Look Again for The Sprig of Hope

Posted: June 25, 2020 in Uncategorized

Look Again for The Sprig of Hope

Gen 22: 1-14, Ps 13, Rom 6: 12-23, Mt 10: 40-42

Since the beginning of history humanity has been trying to prove whether or not God exists and one has to wonder if the questions being used are the wrong ones or being asked in the wrong way. What if as John D Caputo proposes God does not exist but rather insists. In other words, God as a single being called the creator doesn’t work because we get trapped in a question for which there is no answer or at least one that is always in search of an answer in a world where answers are absolutes and final outcomes. What if the very act of insistence or the process of insisting is in fact God. Over the last few years, I have tried to explore this and have postulated like Gordon Kaufmann that we might see God as the Serendipitous Creativity or the empowering force that is seen in the evolution of all things. In recent times I have suggested that we might join the dynamics of language and see this Serendipitous Creativity as ‘Almost’ and that there is something that is not quite yet something, that the something is always in motion, on the way to, has potential for, thus that the something we call God is more like a motion, a movement, dynamic, and fluid, or simply, ‘always living’. I don’t see these two ‘names’ for God as exclusive in that Serendipitous Creativity suggests the randomness of perpetual evolution, the ever-changing nature of things as transformation, and the living as motion, developing, becoming, unfolding, new, unexpected and unforeseen. This God seems to sustain belief in the face of the 21st century scientific thinking and maintain the personal responsibility and unknown of what being human means and it maintains the question of what the purpose of being human might be as well. Whether or not we are one universe among many, a species on a trajectory of multiple civilizations or individuals living in our global sociological culture God as ‘Almost suggests there is still hope when human beings have compassion for each other and live life as if God or the I am is love. The primary questions become more like why is it that as a species we are living longer than ever before, and what is the species trying to achieve?

But what does all this have to do with our texts for today? Well maybe it suggests that metaphor is closer to unveiling truth than fact and maybe it suggests we should look closer at the metaphor of the text than try to match the literal text with historical record (of which we have very little) and trust the metaphor to speak to us.

But let us be careful when accepting the metaphor without critique.  Looking at our texts today we see that the controlling metaphor of Genesis 22: 1-15 appears to be child sacrifice and yet maybe this could be in question because it might rather be the abhorrence of it. The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery and it might rather be the abhorrence of it and an historic social critique is required, and the controlling metaphor of Matthew 10: 40-42 is welcoming in order to be righteous and it might rather be a cry for ‘unconditional love’. Psalm 13s inclusion as a prayer for God to be revealed in action to rescue the psalmist in distress even when God’s face is hidden, might be a cry to see differently as the psalmist still affirms “I put my trust in your mercy”; that trust is fulfilled with the appearance of “saving help,” whereupon the psalm can end with a burst of praise, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly.” The trajectory of the psalm parallels Abraham’s experience in the Genesis passage, from the perplexity of his dilemma to the final affirmation that the Lord will provide.

Like all biblical text our Genesis text presents us with more questions than it answers. We have questions about its origin, its context, its meaning and its content, but what we can very likely agree is that it is most likely to be a legend or myth that has the purpose of passing on the story because of its importance to those who might come later. The Sacrifice of Isaac narrated in Genesis 22:1-14 probably originated as an etiological legend. An etiological legend is one where the story is told to explain something by giving a cause or reason for it, often in historical or mythical terms. In this case the story explains why the People of Israel do not practice child sacrifice.

It is believed that Sacrifice of children was known throughout the Ancient Near East, and it has been documented in many different religious texts, histories, and archeological finds. It is referred to several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, though there is today considerable scholarly debate as to its actual practice by Israelites, either as worship of other gods or as worship of YHWH.

Heath D. Dewrell says simply, “There is a general consensus that child sacrifice did indeed take place in ancient Israel, although there is little agreement on the extent to which the practice occurred. However it is clearly the stance of the scriptures themselves that child sacrifice, and specifically the sacrifice of the firstborn, is not to be practiced in God’s name, even if some subgroups among the people were reputed to have resorted to it at one time or another.

