Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector St. Paul’s, Brunswick Proper 8, Year A
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
This week I attended a webinar on Racial Justice. Even with my years of learning and personal experience, I too, like many of you, am doing my best to listen and learn. To consider where God might be calling me to let go of parts of myself so that I can honor that Baptismal vow “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. In this webinar, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a well known theologian and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, had a conversation with Ms. Joanne Bland.
Ms. Bland has been active in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama since she was eight years old… a little black girl who was inspired to become a freedom fighter because she wanted to sit at the same lunch counter eating icecream and spinning on a stool as the white children did. Her story was powerful, filled with strength and sacrifice. At the end of the conversation Dean Douglas asked Ms. Bland how she keeps doing this prophetic and tiring work of striving for equality, especially in the face of all that we have seen unfolding in the last weeks. She said, “Because I love God….and God loves me.” Somehow this simple yet profound truth has sustained a civil rights leader in Selma for decades in the midst of all she has and continues to put on the line.
Over the last few weeks we have journeyed through Genesis with Abraham. We have heard Sara laugh at the promise of a child, and Hagar sent out into the wild… her child almost dying of thirst… and now… we arrive at what some theologians name as the climax in our Abrahamic story. The almost sacrifice of Isaac.
There is a lot that is troubling or problematic about this text… sometimes named one of the Bible’s “texts of terror”. For starters… Isaac was certainly not Abraham’s only son. As Carolyn reminded us last week, Ishmeal and Hagar had been cast out in Sara’s attempt to save the inheritance of her son Isaac. It is striking to see this part of the family has been erased here. My list goes on. Once they arrive at the right spot we have Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering… which we know is set to be him! I mean this is the stuff of nightmares. For YEARS scholars and theologians have tried to make sense of this troubling text… naming that child sacrifice was part of the ancient world or that God is above all human moral codes (Theological Bible Commentary).
But, there is a line very early on in this reading that others point to, God is testing Abraham (workingpreacher.org). God wants to see just how faithful this faithful man is … never actually intending to have Isaac sacrificed. One writer notes Abraham is honored because he was “prepared” to sacrifice his son (Theological Bible Commentary). So here is the thing… once we are able to step back from our modern reading of this text and consider a thread of “God doesn’t really mean it”… what next?
Now for some, it may be tempting to sit in this, I’ll be honest, worrisome notion of God testing the faithful in this way… yet that is not the direction my heart is running this week. Sacrifice. The severity of what God might ask. We know that following God is not easy… we have been reminded of this week after week in our lections and in our own lives.
Yet, this story, this shocking climatic story, is steeped in sacrifice that is strange, wild, unimaginable… It’s as if God said to Abraham… go and be wholeness, love, justice and peace in a world fractured by pandemic and a movement for racial justice. We may feel it can’t possibly be done… and yet when Abraham commits to giving up and putting God and God alone first… there is a way.
I think this is especially important for Abraham because much of his story is wrought in his trying to sort out the right and loyal way. From the promise in the stars, to the saga with Sara and Hagar, to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmeal… Abraham has wrestled in relationships. And here… God calls Abraham to put God first. God wants Abraham to choose this relationship above all.
In addition to said relationship, what is it exactly that God is asking Abraham to give up in offering his son? It is not just that Isaac was that promise of the countless stars, or the very sound of Sara’s laughter… but his son was one of his ultimate privileges. The privilege of having a son, an heir in the ancient world, ensured legacy and life. A son ensured a family’s economic standing. Women were thought to be blessed or even the most valuable when they produced sons. A son gave a particular perceived value and meaning to life. God called Abraham to put all of that on the line… his son and heir… his privilege.
Bishop Rob Wright of Atlanta wrote about this story earlier this week saying, “Authentic life with God includes sacrifice….The worst abuses of the power of faith happen when we think God does not require the sacrifice of our duplicity, bigotry, and indifference. What Abraham learns in his testing moment is that everything is second to God for him. Everything.”
And I think this is also the message Jesus extends to the disciples today as well. Reminded… again… that in their going out in the world they too will sacrifice. He has just told them to take up their cross when they are given these short yet very full lines. You see there’s a lot between these lines of this message of welcoming people, “1) welcoming prophets as prophets, who expect opposition and violence at the hands of the powers; welcoming the righteous as those who work for justice, usually risking their lives to do so; and 3) offering a cup of cold water to the little ones “in the name of a disciple”. (workingpreacher.org).
These things are more than material. While giving a cup of cold water is the sacrifice of resources, there is something more happening here. These things bring people together in this act of welcome in a way that builds opportunity for God’s community. When the disciples risk themselves and put God first… this act of welcome becomes so much more than welcome… it becomes the very act of building God’s kingdom.
And still… we are seated in personal sacrifice. Letting go. How can God ask so much of us…of Abraham and the disciples? How do we live with ourselves when it feels like we don’t have the strength of Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac… or the disciples ready to go out in the world live a life of sacrifice as they teach of God’s love and radical welcome for all?
In the midst of facing so much, knowing we don’t have all of the answers, but knowing God is calling us to go and be that radical welcome…to let go of ourselves…our privilege … the how we do so… remains in the words of Ms. Bland, “We love God, and God loves us”… and that is how we will let go and put God first, trusting in whatever comes next. Amen.