28 June 2020, 11:55
In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them. WaymakerShout to the North
© Stacey Steck
Except for cannibalism, there may be no other greater sign of a culture’s barbarity than child sacrifice, the practice of offering up to the gods of one’s culture an innocent life in exchange for some rain for your crops, or protection form your enemies, a practice which horrified those who came into contact with the Incas, Aztecs, and other indigenous groups of the Americas. In 2018, archeologists in Peru discovered a burial site of up to 140 children and baby llamas, with the children buried facing west and the llamas buried facing east, the largest find of its kind, and their best guess is that this sacrifice was made in order to put an end to the incessant rains caused by the meteorological phenomenon we now call El Niño. As they sent their children off to die, they probably thought to themselves, “God will provide.”
Today’s story from Genesis is not one you’ll find in children’s Bibles. It’s a scary story, an awful story, a story which pushes the boundaries of our humanity, a story in which only God seems to rescue Abraham, and us, from the annals of barbarity. He was ready to do it, Abraham was, until he heard that voice calling his name. The altar was prepared, the boy was tied up, the knife was unsheathed. All that remained was to spill the child’s blood and light his body afire, and Abraham would have proven himself worthy of God. But of all the disturbing elements of the story, maybe the most awful isn’t that Abraham was willing to do this to his son, but that God was the one who asked him to do it. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac” God says, “Take your son whom you love, and ho the Land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Maybe the Incas and the Aztecs were mistaken in believing their gods desired sacrifice; we’ll never know. But Abraham is commanded by his God to perform this barbarity, and not just to any child but to his own son.
And it wasn’t like Abraham was getting much out of the deal. The Aztecs and the Incas thought they were getting something tangible out of the deal. All Abraham was going to get was a pat on the back from God, because all killing Isaac was going to accomplish was nullifying the promise God had given him that he would be the father of a great nation. Abraham was eighty-six years old when he had Ishmael, and ninety-nine when he had Isaac. Ishmael was long gone, Isaac was about to be dead. There weren’t going to be any more children from Sarah’s womb. What great nation could come of this barbarous act? And yet he seems completely ready to do it, knife in hand.
So does Abraham suffer from delusions and hallucinations? Or is God really so petty that a test like this is necessary? If God is looking for a way to come off as a hero who can be trusted to provide for faithful people, surely there must have been some more civilized way to do it, like Gideon’s fleece or something like that. And this episode comes not at the beginning of Abraham’s walk with God, but much closer to the end. Abraham is an old man. What more does he have to prove? What is God testing, exactly. Well, it might be that God wants to make sure Abraham remembers that Isaac is God’s provision and not his own, that Abraham really gets the idea that God giveth and God taketh away. After all those years without heirs, without someone to carry on the family name, perhaps Abraham was getting a little too self-satisfied and forgot that Isaac was God’s doing and was taking all the credit for himself.
Or maybe this story is about how delicate is the promise and how much faith is required to keep the flame burning. Or how easy it is to misunderstand what God is asking us. So many possibilities, right? Because this just doesn’t make sense. The God who makes Abraham a promise out of nowhere, and then fulfills that promise, only to ask Abraham to nullify it? There are no easy answers and very little to distinguish our ancestors in the faith from those we vilify as the barbarians of our continent.
So what redeeming value is there in this passage? At the most basic level is perhaps the reminder of how all of our hopes and dreams hang by a thread easily cut by a knife like Abraham’s. We human beings spend so much time toiling for what we have or want to have. We invest so much energy in building for a future in this life that is never guaranteed. Abraham must have thought he’d finally found the security he was looking for, a son to whom he could pass on all of his possessions so he could die in peace. And God showed him how fragile is human life. It can all come crashing down so much faster than we think, and it’s so easy to take it for granted. Cherish your loved ones, people. Cherish those with whom God has provided you. Tell your child you love them. Tell your parents you love them. How many would trade their parents’ estate for just five more minutes with them? When we invest ourselves in what lasts, in the inheritance that really matters, in love and mercy and grace, God will provide.