Representative of this claim is the commandment in Exodus 34:19-20, that states: “All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.” The basic position that the firstborn belongs to God, adjusted with a statute to redeem that firstborn son with a lamb, is given narrative background, as it were, in this near-sacrifice story. 

All of the above is well and good for a scholarly understanding of the text. But when the text is simply read on its own, as presented in the lectionary, and is given without preamble or footnote as a live performance before a listening congregation, it is not the prevention of child sacrifice that we hear. What we today notice first and foremost is the horror of child sacrifice. What kind of a God could demand such a thing? What kind of a father could even contemplate granting such a demand? How could anyone with a conscience consent to worship a God who would put a believer to such an abhorrent “test”? 

So, is there a way to reconcile the two perspectives? Some commentators might argue that reconciliation is not the point, that any attempt to reconcile would simply paper over the deep flaws of the original text, and that a contemporary preacher would do best to look at this story and simply say “God is not like that” and move on. That is an option that I suggest is addressed by an understanding of God as ‘Almost’ and Serendipitous Creativity. The issue is not the existence of slavery but rather what is true because of the serendipitous creative nature of an ‘Almost’ yet ‘becoming’, God.

This thinking is akin to process theology that is valuable in making the attempt, at least, to move from contradiction to contrast, to find a larger set of prehensions or points of view that will hold together the apparent opposites of scholarly explanation and moral outrage. We are outraged by the beginning of the story, which poses the entire episode as a “test,” as if it were some sort of evaluative exercise posed by a disconnected and uncaring God to determine whether a believing follower is willing to abase himself enough. What if we were to focus on the end of the story, when Abraham finds a way out of his dilemma because God has allowed him to see something he did not see before? 

For whatever reason, whether by direct command from God or because it was a pervasive cultural practice in his environment, Abraham feels he must acknowledge God as the source of life by returning his firstborn to that source. This is not easy or unemotional for him. The narrative does not describe Abraham’s emotional state directly, there are no adjectives marking Abraham as “sad” or “angry” or “resigned”; but the story is told with deep pathos. There is a lack of overt emotion suggesting an almost depressive condition, and bitter irony when Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” knowing that Isaac is precisely what God has provided.

This is not something Abraham wants to do, yet it is something Abraham must do. He is trapped in that dilemma, unable to find a way out and unable to allow himself to feel his own distress — until God stays his hand, affirms the totality of Abraham’s commitment, and opens Abraham’s eyes to see the ram caught in the thicket nearby. God provides for Abraham a new possibility, a way to honour God as the source of life both by returning life to God and by protecting and nurturing the life of the son given him by God. By receiving and actualizing this new possibility in his own occasion of action, Abraham learns yet more deeply that “the Lord will provide,” in this and in all situations. 

Part of our present difficulty with this passage is our inheritance from Enlightenment thinking that God must be at least as rational as we are, at least as moral as we would try to be. Since we would find it wrong or repugnant to test or be tested by another human being in this way, we would not want to believe that God would act in this way. If we see God as Serendipitous Creativity and as ‘Almost’ we don’t need to make the correlation and therefor ask that question.

The ancient author(s) of this story however, had no such compunction; to them it was axiomatic that God’s ways are mysterious, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord,” and that often we cannot know what God is doing until the thing is done and the meaning can be revealed in retrospect. If we can, for an interpretive moment, ‘Almost’ allows us to set aside our desire for God to be like us because God is manifest in our response to God’s insistence or calling us, and we can move beyond our outrage at the notion of divine testing, what could we see in this passage of the promise of a God who reveals ways we can take ourselves out of the painful dilemmas in which we find ourselves?

If we are caught in a dilemma between honouring life by practicing social distancing in a time of pandemic, and honouring life by restoring economic activity and meaningful work to people who need to support themselves — then what new possibility might we be able to see an ‘Almost’ God offer? If we experience dilemma between doing what seems socially correct and accepted, and a deep commitment that there are better ways to honour life than current custom — then what new possibility might we be able to see our God offer? In what way might we be able to look at the seemingly impossible choices of our own moment and yet trust that “the Lord will provide”? 

