dying to live

 

Epiphany 1-22-17 a sermon, based on Genesis 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017

 

God said to Abraham, “Take your son…Isaac…whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.”

A bit of the back story…

God called Abraham to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him, where he would become a progenitor of nations. But Abraham and Sarah, his wife, were old and childless.[1] Without at least one child, it would be impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes. Finally, when Abraham was 100[2] and Sarah 90,[3] Isaac was born.[4]

Then Abraham, with Sarah, having left their homeland, sacrificing their past for God’s sake, is told by God to kill their son, thereby sacrificing their long-hoped-for present, now fulfilled, and the promise of their future. For to kill their one child would make it impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes.

Nevertheless, “Abraham rose early in the morning…and set out” to do as God had commanded.

What? Suppose any of us who are parents heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to which we ascribe ordering us to murder our children. What would we think, feel, do? Or suppose, as a child, we heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to our parents commanding that they kill us. What would we think, feel, do?

Sometimes when I reflect on this story, an image comes to mind of Sarah watching her husband and son walk toward the horizon with wood for a burnt offering, but no animal for the burnt offering and wondering, fearing what was to be.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690)

Now, God’s command was intended as a test of Abraham’s love and loyalty. A test, we are assured that God had no intention of seeing through to its terrible end. A test that Abraham, in his willing obedience, passed.

Nevertheless it was a test, at first and second glance, monstrously cruel.

It may not assuage the sensitive human conscience to claim that this story is a biblical protest against the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Nor might it be comforting to claim some theological justification for God’s aggression. That God’s command to Abraham to kill his only son is a portent of the sacrifice of Jesus, the only Son of God, to redeem the world. That the sacrifice of Jesus is foreshadowed in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s wonderment about the whereabouts of the sacrificial animal, “God will provide the lamb.” That this explains why we Christians, thankful for the sacrifice of Jesus, pray, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

But sacrifice is sacrifice. Violence is violence. And in a world, whether ancient, modern, or post-modern, filled with gratuitous cruelty, how can this story appeal to wounded human conscience? How can this story assuage souls ravaged by the brutalities of humankind throughout history?

Maybe it can’t!

Or maybe this story is meant to be a biblical wide-eyed, unblinking stare, glare at us demanding that we answer this question: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?

In two days, we Americans will celebrate the 241st anniversary of the birth of our nation. A nation established on the foundation of great ideals – human equality (though honesty compels the confession that we alway need continue to expand that definition from its original intention; for, our founding fathers, in their time of their dreaming and writing, had not in mind women or me as an African American!) and the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” An establishment involving the sacrifice of life against the might of an empire to secure liberty long-sought.

In the bright light of our celebration, again I ask: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?

Speaking always and only for myself, I am a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus who died for his cause, proclaiming, embodying the kingdom of God’s unconditional love and justice. O’er many years, daily I have prayed, in the words of the hymn, to see Jesus more clearly so to follow Jesus more nearly so to love Jesus more dearly.[5] And I am convinced that real living, living in liberty, living unfettered and free from undue restraint – whether without by another’s hand or force or within from fear of loss – so to be and to become who God created me to be is a matter of doing what Jesus did. To be ready and willing to lay down my life. And, in the words of another hymn, as I daily decide to follow Jesus,[6] his cause is my cause. For the sake of loving and being just with you and all people, I am willing to die.

For what are you willing to die, so to live?

 

Illustration: The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-l690)

Footnotes:

[1] See Genesis 12.1-4.

[2] See Genesis 17.17, 21.5.

[3] See Genesis 17.17.

[4] See Genesis 21.1-3.

[5] A reference to the words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253): Day by day, dear Lord, of Thee three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.

[6] Words ascribed to an Indian prince of Garo, Assam:

I have decided to follow Jesus (sung 3 times); no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, I still will follow (3); no turning back, no turning back.

My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus (3); no turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me (3); no turning back, no turning back.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 14, Thursday, March 16, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news” (and) “Follow me” ( Mark 1.14-15, 17a)

On the Kingdom of God: O Jesus, You came proclaiming that in You, Your life and Your ministry, God’s Kingdom had drawn nigh. Still, the Kingdom seems (at times, I fear, is) afar off. Kingdom-evidences in this strife-torn, sorrow-worn creation are sometimes hard to see, at least, for me.

