Monday, August 3, 2020

Name Change


Genesis 32:22-31
Proper 13 / Year A

In today’s first reading we hear one of the most intriguing stories in all of Scripture; the turning point in person’s life.  Until now he has been Jacob – a name which means the Supplanter.  From the moment he was born holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau, he has connived his way through life, trading for his brother’s birthright then stealing from their father the blessing intended for the first born; after which Jacob flees from his home for fear his brother will kill him.  He returns to the land of his ancestors and there meets and marries Rebekah, but not before being tricked into a union with her older sister. 

Now, years later, Jacob has prospered greatly and returns home.  He receives word Esau, with an army of 200 men, is coming to meet him… one would think to exact revenge.  On the night before their encounter, Jacob is alone when something or someone one attacks him.  They wrestle throughout the night, but neither prevails.  As dawn approaches the assailant injures Jacob, dislocating his hip.  Still, the Supplanter refuses to let go until he is given a blessing.  And the blessing he receives is this: his name is changed from Jacob to Israel, which means “one who has striven with God and humans and prevailed.”

Now, a new name may not seem like much of a blessing to us, but in that ancient Jewish culture it is hugely significant.  Hebrew is held to be the language God uses to create the world.  The 22 letters in its alphabet represent 22 different ways God’s power is manifested in the world.  The combination of letters used to make up any particular word is not arbitrary.  Each letter’s individual power combines with the other letters in a word in order to participate in the reality of what they describe.  The name gives the person or thing it’s essence and substance from God. 

Our word chair, for example, is completely arbitrary and has no impact on what it describes.  But in the Hebrew language the word for chair and the chair itself are inseparable.  The chair is a chair because it has been called a chair.  It can be nothing other than what it has been called.  The actual letters of the word chair, each describing a particular aspect of God’s life and energy, work together to create the thing that is a chair.

Now, Hebrew thought advances this thinking another step when it comes to names.  A person’s name is your life force directing everything about how your life unfolds.  In fact, they believe when a child is born a spirit of prophecy rests on the parents, enabling them to foresee the future by bestowing an appropriate name for who and what you will be.  Thus, Jacob was not just named the Supplanter, it is his life’s destiny.  He can be nothing other than what he is named.  Given this, the blessing of a new name is no small thing.  It represents a complete reorientation in his life and future.  As Israel, he is now a striver who prevails.  He is now on a new trajectory and God has remade him for a new purpose.

Vestiges of this thinking still remain in our culture.  Think about how a Cardinal takes on a new name once elected Pope.  The name he chooses in some way influences who he will be as pontiff.  Or think about the Washington Football Team, which has given up its name.  Whatever it decides to call itself will have an impact on shaping the core identity of its team and fans.  And think about the importance of a person’s name at baptism.  The act of Christening – a word which means Christ-ending names our identity from that moment forward as Christ’s own forever, as sure as any Christened ship is known by the name it receives when a bottle of Champaign strikes against its hull just prior to launching.

At some point in our 60’s or 70’s, many of us have the experience of being given a new name and a new identity.  The person who bestows this blessing is a grandchild, whose first attempt at naming us has a way of sticking.  You can live for six decades or more as Bill or Betty, but one day you become Nana or Pop-Pop and that is who you will be the rest of your days.  And your new name will come to signify you as new person, with a new purpose, new priorities, and a new perspective.

The blessing Jacob receives does not come easily.  After a lifetime of cheating and trickery he has finally made something of himself, but the means he uses and the people he hurts along the way come back to him.  In the morning Jacob will face his day of reckoning.  Still, for now, at night, in the wilderness, he is alone, perhaps for the first time since all those years ago when he laid down his head on a rock at Bethel and dreamed of a ladder ascending into heaven.  On that night Jacob made a vow: if God would watch over him on his journey, keep him clothed and fed, grant him prosperity, and bring him home safely, then he would take God as his God.  Now, on this night, all but the final condition has been met… and it seems highly unlikely his reunion with his brother will go well.

