By Rev. Heather J. Blais--
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the most beautiful, terrifying, and complicated texts within our holy scriptures. It is known as the akedah, or the binding of Isaac. In the story we witness our God asking the unimaginable of Abraham. God instructs Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering, the same son that Sarah and Abraham had longed and waited for until their old age.
This particular year I find it difficult to hear a text about human sacrifice and not connect the dots to George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY; Eric Garner in New York City; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, and Emmett Till in Money, MS.
As our church engages in the work of taking off our lens of white privilege, I thought it might be helpful to consider this text in three different ways, starting off with some common interpretation within our own tradition.
The story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham.” ‘These things’ include: Abraham sacrificing his family and native culture to follow God to a distant land; God’s promise that Abraham would be the parent of a great nation; fathering two sons, Ishmael and Isaac; and the painful decision to cast Ishmael out into the wilderness. Abraham has already sacrificed so much, and now God is asking him to make yet another sacrifice:
Even stranger than God’s request is Abraham’s lack of response. He doesn’t show any internal struggle with the command. This is in stark contrast with Genesis 21, where Abraham is distressed at the idea of driving his eldest son Ishmael into the wilderness. Instead, this time we witness how faithful Abraham is to God.
When Abraham, Isaac, and two male servants arrive at the base of the mountain, Abraham instructs his servants: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” This promise of return tells us that Abraham believed God would work out an alternative sacrifice, as does his assurance to Isaac that God would provide an answer when they head up the mountain without a lamb to sacrifice.
Abraham builds an altar; laying down the wood, and binding his son Isaac to the altar, apparently without any resistance. Just as Abraham reaches for his knife, an angel calls out: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” In that moment, Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns, and offered it in lieu of his son.
Now, there’s a lot to take in with this passage, but let’s consider a couple of things. First—God does not command Abraham to murder his son, he commands him to present him on the altar as a burnt offering. Child sacrifice might be horrific to us, but it was a normative practice in many of the cultures that surrounded Israel.
It’s important to remember that up until Abraham encountered God—most cultures believed in many different gods. Humans, often children, were sacrificed to appease those gods, who were easily upset. The relationship born out of the covenant between God and Abraham is one of the first instances of monotheism—the belief in one God. Let alone a loving, caring God. Many scholars understand the purpose of this passage as a shift away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. This story is making a bold statement to its original audience. It is a story of a God who doesn’t require child sacrifice in a world that did.
The second aspect of this passage is that Abraham shared an intimate, trusting relationship with God. One reason we don’t see a distressed Abraham is because he trusts that God will act to save Isaac. Somehow, even though it hardly makes any sense to those of us looking on, Abraham understood that it was always God's intention to save Isaac. Otherwise he never would have been able to bind his son to the altar. It was a lesson in trust.
There are two other interpretations that I think we need to sit with, however uncomfortable they may make us. Both interpretations are taken from sermons given by rabbis on Rosh Hashanah.
In 2016, Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein offered insight by reminding us of longstanding Jewish interpretations of this text.
First, many believe Isaac is not a child, but rather a strong young man.
Second, the section where the angel calls out, staying Abraham’s hand, and offering a ram, is a later addition to the original text. This means many believe Abraham actually did cause harm or even that Abraham killed Isaac. This particular interpretation is aided by v.19, which is left out of the revised common lectionary, where Abraham returns to his servants alone. Maybe Isaac was killed, maybe he went blind, maybe he went to a far away land to study--explanations for his absence at the base of the mountain have run the gauntlet. What we do know is that the Isaac who appears in the rest of the biblical narrative, rarely speaks again. He lives a life with PTSD.
Third, and most important, there is a long standing history of grappling with this text, by asking questions like:
“How are we putting our children, like Isaac, on the altar?” and “Who are the Isaac’s of each generation?” Becker-Klein suggests that today it is our black and brown siblings, “who are the Isaacs on the altar”.
This leaves us with a host of questions to consider:
In 2015, Rabbi Tamara Cohen suggested something radically different after becoming a mother and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. The book describes the very particular kind of protective love all black parents must suffer and endure while fearfully raising their children in a country who will not think twice about their children’s deaths. This book changed Rabbi Cohen’s understanding of her privilege, and she invites us into a different understanding of the binding of Isaac as a result.
She wrote, “For me this year the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is [so] terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him[,] that he almost kills him himself. This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.”
We have the privilege to hear the story of the binding of Isaac as caregivers, who for the most part, have not needed to fear our society might kill our children. While each of us has experienced harrowing life events, this story reminds us of an entire set of societal problems we can choose whether to worry about or not. Yet as a people of faith, there is no choice. We are called to strive for justice and peace; we are called to the work of recognizing our privilege and addressing society’s deep rooted racism every way we can, including allowing different interpretations of scripture to potentially rattle us.
