June 28, 2020
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Good morning everyone! My mission group knows that Zoom meetings have been challenging to me—Sitting on a chair for two hours without the walk into the sanctuary, the standing for hymns and all of the distractions of many faces makes me less attentive than I should be. But in honor of this technology that allows us to be together, I will make an effort to talk slowly in case one of us has one of those glitches that slows word transmission. I also have found that switching on Speaker View in the upper right of your Zoom Screen, and even switching off your own video, is what helps me concentrate on Sunday mornings and if you want to do that, I won’t be offended. But come back for the reflection time so we can see your face!
The Shocking Story of the Near-Sacrifice of Isaac
When you heard today’s lectionary or read the complete selection on line, which one stuck in your head? Was it Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
I doubt it. It was that Abraham and Isaac story. I had only heard the kid’s version of this story for much of my life. A man was trying so hard to listen to God, that he was willing to offer up his own son in sacrifice to God. At age 34, I started seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary. I had two young children, and Julia was on the way. My first impression of reading this story in depth in seminary was: “What kind of father would take his son up a mountain to sacrifice him? A monster? A sadist? Someone mentally ill?” I saw the act in my mind’s eye as in Rembrandt’s famous painting of Abraham’s Sacrifice.
(PAINTING 1 ON SCREEN) https://www.wikiart.org/en/rembrandt/sacrifice-of-isaac
Abraham was totally focused on his own relationship with the angel, representing God, seeing his son as an object, a commodity, which he was ready to sacrifice in the promise of a nation in Canaan. Isaac’s face is hidden in with a rough hand pushed down, and he is laid out like a piece of meat. Rembrandt painted this Bible story as a young man of 29, the same year he and wife had their first child, who died at birth. So he had not yet been a parent, and as he had been working and supporting himself since age 14, perhaps had not had a chance to nurture another human being. Rembrandt was painting his way through the Old Testament, producing over 700 paintings and prints over his life, looking at each story with extreme detail. He used models from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his painting and later print-making, and over the years went back to a story he’d already painted with new insight. He moved on to the New Testament stories after 1640, when his paintings often became darker, possibly after he’d had many tragedies in his own life. But remember this painting as I move on.
As I continued through seminary, I learned more and more about the ancient traditions of the Hebrew faith that led to Christianity centuries later. The Hebrew faith had started with a nomad people, who used sacrifice and a careful structuring of the pieces of meat across each other to effect an unbreakable covenant. Abraham traveled around Canaan, presumably feeding his flocks and built altars that were the center of Hebrew faith for hundreds of years, and these altars can still be seen today. The idea of an unbreakable covenant is a powerful one to literature—just unbelievable today. Those of you who are Harry Potter fans, despite J.K. Rowling’s current downfall, know of the “unbreakable vow” in the books and how it seemed impossible to believe. But in the book of Genesis, the history of a detailed ritual of sacrifice, laying out the carcass in a certain way, and passing fire between the parts was clearly passed on from centuries long before Abraham. When he thought God needed him to make a covenant, he thought he knew how to do it. Before we get to this moment, let’s go over what kind of man Abraham was.
A brief summary of Abraham’s life.
Abraham answered God’s call to “go to the land that I will show you.” He left Haran in the north, possibly just above the Sea of Galilee, and traveled with his tribe southward, and built an altar in Shechem and then in Bethel, not far from where Jerusalem is today, and then down to the Negev Desert. While these acts seem like Abraham wants to be a saint for God, the things he does within his family seem unfathomable and despicable today. When there was a famine, he led his family to Egypt, and let the Pharoah “have his wife” and when the Pharoah realized he had appropriated a married women, the Pharoah sent back Sarah, and gave Abraham sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels. With all this wealth, he went back to Bethel, and did not seem to be able to find a way to share the land and wealth, and told his nephew Lot to move on—and you may know that Lot needed help extracting himself from Sodom. Abraham argued for the saving of the city for fifty, down to 10 righteous men. Lot escaped, but not the city or his wife.
