Call to worship
Some of us are hurting,
some of us are smarting.
All are welcome in this place.
Some of us are very young,
some of us are getting old.
All are welcome in this place.
Some of us have hearts of gladness,
some of us are filled with grief.
All are welcome in this place.
The strong and the weak,
the faithful and doubter,
the saint and sinner,
the regular and visitor.
All are welcome in this place.
Hymn: Let us build a house (Singing the Faith 409)
Welcoming God, we come to you as we often do,
knowing that you are waiting with open arms,
ready to welcome us, your family, here in this place.
Welcoming Jesus, so often the recipient of hospitality
and yet willing to sit with anyone,
saint and sinner alike,
we come to you
knowing you are prepared to budge up and let us sit with you.
Welcoming Spirit, so often hidden from sight
and yet so large a part of any gathering of God’s people,
we come to you
knowing that the whispers of welcome are all around us.
Knowing we are welcomed
and yet knowing that we have not always been deserving of that welcome,
your wide arms of grace, O God, are too much to take in.
When we come with our heads dipped in shame
you gently lift our chins, gaze into our eyes,
and say: welcome child, so good to see you.
Lord, may we never take this for granted,
try harder to live up to your gracious welcome,
accept your love and, in turn, offer that same love
and welcome to all whom we meet.
Lord, gracious Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.
Reading: Genesis 22:1-14
We our lectionary readings just seem to be getting tougher and tougher. When people are asked to describe the God of the Old Testament, most might think of a belligerent being, full of wrath and punishment rather than full of loving kindness; a God of violence and fear. And I’m afraid this story of Abraham and Isaac does nothing to dispel this myth.
Last week we spent some time thinking about the cost of discipleship – was Abraham really prepared to pay the price with the life of his son? Because I need to get one thing straight – that’s a price I am absolutely not prepared to pay.
Neither God nor Abraham come out of this story well. God appears like an arbitrary trickster, testing Abraham with cruel dares, who then drops the game of Russian roulette at the very last second. English translations use the word knife, but in the original Hebrew it was more like a cleaver, a tool for butchering. This is frightening and gruesome. Isaac must have been deeply traumatised by this event; his trust in his parent and God shaken to the very core. Make no mistake, what is being described here is child abuse. If the purpose of this event was to make Abraham fear God, then it probably worked, but it certainly won’t have made Abraham, or indeed Isaac, love God.
And what of Abraham, and his willingness to appease God in this way? Who in their right mind would ever agree to such an act? Years ago, I struck up a conversation in a café with a woman who told me that she believed God had told her to give away all of her possessions. Which she did. All of her furniture, including her son’s bed. Inevitably social services got involved and her son was removed into a foster family. I looked aghast at her story, at which point she told me not to feel sorry for her, because she was following the will of God and although she might not understand his reasons, who was she to question the Almighty? I could only conclude this woman had some fairly serious mental health issues resulting in her making some catastrophic choices.
And where is Sarah in all of this? I can’t think Abraham has discussed murdering her beloved much longed-for only son. The fact he sneaks off early in the morning suggest he’s left her sleeping in blissful ignorance. How was he going to tell her? What was he going to tell her? Would he use the excuse of Nazi guards: I was only obeying orders?
If we were to judge the bible on this one story, well, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. But if we choose to stick with it, to wrestle with the complexities of these challenging stories, like the woman looking for her lost coin, there is treasure to be found here. When we have doubts, when we lose faith in where we can find the good news in the bible, if we spend time searching, sweeping away the debris of our assumptions, we can be surprised by a nugget, a gem, that will sustain us.
So how on earth do we redeem the story of Abraham raising a knife to his son who he had tied down? Well, upon closer examination, there’s plenty that resonates in the story of Abraham and Isaac.
What if we have been wrong all this time in assuming that the test God sets for Abraham is the one he passes? What the real test were to see if Abraham would reject the notion of sacrifice and killing? What if the real test were to see if Abraham was prepared to stand up for the rights of someone else and at the point he is failing this test, God has to step in and prevent the very thing God abhors? What if Abraham’s leap of faith was in the wrong direction? What if the test was to see if Abraham would protect the vulnerable one placed in his care? What if the test was to see if he would stand firm, to step up, to say no? What if God did what God always does, to save and redeem?
Human sacrifice was widespread throughout the various other religions at the time when Abraham and Sarah lived. The other gods people worshipped demanded spilling of human blood, including that of child sacrifices. These gods required offerings to keep them happy or there would be terrible consequences. To keep life secure and safe, the appetite of the gods had to be fed. Sounds dreadful doesn’t it? Who would worship such gods? But the people believed in the superstition of these religions that by making such sacrifices they would be able to prevent bad things from happening. And if bad things did happen, they had a reason: the gods needed more.
At first glance this seems so removed from our experiences as to have nothing in common with how we live today. But let’s take a deeper look. God is not interested in sacrifices or offerings or any attempt to curry favour. When we read many of the prophets, this is the message we get: ‘you’re worship is unacceptable because you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I want your heart not lip service. I want your life not your death.’ If we look a bit closer into the God of the Old Testament, we will find this is not a God of fear and punishment, but a God who wants a genuine relationship, a covenant written on our hearts not on tablets of stone.
