Terrifying Text!
2008-06-22 by Gary Charles

In the blogs this week, I will look at the four lectionary texts individually and then will offer some homiletical themes that weave through these four texts.  Today, we begin with arguably the most terrifying and disturbing text in the Hebrew canon, the so-called “testing of Abraham.”  Like the stories that precede it, Genesis 22:1-14 is a primal story that addresses some fundamental human questions about the nature and intentions of God and the same of humanity.

In these primal stories from Genesis, God is not a distant Sovereign, but is dangerously imminent.  In the previous chapter, God “tests” Abraham by telling him to accede to Sarah’s jealousy and send Hagar, his concubine, and Ishmael, his first born son, into the desert.  Abraham obeys reluctantly, but only after God assures the patriarch, “Do whatever Sarah says, for Isaac is the one through whom your name will be carried on. But the slave-girl's son I shall also make into a great nation, for he too is your child' (Genesis 21:12-13).”  So, in the Genesis story, Abraham and the reader hear repeatedly, and as recently as chapter 21 that God’s intention is not to sacrifice Issac, but to make of him a great nation.

Many of the primal stories are told with a healthy dose of irony and Hebrew humor and yet humor does not make this horrific journey with Abraham and Issac.  Just as Jesus will later be “put to the test” in the desert, so now Father Abraham is “put to the test.”  There is something about “testing” stories in Scripture that are deeply disturbing and perplexing.  Surely after Eden was despoiled by a sacred trust betrayed and Noah found drunk and naked soon after the flood and Sarah heard laughing inside the tent before a divine promise while Abraham stood mute before the same promise, God must have readjusted divine expectations for human behavior.  And, yet, here in chapter 22, God asks more of Abraham than humanly imaginable.

As my mind plays with this primal text, I find myself wondering:  What if Issac had said, “Dad, I’m going nowhere until I see a sacrificial lamb”?  What if Abraham had said, “God, I’m not about to terrorize my son to prove to you that I am loyal to you.  Ask something else.  Ask anything else”?  What if Sarah had told Abraham, “Enjoy your trip, husband; Issac stays with me”?  Of course, the one who tells this story leads us in none of these directions.  Unlike Abraham negotiating with God to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham here is strangely silent and obedient.  Is Abraham calling the divine bluff, after hearing repeated promises from God about Issac’s grand future?  We do not know.  We only know that Abraham sets off on a journey that no parent should ever be asked to take.

For lectionary preachers, Genesis 22 is often a choice text to skip.  After all, the Psalmist, Paul, and Jesus in Matthew offer plenty of homiletical food for the day.  Any preacher worth her salt knows that great damage has been done with this text over the preaching years.  Why risk adding to the damage?  It is a legitimate question, but there is perhaps a greater danger in avoiding this text for it is a text that is read by church members and contributes to their image of God. 

So, if you plan to wrestle with Genesis 22 in the pulpit on Sunday, June 29, what do you say?  In this story, God does not look for admiration or respect from Abraham.  God is looking for total trust.  The storyteller sets up the severity of the test by the use of repetition:  “Abraham, Abraham,”  “your son, your only son, your beloved Issac.”  Abraham is not going on a spiritual retreat with his son; he’s going to sacrifice, his son, his “only” son (see how, in terms of election and future blessing, Ishmael fades from narrative thought), his beloved Issac (no laughing here).

Hints of the horror of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, appear as Abraham and Issac depart from the company to walk up a lonely mountain with Issac bearing the wood for his own sacrifice.  The scene grows eerily graver with Issac querying his father about a sacrificial lamb, only to find himself set upon the wood as a sacrificial lamb.  While God’s angel stays the knife before Abraham can kill his son, and by implication, the divine promise through Issac, the narrative cost is wrenching.  Not unlike the sparse scene of impending death of Hagar and Ishmael with few provisions in the desert, here the reader is left wondering:  “Why is this necessary, God?”  “How could you go far as you went, Abraham?”  “Is faith ever proved through violence?”

From Augustine to Calvin to Trible, fine theologians and biblical scholars have wrestled with this troubling text.  My prayers are with you as you do so and I caution you not to rush to a happy ending – “Issac is spared” – because the one who tells this story is clearly not in a rush.

Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2008-06-22 by CJ Teets

Gary Charles, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in downtown, Atlanta.  This 150 year old congregation has a long history of active social witness in the heart of the city.  Gary is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA.  He has served four Presbyterian congregations over the past thirty years and has authored numerous articles for Theology Today, The Christian Century, the Journal for Preachers, and other publications.  He is the author of "The Bold Alternative:  Staying in Church in the 20th Century" and the co-author of "Preaching Mark in Two Voices" with Brian Blount, President, Union-PSCE.  Currently, he is one of two pastors serving on the editorial board of the new lectionary commentary, "Feasting on the Word," with general editors, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett.  Gary is married to Jennell, a nursing professor, and has two grown children, Erin and Joshua.

