Sermon for Pentecost 4, Year A (2020)
June 28, 2020
Today’s passage from Genesis is a difficult one — perhaps the most difficult in all of the Hebrew Scriptures. Children are precious gifts from God. Why would God ask such a horrible thing of any parent? Centuries of rabbis, theologians and scholars have offered a variety of answers. The story is important to all three of the world’s monotheistic faiths. In Judaism, it is known as the akedah, or “binding.” In Islam, the story is present but changed so that Ishmael, rather than Isaac, is the one almost lost. Scholars from these various faiths offer both interpretation and explanation. Some midrashic (Jewish) texts expand the story to go as far as Abraham boldly arguing with God, trying to talk Him out of this unthinkable request. Some suggest the story is a polemic against human sacrifice, not only for Israel but for the surrounding cultures as well, some of which did occasionally practice it. Others argue it suggests child sacrifice is acceptable in extraordinary circumstances.
I find all of these scholarly musings and attempts at explanation unsatisfactory. What God asks of Abraham is unfair and totally unreasonable. Why would a just, loving God ask such a thing? In reality, there is no good answer. I find the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, which we heard only last week, equally problematic. In that story, Abraham appeals to God to intervene. God refuses, but promises the Divine presence will remain with Ishmael and Abraham despite their painful separation. This is not something the God I know would ask. And yet, here we are.
Like Abraham and his sons and wives, we too live in a world of unsatisfactory answers. I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking why more frequently than I did only a few short months ago. Why is this pandemic happening now? Why must we be separated from our communities and even our own families for so long? Why can’t the medical community create an effective coronavirus vaccine faster? Why does time slow so much when we need it to move faster? Why is God allowing this to happen?
I don’t know about you, but I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to any of these questions.
In the arc of Virtual Sunday School, I’m presently in the middle of a series on the Life of Moses. A theme which I highlight is the many obstacles and adversities Moses faced in his life. I point out that it is a not-fair fact of life that sometimes life just isn’t fair. And yet, with each obstacle, Moses responded with determination — that inner, Divinely-inspired spark in each of us which helped Moses — and helps us — to overcome the obstacles we face.
While the why questions of this pandemic are troubling and certainly worth asking, the reality is that we will probably be left with nothing but unsatisfactory answers. We are, with all of humanity, thrust into a moment in time when much about life just isn’t fair. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t control, I invite you to join with me in reflecting on the how questions. How are we to live during this time? And how do our lives show forth the light of Christ to our neighbors, particularly those who are hurting?
I think today’s Gospel offers a satisfactory answer. It is the end of a series of teachings Jesus gave to his disciples immediately following their commissioning. At the beginning of the tenth chapter of Matthew, which we heard during Sunday service a few weeks ago, Jesus calls his disciples together and “gave them authority.” In today’s verses, we hear some of what He calls them to do with that authority. They are to provide welcome and hospitality to all whom they meet. I believe Jesus gives that same authority — and responsibility — to us.
How are we to use that authority wisely during this time of pandemic and chaos? We can use that precious, sacred authority by following scientific recommendations to protect our neighbor. We can put sacred space — more commonly called “social distancing” — between ourselves and those outside our families. When there’s even a small chance sacred spacing will prove impossible, those safely able to do so should wear a facial covering. We should avoid crowds of any size as much as possible — in stores, in restaurants, at in-person parties. In so doing, we reduce the potential of unknowingly giving this horrible virus to our neighbors. In so doing, we love our neighbors. We follow Jesus’ call which He first made to His disciples so many centuries ago, a call which is no less urgent today.
Many difficult questions remain unanswered. But the love of Jesus, and our call to share that love with others, remains.