Sunday, June 29, 2014

Testing Faith

A Sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

I took my first SAT was when I was thirteen years old. Wandering the stacks of my local library, I happened across the test prep section, where I found row upon row of books about preparing for the SAT, the PSAT, the MCAT, the LSAT, the GED, and on and on the list went. I hadn’t heard of most of them, but as a homeschooled student, I had heard over and over again that it would be essential that I get a high SAT score if I wanted to get into a good college. I checked out Ten Real SATs, and one Saturday afternoon, I sat for three hours at the desk in my bedroom and self-administered the test. In retrospect, the very fact that I wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon taking a practice SAT for fun should have told me that I had nothing to worry about.

I sometimes read articles bemoaning our education culture of high-stakes testing and test-driven teaching. I meet parents of toddlers who are busily preparing for preschool entrance exams, and parents of middle-schoolers who are stressed and anxious about the tests that will place them into high schools. I hear of schools where test prep has to be emphasized to the exclusion of not only art and music, but also reading novels and writing essays. There are lower-stakes tests as well: every time I log on to facebook, I see that my friends are taking tests for fun: “I got House Lannister. Which Game of Thrones house are you?” their posts query. Or: “78% of Americans will get this math question wrong. Can you find the answer?” Our culture finds itself in a new and troubling relationship with testing. But I would argue that this obsession with tests and testing is nothing new.

Our First Testament reading today speaks of a very different sort of test. It comes from the book of Genesis, which has been following the patriarch Abraham, whom God promised to make a great nation and sent out to a land unknown to him. The text has made its way through many stories of Abraham: the birth of his son Ishmael by his wife’s concubine Hagar; the promise of a son to Sarah even though she was well beyond her child-bearing years; the birth of Isaac, and Abraham’s subsequent rejection of Ishmael and Hagar; all interspersed with journeys all over the Ancient Near East. Now we come to these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham answers with the prophetic response ‘hineni,’ which is not exactly translatable, but we typically render as “here I am.”

God then commands Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Of course, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son, Abraham has another son, Ishmael, whom he sent away with his mother, Hagar. The Jewish tradition offers an interesting take on these words: in Hebrew, the word order is “take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.” The rabbis argued that there must be a reason God uses so many words, and so they imagine Abraham playing dumb: “take your son,” says God. “Which one?” replies Abraham. “Your only son,” says God. “Isaac is the only son of his mother, and Ishmael is the only son of his mother,” Abraham responds. “The one you love,” God says. “I love both my sons,” asserts Abraham, although he has sent one of his sons into the brutal desert. “Isaac,” God finally clarifies.

The text proceeds in grim and excruciating detail, describing Abraham’s preparations, his journey with his son and two servants, then the last leg with Isaac only. Isaac questions where the lamb is, and Abraham tells him “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” They arrive at the place that God has appointed, and Abraham builds an altar, lays the firewood, binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and raises the knife. At the final moment, an angel calls out to him to halt, declaring, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram, which he sacrifices instead of Isaac.

What are we to make of this troubling story? Traditional interpretations tend to praise Abraham’s unswerving obedience to God’s command. Perhaps you have heard interpretive statements like these: Abraham follows the path God has set out, even though it is painful and horrible, and lo and behold, at the last moment, God intervenes and provides. We, the listeners, are urged to be like Abraham, following God’s will even when it is painful, difficult, or confusing. Here’s another one: Abraham is willing to risk everything for God, and is richly rewarded. We, the listeners, should be willing to give it all up for God. Christian interpreters have pointed out the resonances between this story and that of the crucifixion: the sacrifice of an only son; the “lamb of God” who is ultimately sacrificed.

Here’s the thing, though: I find those interpretations terribly unsatisfying. Certainly, we should follow God’s will for us even at great personal cost, even when it is difficult and hard and frightening; certainly we should be willing to give up what we hold dear if that is what discipleship demands of us. Should our faith make us willing to cut the throat of another human being, let alone our own child? Do we believe in a God who would demand such a thing? Is that the God we know, the God we worship?

With questions like these in mind, interpreters have wondered whether this text might originally have been a story that spoke out against the sacrifice of human children (which was, in fact, a religious practice that sometimes happened in the cultures of that time and place). Perhaps as scripture took shape over the centuries, different traditions melded and merged, mixing themes of a God who rejects human sacrifice with themes of faithful obedience, ultimately forming the story the tradition has wrestled with ever since.

Other interpreters have asked this question: if God was testing Abraham in this way, did Abraham pass the test?

In the 1950s, the world was deeply shaken by what they had seen take place in Nazi Germany. How, people wondered, could so many people have been led to participate in such evil? A psychologist named Stanley Milgram designed an experiment, hoping to learn about what kinds of people would participate in harming strangers, and under what conditions. Were people with lower IQ’s more susceptible? Younger or older people? People from wealthy or poor backgrounds?