Then the wrestling begins.  As I said, it is not entirely clear who or want his assailant is.  Initially the text refers to a man.  Is it Esau, or one of his riders?  There are legends of river demons.  Is this a possibility?  Might Jacob be wrestling only with himself on this fitful night?  As the story unfolds, the assailant seems to be an angel.  After it is over, Jacob himself believes he has been grappling with God.  Perhaps the identity of the combatant is best left unanswered, because in the moment when all your failures and shortcomings come back to haunt you, we are wrestling with not just one opponent.  You struggle with those we have wronged, with your own demons, with yourself, and with God. 

The wrestling ends and Israel is blessed.  The image of him limping into the sunrise, ready to meet his brother, is one of the most poignant in all of Scripture.  It is a universally human moment in which many of us can imagine our own stories.  As Israel approaches Esau, the older brother dismounts and runs toward him.  The story turns beyond anything we might imagine because Esau comes not for vengeance, but mercy.  The two embrace and, for the first time in his life, Jacob – now Israel – receives something he did not have to cheat or scheme to get – forgiveness.  His life, along with his name, has changed.

Where do you see yourself in this story?  Are you now or were you once like Jacob – scratching and clawing your way through life, regardless of how your actions affected others?  Perhaps you identify with Jacob coming to his reckoning.  Or maybe you see your self in the assailant – you would love to get your hands on that one person who…  Or, maybe you see yourself in the assailant who wrestles but cannot prevail – and you simply had to let go and walk away.  Maybe you see yourself in Esau – one who was wronged and hurt by someone close, but over the years has found the grace to forgive and move forward in life.  Or maybe you see yourself in the limping, but forgiven, person of Israel – grateful for the blessing of a new beginning in life.  Wherever you see yourself in this story, never forget God is in the business of releasing the past and fostering new beginning, of guiding us to better futures as we leave behind our broken past.



Monday, July 27, 2020

God's Dream for All People




Proper 12 / Year A
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


What is heaven like?  Pop culture suggests people in heaven have bodies, wear white robes, float around on clouds, have wings and halos, and play the harp.  If you do an image search of heaven you will encounter colorful depictions with billowy clouds, rays of sunlight, steps ascending to a gate, and a crystal city – usually with a rainbow arched over it.

Scripture gives us much to ponder.  Jesus tells his followers he is going to prepare a mansion were each of them would have a room.  Paul mentions a time when he was caught up into the Third Heaven.  What this is we don’t know because he writes he is forbidden to talk about it.  John receives a revelation of the New Jerusalem; a heavenly city with no sun or moon (because God is its light), a place where there is no pain, no tears, and no death.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church teaches heaven is perfect union with God.  “It is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”  It also states “heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”  Our Catechism states “By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God.” 

Beyond what will it be like, I suspect the three most common questions about heaven are these:
· Who gets to be there and who doesn’t?  (our Catechism emphasizes eternal death comes from our rejection of God, so it follows eternal life comes from our desire to embrace God and be in God’s company)
· Will we know each other there?  Our spouses, grandparents, parents, children, siblings, friends. famous people…  Will we recognize them and “be” with them?  Can we talk with one another?  Embrace?  Laugh together?
· Will it be boring?  What will we do there beside sing “Holy, holy, holy”?

Our recent lectionary lessons have us reading what are known as “Kingdom Parables” where Jesus teaches us in stories whose introduction is “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”  As I did yard work yesterday I thought about this wisdom of assigning so many readings about weeds at this time of the year.  While the weeds at my house continue to thrive in this arid time, mercifully the parables about the kingdom are moving on from them… well, almost.

The Gospel of Matthew employs the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ 32 times.  The other three gospels never use it, opting rather for the expression ‘Kingdom of God,’ which appears 72 times.  For our purposes they mean essentially the same thing… Jesus’ vision of God supreme reign over all creation and the possibility each of us has to invite God to rule in our hearts.  Jesus announces the Kingdom of Heaven is already here even though we know God’s will is not completely sovereign in the world or in our lives.  Nonetheless, it is here.

I speak of the Kingdom of God as being God’s dream for all people.  It is a dream coming into clearer focus as God’s faithful people pursue it. 

