Genesis 22:1-14Psalm 89 Romans 6:12-23
If you were paying attention to the Genesis lesson this morning, then if you're anything like me, you were probably shifting uncomfortably in your seats. And it probably left you with more questions than answers. It is, truly, one of the most difficult passages in Scripture with which to wrestle. And as the lectionary brings us here this morning, it strikes me as fitting. This morning's reflection takes me into territory that I didn't expect. It makes me uncomfortable, and leaves me with more questions than answers.
A cursory glance at the lesson might leave us thinking, "Who is this God, anyway?" We might read this as God's cruelty, dangling Abraham around on a string, like a puppet. Either that, or God's fickleness and unreliability, changing the divine mind when the situation suits it. God has called Abraham out of retirement and onto a journey, has urged him to send his first-born son Ishmael out into the wilderness, and now is threatening to take away his remaining son, the one who is the fulfillment of a long awaited promise? What kind of God is this, anyway?
This morning, I want to suggest that there are three different ways to read this passage. The first is the personal. And that centers on understanding Abraham's character in the midst of this story. Abraham, after all, is the one who responds to God's "get up and go" by getting up and going. There's no equivocating. And the story has wound around so complexly that Abraham may, very well, now see this as another step in a journey on which God has been every step of the way. The problem with this is that it is so personal as to be irrelevant to us. How many of us have that kind of unquestioning, innate faith where we can say "yes" to God at a moment's notice? How many of us would have that kind of simplicity? And how many of us, rather, wrestle and struggle with the demands of faith on a regular basis, knowing that we never quite pass muster?
This brings me to the second reading, which I'll call a philosophical reading. It is the one that dates from the earliest Christian interpretation, one in which the story is seen exclusively through a Christian lens of the New Testament. The story then becomes kind of a metaphorical foreshadowing of the crucifixion. The Father is willing to sacrifice the Son. The Son is bound to the wood for the sacrifice. And God provides the lamb of God, Christ himself, to substitute for the child and so that human sacrifice becomes unnecessary. Again, helpful. It focuses our attention back on the cross and its meaning for our lives. But it doesn't answer the most troubling questions at the heart of the story. Did Abraham understand all of this? Should Abraham have understood all of this? And what does God's character look like to those who don't have the benefit of foresight?
Which brings me to the third possibility, which I'll call the contextual. It is the reading which is most accessible for me. This requires living into Abraham's time a little more fully. And in that time, there was a whole array of gods; gods of war, gods of fertility, each tribe worshiped its own god. In this pre-nation time, each nation had its own deity. And it was not unusual for the practices around each god to include child sacrifice. Think of the practices of Central and South America around the temples there. What God appeared to be asking Abraham to do was absolutely par for the accepted course of the time. And so, when God stops Abraham, it is a moment where God says, in a very dramatic way, I am not that kind of God. Remember that this is still early on in the revelation of this "new" God called Yahweh to the world. And perhaps God could have said, "Abraham, follow me, but don't sacrifice your son. That's not who I am." But if Abraham was anything like us, saying it is one thing; taking it to the brink of reality is something else.
Now I don't know if that is helpful to you at all, especially as we live several millenia on this side of the story, with the benefit of hindsight and generations of children of Abraham so ingrained with the idea that child sacrifice is not the character of the God we worship. But maybe that's the point. We are at a point of worshiping this God Yahweh down through the centuries where this different, defining character of God is so assumed that the questions Abraham would have had to wrestle with in his time strike us today as nothing short of barbaric.
So: here we are, with this incredible gap of time between us and our ancestor Abraham. What, possibly, could this archaic story of a god who doesn't demand child sacrifice have to teach us today? We know that lesson, don't we? So, lesson learned, we move on? Or could it be that there is something to the essence of this story that transcends, that moves through the centuries, that builds a bridge to us in the present, 21st century that can help us look at ourselves? Perhaps it's a bit of a leap, but as we continue our conversations about stewardship this summer, I am drawn to the possibility that this lesson might teach us something about the parent/child relationship, about what it means to worship, and about how God provides.
There is perhaps no more pressing topic in the church these days than the question of children and worship. And before I move any further, I want to offer up a couple of caveats (don't you love reflections with caveats?). First, this is part of a conversation. This grows out of conversations with you all in various capacities over the past three years. And I intend this not to be the final point of the conversation, but rather as a way to continue the conversation. I say that with full recognition that I'm the guy who gets to stand up on Sunday morning and speak uninterrupted for twenty minutes. So I really invite your responses to this conversation. Tiffany and I will find ways in the coming months to continue it. For those of you that are technologically inclined, I have begun blogging my sermons as a way to make them more interactive. And for those of you that prefer more traditional modes of communication, let's get together - beyond the brief conversations that fellowship allows for - to speak in intentional ways. The second caveat is that I recognize that my reflections today might reflect that Abraham story a bit too directly; uncomfortable and with more questions than answers. But that is intentional, so that we might engage in more conversation in the years together that we have.
