Saturday, 28 June 2008

Avoiding the texts

This is the last time I will preach in my current charge - and the lectionary was particularly unhelpful. However, I decided to stick with the readings for the day.

Readings: Matthew 10: 34-42; Genesis 22: 1-14
A few years ago we went to New York, to visit one of our friends who was studying nearby at Princeton University – the same friend whose church I preached in this April in Virginia. The university campus at Princeton was very pretty, even in the cold of January and I loved taking in the story – with a few Scottish connections - and the history as well as the sights of the area. Behind the University chapel in Princeton is a sculpture, done by George Segal. It depicts Abraham and Isaac and is pretty stark, done in bronze with Abraham coming across as a very menacing father towering over his son.
This week, I discovered a bit more about that sculpture. It was composed to commemorate a dreadful event in the history of America – the Kent State massacre, when 4 students were killed and others were injured when the National Guard opened fire on students demonstrating against the war in Cambodia in 1970– as I said a dreadful event in American history.
George Segal cast the sculpture of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, but the sculpture never made it to Ohio where the killings took place because the state governor there deemed it too controversial. And so, it found its way to Princeton. It is a pretty stark and brutal composition.
As is our reading this morning.
This is a reading that many preachers avoid because of its starkness and its brutality. What can we possibly say to somehow redeem this text and interpret it for our 21st century lives – should we even try?
I don’t believe that the bible needs – or merits our defense. That doesn’t excuse us from engaging with the text, from wrestling with the more difficult bits. But there are some parts of the bible that are simply beyond our skills of redemption, beyond our gifts of interpretation. Perhaps this text today is one of those.
I’ve enjoyed discussions this week on various aspects of this reading. Is it merely a story told and told and told again in the oral tradition to draw folk away from the ancient practice of child sacrifice – part of the culture of the day? Is it leading folk away from that ancient ritual to a worship that is more human, based around a loving, interactive God? That’s one possibility for interpretation.
Or - is this text about obedience? Above all, Abraham was obedient to God, went the whole road, really was prepared to sacrifice his only son, and so was rewarded for his obedience.
Or - Is it about testing? God tested Abraham to the max before fulfilling the promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation.
None of these propositions, however, speaks to me about a God I particularly want to know. A God who would demand such obedience, a God who would push us to the limit in testing us and yet I know that there are many folk who have known such testing, who have practiced such obedience and for whom this text makes a lot of sense. Folk pushed to the limit finding God right there – at the limit. And its then that, just maybe, the text begins to speak to me. Of a God who is to be found right at the end of the road, at the furthest boundaries, when the envelope simply can’t be pushed any further – that’s the kind of God in whom I want to trust. Not one who makes ridiculous demands of obedience, though God might well. Not a God who tests us to the limit. But a God who is to be found in the extremities of life, a God who is standing by, waiting to be invited to bail us out, a God whom sometimes we can only see in those end places, in those extreme moments.
That kind of God makes sense to me.
That’s the kind of God I see emerging from this text.
Of course we all cast God in the image that we want God to be. The kind of God we need God to be.
And what is clear throughout the stories of Abraham in the Old Testament is that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God unlike any other ever known. A God who demands a different kind of relationship. A God who is involved with creation – intimately involved, not just from a distance.
And sometimes, in a difficult text like the one we read this morning we can lose sight of that intimate God, the God who is closer than we think.The God who surrounds us with love in our everyday and in our extremities.
How often do we recognize that God or acknowledge that God in our everyday?
And how often do we mirror that God?
Mirror a God who cares so much for creation that God weeps with sorrow and with joy at the sorrows and triumphs of folk like you and me.
God, so often is to be found in the places we least expect and in the people we so easily overlook.
I’m not sure I like the way of Abraham’s obedience in this text. And maybe that’s just because I wouldn’t have the kind of trust that he had – he seemed to know that God wouldn’t really let him go through with killing his son – but I wouldn’t have taken that chance on God.
And so I have trouble identifying with Abraham’s blind faith and unstinting obedience.
