Groaning Productively

Genesis 28:10-19a

Matthew 13:24-30

Romans 8:12-25

 

As we began looking at The Apostle’s Tale last week we considered alternative realities highlighted by the Apostle Paul.  In one reality, followers focus on the Law – the rules and regulations – pushing themselves and others to follow the letter of the law through guilt.  In this reality, sin and death are in control because sin is stronger than the Law’s commands.  It is focused on self, and what self can do to fulfill the law, what self can accomplish.  It easily opens up to choices which are controlled by passion or envy or pride or ambition.  In this reality, self, rather than God, becomes the focus.

In Paul’s second reality, followers focus on God – looking for God’s grace in their own lives and extending it to others.  In this reality, Christ’s death and resurrection allows followers to live “in Christ,” in a grace-filled, new world where life is in charge.  Walking according to the Spirit sets a person free from the power of sin.  Followers who are in Christ bear spiritual fruit, practice their faith in all areas of their daily lives.

Paul encouraged all to live in the second reality, living in Christ through God’s grace.

In the words we heard this morning, Paul points out that there is a cost to choosing that reality, that it is not without challenges, frustrations, and suffering.  He also lets us know that all of creation is groaning with us as it waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For all of creation to be freed from decay.

Groaning is an underlying action in all of the lectionary readings this morning.

We heard some about Jacob during the children’s message this morning.  Genesis 28:10-19a.  Jacob meets God in a dream while “on the run” after tricking his brother.  Until this point in the Jacob, Esau, Isaac and Rebekah story, there has been no record of Jacob and God having any conversations, of Jacob seeking God’s wisdom before his actions that allowed him to steal his brother’s birthright, no indication he prays to, or worships, or acknowledges God.  He hasn’t really been an upstanding, ethical, loving member of the family.

If we could overhear Jacob as he flees to join his mother’s family and to find a wife from her kin, we might hear some groaning, some deep sounds coming from the pain produced in pushing his body to complete the journey, some groans of hopelessness about what the future holds, maybe some regret.  Groans expressing exhaustion and a sense of loneliness.

If we walk beside the servants and the disciples in the gospel passage from Matthew this morning, we may hear groans as well.  Groans that there are weeds growing alongside the wheat, taking resources away from the plants which have potential to nourish the hungry.  Groans that they aren’t allowed to go out and decide what is a weed and what is of value, groans that they must till, water, and care for all of the plants, leaving the judgement of what to keep to the harvesters.

There are likely groans from the disciples as they again find themselves at a loss of what Jesus is trying to teach them.  Groans as they realize they are called to nurture all, as determining what is wheat and what is tare is not up to them, but up to the angels.  Groans for clarity of how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into being.

There are many groans surfacing in our world today.  Groans from those who feel they are in hopeless situations: health, finances, relationships, circumstances within their community and others …  Groans from the pain of loss, addiction, oppression, hunger, feeling invisible, loneliness, and more.

We hear some of these groans in the news, some of them on prayer chains, and others around our tables.

I believe many of us groan within as we long for God’s Kingdom to come to earth now.  As we pray for others to come worship in our buildings, to sing the songs we love, to pray the prayers that well up in our souls.  We are frustrated that there seems to be too little wheat and way too many weeds.

Paul refers to groaning as it reflects the pain of childbirth.  Many women have learned how to groan through the pain of childbirth in a way that makes that groaning productive, helping them through labor into the joy of welcoming their child into the world.

Groaning productively helps us all get through the pain that confronts us in our society, in our churches, in our homes.  From Romans 8:26-27 we know that the Spirit helps us in our weakness interceding for us through wordless groans when we don’t even know what to pray for.  Groaning productively on our behalf.

God recognized Jacob’s groans even though Jacob didn’t seem to know he was making them.  God came to Jacob, encountering Jacob where he was.  Jacob recognizes God, recognizes God’s promises, shares the story with others, and marks the spot with a rock, but there is not a record of Jacob making a commitment to God in that time and place, no act of surrender, emotional or otherwise.  The encounter led to what we may consider a bargain of sorts, if this God makes good on his promise, Jacob will do his part.

It is God’s commitment that leads to fulfilled promises, and a new nation, not Jacob’s commitment.  God’s grace gives room for Jacob to take one step at a time in coming to understand God’s direction for his life and how to groan productively to bring forth new life for himself and others.

