Can I Worship This God?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on June 29th, 2014
The third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year A

If the Akedah, the story of the Binding of Isaac, were the only story we had to tell us about God, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be here.  I could not worship that kind of God.  And I have to admit, that this morning, it’s really tempting to just rush right past that story and go straight to the gospel and preach about hospitality.

Fortunately, it’s not the only story we have about God.  In this long season of ordinary time, the season after Pentecost, we will hear the rich foundational stories of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Over the next four months or so, we will spend Sunday after Sunday, hearing the stories from Genesis and Exodus.  The stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel; the stories of Joseph and Moses in Egypt, and the long journey of the Hebrews through the desert to the promised land.  These are stories of Call and Promise and Covenant; of Testing and Providence and Fear of the Lord.

It started on Trinity Sunday when we heard, again, the story of Creation, told in the first chapter of Genesis; a creation that God declared was “very good.”  Then, because Easter was so late this year we missed a few episodes and landed in the middle of the story, last week, when Hagar and her son, Ishmael (who is Abraham’s first-born son) are sent out to the wilderness –possibly to die.  But God stepped in and provided water; God gave them life.

Today’s episode begins “After these things…”  which of course raises the question, “which things?”  Well, it’s after God called Abraham to leave his home and his family to take his wife and his household to “a land which I will show you.”

And after God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising land and offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach.  And after Abraham is again promised a son in his old age, even though his wife is long past her child-bearing years.  And after he has a son by his wife’s Egyptian slave, Hagar.  And after Sarah finally, when she is 90 years old and Abraham is 100,  bears a son, whom she names Isaac, which means laughter.  And after he sends Hagar and her son away.

That’s the last thing we saw, Abraham lost his first son.  Some time has passed, though. Then, Isaac had just been weaned; now he’s big enough to walk a journey of several days and to carry the wood for a sacrifice, although the text doesn’t say how old he is.

And now, God demands still more of Abraham.  The story raises a lot of questions in my mind.  Was it really God?  Why didn’t Abraham argue?  What did he say to Sarah – anything?

Why was God testing him?  Did he fail?

As with any good story, there are many, many ways to look at it and there may be many messages that we can take away.  The storyteller chooses how to tell the story; what details to include, what to leave to the hearer’s imagination.  And those who hear the story through the ages bring their own experience and values to the story as well.

As horrific as it is, this story is preserved in all three of the Abrahamic faith traditions – with some variation in detail; and variation in interpretation.

Christians often identify Isaac as prefiguring Jesus’ crucifixion.  Muslims often focus on Abraham’s absolute obedience and submission to the will of God.  (In their telling, it is Ishmael who is offered to God.)  Depending on how old and strong and healthy each is relative to the other, one might make the argument that it is the son who demonstrates absolute obedience.  After all, he has the most to lose and may very well be capable of overpowering his father.  In Judaism, the focus is often on God.  God provides – a refrain that is repeated throughout the story.

What we might take away from this story, this time is that whether or not it was God who commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; whether or not Abraham was crazy or hearing voices; whether or not he should have “discerned in community” as we Anglicans would advise; whether or not it actually even happened…  the story tells us that God averts the disaster and provides another way.

In our vulnerability, God provides.

God’s providence in our vulnerability is central to today’s gospel reading as well.  We come in at the conclusion of Jesus’ sending the twelve out to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are to take nothing with them – no money, no staff, no sandals, not even a change of clothes.  He warns them that they may face persecution and revilement; they will be like sheep among wolves.  But he also gives them good work to do and good news to proclaim.

They are to go out and be vulnerable.  They are to be dependent upon the hospitality of strangers because their survival will depend on it.  As one commenter put it, they are to go out and learn to be a guest, trusting that in their vulnerability, God will provide.

Hospitality is much deeper than courtesy or good manners.  There is a mutual vulnerability in it – both the host and the guest are vulnerable; there is risk.  Hospitality demands that each be open to the other as Other and to being transformed in the encounter.  And in that open, vulnerable, transforming encounter, the gospel is broken open and proclaimed; the Kingdom of Heaven comes near.

In her book, Take this Bread, Sara Miles writes,

[Christianity] doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life.  And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s.

The disciples are sent out not only to proclaim the gospel, but to discover it and be transformed by it.

Imagine what that might look like in our life; in the life of Christ Church.  Not only to welcome the stranger as Other, but to go out and be the stranger, be dependent and vulnerable, open to transformation, trusting that God will provide.  I wonder what we might discover about the gospel; about God.

You see, ultimately, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, the disciples, you, me, all of us, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we trust it or not – we are utterly dependent upon God.  The Good News is that in the midst of our vulnerable dependence, God faithfully provides.