Those of you who have joined us for the daily offices in recent days have heard what are referred to as “Conquest Stories” – God’s people entering the land of Canaan and slaughtering one city or village after another… at God’s command… and on occasion enslaving prisoners… again at God’s command.  Today we would say God’s dream for all people includes neither genocide nor slavery, so it is difficult to look back on these stories and make sense of them.  That doesn’t stop some people from trying.  I don’t.  I simply say we now understand this is not a part of God’s dream for all people.

So what exactly is God’s dream for all people?  Defining it is the work of a lifetime.  Some point to the prophet Micah who wrote, “What does the Lord require of you, o mortal ones, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).  This is as good a place to start as any and one thing is sure… in pursing God’s dream there is no place to stop until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

This morning we hear five short parables, each describing something of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. 

It is like a mustard seed – one of the smallest of all seeds – which, once planted, becomes a large tree.  God’s dream – or at least a specific part of it – can begin as something seemingly inconsequential that eventually takes on a life of its own.  Remember I said we weren’t quite out of the weeds yet… well, the mustard plant is a weed almost impossible to eradicate once it becomes established.  God’s dream for all people can be like this… unwelcomed, unwanted, and unstoppable.  God’s dream can be disruptive to the way things are and to the way we have always thought God wanted them to be.  Eventually, the new dream takes hold and takes over.

God’s dream can also be like a woman who adds a pinch of yeast to a lump of dough.  The yeast will enliven and energize everything about the dough, making it more full and more satisfying than before.  God’s dream works in and through all things.

Jesus compares God’s dream for all people to something incredibly valuable.  One person stumbles upon it by accident and does everything within his power to make it his own dream.  Another person has been searching for it all his life, and once finding it abandons everything to pursue it.  Jesus’ twelve disciples walked one of these two paths.  Some were spiritual seekers and followers of John the Baptist, but left him in order to follow Jesus.  Others we minding their own business or doing their jobs when Jesus invited them to follow.  God’s dream for all people can catch us in either way.

And speaking of catching, God’s dream is like a net thrown into the sea which catches a lot of fish.  Some are keepers and some are not.  God’s dream is a huge vision and it is for all people, although not all people will want to embrace it.

Notice how each of these brief parables involves a person doing something.  A sower planting a seed.  A woman baking bread.  A person of a journey.  A searching merchant.  Fishermen.  The point is the Kingdom of Heaven – God’s dream for all people – is nothing without people like you and me.  We participate in making the dream a reality because we carry it inside us and like the yeast we let it infuse everything about our lives and relationships.  Like the sower we believe even our small efforts can make a huge difference.  Like the fishermen, we cast our nets far and wide.  And like the person who discovered a hidden treasure or like the merchant who finally finds the object of his search, we believe the most valuable, most meaningful, and most satisfying thing we can have in life is God’s dream for all people alive in us.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Whole You