Yet, blessedly, O Jesus, guided by Your gospel-light, with the spiritual sight of imagination, Kingdom-visions are not hard for me to seek. With the eyes of faith, I behold banquets where none hunger and all are welcome; festivals where none are poor, all attired in silken robes of equality’s wealth; where shackles lay shattered and prisons uninhabited, for liberty’s economy hath bankrupted all criminality and made charity the universal coin of the realm; where hospitals stand shuttered and dark and graveyards empty, for sickness and death are no more.

Ah, O Jesus, hearing again, hearing alway Your call, “Follow Me,” I see anew that I, in the strength of Your Spirit, in my daily being and doing, am to help usher in Your Kingdom-day; in the hungry and naked, the imprisoned and the stranger, the sick and dying, feeding and clothing, visiting and welcoming You.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Matthew 25.31-40: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

African American History Month

(Personal Note: In recognition of African American History Month, I republish my blog post of February 1, 2015. Characteriologically, I am a person who, in regard to nearly every subject, great and small, upon initial and second thought, consideration and reconsideration, changes his mind, at times, multiply within short spans of time. However, the following word still rings true in my mind and heart, soul and spirit…)

In 1976, as a part of the United States Bicentennial Celebration, African American or Black History Month (AAHM) was recognized by the federal government as an annual occasion, in the words of then President Gerald Ford, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

AAHM’s forerunner, Negro History Week (NHW), was established in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Observed in the second week of February, coinciding with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, February 12 and 14, respectively, dates since the late 19th century held in honor in black communities, NHW focused on advancing the teaching and study in public schools of the history of American blacks.

I am a 62-year old African American educated in St. Louis public schools. I remember the dearth of system-authorized black history instruction; a glaring deficiency addressed in content and assuaged in spirit by the committed efforts of my nuclear and extended families and my elementary school teachers, all who, in collaboration conscious or unawares, fulfilled my grandmother Audia’s proclamation, “Paul, to know yourself, you must know your people’s history.” Hence, I have an elemental, perhaps eternal affinity for AAHM. More expansively, for America – which, I believe, has still to incarnate the dream of Langston Hughes, who, speaking for all peoples, native and immigrant, white and black, said, “O, let America be America again; the land that never has been yet, and yet must be; the land where every man is free” – to know herself, she must know her black people’s history.

Still, as a pluralist who rejoices in our racial diversity and as an inclusivist who equally relishes our common humanity, my inner inquisitor wonders, worries about AAHM. How fair is it to the concept of our universal humanness to dedicate any period – a day, a week, a month, a year or more – to the history of any one race? And how fair is it to relegate the study of black history to any period when my people’s history, a vivid, inerasable thread in the rich tapestry of our national being and becoming, is American history? (My aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, a college English professor, so cherishing the idea, the ideal of interdisciplinary and interracial, in other words shared, not separate approaches to education, in 1977, published American Literature and the Arts Including Black Expression.)

Yet, as Langston’s prophecy remains to be fulfilled, I continue to pray in his words: O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.

As I believe that true equality is achieved in real part when all of us know the histories of each of us, I will commemorate and celebrate AAHM.

goin’ down to Egypt

bulletin-cover a sermon, based on Exodus 3.1-12, preached on the occasion of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., commemoration at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC, on Sunday, January 15, 2017

I preach with you, my dear sisters and brothers in the Name of our ever-faithful, freedom-loving, freedom-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Moses, in an outburst of outrage, slays an Egyptian, who was beating a Hebrew slave. In fear, he flees Egypt. In Midian, a safe distance away, drawing near a mountain, suddenly, “an angel of the Lord appeared” in a bush ablaze, yet unburned. God speaks: “I have observed my people’s misery…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…I have come down to deliver them.”

moses-adores-god-in-the-burning-bush-james-tissot-1836-1902-french-jewish-museum-new-york

What will be God’s instrumentality? God’s delivery system of choice? Cosmic portents? Cataclysmic earthly upheaval? An army, mighty in number and power? No. God tells Moses, “I send you.” I hear the echo of God’s voice in the soulful words of the spiritual: Go down, Moses, ‘Way down in Egypt land. Tell ole Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Moses cries, “Who am I that I should go?” God answers with a word of consolation, verily compassion, “I will be with you.”

img_0027

We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. His life devoted to a dream of equality for all people. His legacy of the necessity of continued labor of succeeding generations toward the fulfillment of that dream.