But, you know, I think that that is a weakness that God fairly easily forgives.
I feel sure that God honours those who at least try to make a difference rather than those who bury their heads in the sand and just hope that everything will turn out OK in the end.
Faith tells us that God will prevail, but common sense tells us that we can’t just sit back and wait for it all to happen.
I was involved in a conversation with a colleague this week about a church that is tearing itself apart just now. Tearing itself apart because some folk want to express their worship of God in one way and others want to express their worship very differently. And neither group can see a way to exist together.
So, while the outward signs are of a healthy worshipping congregation, underneath are struggles that cannot be resolved unless hearts and minds are changed.
And, while there is wonderful faithfulness to bible study and to prayer, with some folks involved in several meetings every week, hearts are lacking in love and that faithfulness is not being lived out in daily life.
Remember a couple of weeks ago – when Jesus was asking his disciples to pray for more helpers for the work of the kingdom? The gospel tells us that no sooner were the prayers said than they were answered?
By those same disciples who had offered the prayers realizing that they could be the means of answering their own prayers – that they could take up the challenge to go and grow the kingdom.
That they could roll up their sleeves and spread the love of God where they were.
Too many of our churches today would rather pray for revival than effect it.
Its so much easier to gather in holy huddles than get off our knees and make a difference.
We look at the task before us and we’re put off by the size of the challenge and give in before we even get started.
We assume we can’t make much difference, so why bother trying.
And yet today’s gospel tells us that it’s the little things that make a difference.
The cup of cold water offered to “one of these little ones:”
The hospitality that costs us little.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” .
This hospitality of which Jesus speaks is one of the signs of the kingdom. Where we see hospitality practiced, its not just a sign of good manners, it’s a sign that the gospel is being lived out.
We’d probably all be quick to claim that we are well mannered, that we know how to treat folk, but the question Jesus raises for us in the gospel today is: do you really?
Do you really know what it is to practice hospitality – especially hospitality to those sent as servants of God?
The history of the church is full of stories of those bringing the word of God being mis treated.
From the Old Testament prophets, who were hounded out for daring to speak God’s message – to the Son of God being crucified for preaching good news.
And, you know what – nothing has changed.
There are communities today who still do not know how to give that cup of cold water, or extend that hand of friendship.
Folk who shoot the messenger, because they simply do not want to hear the message.
Because that message challenges them.
The word of God makes demands on them that they simply do not want to hear.
So they switch off.
If you don’t want to deal with something, just close your ears.
But, then that switching off is not enough – because the irritant is still there.
So they begin to persecute God’s servant.
In order to avoid the challenge presented they simply work away at dispensing with the challenger.
“Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me. If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet. And if you receive righteous people because of their righteousness, you will be given a reward like theirs. And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”

This is not just a cosy statement by which we in the church can be comforted when we think we’ve done our duty.
It is a radical, challenging, demanding call for us to practise the kind of hospitality that may mean we are dragged out of our comfort zones, but the kind of hospitality that ensures that the signs of the kingdom are all around us.
Until we can put those words into action, until we can welcome God’s words and God’s messengers and allow them to mess with our comfortable lives, we might as well just stick our heads back into the sand.
There’s no room for change when the basics are missing.
Our readings today – brutal, stark, hard to make sense of.
But, all the more challenging for being so.
All the harder to put into practice.
The question is – do we really want to be hospitable – or do we simply prefer our holy huddles?
Today’s texts – Maybe texts we’d rather avoid.
But if we’re prepared to engage with those texts and be changed by their message – the Kingdom of God is near.
God be with us in our hearing and our understanding and give us the will to put into practice the values of the kingdom. To God be the glory.


Songbird said...

Blessings as you preach this sermon full of strength and truth!

cheesehead said...

"Holy huddles".

That'll preach, sister!

liz said...

You guys are phenomenal - just what a preacher needs on a wobbly Saturday night. Cheers!

She Rev said...

Wonderful. Wonderful word to preach!