The commitment of Isaac as hope for today future

A sermon for Proper 8, 3rd after Pentecost

Genesis 2, 2:1-14, Psalm 12, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

Focus: The commitment of Isaac as hope for today future

May 18, 1980 after many hours VGT came into the world and changed our lives forever. Thursday afternoon after many hours LPF came into the world and will change our lives as only grand children can, a new venture I’m looking forward to. I can’t wait to spoil LPF rotten.
LPF’s birth with its remembrance of VGT’s birth brings a poignancy to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. It brings home in unexpected ways if not the horror, then at least the fear of child sacrifice. However, to get stuck here is to miss-read scripture; it’s a failure to honor its context; the story’s connection to Ishmael and it’s origins in Israel’s captivity in Babylon. Most importantly it is a disservice to our children and grandchildren.

I want to explore four aspects of Isaac’s sacrifice:  the opening conversation, burnt offerings, Ishmael, and the Babylonian context and see how this sacrifice provides hope for today’s children and grandchildren.

We don’t know how long is has been since Ishmael and Hagar left, or since God has spoken to Abraham. But God does call and with a little imagination the conversation goes like this:
Abraham
Here I am
Take your son.
I have two sons.
Your only son.
Each is the only son of his mother.
The one whom you love.
Is there any limit to a father’s love?
[Take] Isaac ~ (Schifferdecker)
[and] go to the land of Moriah,
and offer him there
as a burnt offering
on one of the mountains
that I shall show you.
Imaging the opening verses as a conversation allows us to hear that Abraham remembers his older son, that God told him to let Ishmael go, and that he does not want to lose Isaac. Two other notes: Abraham is directed to go to Moriah but to yet another unknown location; when he and Isaac leave the attendants Abraham tells them:
… the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.
Abraham knows what God is asking, yet here is says we will come back not I. It seems there is more that Abraham is aware of than we are aware of.

Burnt Offerings are one type of sacrifice in the Temple Cultic sacrificial system. That system hasn’t been established yet (more about this later); however, the idea of brunt offerings is well established in the story’s time line. The Hebrew ʿōlâ is most frequently translated burnt offering; it is also translated to ascent or to go up. It’s root ʿālâ means to come up, to ascend.  (Strong’s Talking Greek and Hebrew Dictionary)
Easton’s Dictionary notes burnt offerings were regarded as ascending to God while being consumed (Easton). It is at least conceivable that Abraham has a notion that he is shepherding Isaac into God’s presence, and perhaps to commit him to God’s service, as all first born will be after the Passover, or as Nasserites will be (Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:11).

I was surprised the connection between Ishmael’s story and the story of Isaac’s sacrifice was mentioned only once, and there was no commentary. A quick review of Ishmael’s story. Sarah decides Ishmael is a threat to Isaac and tells Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael into the dessert. God tells him to do as Sarah says, lso that Ishmael and Hagar will be okay, that God will make a nation of him. (Genesis 21:13).
He does as God tells him. Genesis tells us Ishmael does well.

We do not know how long it is between Ishmael’s and Hagar’s dismissal and Isaac’s journey to sacrifice. It must be some years, because Isaac walks the distance, carries the wood for the sacrifice, and engages his father in knowledgeable conversation about the sacrifice, so he would be at least in his early teens. Time enough for Abraham to know of Ishmael’s life. He knows God keeps God’s word. So here’s the logic. Abraham knows God’s logic is incomprehensible. Abraham knows God keeps God’s promise. Abraham knows God promised him an heir, knows Isaac is that heir: it is through Isaac that offspring will be named for you. (Genesis 21:12 b) so even though this journey to sacrifice Isaac makes no sense Abraham makes the journey in faith that God will do as God always has, keep his promise, Isaac will be his heir.