Psalm 139
Proper 11 / Year A


“Lord, you have searched me out and known me.”
Thus begins the fabulous 139th psalm; which declares faith in God’s unfailing and unflagging presence in our lives.  Adam, who after his initial transgression attempts to hide from God, serves as the psalm’s opposite.  From the psalmist’s perspective, there is nowhere one can escape from God.  He or she perceives God is present wherever we are and sees right through us.  And unlike Adam, the psalmist senses there is no need to hide.  He or she thinks of this as good news, as a blessing.
I wonder how we receive it.  Don’t we prefer a God who stays away until called upon?  When we need God we want God to be there to do our bidding.  When we don’t need God, we’d rather be left to our own devices and desires.  And the last thing we want is to allow God into the totality of our being, where lurks more than we are comfortable sharing with others, let alone even acknowledging to ourselves. 
I identify with the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading.  I am like a fine field in which God has sown good seed.  I have been so very blessed in life.  I was born into a stable family during a time of American prosperity.  I have been educated, relatively healthy, and never once lacked for the basic necessities of life.  All in all, I’d say my life has given me many, many advantages to be a pretty good field.  There is no reason I should not be producing bountiful goodness and blessings.  And I am.
But there is something else happening in the field that is me.  Things grow and prosper that should not be there; things that are harmful, hateful, destructive, selfish.  Weeds thrive in the field that is me and I certainly don’t want you to see it and I don’t want God to see it either. 
Have you ever done group work with the Jahari Window?  Developed by two psychologists, it is a tool designed to help people understand who they based on self-perceptions and the perceptions of others.  (There is an image of the Jahari Window on page 6 of today’s bulletin).  It uses two criteria: What others know and don’t know about us and what we know and don’t know about ourselves. 
Participants in the exercise write down a series of adjectives describing themselves and then make a list of adjectives describing each of the other participants.  So, if you describe yourself as tall and others do the same, this word gets put into the box called the arena.  This box contains those things open and public about you.  Next, there are the adjectives you write about yourself, but others do not.  For example, if you don’t know we well you may not know I am an introvert.  It is something I have to tell you about myself in order for you to know.  The things I know about me but you don’t, are grouped in a box labeled façade.  Next, there are adjectives others use to describe you, but you don’t’ use to describe yourself.  For example, others may say you are funny or kind, but you don’t see yourself in this way.  These things go into a box labeled blind spot.  The only way for you to know these things about yourself is for someone to share it with you.  And finally, there are things you don’t know about yourself and neither does anyone else.  This is the unknown, but it is still a part of who we are and influences how we operate.
When we say the Lord knows us, we are affirming God knows everything about us – the arena stuff, the façade stuff, the blind spot stuff, and even the unknown stuff.  And this truth would be absolutely terrifying if not for one thing… the God who sees us loves us through and through without hesitation; without reservation.
How do I know this?  Well, look no further than this morning’s reading from the Book of Genesis.  Jacob has stolen his older brother Esau’s birthright and tricked his father into giving him the blessing belonging to his brother.  Esau understandably vows revenge and when their father dies Jacob realizes he must flee or be killed.  He moves fast and far, covering over 40 miles of the wilderness in one day.  One might think he would use this time to reflect on his life and amend his ways, but not Jacob.  He remains ever the schemer. 
Up until this point in his life, Jacob has demonstrated no perceivable act of faith.  He has not prayed, not sacrificed, not fasted, not tithed.  Neither has he engaged in a single recorded moral act of kindness or integrity.  Still, on this night, using a stone as a pillow, he falls asleep and dreams of a ladder or stairway extending up to the heavens.  A voice addresses him: “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac” – Jacob’s grandfather and father.  Notice the Lord does not say “I am the God of Jacob” because Jacob has yet to bind himself to God.  And yet the God Jacob does not claim promises him protection, prosperity, offspring, and future ownership of the land on which he sleeps. 
When Jacob wakes he sets up a stone pillar and calls the place Bethel, which means “House of God”.  He then makes a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey I am taking and if God will give me food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return safely to me father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.”  This is not a confession of faith.  It is a negotiation; more ultimatum than obedience, more trial and testing than interest in relationship.  Jacob’s response to God amounts to little more than “What is in it for me?” 
How could God be even remotely interested in such a person?  Jacob is a whole lot of weeds and not a lot of wheat.  He hides much and is blind to a great deal about himself.  God sees it all and yet still loves him.  God loves Jacob unconditionally and will work to make him to be a fruitful and productive field.
Faith in this is why the psalmist can pray to God saying…
Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and know my restless thoughts.
Look well whether there be any wickedness in me;
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.
The psalmist is not bragging arrogantly in his or her own goodness, innocence, and purity.  Rather, the psalmist is confessing a faith in God’s unconditional love:
No matter what I do – be it ever so it vile –
No matter where I go – be it ever so foolish –
You will remain with me.
There is nothing – nothing – I can do
to make you forsake me.
Yes, I can do much damage in life –
intentionally and unintentionally,
in thought, word, and deed –
but you, O God, never abandon me.
In essence, he or she is saying if God can love Jacob than God can love me.  I don’t have to hide a single thing about myself from God.  I have a harvest and I have weeds and God knows it altogether.  How can God love me?  Welcome me?  Embrace me?  Grace truly is amazing and I will claim its reality every day of my life!



