Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pentecost 2: The Sacrifice of Isaac and a Cup of Cold Water

Here's the sermon from Sunday, preached at The Church of the Incarnation in NYC.

Next Sunday, July 3, and the following Sunday, July 10, I will be presiding and preaching at The Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch in New York City. 10:00 am for both.

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

What an amazing contrast there seems to be this morning between the lesson from Genesis and the Gospel, so disturbing to so many. So disturbing, in fact, that a copy of “A Child’s Bible” I picked up in the sacristy before the service here doesn’t include it at all!. Between the sacrifice of Isaac and the concluding words of our Lord to us today: “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." -- what a contrast!

God in the first narrative seems harsh, demanding, primitive. Abraham and Sarah have gone almost a whole lifetime, nigh onto a century, without a legitimate heir. The Lord visits and promises a son, and miracle of miracles, Isaac is born. What joy there must have been! Watching the boy grow up and begin to take his place in the family must have given Abraham and Sarah hope and confidence that the Lord’s promise to them – a multitude of nations from their offspring, as numerous as the sands on the seashore – would come true. And then God, who has given, takes away. Abraham trusted God to give him a son, and Abraham trusts when God asks for that son to be given back to him. So off they go, three days journey, and who can imagine what must have been going on in the minds of that father and that son? The only clue we have is when Isaac asks, Where is the lamb for the sacrifice? And Abraham replies, God will provide. Simple words, loaded with apprehension, loaded with emotion. Loaded, no doubt, with fear.

But they push on, and when Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the wood for the fire, wood Isaac himself has carried all the way, for three days, Isaac seems to understand. There is not a peep from him. He is the perfect lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is dumb, as the old translation put it. For Christians he prefigures Christ, who will be the perfect offering, and not for us only, but for the whole world. And at the last moment, the ram in the thicket. Isaac is saved. Abraham has proven his faith. God’s trust in him as the father of God’s new people is justified.

There is, of course, more going on here than a simple family narrative. Abraham is the founder of the faith. He is the exemplar for all who want to follow in faith for all ages to come. And Isaac is more, so much more, than the beloved son who arrived late in life. Isaac is the promised hope of the future. And one of the purposes of this strange story is to make it clear to Abraham, to Isaac, to Israel, and to us, that this promised future does not belong to Abraham alone. It is not Abraham’s doing and it is not Abraham’s possession. The future belongs to God, absolutely and unconditionally. Those who welcome God, who trust God, and who follow God will belong to that future, will be unimaginably blessed. But it is not their – our – doing. It is not their – our – possession. It is ours because God gives it to us, and he gives it to us because we, like Abraham, are willing not only to begin the journey, to share the joy of things long desired or entirely unexpected, but also to walk the hard path when it comes to us. That is what made Abraham the father of all in faith. And no less is asked of us.

And so, the cup of water for the little ones, given to them, presumably, by bigger, greater ones. What a charming image. Thirsty little children, perhaps, or perhaps the poor, the disadvantaged, those who never will “make it”, whose lives are the supporting cast for the great ones. The “minim” as the Hebrew has it. God never forgets them. They are those who are in his heart of hearts. “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Who cannot spare a cup of water, who can fail to give them what they need? A cruel heart indeed who would deny such need.

But this saying does not stand alone. It is the conclusion of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out for the first time, the apostolic discourse in Matthew, Chapter 10. That discourse begins with these instructions:

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Jesus is telling his disciples how they are to announce the kingdom, how they are to carry on his work, how they are to begin the long journey of faith that will create the family of God’s kingdom. He continues through a long and familiar list of instructions: Take no gold or silver, no extra baggage, for the laborer deserves his pay. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, because you will be like lambs among wolves. You are going to be handed over to authorities, but don’t worry. Don’t worry at all. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny, and yet you are worth so much more than sparrows. Every hair of your head has been counted. The smallest thing in your life is precious to God. But don’t be fooled. There will be conflict, there will be suffering, even from those closest to you. And then this:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Does this strike a familiar chord to us today? It should. It is a direct echo of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. These lines come immediately before today’s Gospel. Our Gospel text today is not just a suggestion to adults to be kindly mindful of children, or to those better off to regard the needs of the less fortunate. These lines come as the climax to the Lord’s extended teaching on how the discipled life of faith is to be lived. They are the point of the whole discourse. To announce the kingdom, to find the grace of God to take us on the arduous, difficult, dangerous journey of faith, all leads to one simple act: the prophetic, apostolic ministry points in the end to this: That the little ones receive their cup of water. And not just from the licensed disciples: Whoever. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water. Look around. How many are already doing the work of faith? They are as numerous as the sands on the seashore.

The story of Abraham and Isaac and our Lord’s apostolic discourse are really calling to the same thing. God makes the promise of the future, the promise of the kingdom. God invites us to the kingdom as to a journey, and gives us the same invitation as he did to Abraham. And God invites us to set out in the faith of his kingdom, as he invited his disciples.

Like Abraham we are called to produce the promise of the future, as Abraham and Sarah produced Isaac, to produce the holy offspring of the life of faith. But it is not ours. It belongs to God. There will be joy, but there will also be trouble, three day walks to mountains without wood for the fire we need, and radical, existential uncertainty about what we will do when we get there. The little one God has promised is the center of it all, so young, so fragile, such a thin thread to the future. He could so easily be lost. The point is not to know. The point is to trust.