The third caveat is that I know I approach this conversation as not only pastor, but parent. I have no desire to make my own parenting some kind of canonical standard. My ultimate Biblical stand is that the parent has the final say in the faith education of the child. After all, the parent has the child throughout the week. We, as a church, have the child for one, maybe two hours out of that week. And what Elizabeth and I choose to do as parents now may change in the years to come, as our child's needs change and grow, or as other children come into the picture. I don't want to appear so foolish as to think that I am now an expert on the subject. And I do not want for my son to be the poster child for Christian parenting. Preacher's kids have enough pressures of the public life. I have no desire to add to them.
And the final caveat is this: as the uninterrupted guy, I want to be clear that while I recognize that my voice has a certain role in the conversation, I want to make it clear that I do not believe it is the only voice by any stretch. Presbyterianism allows for a fuller conversation in theological ways. Elders are gifted as a means by which the Spirit speaks. And I also believe that each of you are drawn here by that same Spirit; it is our common voice which gives voice to God's desires.
OK. Caveats out of the way. On with the show.
I begin with my own story. As many of you know, I was raised at First Presbyterian, just eight miles down Peachtree from here. My mother was in the choir. My father attended Bedside Presbyterian (right next to St. Mattress Episcopalian). So I sat between my grandparents in the corner pew. At some point, I must have been in the nursery (I don't really remember when that was), because I have a few fuzzy memories; but early on, I ended up in worship. I was bored and restless. The sermon was agonizing. I don't remember actually hearing any sermon that was preached. My grandmother would give me paper to draw on. Sometimes I would rest my head on her lap, and she would scratch my back. If I coughed, she'd dig into her purse for a cepacol lozenge. Sometimes I'd fake a cough just to get one. I didn't learn much during the sermons. But what did I learn? I learned the songs, the prayers, the rhythms of worship.
When worship was over, and the pastors headed for the exits to greet us, Pastor George would walk down our aisle. I'd lean out, and he'd tossle my air. That was something else I learned: I was welcomed, and I was loved. It was a church that took seriously the baptismal vows it made for me up until and past seminary.
Our context here at OPC is different. We don't have any unanimity on how to answer this question of children and worship. Some parents prefer to have their children in worship so that they, too, would learn these rhythms. Others prefer to have them in the nursery, so that they themselves can focus and worship; it simply isn't fair to expect children to sit still for an hour or more in worship. Others come rarely, and for some it is because we don't make our expectations clear. They don't know what to do with their children, and the choice itself is exhausting. It is because of this lack of clarity we have that I want to propose, in parallel to our three views of the Abraham story, that there may be three ways to view this topic.
The first is the personal approach. Many churches take this way. Children go to children's church, where the lesson is age-appropriate. There is a contemporary service for the youth, a traditional service for the adults. And there is much to recommend this approach: the gospel isn't for adults alone, and people of different ages and developmental stages get the lesson in a way that is age-appropriate. But it has it's limitations as well. What does it mean to be one body of Christ when we are segmented? What does it mean that those who volunteer to run the other services don't themselves get to worship? My own experience at churches where this has been the practice is that children are alienated from traditional forms of worship. When they do attend later on, it's like being dropped in a foreign land without even a phrase book.
The second approach would be this philosophical one. In it, the worship space is radically altered so that all ages are in the same room. The children's sermon is longer and much more focused on the children. There are dedicated areas for children. Congregants act as surrogate parents. And children are not expected to sit still for an hour. It, too, brings much to the conversation. The community is in one place. Christ's desire that the "little children come to me" is enacted. But it, too, has its downsides. There is noise, and distraction from that and movement can crowd our ability to concentrate on what worship asks of us. The sermon, which is so central and adult-focused in our tradition, becomes shorter or stripped down so that there is more than just adult conversation taking place. It is an approach which has it's limitations, too.
And so, there is a third way, which is more contextual. It recognizes who we are and what we bring to this worship and to this community. It leaves intact that desire that parents ultimately make these decisions for their children. And in a sense, it is what we are already. But here's the difference: it's intentional, and it's clearer. There is a deep desire that the community of faith be the place where parents can be resourced and supported to provide for the spiritual nurture of their children. There is an embrace of children and parents, meeting them where they are, and giving them what God needs for them to grow.
What does it look like? Again, this reflection is more about questions than answers. And I really don't know the answer to this one. But I do know this: we will come to a place where we will learn, as did Abraham, that the God we worship has a very different character from that which our times might want us to believe. And in that moment, we will feel the draw to worship that God. And like that ram in the thicket, God will provide all that we need to make it possible.
Friends, I do hope that this is the beginning of the conversation. Please respond with honesty. Email me or put a comment below. Call me and let's get together. I trust that God will speak through the wisdom we gather together.