Abraham heard promised from God that his lands would extend as far as he could see, and that his children would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham made another large sacrifice, and the covenant with God was made again.
Then there was Sarah’s loss of faith in God’s promise for descendants, and her giving her slave, Hagar, to get the line of descendants going. Then later, when the tribe was back in Negev, Abraham gave Sarah to the King Abimilech, to keep his tribe safe, while she was supposedly pregnant with Isaac. God intervened again, getting Sarah released safely, and then, finally, Isaac was born, when Abraham was 100 years old. On Sarah’s request, Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out to the desert to die, but God saved them.
So we see that Abraham had made some questionable choices in life, but still, he was in conversation with God, trying to do what he was asked. Then God asked Abraham to take Isaac to a mountain of Moriah and sacrifice him, and Abraham went.
Later on in seminary—I took a long time to get through as I now had 3 children under 5, I took a class on Bach and Rembrandt and their expressions of Christianity, and studied this later etching of Abraham’s Sacrifice, done 20 years later in 1655, when Rembrandt was a father, 49 years old at a time when the average lifespan was 30, and its tone is much different.
PAINTING 2 ON SCREEN SHARING https://www.wikiart.org/en/rembrandt/abraham-s-sacrifice-1655
Abraham is cradling Isaac in a gentle way, and hiding his eyes so that he won’t know what is happening, Abraham’s arm and hand are almost slack, as if he has no energy, and is resigned to his task, but not taking strength and power in it. Rembrandt’s understanding of this act of sacrifice has changed, and while learning about Rembrandt’s spiritual journey to get from Proclaiming! Leading! Succeeding! as a rich and famous artist of the day to a man suffering in all parts of his life, and seeing the bible stories quite differently in a human context of the complexity and suffering of life, I started to give Abraham a bit of a break, too. In the earlier painting of Abraham, he looks transfixed by a magical angel, and uses his son, and maybe his whole family, as objects to meet God’s requirement and get that kingdom. In this second depiction of the bible passage, Abraham is a man who looks a bit confused, not sure of what he heard, delaying until the last possible moment, and his hand is stopped. And perhaps the message we receive is that sacrifice is not necessary, hearing God right the first time may not even necessary, but continuing to listen and try—and maybe not hurting the others around us—is very important. God hopes for our gifts, but not a sacrifice as understood in ancient days. God is in a relationship, and as many of us who have been married a long time, like Joan and Doug Dodge, who shared their 50th anniversary with us last week, we don’t have to be right the first time, but we have to make a commitment to keep trying. Abraham’s relationship with God was like that.
(As an aside, my course on Bach and Rembrandt also looked at the development of Bach’s religious music—he had to produce a new church piece every week, so there are hundreds—also became more nuanced and he expressed a deeper relationship with God over the years. Deborah has chosen a Bach piece which will be familiar to you for the offertory. Thanks, Deborah.)
We have left behind the Old Testament God in Christianity, accepting the Golden Rule of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we now for see these stories as a testament that God made covenants with imperfect—very imperfect people. Just as a reprise, Abraham treats his wives as the legal chattel they were at the time, cannot get along with his nephew once they have some wealth to argue over, and while he argues with God for 10 righteous men, doesn’t put up much of a fight for Sarah, Hagar or the children Ishmael or Isaac. If God can make a covenant with Abraham, imperfect as he was, he can make one with us. We make covenants on our baptism, confirmation, marriage, and at Seekers at our annual time of membership commitment each year. We are asked for the sacrifice of time and treasure to look out for the whole community and not just ourselves and our family, and of the sacrifice of ego to allow the gifts of everyone to come out. These are complicated bits of our theology which someone else will preach on, I’m sure, but I want to point out that we still ask for sacrifice, for each of us to do hard things to keep our community together, in addition to money of gifts and tithes.