Perhaps another virtue of this barbaric story is to remind us that we are not the center of the universe, and that our purposes are not necessarily the most important ones. Yes, Isaac served a practical purpose for Abraham, but Isaac served an enduring purpose for God. Isaac wasn’t born to let Abraham know all his hard work wouldn’t go in vain, or as some kind of reward for exemplary behavior. No, God’s purpose in Isaac was to provide peace and security for a whole nation so that that nation could testify to the nations around them that the Creator of the universe was worth putting their faith in. Isaac is really the beginning of Abraham’s story, not the end. Isaac is the next chapter of the future. The promise isn’t fulfilled in Abraham, but in Isaac, and this episode shows that God, not Abraham, is now responsible for Isaac. Like the story of Samuel later on, when his mother Hannah dedicates him to the service of the Temple, Isaac belongs to everyone, not just Abraham. You’ve done your part in furthering the promise Abraham, but I’ve got it now, God seems to be saying. You can’t protect him for every peril, but I can. That’s a hard lesson for us to learn, isn’t it? To trust that God will provide.
And last but not least to take from this scary story is that God doesn’t ask us to do what God isn’t willing to do. A few thousand years later, the Apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote to the Romans, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As far as anyone knows, Paul didn’t write these words as a commentary on the story we heard this morning, but it sure sounds like one doesn’t it? Abraham did not have to sacrifice his son because in the end, that God’s job to do. Isaac doesn’t say much in the story but he asks the right question, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And although Abraham can’t possibly understand it fully, he gives the right answer: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” And isn’t it interesting that the substitute for Isaac was not a lamb but a ram. The sacrifice of the lamb was still to come. God will provide.
We don’t know everything about the practices of child sacrifice among the Aztecs, the Incas, or any other culture that practiced it to placate their gods, but I find it hard to imagine that those who ordered those sacrifices offered up their own children, or that their gods were willing to offer up their own children. That’s not what kings do. Kings take other people’s children and offer them up because their own children are too important. But our God saw things differently. Our God saw that the future depends on love, grace, mercy, and sacrifice, and specifically on God’s love, grace, mercy, and sacrifice. “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” God will provide. Amen.
21 June 2020, 11:57
In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them. Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)Mighty to SaveWhen You Call My Name
© Stacey Steck
What a great text for Father’s Day! “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.” Nice, Jesus, very nice. Good recruiting strategy. You’ll gain a lot of followers with that message. Yes, it’s a wonder Christianity ever became as popular as it did with passages like this in its Scriptures. Think about it. The leader of its movement dies a horrible death by public execution. And that is after he has proclaimed hardship for his followers, basically promising them the same kind of persecution he has received, after telling them they must love their enemies, give away everything they own, leave father and mother behind, forgive seventy times seven times, and become the servant of others, just to name a few of the countercultural challenges Jesus has outlined for those who would become his followers. Why are we here? What kind of insane is this religious system?
Well, yes, it does have something to do with that little old thing called the resurrection, which showed that if God had the power to raise the dead, imagine what could be done with the living. But still, it does boggle the mind that people will follow when called to an arduous task. Maybe it is just something about the human spirit. We want to climb mountains even if it means risking death. We are willing to fall in love and get married even if it means risking heartbreak. We follow our sports teams every year knowing that the odds are slim of a championship. We buy Powerball tickets really believing we might actually win! Yes, we can be convinced to do almost anything if the conditions are right, even give up our lives for our friends, the very definition Jesus offered of love.
Or maybe it is that we human beings are just so resistant and stubborn that you can’t tell us what not to do. Are you telling me I can’t climb that mountain? That it’s too tough? Well, I’ll show you! Where’s my Sherpa? Maybe Jesus knows we’ll rise to the challenge because we want to prove him wrong, or prove ourselves capable, or because we respond best when expectations are set high. I don’t know. What I do know is that faith the way Jesus described it is no easy task. It demands a lot for an ambiguous reward. It forces us to place our trust in others and relinquish control. If we are doing it right, that is.
So it’s Father’s Day in these United States, a day we celebrate those people in our lives who have helped positively shape us into who we have become. It is one of those days that has helped define the idea of “family values,” the ideology that the nuclear family – Mom, Dad, 2.3 kids and pets – forms the core of human existence and must be protected at all costs from any threat. On this day, we remember the nurture we have received, the lessons we have learned, and the sacrifices we have benefitted from. We celebrate the hard work of fathers, the wisdom of fathers, and the compassion of fathers. We applaud the faith of our fathers and give thanks for the impact they have had upon us. Many of us owe everything we have and everything we are to our fathers. Fathers are so important, aren’t they? Yes, it’s true.
