What If?

Let me start by saying I really enjoy the church our family attends.  By the standards of the churches we’ve attended in the past or for that matter served on staff, this is a rather small church.  Small seems like such a insignificant description of the church for it’s reach is anything but that.  The touch this lovely little church in the valley has is quite mind-blowing when one considers the various involvements.  This is a global church making a big difference.

What attracted us to this church was the pastor, Bob Prim.  He is so unlike any man of the cloth I’ve ever encountered.  A humble, soft-spoken, educated and compassionate man who excels at making community and making outsiders feel right at home.  Seldom does a Sunday go by that I don’t leave the service in silence as I consider the message and its direct impact on me.  His are not sermons of ought to’s and get on board the Jesus train messages that get the juices flowing and then leave you flat once the church service is over.  No his are insanely thought-proking and motivational.  Instead of telling us what we need to believe, he does the unthinkable in today’s church…he teaches us how to think for ourselves.

He stated this past week he is glad for our denomination and the checks and balances it provides as it keeps dreams and ideas centered on the focus and mission of living out the gospel without getting bogged down in fantasy dreams and visions that appeal to very few.  I found this to be an interesting start to this message so I got comfortable and waited to see what would follow.

The Old Testament is a troubling series of books.  What do we define as literal, as a parable, interpreted understanding of events, laws to follow, commentary, story, dreams; you get my point.  The Old testament is a challenging read at best. There are a number of passages that I’ve read since I began reading scripture that made no sense whatsoever, today’s sermon was to address one of those passages.

The story was about Abraham taking his son up to the mountain to kill him by what Abe thinks is God’s command.  Seemed then and remains blurry why God would tell his servant to kill his son, just too out of character for the God I’ve come to understand.  But for many years I swallowed hard and moved on, let’s see what today has in store.

Well here…just read his message yourself.  Imagine the freedom we could have in our faith if we just allowed ourselves to ask..What if?

“Listening for the Authentic Voice of God”  – Rev. Bob Prim

Today we wrestle with a difficult text.  Because of the date of Easter this year, we come directly into a story that in other years we would have been hearing over the last several weeks.  The readings would not jump, as they have this year, from the creation story to this story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountaintop; rather, in early years we would have heard some of the prelude of this difficult text.

The saga we would have been hearing is the Abraham and Sarah narrative, and the story is filled with promises and perils.  There have been promises of God to Abraham and Sarah of land, of descendants like the stars and the sand, and of being a blessing to all nations.  Within these promises there have been perils of famine, bareness, clan conflict, family squabbles, fearfulness, and faithlessness.  Abraham and Sarah while sometimes showing remarkable faith and trust have also embodied fear, pettiness, and a destructive self-centeredness.  The Scriptures do not shy away from the imperfections of these pillars of the faith; yet, even with all their faults, Abraham and Sarah continue to be the bearers of the promises of God.  Over and over again God assures them of the gifts of land, descendants, and blessings.  

The couple, however, for much of the unfolding story remain childless.  They remain childless until strangers (or were they angels?) come to visit.  These strangers make an announcement: Sarah will have a son.  She laughs.  The pronouncement is made again:  Sarah will have a son.  As the strangers –  angels –  depart they say –  Is anything too great for the Lord?  

The story unfolds and we get the answer –  nothing is too great for the Lord for Isaac is born.  

But today is different.  Today the story we will tell asks another question –  “Is anything too terrible for the Lord?”  Today the promise is in peril, not because of unrighteousness or famine or doubt or evil or family squabbles –  the promise of God is in peril today because the righteousness of the Promise Maker is in doubt.  

Listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac and the horrifying voice with a horrifying command…  Genesis 22:1-14

What are we to do with this story?  If God really and truly makes this demand of Abraham and Isaac, what does this say about the God we worship?  (As an aside, the question arises in my mind –  Did Sarah know of this intended sacrifice?  I think she did not, and I suspect that if she did she would have told God to find another family to abuse.)  Given the story as we have it, some of my fundamental convictions about God are called into question.  Maybe you will identify with these four convictions about God that this story, in its present form, challenges.

1) A simple conviction that was learned early:  God is love.

2) A somewhat more complex conviction but basic nonetheless:  Our salvation is a gift from God –  it is not our achievement.   There is no test we have to pass.

3) Our call from God is to lead a life that reflects the love of God and our gratitude for God’s many gifts, particularly the gifts of life and the hope for redemption, and the way we embody this love and gratitude to God is by loving neighbor, including our closest neighbors –  our family!.

4)We measure and test the call of God, the will of God for our lives, within the community of faith.  We do not base our actions and decisions solely on voices we hear in our heads; the voices must be tested and confirmed.  (I must admit, this last conviction has become more a part of my way of thinking about discerning the will of God since I have become a Presbyterian.  There is a reason we as Presbyterians have so many committees!  We want to be sure to test the voices!)Each of these basic tenets is challenged by the text this day.  

*How can a God who loves all people command a father to kill his son?

*Why does the promise of God depend on the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac?  Why is the promise of God based on such a cruel test?