Monday, July 13, 2020

New Seed / Different Harvest



Proper 10 / Year A
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Seeds is surely one of his best known stories.  I like to think of the various soil conditions as not being reflective of different types of people – some being influenced by the evil one, others being unable to stand tall and stay true under pressure, and still others being so caught up by the cares of life they are unable to contribute much, while there are some whose receptivity marks their lives with fruitfulness and abundance.  Rather than consigning each individual person to one of these four types, I recognize how each soil condition is a part of my own make-up.  There are parts of me the evil one works on.  There are parts of me that withers under duress.   There are parts of me too preoccupied with “stuff” – both material and emotional.  And there are parts of me that are faithful and productive.  I suspect you can see the same in yourself.

Think about the farmland Jesus describes in his story. In terms of the categories of soil, fully 75% (three out of four) are bad.  Only 25% is as it should be.  But this is only in terms of categories.  In terms of actual acreage, most likely 95% of the soil will receive the seed and produce a rich harvest.  Only a small percentage will be lost to scavengers, rocks, and weeds.  And if we are like the soil, this means most of us do much more good than harm.  We give to life more than we take.  We are marked more by faithfulness than by failure.

In Jesus’ story, he is the sower, we are the soil, and the seed is what he gives to us.  It tells us each of us is full of potential.  The question is what happens to the seeds scattered on you?  How does it fall on you, turn into grain, and become a harvest?  And who benefits from the harvest produced by your diligence?  These questions are not easy to answer in normal times, but in these days the answers feel even more elusive than ever. 

Today is what some of my colleagues are calling the 18th Sunday in Coronatide.  We are isolated and many of us are alone.  Most of our long established ways of contributing to the common good are not now possible.  We sense we are less productive, less fruitful, and less aware of all God makes possible in and through us.  We are more on edge, more confused, and more frustrated.

Yet somehow, God is still God and Jesus is still sowing seeds, and we still are farmable.  Yes, these difficult times have beaten us down.  Yes, we are not at our best.  And yes, the weeds of our cares and concerns are taking root and spreading.  But there is still much about us open to God’s gifts and much about us remains capable of producing something good, even in these times.

A recent survey learned 75% of employees feel overwhelmed and significantly less productive due to working from home and pandemic-related concerns.  We are having a harder time focusing, distractions abound, and worrying about things beyond our control is draining our emotional energy.  We have made bread and finished projects around the house and face-timed with family and friends all over the country.  We have done everything we can think of to stay busy and distracted, yet things are not getting better and our patience is wearing as thin as our motivation.  We just don’t feel like we are making progress and we are tired of feeling unproductive.

Peter Bregman’s father passed away recently.  Upon reflection he began to notice the grief he is experiencing at a very personal level is not so different from what all of us are experiencing in this time of pandemic, economic collapse, and cries for sweeping change in our society.  Bregman writes about his insight in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review:

I find myself a little lost.  I’m scattered.  Unfocused.  Struggling to be productive.  To move forward on anything in a meaningful way…  I really don’t like feeling all this.  It makes me anxious.

My instinctive drive to push past it kicks in.  To plan a to-do list and schedule my way to productivity and achievement and forward progress.   
That, I know how to do.  It’s my comfort during uncertainty.

But I also have an opposing impulse, a quieter voice, one that feels deeper, more profound, and even scarier: Stay unproductive.

At least for a little while.  Feel the sadness, the loss, the change.  Sink into the discomfort of not moving forward, not getting things done.  In a strange way, not progressing may be its own form of productivity.  Something fruitful is happening, we’re just not controlling it.

In this moment, being unproductive seems important.  I think it’s what I must feel — maybe what we must feel — to allow for growth.  To allow ourselves to pause in the liminal space, to linger with a question that this moment begs us to ask:

How can I allow myself to be changed?

Not, how should I change.  Or how must I change to keep up with a changing world.  And certainly not, how can I not change and preserve the way things have always been…

Can you allow this change in your world — deeply personal and vastly global — to wash over you, shift your worldview, change you?  Not with your discipline or drive, not from a self-directed, strategic, goal-oriented place, but from a place of openness and vulnerability.  Not from willfulness but from willingness.

