a sermon for Ordinary Time on Genesis 22:1-14 and Matthew 10:34-42
preached on June 26, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As we gather on this beautiful day in this beautiful spot, our scripture readings aren’t quite so beautiful. Between Abraham’s obedience to God’s command that led him to nearly kill his beloved son Isaac and Jesus’ insistence that he came not to bring peace but a sword, I suspect that many folks would rather leave these texts out of the Bible – or at the very least not talk about them all that often! But nonetheless, here we have them, not one but two challenging texts put before us by the lectionary today.
I have to wonder what we do with them, then, if we can’t just ignore them or pretend like they aren’t there. What are we supposed to do with a word like this, where God seems to tell us to do something we not only do not want to do for no good reason but that seems incredibly insensitive and inhuman? In moments like these, with texts like these, I think it’s a reasonable question.
These two texts present us with stories where God’s instruction not only just doesn’t make sense but is also extremely divisive and troubling. It doesn’t make sense to Abraham for him to go and offer his long-sought son as a sacrifice to God, and this act certainly doesn’t fit at all within the broader picture we get from the whole Bible of how God works in the world. And Jesus’ words about his message tearing families apart don’t seem to make much sense either in our world that places such a high value on familial relationships – or even in the broader context of his story that shows how Jesus’ mother and brothers played an important role in supporting his ministry.
So what’s the right thing to do here? How should we respond when we hear God speaking, calling us to do something difficult? Do we just give in and do it, or do we somehow resist and find another way? What is the most faithful approach to responding to God in our lives and our world when it is hard?
Abraham demonstrates one approach to all this in his total, unquestioned obedience. His model of following God’s command to offer his son as a sacrifice is admirable, but I don’t think it is particularly commendable in our world. First of all, how could he have done this to the son whom he wanted and desired and plotted and prayed for for so long? In today’s world, Abraham would likely (and rightly) face some sort of criminal charge for endangering the life of his son even if he did not go through with it, and I think we have good reason to question Abraham’s actions based on so many other human encounters with God in the Bible that would suggest that this sort of message should not be followed.
But I don’t think Abraham’s approach of total, unquestioned obedience is all that wise for us today. In both Abraham’s story and Jesus’ instruction here, it just doesn’t seem wise to dive in right away and do what God says without questioning or limiting things somehow. We have to put God’s word in the moment in the context of the broader voice of God working in and with the world; otherwise, we risk bringing about great harm to others and ourselves by following what we only think God wants us to do.
The best way to do this, in my view, is to be thoughtful, faithful, and prayerful as we respond to what we think God is saying, and there’s no better way to do this than to turn to the Bible. As we read the Bible and interpret it for our lives and our world by the power of the Holy Spirit working in community, we hear God’s word to us the best we possibly can.
Again, this isn’t as easy as it would seem to be. We can find texts in the Bible to back up pretty much anything we want, and so we must remember that every reading of the Bible involves some level of interpretation as we take these ancient words and put them into our own language and our own cultural context. Along the way, something is bound to get mixed up or lost or confused, so we need some guidance.
Thankfully, my seminary theology professor Shirley Guthrie summarized how to interpret the Bible in six not-quite-simple rules (from his classic book Christian Doctrine), building on the historic confessions of the church to give guidance for our life today.
First, “scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own purpose.” Scripture was not written to be a scientific or historical document but instead to tell us who God is and how God has interacted with God’s people over the centuries, and we have to keep that purpose in mind as we use it and interpret it.
Then, “scripture interprets itself,” for we look first to other passages in the Bible to sort out the meaning of difficult or confusing texts.
Guthrie then suggests that we keep Jesus Christ at the center of all our reflections about scripture, because if we have the best vision of God that we will get in Jesus, we can certainly learn something from his words and actions that will help us to better understand other parts of the Bible.
Fourth, Guthrie says that we should follow “the rule of faith,” keeping the incredible grace of God in Jesus Christ at the center of our faith and practice and honoring the insights of those who have gone before us in the life of faith.
Then Guthrie insists that we also follow “the rule of love” as we recognize that God’s primary commandments are to love God and neighbor and that any interpretation of scripture that “shows indifference toward or contempt for any individual or group inside or outside the church” is wrong.
Finally, Guthrie calls us to look at the literary and historical context of scripture as we study it, recognizing that we learn a great deal when we think about scripture in the day and age and form in which it was written.
So in and through these specific steps, especially when we undertake them prayerfully as a community of faith rather than just on our own, we can learn a little more about what God is saying to us in scripture and in other revelations and figure out how best to apply these words in our daily lives. I say all this about interpreting scripture because the difficult things we hear from God are not just a thing of the past – people closer to our own time must sort out these things, too.
During the days of Nazi Germany, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the author of our last hymn – struggled to sort out what God was calling him to do. Bonhoeffer had considered himself a pacifist, but over time he became a major leader of the church’s opposition to Hitler and the Nazi takeover of the church. Bonhoeffer struggled with what seemed to be mixed messages from God – not just deciding between a call to teach here in New York where he had studied at Union Seminary and enjoy the safety of life here or a call to be a part of a small group in the German church calling out the nationalism and racism of the church, but also sorting out his recognition of God’s consistent message of peace and nonviolence over against his need to stand up to the grave injustices of the Third Reich.
Bonhoeffer ended up staying in Germany, promoting a way of life that stood in stark opposition to the norm of the war years there, and eventually this peace-lover became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, deciding that the need to end the terrible rule of this tyrannical dictator was a part of God’s call to peace for him. After the plot failed, Bonhoeffer was arrested along with many of his co-conspirators, and he spent the last two years of the war in prison. As the outcome of the war became clear in April 1945, Hitler ordered the execution of Bonhoeffer and his compatriots. Today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as an incredible example of one who struggled to sort all these things out for himself, and his difficult journey shows the complexity, power, and consequences of sorting out the difficult things that God calls us to do.
The difficult decisions that Bonhoeffer faced along the way, alongside the difficult words we hear posed to Abraham and the disciples, can and should inspire us to think about the difficult call of God upon us – the call to give up the things that we hold most dear for God’s better use, the call to link ourselves not to the things of the world but to the things of God, the call to love others and most especially God far more than we ever love ourselves, the call to show a deep and radical welcome to each and every person, and the call to listen carefully and discern wisely when faced with a difficult situation.
So may God strengthen us to respond to these calls, to sort out the difficult call of God upon us, so that we might always be faithful and demonstrate the incredible love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.