Today, we sacrifice people in all sorts of other ways. We might not have blood sacrifices, but make no mistake, in a profit-driven society where the economy rules, some lives are expendable. Lives are lost on the altar of consumerism when, as if we were gods, we demand cheap clothes and don’t ask questions about the horrendous working conditions of sweatshops. Lives are lost on the altar of energy consumption when, as if we were gods, we demand cheap airfares and cheap electricity and don’t ask questions about who dies as a direct result of climate change. Lives are lost on the altar of non-seasonal vegetables when, as if we were gods, we demand a full variety of cheap food all year long and don’t ask questions about land in developing nations being turned over to cash crops causing malnutrition to locals. Sacrificing people is a way of keeping economies afloat. Perhaps we are being tested like Abraham and we are failing to protect the vulnerable ones, failing to step up and take responsibility, failing to say no to this sacrifice.
God still has some explaining to do in my book about why Abraham was put to this test in the first place. When I read the bible, I hear stories of liberation and redemption woven throughout. I read about the God who notices suffering and steps into that experience, but is not the cause of it. I read about Jesus who was an ally to the poor, the disabled, the marginalised, who healed and offered hope. So I still have issues with this passage of scripture and cannot justify the scene of abuse we witness. But I also need to locate myself as one who unwittingly and occasionally deliberately causes pain to others. And for today, this story is making me question myself and the role of the church in those times when abuse has happened, for us to own up to that, to accept our responsibility, to repent and for God to allow redemption to flow through us.
Isaac was bound to a place of pain and death. Many of us bind ourselves and by our actions bind others to places of pain. It is through the salvation Jesus offers us that we are released from this bondage. In Jesus there is freedom and life.
There is a phrase repeated three times in this story – “Here I am”. It isn’t God who says that, but Abraham. Can we imagine God calling us now, by name? Calling us to into freedom, calling us into a transformed life. And we don’t need to do anything else but say, ‘Here I am’. God transforms our pain. God provides what we need. When everything looks desperate, our faithful and eternal God stands firm and true and can redeem even the most hopeless of times. And that, my friends, is where I have found good news in this story of Abraham and Isaac. That it actually isn’t about abuse or sacrifice or making wrong choices, but that it’s really about saying to God, ‘Here I am, take me, bind me to you, transform me.’ Amen
Hymn: O, the love of my Lord is the essence (Singing the Faith 431)
Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9
Reading: Matthew 10: 40-42
We’re back to our theme of hospitality again with Jesus, and if we remember, this is all part of the chunk in Matthew in which Jesus is giving his disciples instructions for their mission. This is about both giving and receiving. This is a no-strings-attached gospel message. And it rather flies in the face of the cynical move from our government, recently merging the Department of International Development in with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stipulating that our foreign aid will now come with strings attached. And those strings are there has to be something beneficial to the UK. I struggle to find the gospel within that decision.
Jesus, as we know, didn’t keep respectable company. He didn’t stick to his tribe. He didn’t stay in his lane. Instead, he behaves in a Spirit-filled way, taking risks, determined to take good news to whoever he meets.
Jesus brings light and life to all he meets. By expecting the best from people, it encourages hospitality. It raises everyone’s behaviour. Because as we know, laughter and kindness and love are more infectious than a virus. If we want others to know the good news found in Jesus, in order for them to find that, to be able to see Jesus in us, we need to behave like he did. Uncompromising in our compassion.
Discipleship doesn’t need to be heroic. Sometimes it’s offering someone a glass of cold water. Small actions may not change the world, but they may change someone’s day. If we were turn to Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, we would hear that if we respond to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, we are doing this to Christ and our challenge is to see Christ in those we meet. Our passage for today turns the concept on us – when we are doing these things, people might just be able to see Christ in us. By allowing people to welcome us, they are welcoming Christ.
I was listening to the Rev Samuel Wells during the week talking about the time when he visited a hospital in Malawi, surrounded by overcrowded wards full of frail emaciated bodies. He felt uncomfortable as people reached out to him and as the medical staff told the patients that someone would attend to them later. As they were leaving he felt a tug on his clothes. He turned around, unable to hide his irritation knowing he had nothing to offer this person and snapped, ‘What do you want? I can’t help.’ The sick man was lying on the floor and said to Sam,’ You look tired doctor. I thought you might need to share some of my food,’ and the man pushed his plastic plate of watery food towards Sam. Sam found himself staring into the face of Christ.
In whose face will you see Christ today? For who will you be the face of Christ today?
Prayers of Intercession
For those who have been abused; for those who are experiencing abuse now; for those who work with survivors of abuse; for all of these and more, we pray…
For those who cause pain deliberately; for those who cause pain through their neglect; for those who cause pain unintentionally; for all of these and more, we pray…
For children with inadequate parents; for children who go hungry; for children who are forced into work; for all of these and more, we pray…
For those living with the effects of climate change; for our own complicity in damaging the environment; for corporations putting profit above care for the earth; for all of these and more, we pray…
For those who are dying; for those who are grieving; for those who work in the funeral industry; for all of these and more, we pray…
For the ones I love; for the ones I struggle to love; for me; for all these and more, I pray…
Holy and ever-present God, you hear our prayers. The polished articulate ones. The mumbled desperate ones. The silent groaning ones. You hear them and you envelope your loving presence around our concerns. We are grateful we are never alone and we hold onto your promise that you are always with us. Amen
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Hymn: Let love be real (Singing the Faith 615)
May the beauty of God
be reflected in your eyes,
the love of God
be reflected in your hands,
the wisdom of God
be reflected in your words,
and the knowledge of God
flow from your heart,
that all might see,
and seeing, believe.