Sunday, June 28, 2020

June 28 - Sacrificing the Plan for the Promise

Genesis 22:1-19

So, we’re looking at Genesis today, and I wonder what Abraham thought about on his three-day trek with Isaac to the mountains in Moriah. Three days is not a long time to mull over the most momentous act of one’s life, but I’m guessing that what kept returning to mind was God’s promise to Abraham so many years ago. On that day, God proclaimed, “This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. ... I will establish between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:4, 7) This must have jumped immediately to Abraham’s mind when God told Abraham to go and sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.

And I’m guessing that the next thing he thought was, “Again?” If you remember, just before this happened, Abraham had been told by God to obey his wife Sarah, and send Hagar and Ishmael, his first-born, away into the wilderness of Beer-sheba. Even though God promised Abraham that God would take care of Ishmael, Abraham didn’t actually know that that had happened. All Abraham saw was the back of his first-born son, disappearing over the horizon and away from shelter and water and protection. 

God had promised Abraham that God would make him the father of nations, and continue in covenant with his offspring for generations to come, and then God encouraged Abraham to send his first-born son away, and was demanding the life of his only remaining son. God had promised a future for Abraham and his children, but how could that possibly happen now? What was Abraham thinking in the midst of this? We know how the story ends, how God would work it out, but Abraham didn’t. We don’t know whether Abraham took every step towards that mountain of sacrifice with reluctance, or with eagerness to witness a miracle, or with confusion, or all of the above. Scripture tells us that Abraham said to his men that both he and Isaac would return from the mountain, and that he told Isaac that God would provide a lamb for the offering. Whether Abraham truly believed this to be the case, or was engaged in deception, either of himself or others, we don’t know. 

All we know is that Isaac embodied the living, breathing future that God had promised, and now God was telling Abraham to give Isaac up. To continue to trust God’s promise, but to let go of any plans for how that promise would come to pass.

That’s what this story is telling us today. This isn’t a story about child sacrifice, which was actually pretty common in that part of the world at that time, thank goodness we’re past that. This is a story about future sacrifice. More specifically, this is a story about sacrificing our plans of how we think God’s future for us will come about. What the stories of Abraham and Isaac, and of Abraham and Ishmael, tell us is that we shouldn’t hold too tightly to our ideas of how exactly God is going to deliver on God’s promise; we shouldn’t get too caught up in our own plans. Because, as we see with Abraham, at some point, God may ask us to walk a very different path than the one we planned to take to get to where God is calling us.

I think this is God’s message for us today. As we try to make plans for the future, we know that God promises a future for us, and we know that that future is good, but just how we are going to arrive at that future is a bit of a mystery. And, as so often happens when we’re in uncharted territory, we’re tempted to make a lot of plans. Which is not a bad thing. Plans are not bad. I am a planner. But we go astray when we put our faith more in our plans than in God’s promise. And so God sometimes has to encourage us to let those plans go.

Which is very unsettling, especially when we face uncertainty on all sides, and are trying to discern and plan a lot of different things in our lives. From trying to plan how to gather together as a congregation in-person, to trying to plan how the call process should proceed, to personal things like trying to plan how kids will go back to school in the fall, or how work will unfold in the months to come, or travel plans, or plans for retirement, or for family gatherings. For the last three-and-a-half months, we have been living day-to-day, at most week-to-week, and it is exhausting. We want to be able to start planning. Of course, we all trust that God will provide us with a future, and we trust that that future will be good. It’s just that we’re less inclined to trust the process of how that future will come to be. We want to know how exactly that future will arrive, we want to feel some control over our lives. And along comes this story of Abraham and Isaac, and here I am telling you that this story means that we need to sacrifice our plans, that we need to lay our plans on the altar of our Lord, and say goodbye to them. I don’t like this story.

But we’re only halfway through this story, and we can’t stop here, because this is also a story about how God does keep God’s promises. Abraham had to sacrifice his plans and expectations for how the future would come to be, but Abraham did not actually have to sacrifice Isaac. God did indeed bring about the future that God promised––we are here, after all. And this is also the message of this story for us today. God does have a good future in mind for God’s children––for all of you and each of you––and God will bring it to pass. Not always the way we expect, but in God’s own way. When we sacrifice our plans, when we lay our plans before God and give them up as an offering, as Abraham did with his plans named Isaac, God quickly steps in to provide a plan of God’s own. God offers a new path––God’s own path––for getting to the future God has promised us. And, just as God fulfilled God’s promise by blessing Isaac, and then Jacob, and then Joseph, and the generations that followed, God fulfills God’s promise by blessing you and your children and your children’s children.

