Weekly Preaching: July 2, 2017

June 26th, 2017

This Sunday, attendance will be low (weirdly, as patriotic people prize freedom of religion; I guess it's the freedom not to worship?). I'm being cynical already. Feelings may be at a fever pitch about how July 4 fits into church, and then I’m focusing on — what? — Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac (with a nod to Romans 6).  

Below you will find (a) thoughts on our texts, mostly Genesis 22, (b) and the counsel I’ve given regarding how to talk about July 4 and keep people happy without surrendering theologically — excerpted from my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge & Wonder of Preaching (which I see Amazon has marked down to $5!). I also have a blog, “Jesus and July 4,” which went semi-viral a couple of years ago.

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So: Romans 6:12-23, which exposes our vapid adulation of freedom as ridiculously misguided (but find kinder words when you tell this to your people!). “Free” isn’t what we are; “free” is how Paul describes the gift of God, eternal life, not chosen or earned, and despite and in redemption of sin and its wages, death. When I speak on this, I try not to indulge in mockery, but it makes me crazy: on July 4 people say “We remember soldiers who died for our freedom.” First of all, deceased soldiers are commemorated on Memorial Day, not July 4. Current soldiers don’t have a day, really, as Veterans Day is about soldiers who are retired. But regardless: how shameful would it be to suggest that soldiers defend or die so we can be… free? Free to do whatever we want? Free to drink beer and roast hot dogs? No soldier’s life is worth that.

Jesus certainly didn’t die so we can do what we want. Our wills are bound in habitual sin; we pray for Jesus to liberate us “for joyful obedience.” I have a signed note somebody secured for me from Mother Teresa. Her best advice to me? “My prayer for you is that you allow Jesus to use you without consulting you.”
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On now to Genesis 22, where Abraham certainly doesn’t enter into any consultation or reconsideration with God. Our high-minded ethical selves recoil at the thought, and we are questioning before we’ve pondered the mood, the pace, the agony of the story that isn’t a lesson but the story of the forefather of our faith. Rembrandt’s pen and ink profoundly and unforgettably captures Abraham’s face… 

More than any passage in Scripture, this one is to be read slowly. Each word bears so much weight, and the emotion — never stated! — is intense. 

Take your son

Your only son Isaac (underlining the ‘only,’ and thus the whole story of barrenness, and then reminding him of his name… which had just meant joyful laughter…)

Whom you love (again, reiterating the obvious, expanding the interior horizon).
Rembrandt, "Abraham's Sacrifice"
The pace remains slow, rising early, saddling his donkey.

When they get to Moriah, he takes the wood, and the fire and knife. Then the text lingers: So they went, both of them together. Absolutely tender, harrowing. These very words are repeated two verses later.

Isaac calls out to him “My father!” (which is how Jesus would teach us to pray). Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son” (echoes of Isaiah 6 but with the tender ‘my son’).

