pigs and all the livestock filth. So a steward isn’t a big boss or nice maître d’. Stewards cared for crap, and hung out amid the stink, knee deep in it.

So your holy and pious vocation, the noblest calling from God, isn’t to elevate you above the mess, but to get a shovel and get to work. Though you may notice that my main expertise only involves a pooper scooper, that I haven’t done a whole lot of barn work, I’m going to continue speaking authoritatively on “duty.” With that, I can tell you that Martin Luther looked at your lowly life and identified it as a highly important role, stamped with more divine approval than being a clergyperson dressed in fancy robes.

This amazing job? Doing diapers. Luther wrote that, if we were trying to be rational, we’d turn up our nose and say, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my spouse, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery life involves?” But, he continued, Christian faith “looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as [if] with the costliest gold and jewels.”* That’s a different image of a filled diaper—to regard it as if covered in gold and jewels! We can also apply that to other stinky situations of your life, where you’re up to your neck in it, things that aren’t glamorous but sure are held dear and important to God.

In spite of this prevalence of poop, we shouldn’t presume that stewardship is perpetually serving on that literal clean-up committee. The sty where you serve is found in all kinds of nitty-gritty details of life. So mostly we think of stewardship related to finances, those tedious kitchen table-type talks of sorting out where money should go and what you can or can’t buy.

But, again, this isn’t just about how extravagant of a vacation you can afford this summer. With stewardship, we recognize that the calling from God isn’t only about how you satisfy yourself but also how you care for others, how you invest yourself in spreading wellbeing; not just making your own mess but attending to others’. Again, it may not seem all that rational. You may think that if you’ve worked hard for your income you should be able to play hard and make your own choices and not have to sacrifice. You may think you’ve earned it, that you deserve a reward, that you’re entitled to a treat or a new purchase or some luxury time.

But that brings us back around to the appetites of sheep, right?, and imagining yourself to be a better shepherd in charge and in control, and back again to ecology.

The glimpse I hope you’re getting is that God isn’t a God to lord it over you. God is not the highest and mightiest, the most in control, fancy and luxurious, with the biggest palace up in heaven, most removed from the struggles and vulgar stink of everyday life. Our God is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gives himself and lays down his life for you. Jesus your Lord is sty-warden, hanging out here amid what’s disgusting and insignificant and despised in our world and of your life, simply out of devotion to you, for love. So Jesus wasn’t looking out for numero uno, or if he was it was because he didn’t count himself first. He wasn’t pushing others aside to try to get ahead. He didn’t sacrifice the well-being of others to make a place for himself, but offered himself to make a place for you.

This is the model of our faith, the shape of our lives. In our gospel reading Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep” because he cares for and knows them. Our 2nd reading took that word of good news and invited you to live into it saying: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

That “ought,” though, is tricky there. The struggle I have in putting these words together, and I think the Bible writers faced the same struggle, is that it can sound harsh or difficult. Telling you to love and to lay down your life, you may feel like arguing that you can’t be forced to love, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices. Just as Luther realized, you can’t approach this by reasoning through it, or you’ll just turn up your nose. We show our sheepishness is much too inherent.

But what Jesus the Good Shepherd is doing is changing sheep into shepherds. In his care and devotion to you, he is converting you from being self-serving sheep to expand your awareness that you may know others in the flock. In laying down his life for you, he is giving you his life, making you to be a good shepherd like him.

So while parents may grumble and be worn out by changing diapers in the middle of the night, they also don’t need to be forced into caring. Even the disliked and disagreeable tasks are transformed by love. And the love of Jesus is transforming you from being a hungry sheep only looking at your own appetite and taking whatever you can instead to lay down your life, to realize that life’s fulfillment is not found in having more than others but in what you share, what you can offer. This comes so naturally (at times) in our families, this love and willingness to offer ourselves.

But these days present an urgency of tending to our larger family, for the care of the earth around us. During this week of Earth Day, we again pause to recognize that we have been takers, thinking that we had every right and no problems in claiming bigger houses and new cars and countless electronic gizmos and a country with the largest military and unnecessary plastic objects and whatever we wanted for lunch.

In a time of ecological crisis, led by the Good Shepherd, we are called and invited to love, to lay down our lives, to see what we can do without, so we don’t foul up life for others but promote our shared wellbeing. It is in asking what we can sacrifice, and, if we really care, it may be in laying our lives on the line.

When that seems too frightening, too unpleasant, too unreasonable, then turn again to the Lamb of God who fills you with all joy and peace in believing, the God of life who lays down his life for you, and takes it up again, that you may enjoy his blessing and live with his life and abide among his flock forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us (ELW #789)

* Luther’s Works, vol45, pg39

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