I want to make a small detour to the history of sacrificial giving.
The Meaning of Making a Sacrifice – and Giving of First Fruits.
When we read the short squibs of Genesis in our lectionary, we also lose track of the fact that sacrifices were made not only for forgiveness of sin, which was seen as the reason for Jesus’ death several thousand years later, but also for the making of covenant, or an unbreakable vow. The sacrifice of first fruits was to show one’s deep belief and conviction, but was a pagan ritual, kept on for many hundreds of years. When the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed, Judaism abandoned sacrifice, and accepted prayer and repentance as the route to forgiveness of sin, as Christianity had done. Giving of tithes of money representing first fruits of one’s labor replaced giving the actual first fruits.
When Seekers dedicated the space for this building, which then took four years to build and open!, Peter Bankson collected some wildflowers from the back garden area and put them on the temporary altar as the first fruits of the space. I began to think about whether first fruits meant the temporal first fruits, or whether it should mean what is most important.
The question I am asking YOU is what do you think your first fruits should be? What is a first fruit for you, and what is a sacrificial gift? In the days before refrigeration,
–when wars among the tiny tribes and kingdoms were so myriad that we basically say “yada, yada, yada” when we read out the names of those tribes and kingdoms,
–when there was no modern medicine,
–when the dry season may have left everyone nearly starving, or perhaps somewhat malnourished with what was left from the last harvest
giving up first fruits was giving up the grains and fruits truly was a major sacrifice, a showing of faith that the next harvest would come in plentiful and that God would provide. What is your and our first fruit today?
What is My Sacrifice and Covenant
We have to pray that what we offer is the right thing for what we want from God. At Seekers, we think a lot about call and giving in what we do in life, in addition to financial giving. I started working on women’s rights in college, in grad school, and as chair of the Women’s Political Caucus in Virginia. Then I looked for the most down-trodden women in Australia to work with while I lived there and attended seminary, and began working with women in the sex industry who were heroin addicted. I found similar women at N Street Village, and perhaps am offering the same first fruits—I studied income inequality and policies surrounding women’s rights at Harvard, and now I am working with women who are suffering the most from poor policies. I hadn’t thought about it before this sermon, but I hope perhaps I am still offering the same first fruits.
I am hoping that in thinking about Abraham and his life, you can erase the terrible picture of him holding a knife. Instead of thinking about the ancient sacrifice of life taken from nomad religions, move to Matthew:
Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. . . .whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
In the New Testiment word “sacrifice” might be erased, and the word “gift” be substituted. Rather than sacrificing, we might think about giving generously to the little ones in the world, and I think God would not stay our hands in that act.
Gift, Not Sacrifice
In this time of thinking about Black Lives Matter and racial equity, I have learned that most of the speaking on that topic should be left to those experiencing inequity. White people should be talking about their own experience in a system that allows injustice. For me, thinking about the evolution of Christian faith from seeing Abraham as great for being willing to slaughter his son to evolve to someone who may have been suffering to listen to a terrible test, and who was told love and relationship to that son was the success is thing to hold on to. It brought up for me that many people in our country seem worried about the financial cost of giving reparation in some way, or the cost of bringing more equality of all kinds in our country. I remember in fifth grade, my social studies teacher showing us a graph of income equality among countries and teaching us that we never want to be like Brazil. Our country tried to have some justice through the tax system and provide basic equality. Well, now we are like Brazil, and our country has extreme income equality, and everyone seems to think that every election has to bring lower taxes for everyone. I wish we could think that it is a gift to know that everyone’s basic needs are taken care of. Eliminating racial injustice is a gift to all of us, making us good Christians, loving our neighbors as ourselves. I am hoping that in the current times, we evolve from caring from our next door neighbor, who may have the same economic and social situation as ourselves, to caring for the neighbor several miles away in a segregated setting as ourselves. It would not be a sacrifice of our heart, but an opening and expanding of our love and caring.