Here is what you would have experienced as a participant: you enter a room where you meet another participant, a middle-aged man. You randomly select roles: you will be the teacher, the man will be the learner. You watch as he is strapped into a machine with electrodes. You go into another room, where you can hear him over a speaker and speak to him over a microphone. In front of you is a machine with voltage levels and a button. You teach him a series of word pairs. Then the experiment begins: you give him one word, and he responds with its pairing word. If he gets it right, you move on. If he gets it wrong, you give him a small electrical shock with the button. After a few mistakes, you increase the voltage. After several mistakes, he starts to complain of the pain. “Ouch! That hurts! Stop!” Perhaps you look at the researcher, who assures you that everything is fine and you have to go on with the experiment. Soon his complaints get more strenuous: “Wait! I have a heart condition! I don’t want to do this anymore, let me go!” A few more wrong answers, and you turn the dial up again to a voltage marked “Danger: Severe Shock.” The learner begins to bang on the wall separating him from you, begging for mercy. If you hesitate, the researcher says, “You must continue.” You turn the dial to a setting marked “XXX.” You push the button. Then there is only silence.

About two thirds of all subjects were willing to administer that final shock four times. Two thirds. Humans, it turns out, are shockingly, devastatingly willing to harm each other because someone who is perceived as an authority figure tells them to do so. We care deeply about being approved of, being found adequate, meeting the expectations set before us, passing tests. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son may not be such a remarkable show of faith as we have heard. Most people would be willing to do something similar.

Did Abraham pass the test? I kind of hope not. I imagine God waiting and hoping for Abraham to come to his senses, and finally intervening.

I do not believe in a God who rejoices in violence, whose will for us is that we should harm – or threaten to harm, or be willing to harm – other people, be they friends or enemies, strangers or our own kin. Perhaps one way to understand this story is as a reminder of how dangerous blind obedience can be. A reminder that our desire to please authority, to measure up, to pass the test, can overwhelm our own inner compass, our own sense of personal integrity. If we think that God is calling us to harm others, perhaps our response should be not “Here I am,” but “Why?” or “Did I hear you right?” or “No!”

Tragically, these questions are not abstract theological quandaries. Over the centuries, Christians have thought they heard God’s voice in scripture seeming to condone slavery, domestic abuse, sexism, and homophobia. In their zeal to follow the scriptures, churches have been willing to inflict harm on women who were thought to be witches, on unmarried mothers, on Jews and Muslims, on gay and trans* teenagers, and on and on and on. And today, as the LGBT community and allies of our city gather for Pride celebrations, we remember all the harm that has been done to that community, as we declare that God rejoices in human diversity and calls the church to bless and not to harm.

The good news of the Gospel is this: there is no test set before us; we do not need to prove we are good enough, faithful enough, smart enough, or brave enough. We are loved with a love that cannot be broken by our failure to measure up. We are loved with a love that loves us despite our obsession with measuring up. Jesus came not to test us, but to show God’s love for us. The work before us is not to pass a test, but to live in faithful gratitude.

The life of faith is not a test. The life of faith is not blind obedience that harms God’s beloved children. Living faithfully means bearing witness to God’s love, living our way toward God’s vision for the world. Living faithfully is speaking out against injustice and violence. It is doing justice and loving kindness. Resisting misinterpretations of scripture that condone violence and prejudice, classism and sexism and homophobia. Standing up against bigotry and hatred. Declaring our faith in a God who calls us to do good and not to do harm. Living faithfully means knowing that God may call us to sacrifice wealth and possessions, or prestige and position, or even – sometimes – our own safety, but will never call us to sacrifice our integrity or the wellbeing of others.

So wherever this road of faith leads us, let us follow with faith and trust in the God who is always at work to bring peace and healing, justice and mercy, to all people.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Still Rising

A Sermon for Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:6-14

One day when I was eleven or twelve, my family was sitting around the dinner table, talking about Jesus. I don’t remember what we were talking about specifically, but I remember my mother using a present-tense verb – something like, “Jesus is always merciful,” let’s say. And I responded, “You mean was.” “No,” my mother replied, “I mean is.” “But Jesus is dead,” I said, “Isn’t he?” I had learned about the resurrection, but didn’t know what came next. I guess I had assumed that the resurrected Jesus had basically resumed his pre-crucifixion activities, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, telling stories to the disciples, and lived out the rest of his life until he died of old age. That was when my parents discovered that, although I had faithfully attended Sunday school, week after week for years, I had never heard of the Ascension.

My mother’s face flushed, and her eyes welled with tears, and her voice shook a little bit as she told me what she believed: that the resurrected Christ lives; that the story of Jesus is not just something that happened, but something that is happening. “But if he didn’t die, then where is he?” I wondered. And my mother told me about the story that we find in our text from Acts today.

