23 September 2008

The (W)Reckoning of Faith Sermon 21.Sept.2008

The (W)Reckoning of Faith: Abe says “What?”
text: “that God did tempt Abraham” (Genesis 22:1)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 21.Sept.2008
Lime Rock Baptist Church – Lincoln, RI
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Abraham for the Apostle Paul and for early Christian thinkers became the archetypal model of faith, the living example of what trust in G-d looked like. For us today, he still is a model for complete trust in G-d too. The stories of Abraham have funded the imagination of western world for centuries and they continue to at one time repel and attract at the same time. Abraham is at one time, borderline if not fully, insane (going to kill his son) and heroic willing to rest the future of his family on the earlier promise G-d made to him to make a nation out of him.

Different ones have employed the adjective of blind as a prefix for Abraham’s faith, his was a blind faith, as if to say no one with open eyes would have done the kind of things he had done! (Interesting that the rabbis from old tell the story that at the moment Abraham is about to slay his son the tears from his eyes fall into Isaac’s eyes and permanently alter Isaac’s vision). Abraham did not have blind faith, he had a full panoramic faith.

In the book of Genesis after G-d created the heavens and the earth, after Adam and Eve were made and expelled from the garden, after Noah and the flood, after the Tower of Babel, after all of the primordial stories, after the prolegomena of humanity, once the grand themes of creation are laid out on the table the narrative focuses in on one person and his family (from chapters 12 onwards to the close of the book in chapter 50) tells the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Through the eyes and the experiences of the patriarchs the Bible tells the story of G-d’s peculiar and particular relationship with humanity.

In order to lift these words as Living Words we have to suspend a few lines of thought. First, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son. Abraham actually had another son, Ishmael from his servant Hagar. Second, it appears Sarah, Isaac mother and Abraham’s wife was not consulted about this proposal. Finally, realize the world of this text is not our world today. What may seem distant, foreign, and odd may have very well seemed par for the course in ancient societies.

What comes to mind when you hear the word faith? We can play around with the word and come up with trust, obedience, devotion, authentic, dependable, committed, resolute, assurance, trust, confidence, hope, steadfast, you get the idea of some on the nuances for the meaning of this word. Do any or all of these words apply to the story found in Genesis chapter 22?

When Abraham was 75 years old, back when he was simply known as Abram G-d proposed a deal to a great man of the ancient world, but not a great man of history (yet). “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It is quite a deal, Abram goes from a little somebody in Mesopotamia to one of the greatest figures in Western and what was formerly known as Asian societies.

Along the way the promise G-d made to Abram is tested and put to the limits and every time the promise is kept as a viable possibility. Simply put
G-d and Abram developed a relationship, a portfolio of events and experiences that shaped who both were – that’s right even G-d was shaped by his relationship with Abram. Eventually Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, the promise is still unfulfilled because Sarah has no progeny. After years and many tribulations God announced to the 100 year-old Abraham and the 90 year old Sarah, you will have a child. Sarah laughs at the prospect and who wouldn’t but lo and behold the nonagenarian and the centenarian have a child and name him Isaac, literally meaning: may G-d smile.

The promise has finally become fulfilled. The portfolio of experiences between G-d and Abraham seems to be overflowing with assurances but the story is not over. It seems that Sarah is not the only jealous figure in this drama (every time she sees Hagar and Ishmael her jealously fumes and has them kicked out of the household), there is a much bigger “ego” to attend to. It seems all the love and attention young Isaac received rubbed G-d the wrong way. Abraham and Sarah indeed have a child, but have they forgotten who provided them with the child. In other words, it is time for another test, only this time it is the test of all tests. It is the test which we will standardize as the story to tell for the full definition of faith.

In whimsical fashion and with a carnival beat (for how else could you tell this story) Bob Dylan best told the story:
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"

Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"

{editorial note: many had no idea who Dylan was (one member said I only listen to Bing Crosby). Those who did, did not recognize the song (during the announcement time one person said without the Dylan twang they could not place songs, therefore I sang the first few bars with the best nasal Dylan twang I could, all agreed that helped tremendously)

That’s right Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, the one whom the promised rested. Slay the very progeny that will ensure the promise is fulfilled. We can view Abraham’s acceptance of this command as faith, for he takes Isaac with two of his servants and set off for the unknown destination. Abraham has already done this before and God kept God’s end of the bargin. G-d said Abraham and Sarah would have a child and they did. Abraham has enough confidence to believe that G-d knows what he is doing.