And in that pause and openness and vulnerability, can you listen — without defense — to the voices you hear and the nudges you feel?  Can you find the emotional courage to follow your inklings, step by step, toward what, even just maybe, feels right?

I hear in this something of today’s parable.  We are in a time unlike any other in our collective lives.   We cannot produce nearly as much of what we used to create, if we can produce it at all.  We just can’t.  And this wears on us.  It erodes our reserves and stresses our ability to be true to how we want to be judged by God, our fellows, and ourselves.   

Since living with you in Suffolk I have observed something of the rhythms of the planting seasons.  Corn is seeded starting in mid-spring, but not all at once.  The planting season is spread out so a harvest will begin in June and extend into the fall.  When autumn comes a different seed is sown – winter wheat.  As its name suggests, it does well in a cooler season, a time not conducive to corn.  Once winter wheat is harvested, seeding corn or some other crop begins again.  And then there are those seasons when, at the farmer’s discretion, nothing is planted at all because the planter recognizes the need to allow the land to rest.

Bregman writes:

We all need emotional courage because being willing to be changed means we must accept and admit that we are not in control and we don’t know.  Two things many of us spend our lives scrambling and acquiring and competing and succeeding and workaholic-ing to avoid admitting.  It’s disorienting to let go.  To realize — to admit — that our control is really only a sense of control.

All of this is to say the Sower is still sowing, but it is not the same seed as before.  The season of Coronatide will not allow for it.  So God, in divine wisdom, is sowing a different seed in our lives.  And, for some of us, God is simply allowing us to be quiet for a time, allowing us to pause, to reflect, to discern, and to rejuvenate for a day to come. 

What new seed do you sense God is scattering in the field of your life?  What might this new and different harvest look like?  How will it bless you while serving others?  Where are you feeling attacked, under pressure, and emotionally disabled, the soil conditions Jesus describes in his story?  What will you do to open up more of the soil that is you to be the person you long to be in these times?

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Bible's First Prayer



Proper 9 / Year A
Genesis 24:34ff


What is the first prayer you ever said?  While I don’t remember the exact moment, I am sure it was either at the dinner table - “God is great.  God is good.  Let us thank him for our food” – or going to bed – “Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”  I suspect I am not the only person whose life a prayer began in this way.

While one of these two may have been our initial prayer, neither is the first prayer recorded in the bible.  Surprisingly this event does not appear in the text until the 24th chapter of Genesis.  Up until now, God appears on the scene and initiates conversation with a specific human being.  The person may or may not respond, but the response does not constitute a prayer.  It is either an answer to a question or part of a dialogue. 

Equally as surprising, the bible’s first recorded prayer is not offered by one of its main figures – not Adam or Noah or Abraham.  In fact, the person who offers the first prayer in the bible is not even named.  He is identified only as Abraham’s servant.  This trusted helper is given the task to return to Abraham’s ancestral homeland to find a suitable wife for Isaac (you may recall I mentioned in last week’s sermon it is curious Isaac himself does not make this journey or participate in the process). 

When the servant arrives at the village of Abraham’s birth, he rests at the town’s well and prays:

Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
As soon as the prayer is finished, Rebekah appears and the rest is history.
The prayer contains several oddities.  One is its specificity.  There are many other ways to identify a bride-to-be… a light, an inner voice, or some other kind of sign.  The plan of the prayer has a lot of moving parts and hardly seems like a process God would propose.

Notice how the servant identifies himself to God.  He addresses the prayer to the God of Abraham and he describes Isaac as God’s servant.  In the mind of the person praying, each possesses a special relationship with God; one which he himself seems not to enjoy.  He never describes himself in relationship to God, only to his master… Abraham.  
     
The opening address in the prayer tells us much: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham”.  The Hebrew word translated here as O Lord is “El Shaddai”, which literally means “God of the mountain.”  It carries a sense of greatness and power and most often is translated as “Almighty God”.  In the polytheistic world religions of the ancient middle east, this would be the greatest of the gods – powerful, aloof, to be feared, and certainly not to be bothered with trifling matters like who says what to whom at a well. 