Groaning productively, allows the servants to stay focused on the task assigned to them.  To nurture all growing in the field.  To take judging the value of what is entrusted to them off their responsibility list.  They are to turn their groans of complaint into groans of labor so all make it to the harvest.

Similarly, the Disciples, past and present, are sent into the field which is the world.  We are to teach and nurture.  While we know the field contains the people of the kingdom and those drawn away from the kingdom, we are not charged with figuring out who is who.  That is left to the angels at the end of the age.

While there is a distinct genetic and visual difference between wheat and weeds, this passage indicates there isn’t that same easy to identify difference between those who are living into the kingdom and those who aren’t.  In reality I think we all have some wheat and weed tendencies within us and it is through our receipt of God’s grace that we become more and more wheat and less and less weed.

It is also possible that those who we think are weeds, are like Jacob, still coming to recognize God’s call and direction for their lives.  In this passage, there is hope that all will recognize God is reaching out to them and will be transformed by God’s grace before the harvest.

Paul reminds us that “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.”  They can only be revealed if each of us is groaning productively:  If our energy is in recognizing all the places God’s grace is extended to us, particularly if we haven’t been looking.  If we extend God’s grace to others at all times.  Showing up, just as God shows up for Jacob and as the servants care for the wheat and weeds alike.

Groaning productively leads us to share our experiences as children of God with others with our personal stories wherever the opportunity arises, to embody God’s kingdom the best we can with the help of the Holy Spirit, and to give others room to experience God’s grace one step at a time.

Groaning wells up within us as we recognize the distance between the fullness of the Kingdom of God and the reality of the world in which we live.  Our Groaning becomes productive as it joins the groaning of the Spirit and all creation, waiting in hope.

The groaning energizes us, propels us forward, as in labor.  It is the first fruits of the amazing harvest to come.

We live in a culture that wants to silence the groaning, kill the pain, or divert our attention from what is happening within us and around us in other people’s lives, and in creation.  It is a culture which calls us to point out everything that is wrong in the “other” and to ignore the groan inside that alerts us to where God’s grace is extended and being reflected, that calls us to join “other” as they reflect the kingdom of our Father.  How we reflect God’s grace to others, within our faith community, geographic community, or world will determine if we shine like the sun.

Recognizing God’s presence in our lives, seeking to live in Christ, is possible through the work of the Spirit, but it is not easy.  We can “reality check” ourselves on how much we are shining by how we talk to one another, how we make a difference in the lives of those who are hungry and thirsty, those without hope, those whose voices are not heard.  We can reflect on our level of generosity, encouragement, faithful distinctiveness, hospitality, patient companionship.  Our priorities tell us if we are following through on God’s actual desire for us.

We must dig in deeper to help others see Christ in us, and wait with patience, knowing that our God is good and is working actively and behind the scenes to bring all creation into the full glory of God’s kingdom even when the outcomes are not obvious to us.  We must groan productively.

Sources include Preaching Notes Rev. Dawn Chesser, Discipleship ministries.

Alternative Reality

Romans 8:1-11

Periodically I call one of my sisters to have what we call a “reality check.”  It can be about our perception of something going on in the family, in the community, as well as sometimes, in the world.  The most frequent topic is something someone has said or done that seems completely disconnected from reality.  The “check-in” phone call is to make sure it isn’t that I’ve disconnected from facts and actual circumstances and need to adjust my take on the situation.  Sometimes I do have to make that adjustment, but more frequently, I am reminded that perceptions, definitions, priorities can cause us to understand reality differently.

Books, radio programs, television programs, and movies offer up their own kind of reality.

Books come to us in the form of: Fiction and Non-Fiction – Fantasy or Fact.   All presenting alternative realities based on goals, audience, and understandings.

A “Vegan” cookbook is as accurate as a “How to Cook Meat to Perfection” cookbook.  But the second is an unlikely choice for someone who has made a decision to eliminate all animal food items from their diet.

A Documentary on President Jimmy Carter produced by Habitat for Humanity may present something entirely different from a documentary on President Carter produced by a military hostage negotiator who specializes in foreign countries.  Both documentaries may be filled with fact-checked information, and yet give a very different reality of who President Carter is.

Star Trek brought us the Nook and Kindle before we had the technology to create them.   Like many science fiction books and movies – Sometimes fantasy becomes reality.

There are fact-checked researched news programing and “talk radio” with opinions flowing that may or may not be based on facts or facts taken in context.   Many television programs: those lifting the disclaimer that they do not depict any particular person or event – those promoting themselves as reality – as well as some labeled “news” – often blur the lines between entertainment and presenting accurate portrayals of people and events.