I love it that the text never tells us how either of them feels. The intensity is greater than if the mood had been depicted in a bunch of adjectives.
We have a startling text. Abraham is “tested,” not tempted (as is the case for Jesus in the desert). Russ Reno (in his Brazos/Genesis commentary): “Trials and tests are consistent with divine love.  They work against our hopeless hope that our finite powers can see us through. To be tested is to be brought back to reality. It is a spank that awakens us. Trials and tests not only purify us of delusions, but also prepare us for a proper loyalty to the world and its finite goods.”
The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gifted us with a profound rumination on this text (Fear & Trembling), in which he points out that if Abraham had been heroic, he would have raised the knife and plunged it into his own chest: “He would have been admired; but it is one thing to be admired, and another to be the guiding star which saves the anguished.” Kierkegaard’s best line? “Only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.”
Clearly we sense that God does not know how this will turn out. What God seems to be looking for is this: does Abraham fear God or not? There is fear, as in being terrified — and that’s not entirely out of place with God. Then there is a reverential fear, which Proverbs says is the beginning of wisdom. Scott Bader-Saye’s fantastic book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, explores kinds of fears, especially those that shield us from God. His best lines? “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good. When we fear excessively we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good. Fear causes our vision to narrow, when what is needed is for it to be enlarged… Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life.” But Abraham’s trouble isn’t excessive fear, is it?
I feel sure of two observations I have on this chilling, moving story. The first is, I see this story as God’s way of saying Do not do as the pagans do! Canaanites and other neighbors did sacrifice their children; but Genesis 22 establishes definitively that “It shall not be so among you.”
Then the second: We adore our children, and we are positive would never harm them. But then don’t we unwittingly sacrifice them on this or that altar? We so cherish our children, but then we bind them onto the altar of money, or alcohol, or dizzying busyness, or our anxiety or society’s false deities. Plenty of sermon fodder here. Or more simply and humorously, I think of Pat Conroy’s great line in The Prince of Tides, when Tom says to his three children: “ 'Parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable. It’s one of God’s most important laws. I know we’re screwing you up a little bit every day. If we know how we were doing it, we’d stop, because we adore you. But we’re parents and we can't help it. Do you understand?’  ‘No,’ they agreed in a simultaneous chorus.”
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Finally, if you’re interested, as I am not so much, in Matthew 10:40-42. This “whoever gives a cup of cold water” is intriguing — for my money, not quite enough for an entire sermon. I am reminded of that scene in Ben Hur where Charlton Heston is parched and nearly dead in the desert when a passerby (it’s Jesus, but we only see his shadow) gives him a drink. The favor is returned when Jesus is bearing his cross and Judah Ben Hur bolts through the cordon of soldiers and offers him a drink.

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How to Handle July 4 (excerpted from The Beauty of the Word):

On the Sunday that looms nearest July 4 (or Memorial Day, or Veterans’ Day), many American Christians yearn for something “patriotic,” whether this means singing “God bless America” or a message on the sacrifices soldiers have made for our freedom, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, perhaps even a Pledge of Allegiance. How we cope with these requests, which may be subtle and sweet, or shrill and angry, might range from simply ignoring the national day in question, or knuckling under and just letting them have their way, or even waging theological combat against patriotic usurpations of Christianity.

But why do people care so much and feel so passionately about these matters? We can diagnose various flaws in theological formation or in the civic religion that dominates our culture. But at the end of the day, people (like people in other nations!) have a kind of fealty to America, a pride in their homeland, a deep desire for God to be meaningfully connected to their nation, their society — and the impulse can be lovely, and there must be ways to tap into the more promising side of that impulse without feeding the dark side. I know that I too often have not reckoned thoroughly enough with the fact that I seem insufficiently patriotic to Church members for whom military and “patriotic” matters are viscerally powerful. I have preached against wars, against armaments, against an America first mood, against patriotic arrogance, without a robust pastoral awareness in myself that I am talking in front of people who got off carriers and stormed a beach at Normandy and saw friends left and right shot dead, people who sent sons off to the insane jungles of Vietnam and saw them return home mangled, people who served nobly and with little remuneration in the armed forces, people whose sense of self has always been shaped by family and heroes who value what I seem to be trouncing.

Aren’t there ways to acknowledge what they hold dear without a triumphal acclamation of all Americana, without endorsing a war or political party, without perverting the Gospel’s understanding of words like “freedom,” yet also without appearing to be ignorant or unappreciative or just plain insensitive? Surely, while treating the text of the day, we can forage about and find some illustration from American history that might faithfully embody what we are trying to say.

George Washington did not leave his soldiers alone at Valley Forge, but suffered every discomfort they did — and perhaps the incarnation of God’s Word is like that. Once near Memorial Day my text led me into an exploration of why bad things happen, and I reflected on the memories a friend shared from his experience on Omaha Beach in 1941. Another July 4, I thumbed through the remarkable correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two longtime enemies who mellowed and became cherished friends before dying on July 4, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. People who adore July 4 felt entirely enfranchised, but I said not one word about the grandeur of America or that God birthed this country for some manifest destiny, but instead spoke of the reconciliation of enemies.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 

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