Finally Babylon. You may remember from a couple of weeks ago that Genesis was written when Israel was in captivity in Babylon, over against competing creation myths. Isaac’s sacrifice may well be oral tradition; however, it too is written over against the oppressive and corrupting conditions in exile. Terence Fretheim’s writes: Exilic Israel may have seen itself in both Abraham and Isaac … (Fretheim 494)
Fretheim continues:
God has put Israel to a test in which many children died, has called forth its continuing faith, has delivered it through the fires of
judgment and renewed the promises. (Fretheim 494)

Visualizing Israel as Abraham assure leaders of a captive people that God is faithful and has not abandoned them. Visualizing Israel as Isaac assures the future. Both encourage Israel to keep the faith, to remain obedient to God, which will not speak to sacrificial rites, but rather keeping their allegiance to one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I mentioned earlier the cultic sacrificial system was not established in the story’s time line. But, as it was written in Babylon exile, the sacrifices, though not available are part Israel’s lore. They know what burnt offerings are. They know about: the Passover commitment of all first born to God, and Nasserite commitment.

There are all kinds of gleanings in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. Is Isaac the heir God promises? God does not know what Abraham will do.
Will Abraham be faithful? They are all about relationships:
God and Abraham (and Sarah),
Abraham and Isaac,
Isaac and God,
God and Israel,
God and us.
For VGT now VGF and LPF and PF the story of Isaac’s sacrifice is not about brutal sacrifice. We must move beyond that fear to gleanings worth sharing:
Always engage God in conversation, it will lead you to insight.
Never be afraid to shepherd your beloved into God’s presence.
God is frequently inscrutable, but always faithful.
Life is full of trials and desperate times, that may separate you from all you believed crucial; Paul say it best:
38  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV))
Amen

Works Cited
Easton, Matthew George. Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Wordsearch, 2008.
Fretheim, Terence E. The New Intrepreter’s Bible, Genesis. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. 1. 2003. 12 vols.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn. “Genesis 22:1-14 Commentary by Kathryn Schifferdecker – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL).” 24 6 2014. Working Preacher. web. 24 6 2014. .
Strong’s Talking Greek and Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

Isaac as Israel

Not long ago we read a creation story from Genesis (Genesis 1:1ff). As part of my sermon I explored the cultural background in which the story came to be in Babylon while Israel is in captivity. So why was I surprised to read  Terence  Fretheim’s comment Exilic Israel may have seen itself in both Abraham and Isaac … (Fretheim 494)? In any case Fretheim’s remark sets off a new avenue for exploring the story of Abraham offering Isaac as a burnt offering.

Fretheim continues his observation:

God has put Israel to a test in which many children died, has called forth its continuing faith, has delivered it through the fires of judgment and renewed the promises. (Fretheim)

Visualizing Israel as Abraham assure leaders of a captive people that God is faithful and has not abandoned them. Visualizing Israel as Isaac assures the future. Both encourage Israel to keep the faith, to remain obedient to God, which will not speak to sacrificial rites, but rather to limiting their allegiance to one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

As for us, in  time when all seems to be at risk it is helpful to connect to a meta story that assures us we are not alone, that there is a future and while it may not look like what we thought, it will be within the boundaries of divine promise. So while the glories of empire fall away, the glory of the Lord remains.


Works Cited

Fretheim, Terence E. The New Intrepreter’s Bible, Genesis. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. 1. 2003. 12 vols.

 

Burnt Up or Going Up

Yesterday I did my commentary reading for this coming Sunday’s sermon. Since StS is following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary (don’t ask) was wasn’t surprised to read the story of Abraham’s being tested via the requested sacrifice of Isaac. I was surprised that one commentator mentioned the nearly immediate story of Abraham driving Hagar and his, legitimate first, son Ishmael into the desert to die, at Sarah’s request. Surely Ishmael’s expulsion influences Abraham’s behavior as he took Isaac to the mountain as sacrifice.

A quick review of Ishmael’s story. Sarah decides Ishmael is a threat to Isaac and tells Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael into the dessert. He is distressed by the idea; however, God tells him to do as Sarah says, but that Ishmael and Hagar will be okay, that God will also make a nation of him also (Genesis 21:13). He does as God tells him, which is not always the case, remember Ishmael is the result of Sarah and Abraham taking the concern about an heir into their own hands. Genesis tells us Ishmael does well. It’s not unreasonable to believe Abraham knows of Ishmael’s status.