But what if you are Isaac? How are you feeling right now. All your life no doubt Abraham and Sarah has told you how special you are. How you are the result of G-d’s blessing. And yet how are you to properly ascertain what is going on. It is just you and your father alone on a strange mountain in a land unfamiliar to you both. Your father has a knife and a flame while you have a load of wood and neither of you has a lamb to sacrifice. So you properly ask: Father, The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Good question. Your father replies: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Up till now, as difficult as it may seem the story is believable and even somewhat predictable. Abraham has a 15+ years with G-d to know that if G-d says he will provide, G-d will provide. On the other side G-d has 15+ years experience with Abraham to know that if I ask Abraham to do such and such he will usually do such and such. They have both kept their ends of the bargain. We can easily imagine Abraham saying, no way G-d will really want me to slay my son. We can also easily imagine G-d saying no way Abraham will really want to slay his son. But both are wrong!

From here on out the story becomes unpredictable and uncontrollable; the relationship between humanity and God is pushed to its furthermost limits. Abraham binds his son, lifts his knife and is ready to slay his son. While the knife hangs in midair we need to pause before advancing.

I would venture to say that most of you here want to describe faith as a reasonable and logical avenue of life. St. Anselm, a theologian of the Middle Ages (1033-1109) while offering an explanation of what theology is coined the phrase: theology is faith seeking understanding. Theology, simply put God-talk, has always sought to properly understand the faith which we have and which the Church has had for the past two millennia. But the hardest aspect of explaining religion is that it is not always easily understood, rational or logical forget about explainable. So when you try to ascertain and make sense of the Abraham story from a logical, reasonable and modern standpoint you run into all kinds of trouble. Either Abraham has faith to such a degree that it is unattainable for any other human or Abraham is a complete mad man and G-d is a completely mad and jealous god. Faith is not reasonable.

Back to the story. Abraham has the knife in midair, about to plunge it forcefully down to slay his son, Isaac. Before the electric sensors move from his brain to his arm with the instructions to plunge a voice comes from heaven: Abraham, Abraham! The tone is almost you fool stop. The voice also has a tone of self-knowledge as G-d also says what have I done. Although both parties in this story, Abraham and G-d, have intimately known each other for 15+ years neither knew exactly where the story in chapter 22 would go. Faith for both of them was unpredictable.

Abraham looked up, saw a ram, unbound his son and sacrificed the ram instead. We would like to say that the story had a nice and happy ending, that Abraham had a nice laugh about the whole thing, walked down the mountain arm in arm, were bosom buddies for the rest of their lives, and later on would joke hey dad remember the time you almost killed me what a hoot that was. We would love for the story to say that, but it does not. Notice, only Abraham walks down the mountain, Isaac stays alone on the mountain for an undeterminable amount of time.

Abraham never talks to G-d again, in the narrative. In the next chapter Sarah dies and in the following chapter Abraham dies. If the story of the command to sacrifice Isaac is an example of faith par excellence it is not a story that we would all ascribe to incorporate into our lives. The story is descriptive, faith will transform your life and perhaps not always in the best of ways we would all hope it would. After the story Abraham, Isaac, and G-d area all forever changed.

I do not know how you define faith, it is simultaneous concrete and ephemeral. It is both easily defined and impossible to define. If we take this story to define faith we can easily say faith is not reasonable, is not predictable and is not safe, but let me also say faith is not the end either.

The Apostle Paul in every letter he wrote somehow touched on or made central the topic of faith. He gave us the helpful and cautionary phrase: work out your faith in fear and trembling. Faith is something that comes with time, trust and experience. Faith is not picked up off the street like a lost penny. It is tested, tried, and trued in the crucible of our lives. But it is not the end. In the 13th chapter of the book of First Corinthians Paul wrote his beautiful Ode to Love:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Paul did not say the greatest of these is faith, although we would certainly think so given the centrality faith plays in his letters. No brothers and sister the greatest and most abiding is love. For when we look at the story to slay Isaac we see but through a glass, darkly – we do not have complete and full understanding, we never will.

But we shant desert the great possibilities of faith. If faith is not reasonable, predictable and safe then it is illogical, open, and dangerous. Odd isn’t it that illogical, open and dangerous are some good terms to define love. We take a risk by staking our faith in G-d. G-d takes a risk staking his faith in us. Yet we both preserve and trundle along held up by the bounds of everlasting love.

Brothers and Sisters I invite you to continue to walk on this way of faith, I invite you for the first time on this way of faith, I invite you to renew you walk on this way of faith.

Let us pray:
Almighty God,
your servant Abraham obeyed your call,
rejoicing in your promise
that in him all the families of the earth
should be blessed.
Give us faith like his,
that in us your promises may be fulfilled;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

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