But the servant does not end his address to God with El Shaddai, he adds to it “God of my master Abraham.”  Again, in middle-eastern religions, there were the big gods who had control over things like the skies, fertility, and natural disasters and then there were personal gods whose interests were more focused on a specific individual, family, or clan.  The role these gods played in a person’s life was more like what we think of as a guardian angel.  To pray to the god of person X or the god of person Y was to entreaty a household god who was engaged with the day-to-day operations of the family.  In polytheistic thinking, El Shaddai would not be concerned with identifying a suitable wife for Isaac, but the God of Abraham would be.  

So, in this first prayer in the bible, offered by an unnamed servant, we find something truly revolutionary.  This person has come to see and sense how the Almighty God is intimately involved in the personal affairs of his master.  Now, this may not seem ground breaking to us today.  We pray to God for any number of very personal and at times trivial matters.  Abraham’s servant is the first person in the bible to recognize these two distinct functions of ancient middle-eastern gods are in fact part of the makeup and personality of the one true God. 

In this morning’s gospel reading we hear an invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
These words are rooted in the personal nature of God’s Being.  We live in wearying times and we are carrying heavy burdens.  Our Lord is concerned with our welfare.  Our Lord knows our need.  And our Lord offers help and comfort. El Shaddai – the Mighty One – listens intently to every prayer, even “God is great, God is good” and “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  And this great God and our God invites us to a place of rest and ease.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Flaws of the Faithful


The Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer

Proper 8 / Year A
Genesis 22:1-14


The problem with history is (as we are seeing anew) if you look closely enough at the life of any person deemed to be a ‘hero’ you are going to find some flaws.  Some defects are so deep and pervasive as to disqualify a person from being an example to follow.  Other blemishes are more reflective of the times a person lives in.  These only become problematic as a new age with different values looks back on the past and condemns a person for little more than being a product of his/her times. 

Did you see the recent documentary chronicling the summer Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa competed to break baseball’s single season home run record?  At the time they were lauded for saving the sport as well as lifting up the American spirit.  But then it came to light their feats were fueled by the use of illegal steroids and their achievements were called into question.  Did their cheating invalidate their records and shame them or were they merely emblematic of what was happening on a grand scale in baseball at the time?  If you look closely enough at any hero you will find something not to like.

In recent weeks our Sunday Lectionary has us reading the stories of Abraham’s life.  He is credited with being the founder of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  St. Paul’s considers him to be an exemplary figure deemed by God to be righteous on account of his faith.  And yet the more we read of him, the more we wonder about his apparent lapses and indiscretions.

Abraham’s story begins in Genesis 12 when the Lord appears to him and tells him to leave his native home to go forth to land God will give to him.  The command includes the promises God will make of Abraham a great nation, his name will be great, and he will be a blessing to all people.  Abraham obeys, but is silent.  When he comes to the land God shows him, he finds it is ruled by the Canaanites.  He builds an altar, makes a sacrifice to the Lord, and settles here.  Then his flaws begin to show.

At the onset of a famine, Abraham abandons the land God promises and goes to Egypt.  Fearing he will be killed because his wife is beautiful, he instructs her to pretend they are brother and sister.  Abraham offers to the Pharaoh the women through whom he is to procreate a great nation.  Back in Canaan, Abraham has to go to war against four kings in order to save his nephew Lot.  Only after he is victorious does God promise to “shield” Abraham from harm.  Now he speaks: “What good is your protection if I do not have an heir?”  Again God promises fertility and again Abraham’s response is silence.

Last Sunday’s reading comes next in the story.  You remember how Abraham’s wife offers her slave Hagar to him.  She conceives and gives birth to Ishmael.  This arrangement rings neither of righteousness nor feels like an act of faith. 

Thirteen years pass.  Abraham is now 99 years old and God has promised him five different times over the years and years of his life he will be the father of a great nation.  His response now is to fall on his face and laugh.  When his wife hears God’s messengers promise she will have a child within a year, she too laughs.  But finally the promise comes to pass and Isaac is born.