Genesis does not tell us how long it is between Ishmael’s and Hagar’s dismissal and Isaac’s journey to sacrifice; however it must be some years, because Isaac walks the distance, carries the wood for the sacrifice, and engages his father in knowledgeable conversation about the sacrifice, so he would be at least in his early teens. Time enough for Abraham knew of Ishmael’s life. He knew God kept God’s word.

So here’s the logic. Abraham knows God’s logic is incomprehensible, it took how many years for God to fulfill the promise of an heir? Abraham knows God keeps God’s promise, Ishmael is growing into a nation. Abraham knows God promised him an heir, knows Isaac is that heir: it is through Isaac that offspring ill be named for you. (Genesis 21:12 b) so even though this journey to sacrifice Isaac makes no sense Abraham makes the journey in faith that God will do as God always has, keep his promise.

A note about burnt offering. The Hebrew ʿōlâ is most frequently translated burnt offering however it is also translated to ascent or to go up. It’s root ʿālâ means to come up, to ascend. (Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.) Easton’s Dictionary notes burnt offerings were regarded as ascending to God while being consumed (Easton). It is at least conceivable that Abraham has a notion that he is ascending to God perhaps to commit him to God’s service, as all first born will be after the Passover, or as Nasserites are (Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:11).

All this is to realize the story of Isaac as sacrifice is far more complex than the horrid idea of human sacrifice as a test of loyalty. There is a test of loyalty here; Abraham is being asked to commit his (now) only son to the service of another, no easy task, and does involve trusting God, place your child’s and your futures solely in God’s hands.


Works Cited

Easton, Matthew George. Illustrated bible Dictionary. Wordsearch, 2008.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

 

 

Yārēʾ

Today is the feast day of John the Baptist. One of the appointed readings is Malachi 3:1-5; here is verse 5 

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

I always find verses like this troubling, not for what they say, but for how we tend to divide them. Many will pick up the banner to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely. I have heard it used to condemn the Harry Potter because of sorcery; which I believe is off base because sorcery in scripture is always in relation to other gods, and in Harry Potter it is very much like science class. I am dismayed because we almost never hear any one quote: against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien in any of the political debates about fair wage laws, treatment of the marginalized, especially the poor, or the debate on immigration reform, and yes ‘alien’ in this verse refers to foreign guest and it makes no distinction as to status. To be fair I’m also concerned because yārēʾ of the Lord seems to be sorely lacking. Yārēʾ is the Hebrew translated fear, which can mean ‘fear’; however it’s conjoined with love and hope, and is therefore not a slavish dread, but rather filial reverence.  (Easton) The concern is that if we don’t have respect for God, how we can have respect for anyone else? And without respect how can we have honest debate about issues on which we honestly disagree. In far too many realms it seems we cannot, and it is causing harm to us, and to generations to come. Perhaps it’s time to spend time in the refiner’s fire (3:2b). 


 

Works Cited

Easton, Matthew George. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp, 2008. ebook.

 

 

 

 

 

A Eucharistic Aside

Perhaps the best 8 minutes I’ve invested in a decade or more.

Draughting Theology

As I’ve said before, one of the classes I’m taking here as Sewanee is a preaching class called “Preaching the Feasts.” I signed up for it because, like most preachers, I find preaching the red letter days to be both a) more challenging and b) more exciting that the ordinary (pardon the liturgical pun) Sundays of the year. What I found as the class began, however, was that this wasn’t just a class about preaching the feast days, but preaching the theological and doctrinal questions that the feast days bring up. I guess one should read the course description before signing up rather than merely scanning the course title and professors names because as you might imagine, this class is not easy for me.

The description for this blog is, “A blog about the Bible.” My task, four days a week, is to relate some portion of the lectionary to…

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I Just Want My Life Back

A Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost Proper 7,

Track 1: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

I want to think I’ve heard it hundreds of times, some character in a maleficent mess says: All I want is to get my life back. I went looking for a good story setting within which to put the quote. My initial Google search produced 1.3 million hits, from movies, to AA teen, to self-help books, but not one good story. Oh well.