And the Bible tells us how important fathers are. The Ten Commandments tell us to honor mother and father. The book of Proverbs is filled with a father’s wisdom that children should heed in order to become successful. King David weeps for his son Absalom, wishing he could have taken his place in death. Noah guides his children to safety from the flood. A Roman Centurion begs Jesus for the life of his son. Joseph is willing to risk humiliation to claim Jesus as his son. Fathers are so important, aren’t they? Yes, it’s true.
It’s also true, however that few families fully conform to the ideal picture of the American family that gives rise to the idea of family values. Father’s die sometimes. Fathers are cruel sometimes. Fathers drink too much sometimes and work too hard sometimes and make mistakes and disappoint their children. Fathers stray from the faith sometimes and lack integrity sometimes and just plain fail sometimes. And that’s hard. It’s hard on children. It’s hard on those children’s mothers. It’s hard on our society. It’s hard on the grieving hearts of fathers who wanted to do better. It’s hard on God too, I imagine.
And here, I imagine, is part of what made Christianity flourish despite how demanding Jesus makes it out to be. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value that many sparrows.” Yes, it’s the reminder that although earthly fathers fail sometimes, our heavenly father never does. The people who followed Jesus didn’t all come from nuclear families of Mom, Dad, 2.3 kids and the dog. In fact, probably none of them did, for a great variety of reasons, beginning with the fact that they came from a society that was barely holding its own against an occupying force that kept them in poverty and subject to regular brutality. These were people who didn’t have as much to give up as we might imagine in order to follow Jesus. These weren’t the wealthy and the educated and the enlightened. These were, to borrow the phrase from Lady Liberty, “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” These were the fatherless and the friendless, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised. These were people who had little left to lose, because they had already lost a lot, or never had it to begin with. And so the sacrifice was deemed not so great, and the payoff worth the risk. Following Jesus was better than the alternative.
Is that true for us too? Is following Jesus, through all the hardships he describes, better than the alternative? Don’t answer before hearing again the cost on this Father’s Day. “Don not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” How’s that for “family values?” “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” If Jesus’ words were hard back then, how much harder are they in our own time, in a community such as this? I don’t think Jesus is talking here about some purely metaphorical understanding of finding or losing one’s life. I think he is saying that there are real, life-altering consequences for making the choice to follow, and betraying an ideology as deeply rooted as family values.
On Trinity Sunday a couple of weeks I ago, when talking about the fulness and completeness of God’s creation, I added an asterisk to the statement “All Lives Matter” in light of the Biblical reminders of God’s special care for certain groups according to the context and according to their need. So, yes, all lives matter, and black lives matter. Today, I want to suggest that God puts an asterisk on both Father’s Day, and the idea of “family values” in this passage in which Jesus is getting the disciples ready to go out on their mission of sharing the good news. Yes, family is important for our well-being, vitally important. Yes, it’s important for the development of minds, bodies, and spirits. Yes, it’s important for the attachment and security of children. Yes, it’s important for economic stability. Yes, it’s important for all the reasons that are reasons for each one of you. Yes, families are truly important. But they are not more important than the fulfillment of God’s mission of shalom, for fulness and completeness for the whole world. If they were, Jesus would have said something like, “Whoever defends their family without question will receive their reward in heaven.” But he didn’t say that. He said “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Those are tough words to hear. They mean that sometimes we must turn our backs on that vital institution if it is at odds with God’s plan. They mean that the ideology of family values cannot be an altar at which we sacrifice all other forms of human community. Because the truth is that not all families are created alike, and not all families are made up of blood relations, and not all families are allowed to thrive, and indeed, not too long ago in our historical past, certain families were not even allowed to exist because of laws certain other families erected to preserve so-called family values that they had decided were the only ones worth having.
Perhaps you saw the movie a few years back called “Loving,” a beautiful film that detailed the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who challenged the law of the state of Virginia that prohibited the marriage of whites and blacks. For hundreds of years, and until the 1960s mind you, the majority of this country believed that mixed race families were an abomination before God, or at least not worth losing a father or mother, son or daughter, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law over to challenge an unjust system. What they were really saying was that a black man could not be a good father to a child with even a drop of white blood, and that this kind of family purity was more important than the purity of faith. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
The plain fact of this difficult passage is that we read it from a social location that makes it even harder to follow Jesus than it was for those who heard him speak those words to their faces. We are so much more like the rich young ruler who turned away sorrowful because he was rich than we are the man called Legion who sat at Jesus’ feet once the demons had been driven from his mind. We have so much more to lose than the rabble who followed Jesus. But we also have everything to gain, just like them. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my father in heaven.” Acknowledging Jesus, and the demands he makes, means being constantly willing to question every notion we have about ourselves, about our faith tradition, about our values, and even our families. And maybe that makes following Jesus even crazier than back in the first century. But do not be afraid. “You are of more value than many sparrows.” Amen.