It is forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, and he is with the eleven remaining apostles (all except for Judas, who betrayed him). He instructs them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit – we’ll hear more about that next week. The disciples ask him whether he is about to restore the kingdom to Israel, but Jesus reminds them that the future rests in God’s hands and is not for them to know. Again he promises that the Holy Spirit will come, and that when that happens, they will witness to what they have seen in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After these words, the text says, Jesus was “taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” As the disciples stand dumbfounded, staring into the sky where Jesus is disappearing, two men in white appear. “Why do you stand here look into the sky?” they ask. They declare that Jesus will return in the same way that he left.

And so the disciples return to an upper room – perhaps the very same upper room where they gathered for the last supper with Jesus, perhaps the same upper room where they saw the resurrected Christ – and they pray there, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and certain other women whom the text mentions but does not name, although I am certain that Jesus knew their names, and would have listed them himself if he were writing this story.

I try not to assume that my own experience is universal, but I’ve heard enough stories and questions to know that my own experience as a child was not unusual. I was not the only regular churchgoer who did not hear of the Ascension for many years. We Protestants tend to downplay this part of the Christian faith, to the point that I have met plenty of other people who, like me until that day at the dinner table, weren’t quite sure what happened to Jesus after the resurrection.

For some reason, the Ascension is a miracle story that strains our credulity – for some of us, almost to the breaking point. It is a story that is very hard to believe. Many of us accept easily that Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin – although there is certainly room in this community for different interpretations. Many of us easily accept that Jesus performed miracles – that he healed sick people, turned water into wine, calmed a rough sea with a command – although, again, our understandings of those stories are as diverse as we are. We embrace, each in our own way, the story of Jesus rising from the grave, appearing to the disciples, showing Doubting Thomas his wounds. But something about this story is harder. Perhaps because, as modern people, we have abandoned the “three story cosmos” system that was accepted in Jesus’ time. We know that if you keep going physically up and up and up and up into the sky, you will reach not a heavenly city as the ancients believed, but the airless stretch of outer space.

Or perhaps we resist this story on a more spiritual level – how can we accept that our loving Savior reigns in glory at the right hand of God, when we live in a world where 272 kidnapped Nigerian girls are still in captivity far from home? How can we trust it when we live in a world where a young man can go on a shooting spree, murdering six people and injuring thirteen more, because he felt so entitled to the bodies and attentions of young women that he believed they deserved death for the crime of not being romantically interested in him? How can we believe it, when for two thousand years after Jesus’ ascension, war and violence have held sway over this earth, our weapons growing more and more powerful and deadly? This story is hard to believe.

And yet, if we think of it as a metaphorical kind of story, a symbolic statement, that raises even more problems and questions. If Jesus metaphorically ascended to heaven, then what actually happened to the resurrected Christ? Is the resurrection, too, just a metaphor, a figure of speech, a nice story to make us feel better about the facts of mortality and the sorrows of this world? I don’t believe so. And yet, this story is hard to believe.

But as we stand here, scrutinizing the sky, trying to wrap our minds around this challenging account, the text itself offers us a way to think about this story. Two men appear and they say to the disciples – and, perhaps, to us – “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Those words remind us that our call as disciples is not to stand staring at the sky, trying to answer all the puzzling questions and paradoxes of our faith. We can ponder them, certainly, we should ponder them. But ultimately we are called to set our hands and minds and hearts to work, here on the ground, doing the work that Jesus has set before us. Our call is not to figure out the facts of the ascension, but to live into the deeper truth of the ascension.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that the reign of God is very, very near. And so our call is to live as if the boundary between heaven and is not a wide river or an impenetrable wall, but a porous and permeable bit of cobweb.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that Jesus is, at this very moment, near to God. And so our call is to live as if the God who created the Milky Way and the whale’s song and the human brain is not a distant and unknowable deity, because God sits next to the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee.

When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that Christ lives. And so our call is to live as if the story of Jesus did not end two thousand years ago on a cross on Golgotha, or even outside an empty tomb one Sunday morning, but continues to this very day. To live as if we are entrusted, for a time, with the momentous gift of being the body of Christ in this world.

Earlier this week, the poet Maya Angelou died. She spoke many times of her Christian faith, a faith that is deeply infused in her poetry. And as we celebrate Ascension Sunday, I am reminded of these lines from her poem “Still I Rise”:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 
That, I think, is the truth of the Christian faith: that the power of sin and violence to hurt and kill is nothing compared to the power of God to raise and rise. Christ rises. Christ is rising – rising toward light and hope and love and beauty and God, not to leave us behind, but to draw us along with him. And every time we see God at work in the world, every time we see the resurrection that happens when love overcomes fear, when hope overcomes despair, when the arc of the universe bends toward justice, we see the truth of the ascension.

So as we gather around the table and as we go out into the world, friends, let us not stand looking at the sky, confounded and paralyzed by theological paradox. Let us set ourselves to the work of the people of God, the work of love and justice, prayer and witness, feeding and healing. Let us do so in thanksgiving to the God who calls us to be part of this grand story of the risen Christ.


Image from Jesus Mafa