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.

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