The Handmaid’s Tale, a book written in 1986 and revised in a new Hulu series, gives us a look at a possible reality if a certain set of circumstances are in place.  In some ways a cautionary tale, similar to 1984 by George Orwell.  Fiction lifting the possibilities of future realities if particular paths are taken.

There are alternative realities.  Realities authors and playwrights create.  Realities I live – realities you live.

So many realities I think we all need “reality checks” on a regular basis.  Apostle Paul offers us reality checks throughout the Book of Romans, and in particular in this passage.

The Message by Eugene Patterson shares this passage this way:

Romans 8:1-11The Message (MSG)

“The Solution Is Life on God’s Terms

8 1-2 With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

3-4 God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

9-11 But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!”

Realty in two forms: Those who think they can do it on their own; those who trust God’s action in them.

Everything in The Handmaid’s Tale is about what humans do for God to earn God’s favor and forgiveness.  The reality described in its pages is one of black and white, pick a particular scripture out of context to support a political agenda to correct am issue as a particular group of people see the problem.  It is a world in which God is angry with humankind, just waiting for humans to mess up, in which God sends out human spies and leaders to keep people in line and punish them when they stray from the determined norm.

The reality of the world to which Paul writes the letter to the Romans is not the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the role of Law in relationships between God and humankind is reflected in both the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale and the unique problem in a unique time and place of The Apostles Tale in Romans.

Historically, a large number of Jewish people living in Rome were forced to leave in the late 40s CE.  Under a change in Roman leadership, that expulsion was reversed and people of Jewish descent returned to their home city.  The new community of faith following Jesus had seen an increase in the number of Gentiles coming to believe in Christ and there was a question within the community of faith as to whether it should continue to concentrate on winning Jewish people to Christ or concentrate on the Gentiles.  Early in Romans Paul makes his position clear as he writes, “God’s power for salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”[1]  For Paul, all meant all, so the Christians in Rome were obligated to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike.[2]

It wasn’t as simple as this indicates because the Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians had, in some ways, two distinct realities created by their cultural traditions and practices, including what food they could or could not eat.  Later in Romans Paul acknowledges practical differences, noting that there are things about which people of faith can disagree, but that these differences should not hurt the community’s worship of God or life together in Christ.[3]

We are also living in a time when people who follow Jesus come from a variety of traditions which impacts their sense of what living out their faith and worship looks like.  It can be true even within one geographic community, as it was in Rome.

In the passage this morning, Paul does not describe God as the divine judge waiting in the wings to punish those who do not follow a list of specific regulations as is the case in the fictional world of The Handmaid Tale.  Paul doesn’t’ suggest that God is choosing one side or position of faith over another.  Saying instead: “For there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”[4]

In one reality, followers can focus on the Law – the rules and regulations and push themselves and others to follow the letter of the law through guilt.  In this reality, sin and death are in control because sin is stronger than the Law’s commands.  It is focused on self, and what self can do to fulfill the law, what self can accomplish.  It easily opens up to choices which are controlled by passion or envy or pride or ambition.  In this reality, self, rather than God, becomes the focus.

In another reality, followers can focus on God – looking for God’s grace in their own lives and extending it to others.  In this reality, Christ’s death and resurrection allows followers to live “in Christ,” in a grace-filled, new world where life is in charge.  Walking according to the Spirit sets a person free from the power of sin.  Followers who are in Christ bear spiritual fruit, practice their faith in all areas of their daily lives.  Others are drawn to Christ as they see followers making choices and communicating the desires and dictates of God’s love.

God living in us enables the transformation not only of who we are, but the transformation of the world.

Those who choose the reality that focuses on God have the strength to get through every day not matter what it brings.  We don’t have to worry about either yesterday’s sins or tomorrow’s sins, because we are assured that we are forgiven.  Earlier in the Book of Romans, is the discussion followers have with Paul about God’s grace as it relates to messing up and why we need to try to live a holy and sinless life.  Paul answers that God’s unlimited grace should not a reason to sin more, but an inspiration to us to learn to walk in the Spirit of the one who has saved us, the Spirit of life and peace, because walking in the Spirit of Christ is a better way to live.

I choose the reality that is God-focused, that gives me strength to face whatever comes, in the knowledge that in Christ I am forgiven when I fall short and that I have all the power and resources I need to reflect more and more the Spirit that dwells within me.