In my reading of the text – and I may be wrong here and have no scholarship to support my view – I suspect something is less than perfect about Isaac.  Given his parents are elderly when he is born, is it possible he has a disability?  We know today there is a connection between Downs-Syndrome and the age of the parents at birth.  Is it possible Isaac is born with Downs?

The first evidence I see comes from last Sunday’s reading.  Do you remember how Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, is observed mocking him?  Could this be a sign Isaac has a mental or physical disability?  When it is time for Isaac to marry, Abraham sends a servant back to his homeland to find a suitable bride.  Why does Isaac not go himself?  When the servant returns with Rebekah, she seems less than overwhelmed when she first meets her future husband.  Why?  What about his appearance is not what she imaged?  For Isaac’s part, he has been in mourning over the death of his mother and it is only after marrying Rebekah that he is comforted in his loss.  In his old age, Isaac will be duped by his son Jacob into thinking he is in fact Esau, Isaac’s other son. 

I suggest there is enough evidence in the biblical record to make my theory a possibility.  And if Isaac is in some way disabled, it sheds an interesting light on today’s reading. 

The Binding of Isaac is perhaps the most perplexing story in the entire bible.  Some make sense of it by trying to sanitize it: Abraham knew all along God would intervene and God knew all along Abraham would act in faith.  But if this is the case the story is drained of all of its drama and power.  Why even tell it if the whole episode is merely an exercise of going through the motions?  And if it is so straight-forward, how do we account for the fact it is never referenced anywhere else in the Old Testament?  The prophets don’t speak of it.  The psalm writers don’t include it in their songs of God’s presence in the lives of God’s people.  Moses does not reference it as a part of the story of deliverance.  Why?  Because it is a story so confounding no one knows quite what to make of it.

The text states clearly “God tested Abraham.”  And when God is satisfied Abraham has passed the test, the Lord says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  Is God trying only to determine whom Abraham cares about more… God or Isaac, his son?  Can God really be this jealous and petty?  Is this actually a test only about of priorities?

Or, if I am correct in my assumption about Isaac, is it possible the real test here is to see if Abraham believes God’s promise can be fulfilled through a physically and/or mentally challenged son?  It makes sense to me Abraham would wonder how his offspring will be as numerous as the stars if Isaac does not seem up to the task.  Is the question Abraham faces this: can God do something wonderful through a person who seems to be less than perfect?

There is so much to explore in this lean account.  I am always drawn to two things happening just as Abraham, armed cocked with knife in hand, dominates Isaac.  First, God speaks.  Always in the moment of our deepest need the Lord is present and the Lord reaches out to us; calling us to pause, to pray, to reflect, to be open to something – anything – from beyond.  And second, Abraham looks up.  Completely absorbed, and totally caught in what we might call tunnel vision, he breaks free of the moment, looks up, and in doing so sees what God provides. 

And do not underestimate the faith it takes to see God’s provision in the presence of the ram.  Abraham can easily push on with the task of sacrificing his son, being ever faithful and diligent to his initial interpretation of God’s will.  But in this most critical moment – in this moment where the stakes are so incredibly high – he is able to discern God working in a new way.  Just as he was able (in last week’s reading) to hear God’s promise to deliver Hagar and Ishmael, so too does he remain open to God’s working in a new and unexpected way through Isaac. 

In the end, I suspect this is why Abraham is remembered for his faith.  Yes, he is the first person to discern the nature of one true God.  Yes, he is willing to go.  Yes, he is willing to hope.  But he is also ever the pragmatist, weighing what God promises against the evidence of everyday life.  But somehow, through it all, there is something in him that looks like faith.

If you look closely enough at any hero you will find a flaw.  Since this is true, it follows if you look closely at your friends, your co-workers, your spouse, your family members, even your priest, you will find flaws!  And if you look closely enough at yourself, you will find what we find in Abraham.  And yet the bible elects not to define him by his flaws, but by his faith.  How do you look past the flaws of those you love to see their faith?  How do you look past the shortcomings of your friends and associates in order to celebrate their unique gifts and contributions?  How do you look honestly at yourself and acknowledge the sinner without ever dismissing or diminishing the child of God you are called to be?