14 June 2020, 07:05
The news is hard enough to read or watch on a daily basis without facing the inevitable stories of children abandoned, neglected, or abused, probably the most heartwrenching of all. Children locked in closets and starved by alcoholic parents, babies shaken to death because they wouldn’t stop crying soon enough, child soldiers and prostitutes doing adult work when they should be playing in the park, promising minds pulled from school to work to provide money for a poverty-stricken family’s survival, girls burned to death because they weren’t born boys. These are just a few of the tragedies that befall the world’s children. If you had a childhood that included none of those traumatic events, count your blessings, and know that you are in the minority. Reality is far from pretty for the vast majority of the world’s children.
Not that it should be so, and not that the parents of all those children dreamed it would turn out that way when they first held their newborn bundle of joy. I can’t speak for all parents, but most of the ones I know, including my wife and I, have hopes and dreams for our children, perhaps not all of them realistic, perhaps some of them actually our own dreams in disguise, but most of them having to do with health and happiness, productivity and meaning, faith and blessing. The blank slate of a child’s life is easily enough filled in by the fears and longings of others, and we do our best to make sure the picture that eventually tells the story of that child’s life is a portrait that doesn’t appear on the news in that awful category of stories we’d rather never see. It may be a well-traveled expression, but that old African proverbs remains true that it takes a village to raise a child. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, the location of the village, and the character and habits of its inhabitants, make a lot of difference in how the child grows, and the choice is not always up to us; sometimes we choose our neighbors, and sometimes they choose us.
In a sense, this morning’s passage from the fourth chapter of Ephesians is an instructional manual for those who might wish to have some say in the shape of the village in which they raise their children. In the letter’s own time, it was meant to help new Christians form themselves into a faithful, supporting community that fulfilled the dream God had for them of life in Jesus Christ, a dream that had as a key feature a kind of unity unknown in the world around them. These new Christians weren’t being called to be exactly alike, but to have in common a faith in Christ that would enable them to survive the stormy social environment in which they lived, that would enable them to live authentically as the new creation in Christ that they were. In the words of the passage, they were called to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” It may not be the metaphor of a safe and thriving village, but a vital, healthy body full of love is an image just as powerful.
In our own time, the letter offers us some timely wisdom as we wonder how we can raise the next generation of children born at Thyatira, or in North Carolina, or anywhere in the world, in the midst of so much chaos. The culture in which we live today may not be as hostile to the Christian expression of faith as was the Roman Empire, but parents today still face their share of daunting challenges even if those challenges look a little different to twenty-first century eyes. These challenges confront the hopes and dreams with which their children began life, and parents everywhere can use all the help they can get in making those dreams come true. I’m not talking about dreams of “going to Disneyland,” but rather the ones you have standing over the crib as your child sleeps. And so, whether he ever could have imagined it, the kind soul who wrote the letter to the Ephesians blesses us still today in making those dreams come true.
This fourth chapter begins with just that kind of cribside dream. Wouldn’t every Christian parent want a child who was, in the words of various verses here…full of humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing others in love…who knows to what God is calling him or her…who comes to the unity of faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ? Of course, it just so happens that this is exactly what God wants for each of us, and thus, why it appears in our Scriptures. It is a profile of sorts of the mature Christian, an ideal picture, if you will, of where God wants us to be in our relationship with the divine. And it if it coincides with what we want ourselves and our children to be, so much the better. This profile then, is the very reason for our village’s existence, and so we organize ourselves so that every child of God has the best chance of growing to the full stature of Christ. If you’ve ever been present for a baptism, you know that we ask everyone to promise to do everything in their power to see that he or she grows up according to this profile. And when you look at a church’s programs, and its budget, and the way it conducts itself, what you should see is a church that has taken that promise seriously, not just for the child being baptized, but for all who have been baptized, and are on their way to maturity in Christ. We know to what we aspire, and we are called to help one another get there.
