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Archive for June, 2014

A Test – Really?

After these things God tested Abraham.”  Genesis 22:1a (NRSV)

The story of Abraham’s “testing” by God in Genesis 22:1-14 is about how God “told” Abraham to take his only son – the son he and Sarah had waited for a LONG, LONG time – and sacrifice him.  I mean, really?  This is a test by the God we have called loving?  I mean, really??

When I was growing up, I took the Biblical stories at face value, and maybe that was a blessing in disguise.  I could never have imagined my parents doing such a thing to me, so I distanced myself from the impact of the story.  In reality, I could have had nightmares about what God might tell my parents to do to me if I misbehaved.  Fortunately, I was a pretty well-behaved child, but then, we have the sense that Isaac hadn’t done anything to be the subject of Abraham’s testing except to be born to him when he was over one hundred years old.

This summer I have chosen to use the stories from Genesis to tie the scriptures to issues with which we deal in our society – issues that we might encounter every day.  There are actually two issues that pop up here, one is child abuse, and the other is a crisis in faith.  What would I do if God suddenly asked me to sacrifice my cat?  After being totally amazed that God would speak so that I could understand what God wanted me to do, I’m not so sure I could follow through with that request.  I abhor violence, and I HAVE had nightmares after watching a violent segment from a TV show (I rarely make it more than a minute or two if there is violence on the show).

I could never imagine God asking me to sacrifice my cat much less my child!  There are those who believe that this is a parallel scripture for God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but when the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures as they are also known) writers included this story of Abraham and Isaac in their writings, I doubt that they could foresee even the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  I suspect our Jewish friends would have a very different perspective on this whole story and the content, but I still wrestle with the idea of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son.

My preaching is consistently about grace and mercy and sharing God’s love.  As a United Methodist, I believe in John Wesley’s theological teachings on personal and social holiness.  Personal holiness is about growing in God’s grace and love as we grow in faith and understanding that God IS a God of love.  Social holiness is living that love visibly and actively in the world.  Child abuse doesn’t come into those equations anywhere.

So what can we take away from this story?  Well, maybe the story will make us help us question what we really do believe about God and how this story can do some reverse teaching – such as “don’t abuse your child.”  I know that’s pretty simple, and I also realize it’s far more complex than that.  The other thing to ask ourselves is what do we really believe about God, and how does the New Testament help us to understand God through the eyes of Jesus?

It seems to me that Jesus was presenting God in a different light and reinterpreting God to the temple leaders, the faithful folks who attended temple, and the poor, outcast, rejected, and abused of his society, so we can, again, look at this through the reverse lesson it can teach us.  Of course, we will always be tested in life, but is God the one who does the testing or is it just the way the world jumps on us, especially at our weakest moments?

If we believe that God is a God of love, then we can be sure that God has chosen not to be a nasty god who baits us.  Rather, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who is God in the flesh, we have a new covenant that reminds us of God’s presence, support, strength, and love that we receive, not only through the power of the Holy Spirit, but also through the community of faith who MAY help us to know the presence of Christ with us.  That is my prayer.

Outcasts

“. . . Sarah said, to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.'”  Genesis 21:10 (NRSV)

The story of Abraham and Sarah is full of issues.  They left Haran and traveled to what we know as “The Promised Land,” the land of Canaan.  On the way, Abram – later changed to Abraham – (to protect himself) tries to pass Sarai – later changed to Sarah, as his sister.  She is put into the Egyptian Pharaoh’s harem until it is discovered that she is actually Abram’s wife.  Interestingly, Abram tries it again later on the journey to their new home.

Then, while they are camping in the wilderness, three strangers show up, and Abraham greets them with great hospitality, which was the custom in the nomadic societies.  The three men bring the message that Abraham will be the father of many nations, and Sarah, who was cooking in the tent behind them, overhears their prediction and laughs.  When they call her on it, she denies laughing, but these men – who were actually God’s representatives – knew better.  I mean, really – I doubt that I would believe their prediction if I was in Sarah’s situation.  She was past child bearing years, and even when she was younger, she never had a child.  In that culture, it was common to believe that God had somehow overlooked her because for a woman the two most important roles they played were being a wife and being a mother.

As time goes along, Sarah still doesn’t conceive, so she devises a plan to move things along and guarantee that she will have a son.  Sarah’s slave Hagar is Egyptian, and she has no voice, no say in what happens to her.  As Sarah’s “property” Hagar is at her mistress’ command, so Sarah told Abraham to take Hagar and get her to conceive a child.  Hagar would have been forced to have sex with her master.  Obviously, this was not consensual sex, so in essence she was raped.  However, she does conceive.  When a slave (who is property) has a child, that child then becomes the property of the owner.

The problem is that by putting Hagar in that situation, Sarah has elevated her status to being a second wife to Abraham, and Hagar shows some spunk by flaunting her pregnancy in front of Sarah.  Sarah abuses her, which causes Hagar to run away, but before she gets too far, God encounters her in the wilderness and sends her back with the promise that her son will also bring forth a great nation.  Hagar returns, and she again submits to her mistress.

After Isaac (which means “laughter”) is born, Sarah again becomes jealous and wants “that slave woman’s son” gone.  So, as painful as it is for Abraham, he sends Hagar and Ishmael away where they wander in the wilderness, sure that they will die.  When they run out of water and what paltry amount of food Abraham gave them, Hagar is grieved beyond words and puts Ishmael under a tree with the hope of a little shade.  Then she sinks into the sand not daring to watch her child die. 

It is in that quiet despair that God speaks to her and opens her eyes to see a well nearby.  God also gives Hagar the promise again that Ishmael will be the father of a great nation.  Isaac pawned the Jewish nation, and Ishmael pawned the Muslim faith.  There has been enmity between them even from the beginning.

Issues that present themselves are child abuse, domestic violence, racism, slavery, and a host of other issues that clearly show what a dysfunctional family this was.  They all were outcasts in their travels at one point or another.  They all experienced rejection, fear, loss, and devaluation.  Yet, God brought forth multitudes of people from them.  God blessed them and cared about them in spite of their misbehaving. 

Would God do any less with us? 

Come, Holy Spirit

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.”  Acts 2:4 (CEB)

There are times when I wish we could have the same experience as the disciples did.  Well, in many ways some of DO have experiences of the Holy Spirit that fill us and empower us to speak with wisdom and insight.  Yet, it seems to me that there are also times when we could use a good infusion of a powerful wind and tongue as of fire to wake us up and get our attention. 

One of my colleagues told about preaching on Pentecost Sunday, and he said something about the Holy Spirit coming in with a bang.  At that moment, a door banged shut very loudly as a gust of wind blew into the sanctuary.  It certainly got everyone’s attention!  He didn’t say whether or not he stuck to his planned sermon or really let the Spirit lead him a new direction, but what an opportunity!

Maybe my longing for the Spirit to come in with a bang is to wake folks up to God’s presence with us in this world.  It’s way too easy to sit week after week in the sanctuary and nod politely to what the pastor is preaching, but then not take it in so that it begins to change your life.  I’m not saying that the pastor even has that kind of power, but hopefully, the one who is preaching has invoked the Holy Spirit and prayed for God to speak through them.  Of course, we who preach have to trust that God IS working through us in spite of ourselves.

As I think about it, though, the Spirit really is at work in our churches in ways we don’t always recognize.  Opening our eyes and minds, and ears and hearts to the work of the Spirit is an important step to beginning to see the Spirit at work.  Maybe this Sunday as we celebrate Pentecost, we can have an attitude of being open to what the Spirit is trying to tell us and where the Spirit is leading us.  May it be so.

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