We are all familiar with Jesus hard saying

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

There is no question that Jesus is speaking literally, he knows his teaching are revolutionary, and that is life threatening under Roman rule; he knows his teachings are counter cultural and that it will disrupt tradition and cause descent within tribes and clans, between friends, among families, between parents and children. Today we are rather lucky in that following Jesus is not revolutionary engendering death sentences from authorities. (Harrelson Matthew 21:20) However, truly following Jesus can disrupt what we believe to be the closest most intimate relationships. Following Jesus can lead folks in to circumstances where they’d just may say: All I want is to get my life back.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is the intertwined stories of Hagar and Sarah both of whom want their life back. It all goes back to impatience. God has promised Abraham an heir, it’s been decades, no heir. At Sarah’s urging he conceives a son with a surrogate mother Hagar. All is well, for a few months, until Sarah notices the attention Hagar is getting, and has Abraham drive her from the camp. God tells Hagar to go back and humble herself toward Sarah. She does. Some years later Sarah conceives and bears Isaac. Three years after that, at Isaac’s weaning ceremony, Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and for an unstated reason she determines Ishmael is a threat to her son, and once again has Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp, driving them into the wilderness to die. Again God hears the cry of the distressed, he shows Hagar where water is to be found, and promises her that Ishmael will also grow into a great nation. She believes him, gets the water, raises her son in the wilderness, gets him a wife from her native Egypt, and he becomes the father of Ishmaelites, the forbearers of Islam. (Schifferdecker)

Sarah, wants her life, and the life of her son, Abraham’s second son back. Actually she wants the life she imagines they should have, but don’t because she and Abraham got anxious about God’s sense of timing. She takes action. She persuades Abraham to drive them into the wilderness, and certain death. He is not thrilled about the idea, none the less is unable to stand up to Sarah’s rage and acquiesces. It appears as if Sarah gets her life and Isaac’s life back. At least she thinks she does, it’s just two stories later, the beginning of the very next chapter when Abraham takes Isaac into the wilderness for a sacrifice with no animal.

Hagar’s and Ishmael’s journey back to life is very different. Their lives are lost, Hagar is so sure they will die, and she distances herself from Ishmael so she won’t have to witness it. The text reads as if he is a child, though the timing of the story indicates he is a teenager, perhaps 16 or so. (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa Genesis 21:10) Either way, their lives are over. We hear how God hears “the boy” speaks to Hagar, Do not be afraid. leads her to water, and assures her Ishmael will live; which assures her of life also. 

What I find so intriguing is that it is the foreigner, the Egyptian salve, who seems to hear and obey God while the chosen family, Abraham and Sarah, follow the devices and desires of their own creation. A twist that bears some additional reflection, perhaps another time.

There is no doubt about the real threat of losing life, of death, especially for Hagar and Ishmael. However, there is also a secondary thread about the threat of loss of life style, to both Hagar and Ishmael, and to Sarah and Isaac. Ishmael is Abraham’s legitimate oldest son, remember he is born to surrogate mother, he is not the results of an illicit relationship. Sarah’s ferocious desire to ensure Isaac’s divinely proclaimed place threatens Hagar and Ishmael. Conversely, Ishmael’s very existence is a threat to Isaac’s life style, as the chosen son, Sarah’s fear is not missed placed. (Harrelson Genesis 21:8)

Both those threads are in woven into the background of Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ sending the disciples into the mission field. I believe it is the threat to life style that is the greatest threat to Christian life here and now.

Stanley Saunders writes:

From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us.  … Jesus recognizes that fear will also cause the failure of discipleship.

He continues:

The threat of death may be the most powerful form of fear. …

just before getting to

… the call to discipleship renders secondary all other claims upon one’s identity … (Saunders)

In short our life and life style are secondary to following Jesus. It’s a bothersome realization, because so much of our life style is deserved, we’ve all worked hard for what we have, for the most part we love our families. It’s bothersome because we are deeply committed to our life style choices, ever been in political debate? It’s bothersome because it puts the Gospel imperatives ahead of the Constitution, our political allegiance our economic ideology, our sports loyalties our school allegiances every aspect of every relationship or value we hold, even those we hold unawares.

