Proper 8, Year A: Genesis 22:1-14 (15-18); Matthew 10:40-42
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are directed to his followers – the message is: “Welcome and encourage and do good for each other.” In the context of Matthew’s writing Jesus is imploring resident Christian communities to welcome traveling missionaries – the ones he had sent out two-by-two to spread the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God. I think the immediate message we can take from this reading today is: “Take care of each other — and welcome strangers when they show up at church.”
From what I’ve seen here at St. Mark’s, I’d say that you all are living into this spirit of hospitality in a very vital and exciting way – hospitality to each other and to outsiders — and especially to a wayward seminarian that has shown up on your door step for the summer! Your acceptance and your welcome have been gracious and warm and loving – and I will always hold your grace and love close to my heart . . .
Even as we support each other in our church community – in our prayer groups, bible study groups, support groups – – as we give ourselves – our time, attention and presence – to each other (especially in difficult and trying times) we’ve all experienced – or will experience – grief, sadness, loneliness, confusion, worry – the stuff that keeps us awake at night and distracts us during the day.
In difficult times our prayer finds expression in the words of the Psalm we read today:
“How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day? Look upon me and answer me, O lord my God; give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death.”
In reflecting on the story about Abraham and Isaac that we heard as the first reading, I can’t begin to imagine the grief and confusion – the total vulnerability that Abraham must have felt. The story of Isaac’s impending death at his father’s own hand is like a nightmare – the kind where you feel totally helpless, victimized, alone – completely vulnerable and without any kind of control. Nothing makes sense – and with the psychological and spiritual intensity in this kind of nightmare, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not.
The very idea that God would test a man by asking him to sacrifice his only son is something we may easily find offensive and ugly. This is SO NOT the loving God we want to know. As we see Abraham respond without hesitation and without question or rebuttal, we may wonder why. What kind of father would proceed to carry this out without fighting back or straight-away refusing to obey? And what about the tender, poignant scene in the story when Isaac – not realizing that he has been targeted as the offering to be sacrificed — asks about where they will find a lamb? When Abraham tells Isaac that God himself will provide the lamb – is this really faith? Or is it the cruelest possible form of deceit and abandonment? All the while Isaac himself is carrying the wood on his back that is intended to fuel his own sacrificial demise. Yet when they arrive at the scene of the sacrifice, Isaac appears to show no resistance when his father binds him and lays him on the altar.
As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
By now you’re probably hearing the premonition – the foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion in this story of Abraham and Isaac. Both Isaac and Jesus carried the wood of their own execution. Like God the Father, Abraham was sacrificing his own beloved son – his only son. With these similarities, the major, obvious difference is that at the last moment God steps in to prevent Isaac’s death. The ultimate sacrifice comes many, many generations later – in the suffering, death and crucifixion of Jesus.
As we enter into these scenes with Abraham and Isaac and into their relationship with God — this story can touch deep, wounded places within us – places we’d rather not go – personal memories and fears that we’d rather not revisit. The temptation might be to avoid this story altogether and stick with the warm fuzzy stories in the bible. But reflecting on difficult sacred texts like this one can begin to bring us spiritual healing, a kind of Divine therapy. This is one way the Holy Spirit touches us – through meditation on the Word.
The reason God tests Abraham by asking him to offer up his son as a sacrificial offering is to prove Abraham’s fear of God, seemingly to assure God that nothing stands in the way of his relationship with Abraham. This is a picture of God that seems very strange to us. We’re used to thinking of God as all-powerful and all-knowing. How could God not know already know what Abraham would do – that he would faithfully obey? . . .
God gave humans freewill. Is it possible then, that God is powerless, over human responses and his relationships with humans? Is God vulnerable in his relationship with us – dependent on our response to His grace, to His unconditional love? I wonder: could this possibly be an insight into God’s perspective – God’s way of seeing his creation? Then the question is: Are we able to allow God the freedom to appear vulnerable in our own eyes? Can we accept a God who is vulnerable? At the same time, can we, while gratefully embracing God’s gift of freewill, allow ourselves to be completely vulnerable to God and to each other as Abraham and Isaac do in this story?
It’s all about relationship, and the willingness to be open, to be vulnerable plays a very big role in forming genuine relationships. Vulnerability involves surrender – letting go – letting go and letting God – trusting that the Lord will provide. Vulnerability means allowing the pain of other people to get inside you– allowing other people to change your life, allowing God to change your life, allowing the world’s suffering to influence you. This is the message of Jesus’ Passion – this is what the Cross is saying. As long as we resist nothing is going to change. So let the pain in. That’s the only place where transformation and healing can take place . . .
Where’s the good news of the Gospel in all this? Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” He’s saying that we are all one – one with Him, one with each other, one with God the Father. The good news is that we are not alone in our pain – in our doubts and fears. Jesus shares our deepest pain and vulnerability on the cross. And the even more wonderful good news is that because we share in Jesus’ vulnerability – his humanity on the cross – we also share in his divinity through the resurrection.
The Lord will provide. So let us dare to be vulnerable, trusting that God will indeed provide not necessarily a way out, but always a way through.
Let us pray :
O God, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity, but in all that we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.