Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 26 June 2011

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

As I looked at the lessons for this Sunday, I was grateful that Father’s Day was two Sundays ago, and that I did not have to deal with the reading from Genesis then. This story, known as “the binding of Isaac,” is usually interpreted as demonstrating Abraham’s great faith in God to do what God has promised (“I will make of you a great nation”) in spite of this “testing” of seemingly demanding child sacrifice. Elsewhere we know of the revulsion with which such an act, in and of itself, was regarded in ancient Israel—but here it appears that “It’s okay because God told me to do it.”

I have to confess, I don’t like this story. Not at all. God is either insane or insanely cruel, to even ask such a thing. Abraham would be in prison or on the Jerry Springer show for such an action, and where is Sarah in all this?

But the story is here, and we have to wrestle with it. What does it mean to go to the very edge of everything we think of as appropriate or suitable or “normal” and trust that even there, God is present and will act?

In looking at the reading from the letter to the Romans, we need to back up a few verses to get the context. Paul, addressing the Christians in Rome, reminds them that “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death…just as Christ has been raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that…we might no longer be enslaved to sin, for whoever has died is free from sin.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you (y’all) also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (6:2-11, roughly)

This is not about “sins” as in misdeeds, even willful ones. This is about “Sin” with a capital-S, the power in the universe that is inherently opposed to God’s very being. (Paul does not use the personification of resistance to God by naming it “Satan” or the devil, but that’s one way of thinking about this.) Paul assumes that everyone—absolutely everyone—is under the authority of some other power structure larger than him-or-herself. The image of “slaves to sin” states it explicitly—not meaning that anyone was a particularly notorious sinner, but that they were under the control and authority of something beyond themselves, which was NOT God. Which was, in fact, the opposite.

But NOW, Paul tells them, you have been given the power to abandon that other power structure, that other system of values, that other way of living—which is ultimately a dead end—and in the freedom which comes from God alone, you have come under the dominion and the authority of God’s household.

All through Easter season, we’ve been singing the verse above: “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” The idea is, that in dying, Christ is freed from the dominion of Sin-with-a-capital-S. He “goes out from that place” and is no longer a citizen of the country where that system is in control. Therefore he is no longer under that influence, where a dead end is the only available option.

In his resurrection from the dead, Christ is raised into a new dominion, a new place, a new country, a new reality—the kingdom and dominion of God. And the good news for us, as his followers, is that we are invited as citizens, as “slaves” however much we might dislike that word, into that new reality and new dominion as well. Out of the dead ends, out of the domination of the old system, into God’s dominion and family and household.

This is amazing stuff, and hard to get our arms or our brains around. And beyond that, even if we do manage to “figure it out” somehow—we don’t even get to take credit for it ourselves. It’s not something we DO at all, it is simply given. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, it is accomplished without any contribution on our part whatsoever. “Christ, our passover, is sacrificed FOR US. Therefore, let us keep the feast.” We don’t get it by earning it or being more clever or skillful or wise or anything—it is God’s gift. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…

This is the good news of the Gospel. But it’s not always immediately good news to everyone. For those who want to think well of themselves, because they believe they have gotten their lives together by their own efforts and have earned the right to look down on “them people” who are still outside the inner circle, this word of grace is a call to think again. To change the mind, to go in a different direction. Metanoia, again.

When Jesus speaks to his followers this morning about “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” there is an implication behind that. Which is explicit, if again we back up a few verses. “I tell you, I have not come to bring peace, but rather division…Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (10:29)

This sounds like a word of anxiety, not grace. Certainly not peace. But again, context is everything.

Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ genealogy. An explicit tracing of his family heritage—and we, as southerners, get why that’s of interest. “Who are your people?”

These are his people. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, King David and Solomon and all the rest. It is his pedigree, and his resume in a way—his qualification to be the Messiah, God’s chosen one. But the problem is, from the beginning of the story itself, the people who ought to get it, don’t; and the people who are outside the inner circle and should, by all logic, remain exactly there…they’re the ones who understand and come running to him. King Herod and the court officials should be the ones who understand about Bethlehem and the Messiah and all the rest, but it’s the wise men from the east—the foreigners, “Them People” again, who see the star and pack up to come find out what’s going on. Over and over this is a theme for Matthew’s gospel—those who get it, and come to find out, and those who do not, and turn away. Who cannot, or will not, hear the Good News because it challenges who they think God is, or who they think they are themselves.

All Jesus is saying, is that this is how it will be for his followers. And not to be surprised when it happens. “Whoever does receive you, I’m there too. And God is there also. And even the littlest and least significant gesture (a cup of water) done with me in mind, is an outward and visible sign of that grace that is present, right then, in that moment and place.”

How are we challenged by the Gospel this morning? How does the word of God’s amazing grace and power to overthrow the systems of the world we live in, invite us into a new way of thinking, and living? How are we, like Isaac, released from our bondage by God’s providence and mercy? And how are we prepared to follow the risen Christ, through the waters of death and rebirth, into that new kingdom?

I wonder…

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