*Are we not called to prevent such abuses out of obedience to the God who calls us to love all people? And finally, 

*Just because someone hears a voice telling them to do something, even if that person may think the voice is God’s voice, shouldn’t the person take it to the church before acting?

So, what are we to do with this horrifying story?

The interpretation I will offer this day is not standard –  I admit it.  I place it before this community of faith in order for us to wrestle with what this sacred story may have to say to us this day.  The interpretation is based largely on conjecture, as you will see shortly, but the conjecture is invited by the terror of this story.  Before we get to my rather unorthodox interpretation, a couple of things need to be said before we proceed.

First, the Bible is serious stuff.  The reason I find this story so terrifying is because I take the Scripture seriously.  I believe these stories are sacred in that I believe God uses them to reveal God’s-Self and to build righteous communities.  The Bible, when truly read, requires us to work with the texts, with the stories to tease and kneed the meaning out of the verses.  These are not fairy tales for our comfort or entertainment; rather, these stories are encounters with a powerful and mysterious God at work in the world.  So, we dare to question, to probe, to speculate, to search deeply for meaning and guidance because these stories carry within them the call and the grace of God.

Secondly, there are layers of meaning and truth in these stories.  My reading of the story, my interpretation of it, is not the only one –  and may not even be a good one.  The righteousness of my interpretation is for the community to decide.  I do not claim to own this story, to have it nailed down.  What I am about to share with you, however, is the only way I can view this text right now.  So, here we go….

I grew up going to see the Atlanta Braves play baseball.  I was there in the lean years.  The days of Felix Melian, Clete Boyer, and later Bob Horner, Dale Murphy, and Henry Aaron.  Even with these guys on the team we found a way to lose.  The benefit of that was that tickets were cheap and easy to get; so, Dad and I went often to see them play.  We were always there early so we could watch batting practice which meant we were always there for the national anthem.  As a boy rooting for the Braves, I loved the way the song ended…for the land of the free and the home of the brave(s).  That’s what I thought it said.  I figured in Los Angeles it ended with for the land of the free and the home of the Dodgers!  It made sense to me as a boy.  Now that I’ve matured (somewhat), I know that I was just hearing the wrong word.  The song does not say “braves,” the song says for the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The word and meaning have come clearer as I have grown older.

I believe this story in the Bible is about Abraham coming to a clearer understanding of the voice of God in his life.  I don’t think Abraham heard correctly when he thought God asked him to sacrifice his son.  

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, in his book Living a Life That Matters, tells this story.  Some years ago, one of Great Britain’s leading Jewish intellectuals was being considered for the position of Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth when rumors arose that he was not quite solid enough in his religious faith.  An extremely conservative member of the selection committee called him in, opened the Bible to chapter 15 of I Samuel, and read Samuel’s words to King Saul: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts…Attack Amalek, kill men and women, infants and children, oxen and sheep, sparing no one.”  The committee member then said to the candidate, “That’s in the Bible.  Do you believe that God said it to Samuel?”  The candidate answered, “I believe that Samuel heard it, but I don’t believe that God said it.”  The candidate explained his thinking this way – “The authentic voice of God would demand that we be more compassionate and less cruel, that we show more reverence for innocent lives.  God always asks more of us, not less….”  The candidate did not get the position (page 96).

I would not have made the cut either and not just because I am not Jewish!  I would not have been hired because I do not believe that God commanded Abraham to kill his son.  Abraham may have heard the command, but the source was not God.  

Maybe, just maybe, what Abraham heard was his own voice.  So far in the narrative Abraham has been the star of the show.  Everything seemed to revolve around him.  Now, however, there is this boy, this young man, Isaac and the promises of God begin to center on his life.  Maybe the voice Abraham heard was his own longing for the way things were, a longing for the good old days when he was the main character.  So, he decided to sacrifice the boy to his dreams of grandeur, to his longing for his own youthfulness?

At this point Isaac is not so unlike many children throughout history and to this day whose parents are unwilling or unable to make the adjustments necessary to surround a child with love and affection.  Abraham, like many parents, may have been unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to be a compassionate and supportive father.  The world used to be Abraham’s to conquer, but now Abraham’s world became much smaller, and maybe he was not happy with the reduction.  Parents have quite often sacrificed their children to their own needs to remain central in the unfolding drama of life.  I suspect that many of us do not have to look very far to understand the longing for freedom from parental demands, freedom from responsibilities that impinge upon our time and control of our lives.

This speculation about Abraham, and it is speculation, is not, however, altogether unfounded even from the details the Bible gives us about his life.  That Abraham could be detached from his family is well-documented.  His attachments to his wife, Sarah, have been tenuous.  Remember, he passed her off as his sister while they were in Egypt so that the Pharaoh would not kill him and take Sarah as his own.  Likewise, Abraham’s attachments to Hagar and Ishmael were not strong –  he had them put out into the desert to die.  His attachment to Isaac may have been weak as well.  The only conversation the Bible records them having is the one they have on the way up the mountain.  Maybe the voice that Abraham was listening to was the voice of his own ego searching to maintain his own centrality to the promises of God and the unfolding of God’s plans.  