As believers in Christ Jesus, as those who seek to live in Christ and be God focused, it is the reality you can claim.  It is the reality that is filled with abundant life.

 

1] Romans 1:16 NRSV

[2] Dawn Chesser, Preaching Notes The Apostle’s Tale

[3] Romans 14:1-12

[4] Romans 8:1-2 NRSV

A Legacy of Grace

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Romans 8:1-11

We have traveled with the family of Abraham for several weeks, experiencing the chaos that often described this family as they made decisions indicating they did not fully trust God’s faithfulness in their lives.  We have heard that even as their choices had consequences, God’s faithfulness continued to move them through the chaos toward community with God and others.

Today we come to a point when we consider the legacy Abraham leaves for those who follow.  A legacy which can help us work through the chaos that sometimes describes our lives, into a community firmly founded in God’s promises.

We begin our look at this legacy through the story of Isaac and Rebekah, the next generation.

As the story opens, Isaac is farming in the outskirts of Beerlaihairoi, his mother Sarah has died at age 127, but he did not attend her burial.  Abraham is around 137 and Isaac is about 37.  Isaac hasn’t seen his father for about 20 years, yet it seems Abraham has, at the minimum, kept track of his son and knows he does not have a wife.  Information available to us indicates that if Isaac has a household at all it consists of servants and farm workers and his father develops a plan to find a wife for his son.[1]

Parents choosing the spouses of their children, while not viewed as a good thing by many in our culture, is common in the time of Abraham and in various cultures throughout history.  There is a new study out that indicates you have a better chance of a long-term good marriage if your family and friends like your spouse, so maybe there is some validity to running prospective spouses by your family even today.

Abraham doesn’t go out to find a wife for Isaac himself.  He asks his principal servant to go to the land of Abraham’s father to locate a spouse for his son.  This servant is likely the one who has witnessed God’s faithfulness through the chaos in which Abraham was often embroiled, the servant who knew him the best, and who Abraham trusted completely.

Abraham lays out the specific criteria for finding a wife for his son, but it is the servant who figures out how to faithfully complete the task set before him.

The servant travels to his master’s homeland and heads for the place he will most likely meet young women, the community well.  The well is often the place where future spouses meet in biblical stories – Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah.  Once there he doesn’t start talking to anyone, he prays.  He asks for a sign and watches, and waits, to discern God’s will.

Rebekah comes to the well to draw water and when asked by Abraham’s servant for a drink, she immediately offers to draw water for his camels as well.  Her offer was well beyond what might be expected.  One camel can drink 20 to 30 gallons of water at a time and there are about ten camels.  Not every young woman who came to the well would think to offer watering the camels, let alone have the physical stamina to complete their commitment once made.

The servant observes that Rebekah is God’s answer to his prayer and, giving her gold jewelry, he asks to stay at her father’s house.  However, he continues to watch for God at work in the situation before making a final decision.

As he discerns God’s direction, he learns Rebekah is of Abraham’s kin, one of the criteria placed in his charge to find a wife for Isaac, further confirming he has found the right woman.

It seems he has learned from Abraham’s relationship with God and some of the mistakes along the way.  He prepares and prays and then waits, watching for signs of God’s faithfulness.  When he experiences that faithfulness, he is quick to praise God and to share the news with others.  He is also generous, not keeping back the resources in his control, but giving them away freely.

There is more to the process.  Rebekah’s family listens to the servant’s story and evaluates it, ultimately discerning that it is of the Lord.  That seems sufficient for Rebekah who, when asked by her family if she is willing to go, does not hesitate to say yes.  She leaves home and family to travel to a land she has never seen to be wed to someone with whom she has had no contact or knowledge other than what the servant has shared.  She brings to Abraham’s legacy her personal character of generosity, strength, and courage, and of listening for God’s direction.

God’s faithfulness and generosity is apparent throughout this story.  God stays committed to promises made to Abraham of giving him many descendants, providing Isaac a wife who will in time bear him two sons.  God answers the servant’s prayers, provides the resources to show Rebekah’s family this was indeed of the Lord.