Like the disciples we are sent out to live our lives in faith as a proclamation, and we need to know that there will be joy but there will also be trouble. As with Abraham, the future that faith promises is a gift from God, not our possession, even though it is through our lives that the promise comes to life. And just as with Abraham, it is the little ones who bear the future. The little ones – the children or the poor, who knows? Probably both – are the fragile, thin thread to the future.

So have faith. When the road seems hard, harder than perhaps we think we can bear, be Abraham. God will provide. When we find the little ones, or rather, when they find us, be kind. Give them the cold water they need. Fear not. Be of good cheer. For of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

I preached this morning in the Monastery Chapel on this feast, doubly important to OHC because the Community of St. John the Baptist were our sponsors when Holy Cross was just starting out. It would normally be published in the Holy Cross Monastery sermon blog, but the brothers who maintain our website are away for a bit.

I'll be preaching this Sunday, June 26, at the Church of the Incarnation, Madison Ave., at 35th St. in New York City, at 8:30 and 11:00 am.

The Nativity of John the Baptist
Holy Cross Monastery, June 24, 2011
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11:11) So says our Lord of John the Baptist. John is the forerunner, who calls Israel out to the Jordan to wash themselves clean so that they may join God in making Israel new again. John points the people to a new Exodus, and to a new Moses, who is not John. John is the greatest of the prophets of Israel, for in him come together Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, if not all the rest as well. It is the calling of a prophet to point the way and let God bring it in. Every prophet did, and every prophet does. And so does John.

John’s birth is Samuel’s birth: a barren woman close to God; a husband who loves her so much that once his duty is done he recedes from the picture; an infant known to be holy from the moment of his conception; a child dedicated from his first breath to the service of God; a young man who supplants his elders as he proclaims God’s word to the people. And what is the word of this new Samuel? A new day is dawning, the old is passing away. From the shambles of the past God will raise up a new leader for his people, a new David.

John’s life is Elijah’s life: living in the desert, the camel hair garment and leather belt, the locusts and the wild honey. But not just the life-style: John has adopted Elijah’s mission as his own. Israel has gone off the track and must be called back to her Sinai purity. Brood of vipers, he calls them, unworthy of their descent from Abraham. Israel’s leaders are corrupt, beyond corrupt: they are wicked. Ahab’s wife Jezebel’s arrogant, haughty, self absorbed cruelty has only one match in Scripture, and it is Herodias, nursing her own shame at the scorn John the Baptist has for her. Jezebel could not kill Elijah, but the vicious Herodias gets the Baptist, his head served on a platter as a grisly after dinner spectacle. But does she really win?

John’s proclamation is Isaiah’s proclamation: “"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" (Matt 3:3) Comfort, the prophet proclaims. The end of your imprisonment is coming to an end. All the things of the world die like the grass of the field, but the word of God is forever. God is coming, a fierce warrior who is also a tender shepherd. Fear not, Israel. Return to the Lord, for the time is now.

John’s vocation is Jeremiah’s vocation: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.... today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer 1:5, 10) Jeremiah announces the end of Israel as they knew it, and so does John. Will they listen to Jeremiah? Some of them, but mostly not. Will they follow? Yes, but only a few. Will it make a difference? The prophet hopes so, but we know better. It is not God’s plan that Israel escape captivity and re-establish political sovereignty, but rather she is to be reshaped as a witness to the world of God’s mercy, justice, law and love, in ways unforeseen by Jeremiah. And so with John. Did they listen? Yes, quite a few. He was noticed. Did any follow? Yes, including some of Jesus’ disciples, and perhaps even Jesus himself. Did it make a difference? In a way, yes: John certainly upset the ruling classes. The historian Josephus wrote about him, which is more secular, outside notice than Jesus got. But was what happened what the prophet John thought would happen? Did he think Israel would be reshaped as a witness to the world of God’s mercy, justice, law and love in ways unforeseen by him?

I think he did. I think he knew the teachings and the history of the prophets of Israel. And this is what made him the greatest of the prophets: He led the people out to the Jordan, to the new Red Sea, to prepare them for the new Exodus, and then watched as a new Moses led them forth. As a new Samuel John prepared a new king for them, as the new Elijah John called them from apostasy, as the new Jeremiah John prepared them for their coming exile from the world they knew, as the new Isaiah John promised them God’s renewed creation.

The whole movement of the prophets, from the earliest times before Israel even knew Yahweh to Herod’s temple in John’s own time, the third to be built atop Mount Zion, the greatest religious building of the ancient world, and so ambivalent a symbol, built by such a crafty collaborator, calling out for renewed prophecy from the Lord.... the whole prophetic history, the whole prophetic identity, is summed up in John the Baptist.

An angel announces him. A miracle conceives him. His father’s voice goes silent while his mother’s voice proclaims her cousin Mary as she bears the greater one: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” which countless millions say daily with Elizabeth to Mary in praise. The child John’s birth is six months to the day before the Nativity of Jesus, the forerunner in his birth as in his ministry, as in his death.

This child: conceived of the will of God, dedicated to God in the womb, so finely tuned to the Word of God that when still in his mother he leaps for joy when the Word comes near. The prophetic life of Israel, which will reshape the world toward God’s justice and mercy for hundreds, for thousands of years to come, the prophetic life of Israel is now incarnate in this child, whose life will prepare the way of the Lord, preparing Israel, preparing us, to open their eyes, our eyes, so that they, so that we, may see the dawn from on high which is breaking upon us, so that we who have sat in darkness and the shadow of death will see light, and so that at long last our feet may be guided into the way of peace.