Now, I realize that my interpretation is based on conjecture, but the interpretation grows out of the fundamental question –  “Would God demand that a father literally kill his son for righteousness sake?”  Would the God who created humanity in God’s image, endowing each person with infinite value, torment any one of God’s children with such a horrific experiment?  Is it possible that the God of love who commands us not to kill would at the same time command Abraham to kill an innocent and unsuspecting boy, his own son, for God’s sake?  Would the God who runs to welcome the prodigal son home also command that another son be slaughtered in the name of faithfulness?  Would the God who longs to wipe every tear from our eyes, who beckons us to lay our weary burdens down, would that God command a man to take a knife to his only son?  It just does not fit the picture of God that we have in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the stories of Jesus.

I think the story is about Abraham coming to his senses.  I think the story is about Abraham finally realizing that he could lay the heavy burden of his own self-centeredness down and trust that God would provide.  I think the story is about Abraham coming to the larger faith of knowing that God’s purposes are not just dependent upon him, but that God intends to work on behalf of all people.  God intends to bless all nations.  When Abraham saw the ram in the thicket his eyes were opened to the truth that God provides and that nothing is more precious in the sight of God than a man who is willing to give of himself, or a woman willing to give of herself, for the good of the family.  Abraham came to his senses and began to hear the authentic voice of God.  

It is no accident, I think, that the rest of Abraham’s story in the Bible has him acting as a devoted father and husband.  When Sarah died he grieved hard and made special arrangements for her burial.  He took it upon himself to find Isaac a wife –  Rebekah.  Abraham married again –  a woman named Keturah –  and they had six children. And I suspect that Abraham made amends with both Isaac and Ishmael because when Abraham died his sons came together to bury him east of Mamre next to Sarah. Abraham came down from the mountain a changed man, a man listening to the authentic voice of God.  

May we, too, have ears to hear the call of God, the authentic voice of God, calling us in the direction of love…Amen.

Glad You’re You…

I couldn’t be more proud.

Today my lovely, brilliant, and highly determined wife finishes her degree program.  Who says dreams delayed can’t bring fullness and satisfaction to a life?  To see her maintain such focus throughout this endeavor all the while still working, being a great mom and a wife of unmatched kindness, has been a lesson equaled by very few.

My love will soon graduate with a Master’s in Occupational Therapy from Belmont University.  This degree she obtained with a level of performance recognized with the distinction of Magna Cum Laude acknowledging the intensity of her studies.

Your daughters see in you a modern woman who tackles objectives directly without fear and lives her life with success and charm.  You are my dear, an amazing role model for others to emulate.

As a young bride with a child, educational opportunities were kept from you as the priorities of life called you to raise a family.  A task you relished and accomplished willingly to the good fortune of your daughters.  As life allowed you saw a window to continue to improve yourself professionally and embraced the challenge.  When most of your peers were playing Bunko, you were buried deep in your books.  Free time for you meant uninterrupted periods of study.  The example of fortitude you set forced our girls to liken their study habits and seek excellence for their own lives desiring to be just like the mom they love so much.

So here you are.  A graduate.  A professional with all the training and designations necessary to accomplish your dreams.  Dreams that happened in their own time but happened for you none the less.  My prayer is that your dignity and perseverance will challenge others to likewise not accept anything but all of the heartfelt goals life has to offer.  I know many are inspired by you and value what you’ve done with your life.

I love watching you be you.

Don’t Call Me “Christian” Anymore…

Terms can change in meaning, what may be represented as one definition for this generation may hold a completely different meaning to the next.  I think many defining words are in constant state of flux as people seek phrases to distinquish themselves from others with stackpoles and other idioms.  I think I need to relinquish a word that had defined me for many years of late but today seems almost obsolete.  I’ve taken pride being referred to this word for years, even when it would sometimes provide derision, I was so passionate about being on this team I proclaimed it boldly.

Not any more.

The word is Christian.  Emotionally it is a word that will be hard to shake, at least the way I understood the word.  I admire what the term in its original definition meant.  It described a devoted follower of Jesus,  a person who sought to bring peace, hope, and joy into a world where such attributes often seemed like they were missing.

Today that same word has so many new meanings that seem to dispel any connection to my understanding of its intent and therefore, to me, all but nullify it.  Today the term Christian is a synonym for a political ideology that represses the weak among us, supports the powers that crush us, and single out followers as superior moral creatures.  The term Christian is not only fighting with progressives like me but it is at war with itself to find the purest form of the word  and has cast off the losers to the pile of forsaken godless infidels.

So now I need to find a word to define my faith journey, my spiritual travels, and even my inner hope about a promise of a better tomorrow.  Terms that define what I’ve experienced about the nature of Jesus; compassion, gentleness, meekness, inclusive, and most importantly loving.   No need for flag wrapping here, as that never was a priority for the master, only His followers.  That’s my new challenge.  Maybe one new word isn’t the answer.  Maybe the real response should be to sit down and force an encounter with the person who inquires.  Introduce them to my heart and my challenges.  Maybe that is a more genuine approach to a definition of a person anyway, taking the time to get to know them and what makes them wake up each morning. 

Moving on!