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.

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 20, Thursday, March 23, 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…

On the paradoxical nature and work of the Holy Spirit: O Spirit of God, by Your Presence within me,[1] I, in the flesh of my human living, the very same dust into which the Lord God breathed life at the dawn of creation,[2] the very same dust inhabited by God’s Word in Jesus,[3] have the blessing of bearing His likeness and sharing in His ministry.[4]

Still, O Spirit of God, in Your indwelling my sinful human being, You, wholly Holy, Wise, and True, inhabit what is impure, imprudent, and imperfect. A more deserving earthly house I would imagine for You, though among humankind, whether that of mine own or that of anyone, there neither is nor can be.

Thus, O Spirit of God, I pray You stay. Abide within me and, by Your continual work of sanctification, make me, day by day, more and more as You are: holy, wise, and true. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] My reference to John 14.15-17 (my emphasis): Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” Note: The Greek word έη can be translated into English as “among” or “in”; this latter rendering I prefer.

[2] See Genesis 2.7: The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

[3] See John 1.1, 14: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[4] My reference to 2 Corinthians 4.7: We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

African American History Month – reflection 8

Continuing my personal reflections on African American History Month, I have become who I am through the helping hearts and hands of so many. Yet another…

Verna Josephine DozierDr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006). Teacher and theologian. Preacher and prophet. Author and mentor.

September 1975. The beginning of my second seminary year. I remember a classmate, the late Wayland Edward Melton, who one day would be dean of Philadelphia Cathedral in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, returning from summer break with a breathlessly exuberant report about Verna Dozier. “This itty-bitty Black woman biblical scholar” had conducted a late summer retreat for clergy and ordination candidates.  “She was brilliant”, he enthused, his face abeam with wonder, “and she is a lay person who schooled the clergy about the Bible!”

I carried that memory until the moment I met Verna in 1992. She was the guest instructor on the Book of Genesis at a week-long teaching series at the former College of Preachers of the Washington National Cathedral. I especially recall her lecture on the Creation story. At the close, a member of the audience asked, “Dr. Dozier, scripture tells us that shortly after God completed his work of creation, he commanded of the woman, saying,” reading from his pocket Bible, he lowered his voice for emphasis, “‘your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ As I read it, Dr. Dozier, this is a part of God’s plan. What do you, particularly as a woman, say?” The standing room only crowd fell silent, both in response to the inquirer’s impertinence and with bated breath awaiting Verna’s reply. She bowed her head, sitting still, her hands clasped on her lap. After several moments, she looked up, turned her head to face her questioner, saying, her voice soft and low, rich with resonance, “Yes, that is a part of the story, but it was a condition of life after the Fall.” Another hush fell over the gathered throng, our voices stilled by the implication of her answer, plain to hear for all who would receive it, that the subordination of women was the result of human disobedience and defiance of God’s plan, thus not an aspect of the genius of creation. After another several moments, Verna said, her voice rising in conviction, “And it is our work, the people of God, with God’s help, to correct it!”

Later, Verna, who in the mid-1950s was the first African American member of St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector (1998-2015), became a treasured mentor. Always sensible. Ever sagacious. Verna was one of very few in my experience in whom common sense and uncommon intellect dwelled in daily harmony. In this, she was equally adept in offering the encouragement of candid praise and the correction of principled critique.

Verna’s lessons of God’s love and justice live in me. Whenever I need a refresher, I reach to my bookshelf to retrieve, read, and reflect anew on her writings, particularly the autographed, dogged-eared copy of her seminal work, annotated with sundry self-inscribed marginal notes, The Dream of God: A Call To Return (1991). In these pages, Verna speaks with the timbre of her favorite biblical figure, the prophet Amos, who declared, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Decrying how the Christian church has abandoned God’s dream to follow (and not merely to worship) Jesus, she advocates for the reclamation of this truest of callings. Through these pages, I always hear Verna’s voice, saying, “Paul, do not tell me what you believe. Show me the difference it makes, the difference you make that you believe.”

at(one)

Earlier this week, China and the United States, our planet’s greatest (here, hardly a compliment) producers of greenhouse gases, announced a long-term agreement concerning carbon emissions. Reacting personally to this word of good news to the world, I am spurred to contemplate afresh our human ontology: Who are we and what do we do in relation to creation?

We are sentient and self-initiating beings. However, despite some interpreters of Genesis (God blessed [humankind], saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth” 1.28), we are not masters of the world. Citing Francis of Assisi who, in Canticle of the Creatures, called sun, wind, air, and fire his brothers, moon, his sister, earth, his mother, and claimed all living things as his family, I believe our relation to creation cannot be dominion, far less domination, but rather the equality and intimacy of an at-one-ness with all things. We, as integral threads in a cosmic tapestry, woven together by a divine hand, are not brighter, bolder, or better than any other strand.

Would that we believe this and act accordingly. History tells us we oft have not.

From the vantage point of one of my favorite biblical prophets, I perceive the dreadful consequences of our corporate misuse, abuse of the earth. Isaiah speaks of God’s innocent suffering servant afflicted on behalf of the people, the true offenders. Whatever Isaiah’s original intent, Christians viewed this prophecy in relation to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to redeem us from sin: Surely, he has borne our infirmities, carried our diseases, was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and by his bruises we are healed (my emphases). As Christians re-envisioned Isaiah, I reinterpret the prophecy, using Francis’s Mother Earth metaphor, as a word about the world and us: Surely, she is made infirm and diseased by us; wounded by our transgression of profligate pollution, crushed by our iniquity of wasteful consumption, and because of her bruises she may not be renewed.

Mother Earth has changed, is changing. Naturally, so it has been from the dawn of creation through continental shift, volcanic eruption, the spinning and tilt of the world on its axis, the movement of ocean tides. Yet, especially since the 19th century Industrial Revolution, our reliance on fossil fuels and our rapacious clearing of land of vegetation to make way for the building of “civilized” societies has aggravated and has accelerated the aging of our mother.

Some continue to argue against climate change and about its causes. Some deny responsibility for harm done in ages past. I find it difficult to refute that we, particularly westerners, are overindulgent consumers, taking more than we need, wasting more than we use. We can wax poetically about the earth’s beauty, yet we enjoy the blessings of electricity produced by power plants run on fossil fuels emitting pollutants, we love our gas-burning and diesel-powered cars, and plastics and paper are existential essentials. We, with detached fascination, can watch and find entertainment in movies like The Hunger Games and its post-apocalyptic dystopian vision of the world assured that it won’t happen (and if it does, confident that it will be something for subsequent generations to endure). We could react that way, but I pray we will not. Believing, knowing that we, each of us, are at one with creation, may we daily do all we can, when we can, where we can, and with what we can to care of the world, thus strive to atone, make right our disregard for our Mother Earth.