Fred Craddock Interview
2008-06-20 by CJ Teets

Go to Homepage, Share It, and Interview with Fred Craddock.Thanks to Peter Wallace and Day1 for making this available.

Garrison Keillor interview coming soon. 

Common Theme
2008-06-19 by rick brand

While I agree with Preston that the Matthew text eventually speaks about Jesus taking care of his disciples and remembering them, Jesus will testify for them. Jesus is promising them that they will not have a good life. Jesus says they will be treated as he has been treated, that his coming divides people, and there have to be sacrifices and crucifixions of wants. "To lose our lives for him" At least in the lectionary text I read. Maybe I have a different Matthew than Dr. Harper.

The Evil One Controls the Physical World
2008-06-16 by Preston Harper

Prominent in the June 22 lectionary is the idea that God takes care of those that love Him, including making their physical lives better and punishing their enemies. This idea was especially important to the Jews in Old Testament times, because they didn’t believe in an afterlife in which God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. The ultimate expressions of a blissful present are Psalm 1, which posits that God guarantees success to the enterprises of good people and Psalm 23, which posits that God protects their lives. With the presuppositions expressed here David writes Psalm 69 and 86 with confidence God will protect him against his enemies. Jerimiah in chapter 23 reflects similar beliefs but includes a call for immediate revenge.

What was true in David’s kingdom was not and is not true in Jesus’. God did not protect his life beyond age thirty-three, most of his apostles, or countless devotees afterwards (cf. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the Holocaust and Bonhoffer) from untimely and/or cruel physical deaths. Youngsters today could probably spend every waking hour of their remaining lives listening to sermons and reading books and tracts on why bad things happen to good people. Having taught at a Christian University for so many years, I have a plethora of stories to tell regarding the lives of Christians abused or cut down in their primes. Here are a few: four young African students are killed in a car crash before they can return home and share the Gospel, a child (seven years old) is raped by her father, a teenager (eighteen years old) is raped by her date, a single professional (thirty-five years old) is raped by a passerby while walking in her neighborhood, a widowed professional (seventy years old) is raped in her bed by an intruder, an exemplary all-conference fullback (twenty-one years old) inexplicitly drops dead in practice, a doctor (thirty-eight years old) dies of a medication error, a pharmacist (fifty years old) dies in a plane crash, a radio technician (twenty-one years old) is sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit (he has served nine years so far). These examples appear to support John’s statement in I John 5:21: “[T]he whole world is under the control of the evil one.” That Christians live in a hostile world does not preclude the possibility that God can intervene on our behalf. While on earth Jesus healed illnesses (blindness, paralysis, leprosy, etc.), prevented death (the Centurion’s servant) and raised the dead (Lazarus). That he, himself, suffered physical abuse and premeditated murder (after asking for God’s deliverance at Gethsemane), should make us realize that the Old Testament ideal of a God who protects the bodies of those who love him and punishes their enemies is passé.

When Jesus begins his ministry, the Jews many years after the glory days of David, living in captivity, are hoping for a messiah that will restore those glory days in the form of a magnificent new earthly kingdom. Jesus does not fulfill their hopes. He tells his disciples in Matthew 10:28 that their real concern must be for their souls, not their bodies, and throughout his ministry he attempts to make them see that the earth is a lost cause. In Matthew “My kingdom is not of this world.” While Christians may take comfort in the idea that God can protect our bodies, we must face the fact that He may elect not to. A post 33 C.E. Psalm 151 would have to celebrate a Christian’s indwelling of God’s Spirit and acknowledge that even though we may not enjoy material success, freedom from illness, injury, or untimely death (pathological, accidental or premeditated), we take comfort in knowing Jesus will keep our souls secure. He says in John 6:40, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

It is difficult in America with our eighteenth-century concept of happiness promoted by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and others, who were not Christians and who established a physical environment based on Roman law that promotes physical wellbeing, to embrace the idea that an all-loving, all-powerful God does not always heal, protect, and enrich the lives of us who love Him. And He does not always punish our enemies. In our democracy doctors, teachers, politicians, soldiers, policemen, the courts, and others, including ourselves, have the above responsibilities and functions, and Satan is a pervasive influence. Jesus, who is described as “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (Ish 53:3), promises to protect his disciples’ souls, not our bodies and our personal fortunes.

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