June 28, 2020
Offering Isaac – June 28, 2020
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This morning, we’re continuing our summer sermon series: “What the Heck, Lord? God’s Presence in Tough Times.” Today’s reading may be the ultimate “what the heck, Lord?” story, one of the most challenging there is: God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham’s promise for the future.
Even with the story’s straightforward style, you can’t miss the pathos and grief. For no apparent reason, God tests Abraham, telling him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love … and offer him … as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). So, Abraham does – just as obediently as he left his home and his tribe years before and set out for an unknown land. Abraham and Isaac travel three days to get to the place God has in mind – which means Abraham has three days with his son to think about what God’s asking him to do. Isaac himself carries the wood for the sacrifice, prefiguring Jesus bearing his cross. And Isaac, in the innocence of childhood, asks the heart-rending question: Dad, we’ve brought wood, and torches, and a knife; but where’s “the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7). Abraham must be sobbing as he tries to explain what he can’t begin to understand, saying, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (22:8). Then Abraham prepares the altar and the wood, and binds Isaac, and takes up the knife to kill him. But at the last minute, God intervenes and stops Abraham. God now trusts Abraham’s trust, knowing that he will withhold nothing of his heart. And God does provide what Abraham needs, trapping a sacrificial animal in a nearby thicket and ensuring that Isaac will continue the line of Abraham’s descendants.
Honestly, this story will strike many of us as horrifying. How tortured must Abraham have felt? How traumatized must Isaac have been? We don’t get to hear God’s side of the story, but God must have been uncertain about the depth of Abraham’s trust and needed to test it. In addition, maybe Abraham didn’t know the depth of Abraham’s trust, and God needed to show it to him. But whatever the divine motivation, we’re left knowing God is God, and we are not; and God doesn’t owe an explanation to Abraham or to us. Though we may not like it, the story argues that God does use life to test people and see how faithfully we’ll respond.
I believe these past three and a half months have been a time of testing for us. The coronavirus pandemic has kept us unnaturally isolated, anxious, and afraid as we’ve heard about illness, death, bankruptcy, unemployment – and no end in sight. In this same time, our nation’s open wound of racism has continued to bleed; and we’re seeing more and more clearly just how wide the gap is between White and Black narratives of our nation. All that may make us indignant, even angry. But I think it also makes us afraid. Maybe we’re afraid our nation will never be the same. Maybe we’re afraid our nation will never heal its wounds. Maybe we’re afraid of what others may seek from us in the name of justice. Maybe we’re afraid that the promise of freedom for all people will simply be denied again. Whatever our take on these past weeks and months, fear is a common denominator – and maybe an indicator that a test is underway.
I think we’re in a time of testing as a congregation, too. At our June Vestry meeting, reflecting on the movement for racial justice, I asked the Vestry members to discuss a broader question: How can St. Andrew’s embody a Big Tent approach to faith while also articulating the values of our broader Episcopal Church, like affirming that Black lives matter to God and that LGBTQ people are made in God’s image and likeness? I wanted the group to reflect on that broader question because we’re going to find ourselves addressing it in issue after issue. But some Vestry members wanted to move from that general discussion to specific action, though it wasn’t part of the agenda. One member offered a resolution that we should proclaim publicly, by raising a flag, that St. Andrew’s supports Pride Month, standing as an ally of LGBTQ people.
I can only speak directly to the last 15 years or so, but I would say St. Andrew’s has taken a relatively quick journey toward LGBTQ inclusion. Of course, we’ve had gay and lesbian members for a very long time, probably from the start; but it wasn’t long ago that the prospect of two men or two women getting married here would have been a non-starter. It wasn’t long ago that our diocese didn’t ordain partnered or married LGBTQ people. That journey has been way too slow for some of us and way too fast for others. Now, at our June meeting, several Vestry members were asking to continue the journey, moving St. Andrew’s from inclusion to public alliance – hence, the proposal to put up a flag for Pride Month.
This unplanned conversation was fraught, but it also was respectful and rich. Wisely, we ended up tabling the resolution to allow more time for conversation, thought, and prayer. We’ll return to the topic next month, but – at the end of the day, the decision about a Pride flag falls to me. In the Church canons, our governing laws, ultimate responsibility for church property, including signs and flags, rests with a parish’s rector. In the Vestry meeting, I could have simply called the resolution out of order and proceeded with the agenda. Some of you might be thinking that’s exactly what I should have done, and maybe you’re right. But if you know me, you know I typically don’t lead that way. From the beginning of my time with you, I’ve been preaching Jesus’ call to love one another, manifested in a leadership culture of collaboration. Still, the canons make it clear that, ultimately, the decision to put up a flag for Pride Month would be mine.
So, if I were following the model of the rector as king, what would I do? I would put a Pride Month sign in the churchyard. It probably doesn’t surprise you that my theology takes me there. Eight years ago, as priest-in-charge, I stood here and told you I would preside at the marriages of LGBTQ people, if the Church and the state gave me authority to do that. They both did, and we have. I’ve always said we will hire the most qualified applicants for jobs here, and we have. We’ve been blessed by the ministry and leadership of faithful LGBTQ people, lay and ordained. I’m grateful for the journey we’ve taken to live into our Episcopal value that “all means all.” So, if I were acting as king, we would communicate that value of “all means all” beyond the awareness of our St. Andrew’s family.