So how do we actually live this out? How do we sacrifice our plans to God? After all, we really can’t just live with no plans whatsoever. That’s foolish and, as we’ve seen in this COVID time, dangerous. But there is a middle-of-the-road way of living that involves planning only a few steps at a time. God does gives us wisdom and discernment for at least a few steps forward, just as God gave Abraham direction to go to the mountains of Moriah. And so we are called to identify those first few steps, and to embark on them with prayer and trust, even if they seem like they’re going in the wrong direction. And as time progresses, God grants us the wisdom to see the next few steps, and then the next after that, just a few at a time, but enough times that we are finally where we are supposed to be, receiving the fulfillment of God’s promise. 

And I think we are also called to hold these few-steps-at-a-time plans loosely, as we might hold a kitten or a puppy, ready to calmly release them when they start to wiggle free. Because sometimes we do end up on the wrong path, through honest misunderstandings or through deliberate choice, and God is gracious enough to offer us a course correction. We don’t know why, but it was clear that God needed Abraham to let go of Isaac––maybe he was in danger of worshipping him, as so many parents end up worshipping their children. Maybe Abraham was clinging to Isaac too tightly, clinging to Isaac as the manifestation of God’s promise, and so God asked Abraham to loosen his grip. To hold Isaac, to hold Abraham’s plan for the future, loosely. To let go of him, if need be, so that God could make the necessary course correction and set them on the right path again, and so that Abraham, in addition to trusting God’s promise, could also trust God’s plan. We are called to do the same with our own plans and expectations, whether that be expectations for the call process, or for the resolution of COVID, or for anything in this coming year. To hold the plans loosely, and to offer them to God.

Now this is hard, but it is clear that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, you are all capable of doing this. I have seen it over the last two and a half years. It may have seemed that when I first got here, I knew exactly how our time together was going to unfold. But I had no idea. I only knew that God had called me here, and that God promised to work healing of some kind, but I did not know that it would involve going back to the beginnings of this church, or sharing stories of spiritual abuse, or Lenten reflections and Easter healing services. I did not know that God would take the pieces of Advent’s broken history and disrupted plans and make an Easter cross out of them. None of us knew that it would involve what it did. And yet, as we took a few steps at a time together, and then a few steps more, as you sacrificed the expectations of outcomes, as you held our time together loosely, God’s promise of healing was fulfilled, and is being fulfilled, and God continues to bless you. I have seen that you have the trust of Abraham to let go of your plans and to trust in God’s promise. I have seen the Holy Spirit accomplish this in you, and so I know you will allow the Spirit to do it again. 

For the last three months, we’ve been praying the same prayer every time we gather for morning prayer, starting in those first days immediately following the COVID closures. It’s a prayer for God’s guidance, but also a prayer of thanksgiving that God is with us always, leading us along the way step by step, towards the fulfillment of God’s promised blessing. And, with gratefulness to God for all that God has accomplished among us together, it is my prayer for all of you, through the weeks and months and years to come, and I offer it now:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go [forward] with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen. [ELW, pg 304]

Sunday, June 21, 2020

June 21 - A Sermon for Our Confirmands

Matthew 10:40-42

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”

Well, L----, that’s what you’re about to do, isn’t it? In a little bit, you are going to stand up here at the front of the church and streaming live on Zoom, and acknowledge your commitment to following God above all others. You’re going to officially renounce, or reject, all the forces that oppose God, or that try to replace God. You’re going to affirm, or agree, that being baptized was a good thing, and that you are happy to be part of Christ’s family and that you recognize that God claims you as God’s own beloved child. And you are going to announce in front of everyone, in “public,” as it were, that going forward you are committed to “proclaim[ing] the good news of God in Christ through word and deed..., serv[ing] all people...., and striv[ing] for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Wow. That’s a lot of pressure! Especially that last bit, serving all people and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. After all, you’re only a few years into being a teenager and already you’re expected to stand up and do the right thing, no matter what anybody says.

And, just to be clear, when you stand up and do the right thing, people are going to say a lot. Adults are going to say a lot. That’s actually what Jesus is trying to warn us about in the Gospel reading we just heard. Following Jesus in doing the right thing often puts us into conflict with others, especially with those in positions of authority over us. Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father,” and “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” And then he says, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Yikes! Those are harsh words, especially on Father’s Day! I bet you didn’t think you were coming to church to be told that!

Jesus even says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Which is weird because when we talk about Jesus we call him the prince of peace, and that he brings peace on earth, and that he gives us the peace that passes all understanding. So how can he be talking about bringing a sword? Well, what Jesus is saying is that God did not send him to earth to support the peace that existed at his time, which was the peace of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire established peace by force. If slaves didn’t like being slaves, and tried to escape from slavery, the Empire’s soldiers just killed them, and look, peaceful again. Jesus definitely did not come to support that kind of peace. Instead, he actually came to expose that peace as a lie and to fight it and to dismantle it. It’s hard for us to believe, but he’s saying that if the government is acting in an unjust way, that establishes peace by force, then he is calling us to stand up to it, no matter what the consequences. 