The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery, and that presents a considerable challenge to preaching on the text today. While it is certainly true that “slavery” in the Hellenistic culture for which Paul wrote was very different, it is inevitable that a contemporary congregation will hear the word as reflecting racially based subjugation of entire peoples, and the continuing injustices and inequities suffered by communities of colour as a consequence of the history of enslavement in their nation. Becoming “slaves of righteousness,” even if it is admitted to be a concessional “speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations,” is not an acceptable way today to speak of the liberating work of God. 

So, perhaps we can get past the repugnant metaphor as well as avoid the sanitization of slavery by moving to the more genuine meaning by remembering that “slavery” in Hellenistic society was often a matter of being bound to a particular household. In functional terms, what Paul is attempting to describe here is leaving one sort of household or system of interpersonal relations, in order to join another. The Roman converts at one time belonged to a system of social interactions defined by sin, by patterns of distorted relationships characterized by taking and manipulating and greed. The Roman motto of Victory before peace comes to mind here. Such patterns are codified in the law; the purpose of the law, and as Paul has previously argued, the task is to condemn such patterns; and by drawing attention to them, the law paradoxically gives these patterns more power. Some people suggest that NZ Presbyterianism is too legally oriented with the Book of Order being used as a book of law for everything rather than a book of process..

Grace, on the other hand, frees one from the burdensome awareness of the law, and gives the believer the opportunity to join another household, to participate in a system of relationships in the society of the church. It almost seems a waste of time talking about church these days in that it has little respect today and it is no longer a system characterized by receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude. It’s about financial sustainability and economic viability of communities of maximum mass. As participants in this new social system, believers can “present your members,” their concrete bodily actions, “to God as instruments of righteousness,” that is, as enactments of divine ideals for right-relationship in genuinely mutual well-being. Because you do it like us you are righteous. Entering into a co-creative relationship with God and neighbours in the social system of faith, has believers engage a process of “sanctification,” in which believers’ enactments of divine aims in concrete moments give God more to work with, as it were, in offering even greater aims in succeeding moments. However for Paul sanctification is not simply a personal accomplishment, won by the believer’s own effort, but it is “the free gift” of grace that comes from God’s ever-widening offering of new possibilities, extending the individual life into “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  For an insistent and ‘Almost’ God this would be seen the manifestation of love as revealed in service to for and with or in solidarity with the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Frederick Buechner suggested an image of discipleship that always came to his mind in connection with our text from Matthew. The image is of a magnet with paper clips. Holding this image in mind as one reads the text such as “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus is saying be like the paper clip taken up into my magnetic field, so that you also become magnetic and can pick up a second clip, which then also becomes magnetic, and so on. In this sense the disciples not the magnet but rather the participants in Jesus’ field of force, insofar as they re-enact in themselves Jesus’ own pattern of receiving and offering; and Jesus participates in the divine field of force, in that Jesus re-enacts in his human life the pattern of receiving and offering. Anyone who receives the disciples on their preaching mission, anyone who receives the disciples’ preaching and healing and offers in turn their own heart to the Good News, participates in the disciples’ field of force, which is also Jesus’, which traditionally is seen as also God’s. The “reward” of participation in divine life always begins in “welcome,” in receiving openly and honestly and with a genuine appreciation of the other’s gifts and needs and identity.

God does not accept a person because of anything that person has done to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love, but only because a person is open to welcome God’s love. For that reason, one “receives a prophet’s reward” not for achieving the rank of prophet, in other words being better than the last, but for welcoming a prophet and participating in the proclamation. One “receives the reward of the righteous” not for scoring righteousness points, but for welcoming a righteous person and participating in right-relationship. And the first step of discipleship and its promise of participation in Jesus’ Way of life is as simple as welcoming a disciple and giving them a cup of cold water, a simple gesture of hospitality and refreshment, in basic compassion for the “little ones.” This kind of “welcome” represents a receiving of divine ideals of right-relationship, and an offering of personal action to embody those ideals — and in an ‘Almost and Serendipitous Creativity world, that welcoming process is an inaugural and foundational participation in the pattern of life exemplified through disciples from Jesus through God. Such fully-lived life is the disciple’s “reward.”. 

The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason, it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham. When he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised. Therefor Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Amen.

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