Knowing what God wants for us is one thing. Doing it is another. We clearly can’t do it on our own, or at least we haven’t succeeded yet, despite the loftiness of our dreams. There are no perfect villages, turning out perfect teenagers. This one is simply beyond our means, and so we are given a beautiful reminder of why what we do for one another is not in vain: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all.” We don’t each have to seek our own way, under our own power. No, there is one God, in whom we have everything we need. It may not be according to our timetable, but the power is there, and the grace is there, and those are enough. They are there for the asking, there for the taking.
So we have the profile, and we have the power. Now all we need are the villagers. Who are our fellow citizens, and what do they bring to this great experiment in child rearing? Our passage in Ephesians reminds us that God has populated our village with people of faith to whom great and wonderful gifts have been given, that some would be apostles, others prophets, others evangelists, others pastors and teachers. Let us be clear however on the role of each of these gifted people, their purpose within the community. That purpose is not to do all the work themselves, but rather, and I quote: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Now it is true that the list in Ephesians stops after naming just a few kinds of people, but the gifts don’t stop. A child needs a pastor, yes, but he or she needs so much more, and so those pastors are called to bring out the “more” that has been given to the village. God knows we need the people gifted as friends in our lives. The ones gifted as musicians. As social critics. As encouragers. As generous givers. We need those gifted as grandparents and as creative artists, and water quality experts. As defenders of animals. As first responders. As truth telling journalists. As protesters shouting from rooftops. As servant leaders. We need people gifted at making us laugh and cry. Gifted at helping us think and feel. Gifted at bringing silence and song. Each of you is gifted, and each of you is called to use those gifts in service of one another, to build up the body of Christ. You are our neighbors.
My friends, all of these gifts, and so many more, are needed if our children, if we, are to live into that divine profile we draw from this passage. All of it is needed because in a sense, what Ephesians 4 describes is not a perfect human being without flaws or without sins, but a person who has actually become human in the way God intended when we were created in the very image of God. What God wants for us is that we recognize the central and inescapable place of God in our lives, and for us to become whole and wholly human with that knowledge and truth. We are not called to transcend our humanity, but to live it fully and righteously, and in such a way that at least in our village, the news we watch and read isn’t full of stories of neglect and abandonment and abuse, but of joy and generosity and celebration.
We would be missing the point of the passage, however, if we limited our thinking to our own village. You see, in that mysterious part of the passage where it talks about Christ ascending and descending, about making captivity itself a captive, is the blurring of the borders of the villages of the world. We don’t know exactly what Jesus did when he “descended,” but we can be pretty sure that he was taking his message of healing and grace to some places that really, really needed to hear it, places of neglect, and abandonment and abuse, to places of death, to chaotic villages creating chaotic lives. As uncomfortable as it may be, we are called to go to the same places, to venture out of our own villages and into the places where we can, however imperfectly, make a difference for those children who suffer so much. The beauty of our village, and the strength of our body, is wasted if we never venture outside our own boundaries.
It may not be found in the Bible, but there is great truth in the saying that “while anyone is in chains, none of us are free.” Friends, the church of Jesus Christ must be in the chain breaking business, because it will not be fully free until everyone is fully human, until dignity and the knowledge of God are available to everyone. And all of this starts right here in this building, with the people you see around you, with the promises we make to the children we baptize, and with the exercise of the gifts God has given each one of us. Remember again the purpose of those gifts: “To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” What is the “full stature of Christ?” Well, it is nothing more or and nothing less than a human being so connected to God that he lived with no other concern than to realize God’s purposes and uplift other human beings. Imagine this world with an even incremental movement toward the full stature of Christ, and you can imagine clean rivers and breathable air. You can imagine healthy homes in lawful and orderly communities. You can imagine children knowing where they will sleep and not being afraid to spend the night there. You can imagine that their full creative energies are used to find new games to play with one another rather than new ways to bully. You can imagine grace freely extended and received.
You may dismiss me as naïve if you wish, and insist that the human condition will always keep us at one another’s throats, or stepping over one another to get ahead, but you will also have to dismiss Jesus Christ as naïve, and insist that the human condition is more powerful than God. I prefer to admire Jesus as the ultimate realist, and God as “above all and through all and in all,” and therefore quite capable of making the church fully free. But as is clear on every page of Scripture, including those we have read this morning, God has made us partners in that process by asking us to do our part: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” God doesn’t do it for us, but rather equips us for the task, and may God give us strength daily as we seek to be that village that raises a child to be full of humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing others in love…who knows to what God is calling him or her…who comes to the unity of faith, to the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, and to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Amen.