In Friday New York Times Jessica Zitter blogs of an encounter with a patient who is dying. In spite of following the carefully crafted medical protocols the medical team almost made the wrong decision. It was not a medical error, it was not knowing all the family circumstances.

She writes:

I realized then that I needed another checklist, one that puts patients, and not just their organs, in the center. It would account for the human needs that we weren’t always taught to prioritize, ones that didn’t seem fatal if overlooked — clearly identifying the patient’s next of kin, communicating with the family and identifying the goals of care, asking about symptoms like pain, delirium, shortness of breath. My critical oversight would not have happened had I sought out the social worker on the first day to confirm the true next of kin. He thought I knew. I thought I knew. We both were wrong. (Zitter)

What gabbed me was the realization that technology, science, and medicine are all life style choices that are secondary to the Gospel, secondary to our relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit. It a reminder that everything should begin in our relationship with God. It’s hard to do when we are aware. It’s harder to do when we are unaware. But, it does not mean we are stuck.

Hagar believed her life, her son’s life were lost. She discovered God listens. When we learn our lives are lost, when we choose to give up life style choices we too will discover God listens. The journey to change is never easy, but we never go it alone.

I believe Dr. Zitter believes she will practice better medicine with a second protocol, that’s perhaps the primary protocol, that pays attention to patients’ family relationships. I believe we will find better life styles choices we will live better lives with a another life style choice that’s perhaps the primary life style choice that pays attention to our divine relationships.

 


Works Cited

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Saunders, Stanley. Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39. 16 June 2014. web. 16 June 2014.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn. Working Preacher Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21. 16 June 2014. PDF. 18 june 2014.

Zitter, Jessia Nutik. “Who Can Speak for the Patient?” New York Time (2014). <http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/who-can-speak-for-the-patient/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                 

Losing Life to Listen

This morning I read an article in the New York Times about the treatment of a patient who was not going to recover. The medical team spoke with the patient’s sibling who responded “He’s a fighter. Do everything you can to keep him alive.” The story continues:

The next day I told the social worker what the patient’s sister had said. “What about the wife?” the social worker asked.

That was the first I’d heard of a wife. A spouse is the official next of kin. No decision should ever be made without the spouse. (JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER)

 
The patient’s wife was contacted and the decision to release him to hospice care at home followed.

Dr. Zitter writes about her check list for complex medical cases to ensure she provides the best and appropriate care. She continues:

But despite my checks and balances, I had almost allowed the wrong person to make crucial decisions for this vulnerable patient. And I had nearly excluded a wife from her rightful place on her husband’s team. Missing this crucial piece of information would have caused far more suffering and damage than any miscalibration of a ventilator.

I realized then that I needed another checklist, one that puts patients, and not just their organs, in the center. It would account for the human needs that we weren’t always taught to prioritize, ones that didn’t seem fatal if overlooked — clearly identifying the patient’s next of kin, communicating with the family and identifying the goals of care, asking about symptoms like pain, delirium, shortness of breath. My critical oversight would not have happened had I sought out the social worker on the first day to confirm the true next of kin. He thought I knew. I thought I knew. We both were wrong. (JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER)

 Frist, I am draw to this week’s story from Genesis and God listening to the voice of the Ishmael and Hagar driven into the wilderness to die. I am reminded that in all decisions we are called to list for the voices of the other, especially the marginalized, and as Dr. Zitter experienced the ones we may not even be aware of.

As I scrolled through the PDF of this week lectionary the reading from Matthew’s Gospel account appeared first. The divine muse gifted me with the thought that here is another bit of life to lose. I.E. in our technology drive, profit motivated world we are called to give up their priority, placing God, and God’s listen ear first in our lives, so others may be heard and seen as God sees and hears all people.

 


 

Bibliography

JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER, M.D. “Who Can Speak for the Patient?” NewYork Times 20 June 2014. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/who-can-speak-for-the-patient/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.