Which interpretation of this story troubles you the most? Why?
I invite each of us to take this discomfort into our prayer and into our actions this week. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson we witness the apostles’ transition from students to interns. They have abandoned their former lives as fisherfolk and tax collectors to learn from Jesus as he engages in the work of proclaiming the good news of God’s love across the region. In what may have been one of the most terrifying moments of their lives, Jesus commissioned these twelve apostles to the work of preaching, teaching, and healing.
Jesus gives the apostles some parting instructions:
Today’s gospel lesson is a stark reminder. Much like these twelves apostles, we too have critical work Christ is calling us to do. What if at this very peculiar moment in human history, the Church has finally heard Christ’s call to take the deep dive into the work of dismantling racism?
How does that idea sit in your body? Maybe you find yourself leaning into the possibility or completely unsure what that even means. Maybe you find yourself pulling back, sorting through a list of ten other things that seem more important. Maybe this work seems downright uncomfortable, and you’d prefer to discuss when exactly our buildings will be reopening.
Yet our choice to engage or not engage in this critical work, is one only afforded to those with the privilege of being born with white skin. A privilege that even Jesus of Nazareth was not privy to. When we put on our glasses to take a closer look at the deep rooted systemic effects of racism, we start to see how systemic racism touches every outreach ministry and social justice issue the Church seeks to address.
Studies have shown that racism and inequality have a disproportionate impact on people of color when it comes to education, health care, gun violence, climate change, and much more.
Some might suggest that we only need to be kinder and more inclusive--this idea that All Lives Matter, and we need to do a better job at making sure we are actually valuing all. As Linda Oppenheim suggests in a message to parents trying to engage in the work of teaching their children to be anti-racist says:
“The problem with strategies based solely on inclusivity and diversity is that they assume a level playing field for all. Anti-racism recognizes that racist beliefs have permeated our culture and created systemic problems. Rather than just talking about it, anti-racism asks that we actively work against it.”
Much like those early apostles, we have been called to do some work that may be downright terrifying. Engaging in the work of learning how to be anti-racist is a seismic shift, and we will need to take it one day at a time. We have to begin this holy work by looking within ourselves and examining our privilege; of listening closely to our black and brown siblings, while also amplifying their voices instead of our own.
Like those early apostles, it would be best if we did not carry our own baggage into this movement. We have to recognize that we will meet resistance--within ourselves and with our neighbors. Doing the work of addressing systemic racism could result in conflict within our families and circle of friends.Yet Jesus was clear with the apostles, and remains clear with us--the Holy Spirit will be with us as we take this deep dive. Guiding us, giving us the words, and making the journey with us.
This work is overwhelming. Yet it is the work we have been commissioned to do in our baptism. This work is at the core of our calling to spread the good news of God’s love, and we cannot have one without the other. It is imperative to the good news of Christ that we take the time to do this work.
To that end, we are going to make some shifts in our liturgy during Ordinary Time. Today, we are going to remind ourselves of what it means to follow Christ by renewing our baptismal vows. Next week, we will pray a Litany of Repentance and other weeks with Spiritual Communion we will share in Prayers of the People with Confession--all of which address systemic racism. On weeks with Morning Prayer or on Healing Sundays, we have incorporated a collect Molly has written to ask for God’s guidance and strength as we do the work.
We know that praying shapes our believing. Our hope is that by shifting our prayers to address systemic racism, we will find the courage, strength, and wisdom given by the Holy Spirit to do the work Christ is calling us to dive into. You’ll hear more about this in a newsletter article Molly has written that will come out on Thursday, and I will post links of anti-racism resources with this sermon.
Let’s begin this work, right now, by renewing our promises to Christ and one another in the baptismal covenant. Amen.
Read a letter from Rev. Heather (June 4) with a lengthy list of resources we can use in doing the work of anti-racism.
Join the new group Western Mass for Black Lives--Solidarity & Action.
Rev.Dr. Molly Scherm
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, as we do annually on the first Sunday after Pentecost, to reflect on and give thanks for the Trinity, our conviction that ONE God – the source, the creator, the power that infuses all life and redeems all life - is experienced in three forms, and yet is ONE God.
But this Trinity Sunday 2020 comes in the midst of what has to have been one of the hardest weeks we collectively have lived through in terms of the state of our world and our nation. A deadly virus continues raging, forcing us to isolate from one another and causing economic impact that will undoubtedly affect us for years to come. Those of us who are white have seen the veil ripped off of the broad and deep and ugly racial hatred that that is woven into the very fabric of our country, and we are, perhaps, beginning to truly acknowledge it: our black and brown siblings have never had the luxury of ignoring it. We’ve watched horrifying videos of violence by those we have trusted to protect us, and listened to rhetoric from our President that holds up domination and force as the appropriate way to peace and justice.