And that’s because the ultimate authority for Christians isn’t the Roman Emperor, or the government, or even our parents. Jesus is our Lord, our Saviour, our Emperor, our King, our boss, and the one that we should obey even if it means disobeying someone else. It’s right there in Luther’s explanation to the First Commandment, “we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Jesus is very clear. We are to follow God as we see Christ do, even if it means contradicting our parents or our teachers or our pastors. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” And by cross, he means bearing the disapproval and consequences of standing up for justice and peace. Sometimes when you stand up for what’s right, people with authority will tell you to be quiet or to sit down because you’re just a kid. 

Now, I’m not that worried about you sitting down and being quiet. And I don’t mean just you, L----. I think that you and other kids your age are a real gift to the church, because you challenge us to think more deeply about what we really mean by following Christ. You all ask us lots of questions, uncomfortable questions sometimes. And your questions expose where we are being inconsistent between what we proclaim and what we actually do. You all truly believe that God loves everyone, and you call us out when we don’t act that way. You all also bring your Christian beliefs into the world. You want things to be fair and right not just in church, but in school, and where people work, and in the world in general. You lead us by example, and when you say to today that you “intend to continue in the covenant God made with you” by doing all these things, I know that you will, because I’ve seen that you already do.

But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you do. None of us should be surprised that the babies and children who were baptized in the church are growing up and proclaiming the good news through word and deed, serving all people, and striving for justice and peace. We shouldn’t be surprised because when you were baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon you and filled you, and what do we know about the Holy Spirit? We believe “that by [our] own understanding or strength [we] cannot believe in Jesus Christ [our] Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called [us] through the gospel, enlightened [us] with his gifts, made [us]holy and kept [us] in the true faith, just as the Spirt calls, gather, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

All baptized Christians are called to take up their cross and follow Christ, and all Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do it. The rite of Confirmation is a bit misleading, because it seems like we are asking you to commit to something new, to commit to a new way of being a Christian, to live out a more adult faith, but Confirmation is actually just a reminder of what we have all already been called to do, from the moment we were baptized. It’s not a new way, it’s not a more adult way. It’s just the way. 

More importantly, it’s not a way that you are being asked to commit to and follow on your own. The Holy Spirit carries you and all Christians along this journey, and works in your hearts, and directs your actions, and guides your words. Every time we renounce the devil and all his empty promises, every time we say the Creed and proclaim that Jesus Christ is our Lord, every time that we stand up for what’s right and work for justice and peace, we are doing so with the power and the authority granted by the Holy Spirit. And the power and authority of the Holy Spirit is far greater than that of any earthly authority, even our parents. (And believe me, I’m saying this knowing that my own children are listening and these words are going to come back to me one day... But I’ll also say, as a parent, that as annoying as it is when our children point out to us where we are not living with integrity, we are actually secretly proud of them for standing up for what’s right, no matter what.)

This is what it is to follow Christ, because this is what Christ himself did. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he stood up to the Roman Empire which proclaimed that only some lives were valuable, which said that there should be unified obedience to the Emperor at all costs, who even said that the Emperor was God. He stood up for those who were silenced, for those who were injured, for those who were insulted or ignored, for those who were shoved to the side. He knew that he would lose his life for it, that the Empire would crush him just like it crushed those he was standing up for, but he did it anyway.

And God rewarded him with new life. God acknowledged him as God’s own beloved Son, and God raised him to new life. And L----, God will do the same for you. God is already doing the same for you. God sees all the times that your heart is open to the Holy Spirit and you proclaim God’s love for all people in word or deed, and serve all people, and strive for justice and peace. God sees all the times you stand up for others, whether it’s a big thing or just a little thing. God sees all the times you help someone out who needs a hand, and all the times you think, “that’s not fair!” when you hear about an injustice. God sees the cost you pay for all those moments, too. And God rewards you, with peace in your heart, for knowing you did the right thing. God rewards you with the satisfaction of knowing that you are indeed following in Christ’s footsteps. God rewards you by freeing you from “the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw you from God.” And God rewards you with the strength to do it again, and then again, for your whole life, until one day, when you are old and wrinkled, you will look back and you realize that you have walked the path of Jesus for your entire life and have been blessed by your Father in heaven. 

Many years ago, God brought you to baptism, L----, by working in the hearts of your parents. Today, God is working in your heart by bringing you to this day. And even though you are the only one standing up here today, you are not alone. All of us who are baptized stand with you, and with one another, in responding to the Holy Spirit’s call to the whole church to follow Christ, no matter what. We will stand with you when you face consequences for doing what is right, and we will be cheering when God grants you new life in the midst of that. But even more importantly than us standing with you and cheering, is that Jesus himself is doing it, on behalf of God the Father, through the Holy Spirit. And so we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.