In our remembrance, we read the Exodus story of God’s declaration of a crisis and call to Moses, stirring in Moses an inner conflict. Crisis. Call. Conflict.

However, in light of Martin’s life and legacy, and from a human existential viewpoint, I bid we alter the order of our understanding of this story, perceiving first a crisis that provokes a conflict that prepares the way for God’s call. Crisis. Conflict. Call.

Moses, on that Midian mountainside, already knowing his people’s crisis in Egypt, surely was conflicted: Do I remain in safety or return, risking my life? Do I concede that the problem is implacable, Pharaoh is intractable, and the liberation is improbable or dare I believe with God all things are possible?

In this crucible of crisis and conflict, now Moses hears God’s call. In the poetry of Hebrew narrative, conveying a reality beyond the power of even precise prose, the vox Deus sounds through fire, that ancient symbol of the divine: “I have come to deliver my people…I send you, Moses, to bring my people out.”

The transcendent-immanent God works out the divine purpose within the concrete context of human history. (Verily, God’s words and deeds are historical events!) Moses answers God’s call “goin’ ‘way down in Egypt land”.

The lives of Moses and Martin embrace many parallels.

Like Moses, Martin was painfully aware of the crisis of God’s oppressed people; believing the American civil rights movement to be a latter day chapter of the Exodus story.[1]

Like Moses, Martin was conflicted about his role and responsibility, the risks to himself and his family.

Like Moses, Martin heard God’s call to freedom. Like Moses, Martin went forth, trusting that God was working out the divine purpose, many times quoting James Russell Lowell:

Though the cause of evil prosper,

Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold,

And upon the throne be wrong,

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

keeping watch above his own.[2]

Like Moses, Martin discovered that freedom ain’t free, but always costs one’s safety and one’s self.

Like Moses, Martin faced a tenacious pharaoh in the form of unrepentant racism.

Like Moses, Martin never stood in the Promised Land; on the night before his assassination, saying: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…But…I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[3]

We remember Martin. His life of love for the dream of equality for all people. A love, in obedience to Jesus, even for his enemies.[4] A love that forged a movement of nonviolent power and persuasion in which enemies were “killed” with the kindness of an oppressed people standing up as equals. A love through which lives, metaphorically and literally, were laid down for the sake of friends.[5]

We remember Martin. His legacy of the necessity to labor continually to make the dream a reality. A legacy involving us…

The church is no memorial society. We do not gather to recall sentimentally the life and labor of our dear, dead, departed leader. We gather in the power of the Spirit in the Name of a living Jesus in response to his command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Remembering his body broken, his blood shed…

Remembering that God sent Jesus to be the last sacrifice, the last victim, so that no more sacrificial victims of any class or color, gender or sexual orientation, race or ethnic origin will be crucified on the twin Calvary crosses of phobia and prejudice…

Remembering that we are called to stand on the side of the ailing and alienated, the despised and despairing, the helpless and hopeless, the poor and oppressed, the least, last, and lost in all the Egypts of this world that have yet to understand the meaning of the cross and in that invincible ignorance continue to seek and make sacrificial victims.

God, in the eternal, inextinguishable fire of divine glory, spoke to Moses and Martin and speaks to us, “I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out.” This is neither an easy word from God nor an easy work for us. So, when, not if, we ask, “Who are we that we should go?” God always answers, “I will be with you.”

So, my dear sisters and brothers, let us go!

 

Illustration: Moses adores God in the burning bush, James Tissot (1836-1902), French Jewish Museum, New York

Photograph: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC, January 14, 2012, by me

Footnotes:

[1] See Where Do We Go From Here? Chapter 6: The World House.

[2] From the poem, The Present Crisis (1845)

[3] From I See the Promised Land, delivered at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ), April 3, 1968.

[4] See Luke 6.27

[5] See John 15.12-17.