And … here’s where the testing comes. “All means all” isn’t the only Episcopal value I hold dear or that we strive to practice here. I also treasure the Big Tent – the vision that faithful people can disagree in their theology, politics, and social positions and still know they share something deeper. This is part of our denominational DNA from the days of Queen Elizabeth I, who “settled” the bloody Protestant and Catholic disagreements in the 1500s by saying English people would worship in a common way, regardless of whether they agreed. Common prayer is a big part of what it’s meant to be Episcopalian. And because praying shapes believing, our history of common prayer has shaped us to be Christians who now choose to gather in difference, whether that’s gathering at this altar for Eucharist or gathering around a table for summertime BLTs.
Well, I’ll tell you what: Not gathering like that isn’t doing us any favors. Part of the test we’re facing in this moment – one so obvious that we may miss it – has been our inability to gather around an altar or a table. As Scripture says, “It is not good for humans to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We haven’t gathered as the Body of Christ since March 15. And, of course, our disconnection doesn’t stop with the life of the church. We’ve been stumbling through how to keep distance for months now; and though restrictions are easing, life just isn’t what it was. Nor will it be, at least not until we find the Holy Grail of a coronavirus vaccine.
So, I think this time is a test for us. I don’t believe God gave us the pandemic; but I do believe God looks at us, and our world, and wonders what we’ll do with this challenge and the concurrent challenge of racial justice. Here’s the question God’s asking us: How deeply will we trust that God will provide the wherewithal for us to hold onto our core values when the world wants to tear us apart?
In this period of testing, maybe we each have an “Isaac” that God is asking us to lay on the altar of sacrifice. Maybe we each have something with which God has blessed us, nurtured us, inspired us – and now, we fear that forces beyond our control could take that blessing away. Maybe it’s a son who’s at risk in a traffic stop. Maybe it’s the sense of your full humanity that a single Supreme Court reversal could take down. Maybe it’s the identity of our nation as a force for good. Maybe it’s the safety of a polite church culture that’s protected us from hard conversations among people who disagree. Maybe it’s freedom you thought the Constitution guaranteed but now you sense is eroding. What’s your Isaac? Whether it’s about safety, or identity, or freedom, what do you fear may be taken away from you? What would be the hardest thing for you to bring to the altar of sacrifice and trust that God will provide what you need anyway?
I will tell you what I fear losing most, in terms of my life as your rector. I fear losing this community as I’ve known it. I fear losing people from both ends of the political and social spectrum because I love the people at both ends of the political and social spectrum. I fear losing the Big Tent. The Big Tent is my Isaac. And now, I think God’s asking me to bind up the Big Tent, place it on the the altar, and allow God to do with it what God will.
The Big Tent is not an easy thing for me to offer up. That approach to church has been a true blessing for centuries and one I’ve loved all my life; and God would not lightly ask for it back. But I have to bind up and offer my Isaac to show whether I truly trust that God will provide. And I’ll tell you, that’s frightening.
Practically, what does that mean to put the Big Tent on the altar and see what God does with it? Well, about the proposal to raise a Pride flag, I’m going to ask the Vestry to consider the broader question first: How can we live as the Big Tent in a day of deeper and deeper division? I don’t mean that as an intellectual exercise but as a question to answer practically. How do we proclaim the values of inclusion we embrace as The Episcopal Church, and pray together even when we disagree, and all the while follow this imperative: “First, love the person in front of you”? What steps, what process, might that take, regardless of the presenting question? As we journey in this boat that is St. Andrew’s Church, what will it look like when we see someone swimming toward us, looking for a hand to help him into the boat, and then see on his shirt whatever offends you most – maybe a Confederate flag or maybe an Antifa symbol? Can we learn to extend a hand, and invite that person into the boat, and sit next to him anyway, and journey together toward heaven’s shore?
So, we’re going to work on a process for being the Big Tent in a day when the world needs to know what our church does stand for. Again, regardless of what process we create, a decision to take a public stance on something ultimately will be mine because the canons say so. But I think, given the world in which we find ourselves, and the range of passion and giftedness among the people of this church, we’ll do a better job following Jesus if we have more opportunity to listen to each other, not less, and if we do that through a process that’s dependable, fair, and clear.
So, I ask your prayers as we move forward in that work. The truth is, I don’t know exactly what the Big Tent will look like once we’ve trusted God enough to offer it up. But I do know this: God makes good on divine promises. Even when we’re frightened, even when we’re tested, even when God asks us to offer what we thought would root us forever – God keeps God’s word. When we offer in sacrifice what we most hold dear, God doesn’t let the fire be lit. Instead, we see blessing we couldn’t have seen otherwise in the midst of the crisis: What we treasure is strengthened for God’s purposes, and our trust just grows deeper as we see God does provide precisely what we need.