So in this context, what do we do with Trinity Sunday? Is it even relevant? Come along and let’s look for what wisdom we might find in our sacred texts.
Our first reading from Genesis - the very first words of Jewish and Christian scripture, making the claim that the whole world is the intentional work of our Creator God, and that it is orderly, and that it is good.
In this first creation story, which we believe to have been the creation of what’s called the “Priestly” author - which means it was written for use in worship - God’s creation of humankind is basically the crowning glory of creation.
The astounding claim is that
God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Today’s psalm likewise praises God for the unutterable majesty of the created world and echoes Genesis in marveling at the place of humankind within creation:
What are humans that you should be mindful of us? *
the children of humans that you should seek us out?
You have made us but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet.
The priests and the psalmist understand and share an understanding of God’s design, God’s intent, what Michael Curry calls “God’s dream” for the world – a reality in which the beloved children WHO ARE MADE IN THE VERY IMAGE OF THE CREATOR bear responsibility for God’s beloved world, and for one another. Taking it just a step further, in God’s design, God’s intent, the beloved children recognize and honor the image of God in one another.
When we acknowledge this and commit to it in our baptismal vows, we speak of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, of striving for justice, and of respecting the dignity of every human being. And, of course, this is where we have fallen short.
We, the Church, we the nation have not even caught a glimpse of what it might mean to live in the image of God. We have passively accepted a world in which some lives have not mattered as much as others, in which basic human rights have been denied to those who do not belong to the dominant majority.
We who live in this beautiful and peaceful corner of Western Massachusetts, we who are educated and housed and fed, who have good health care and access to the all of the things that allow us to thrive, but mostly, WE WHO ARE WHITE have the option of not worrying about those who are not, and who do not have the same advantages and protections. We can say “not my problem”, or “I didn’t choose this”, or at best, “there’s nothing I can do about it”.
I’ve spent some time this week thinking about my own culpability in not being more active in challenging the injustices that don’t touch me personally, and I think this is an important step in moving toward changing things, but I’ve also recognized that dwelling in my own white guilt is yet another way of making it about me, rather than listening to and caring about those who are suffering and figuring out what to do about it.
What I mean to say is that I believe the scripture we have heard this morning calls us to a very high calling. It says that in being made in the image of God, we have the capability of seeing the world as God does, and of caring for all of God’s beloved as God does, and of shaping our shared world for the benefit of ALL.
Injustice against any of God’s beloved IS OUR PROBLEM, and yes, WE CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. We are NOT powerless.
An important first step is educating ourselves. Heather wrote an incredibly important piece in our newsletter this week that I hope you have read and that I encourage you to save and read again at least a few more times. In it, she provides links to books, to discussion groups, and to anti-racism resources. Remarkably, my cable TV service, this week, is featuring films that explore the Black experience in America. This very morning Heather has posted a link on Facebook to sermons by Black preachers from the last week. These are good places to start, to move ourselves beyond complacency and complicity, toward living up to having been created in God’s image.
But there’s another scripture we heard this morning that I haven’t mentioned yet. And it’s important. It is a promise that Matthew tells us Jesus made in his last moments with his friends:
Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
This life we live, these huge challenges we face, these fears and confusion that disrupt and disturb us – we’re not alone in them.
(And here’s where I’m sneaking us back to the joy and the gift of the Holy Trinity.) The God who creates us in her own image, who entered our life to draw us to himself to then be lynched at the hands of those who sought to protect their own supremacy, who surrounds and sustains us, remains with us.
Our opening and closing hymn – one of my favorites, of course - offers us that image of God the three-in-one and one-in-three WITH US, protecting us and helping us.
The words of “St Patrick’s Breastplate” are a translation of Gaelic poem attributed to St. Patrick in the 3rd century, but probably, really, composed by an anonymous author in 8th. It’s also known as “St Patick’s Lorica”, a Lorica being a mystical garment that protects the wearer from danger.
The style of the hymn’s text is that of incantation, a spell cast using words, for protection on the journey.
It calls for “binding” ourselves through invocation of the “strong name of Trinity”, referencing St. Paul in Ephesians, who speaks of “putting on the armor of God.”
It promises us and invokes the presence of the Holy One:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
It is not easy stuff, these times we’re living through. We have hard work to do, and we must no longer settle for our own easy excuses. It is time to REALLY start building a world in which ALL of God’s children can live without fear, in which all can thrive.
Jesus has shown us a life lived as God intends for us to live. The Christ within and beside and before us can help us to live that life.
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed
us through Jesus your Son:
look with compassion on the whole human family;
take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our
break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love;
and work through our struggle and confusion to
accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve
you in harmony around your heavenly throne;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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