That generosity continues as we learn that Isaac loved Rebekah.  In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, love was not considered a necessary ingredient in a marriage, so its presence in this marriage was a gift from God to both Isaac and Rebekah.  The Hebrew words describing the moment when Rebekah, after traveling so far, sees Isaac state she falls off the camel, a strong implication the love and attraction went both ways.[2]

This story is one which could easily be developed into a Disney princess movie.  It is full of humor, tense moments as the pieces fall into place, and love which the book of Genesis will reveal was long-lasting and faithful, with a little bit of family drama to keep it interesting.

It is much more than that, as we consider the legacy of Abraham and what that means to the legacies we are building for future generations.

While God is not quoted as directly speaking to anyone.  God is present and the servant, Rebekah, Rebekah’s family, and Isaac all look for God’s plan to be revealed by praying, observing, testing their conclusions with each other, and then taking action.

As we pray and observe the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and others who are the fore-bearers of our faith, I invite you to test with each other these legacy lessons:

Prepare for the journey, pray, wait patiently, watch for signs of God’s faithfulness in the ordinary, day in and day out, routines of your life.  When you experience faithfulness be quick to praise God and to share the news with others.  Be generous.

As the stories of Abraham indicate and the Apostle Paul points out in the passage from Romans this morning, we have inherited a community of faith fraught with all the marks of human sinfulness.  There has been disorder and messiness, violence, anger, and inappropriate behavior in communities of faith down through the generations.  Relationships have formed and relationships have been severed.

There has also been love, and purpose, and promise, and deep relationship with our creator God.

Our power to live into the love, purpose, promise, and deep relationship with God comes through Jesus Christ who has conquered sin, and with the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, revealing God’s plan to us, just as Rebekah was revealed to Abraham’s servant at the well.

Like all human families, the first families of our faith tradition were not perfect.  They had their share of failure and struggles, just like everyone else.  But throughout it all, they knew the abiding presence of the Lord God was with them.

We live in a time when the pressures of our culture set up many perceptions that lure us into believing we have it all handled.  We sometimes seek fulfillment in places, things, and relationships that have nothing to do with where God calls us.  Grace was extended to Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, to Abraham’s servant, Rebekah’s family, to Rebekah and Isaac, to the Apostle Paul.

God’s grace extends to us every day, in every circumstance, even when we aren’t looking.  God was and is faithful.

We are invited into a world of giving and receiving and out of the bountiful grace we receive from God and beloved companions, we gain the wisdom and ability to give gracefully to others and to work for justice for the marginalized and forgotten.  Grace invites us to become God’s active companions in the work of salvation.  The inner struggle may never end, but we have the resources to live with the uncertainty, trusting God is faithful and will get us through it.

Abraham’s servant experiences the grace of finding the right wife for his master’s son.  In the midst of his prayers, Rebekah appears.  Her generous response is life changing for Isaac and all those involved.

We receive a legacy of grace and are reminded in these scriptures that our spiritual journey is a constant process of falling down and getting back up again in the context of a grace that constantly embraces us.

Recognizing our need for grace enables us to accept the brokenness of others and to do what is in our power to be grace-givers and healers in the companionship with our Graceful God as we continue living out this legacy of Grace.

[1] Taylor Burton-Edwards Geography, Timeline, and Genealogy, Preaching Notes 5th Sunday After Pentecost 2017 Discipleship Ministries.

[2] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 43-49, 58-67

Getting there from here

Genesis 22:1-14

Matthew 10:40-42

Another week with a difficult to hear scripture.  We serve a Grace filled God who continually reaches out to us in love, and here is another passage where Abraham’s choices seem to indicate a God who is, at the least, complacent in encouraging choices that put others, even those we love, in harm’s way.

Last week Abraham sends one son out into the desert to fend for himself and this week he prepares to sacrifice the other on an altar.  Child sacrifice not unheard of in Abraham’s time, but Abraham wasn’t a “heathen,” so it was not an expected thing for him to do.

This is a passage of which many ask questions in their effort to make sense of it.  Some reconcile this story with their understanding of God sending his only son to die for our salvation.  Some ignore the negative implications of this father –son – God encounter.  Others see it as permission for things they require from their children as they live out God’s will, as they discern it.  Still others use it as justification of their position that a God who allows horrible situations to test His followers or to prove His power isn’t a God they want to follow.

Reading it literally and/or out of context is unsettling at best.  Trying to find one definitive meaning not yet accomplished.

Over the years I have met a number of people who come from families we would describe as faithful followers of God.  Their parents attend worship services and Bible studies regularly.  They tithe time and money, and enthusiastically tell others they need to follow Jesus.  Some of those same people do not want anything to do with the God their parents serve.

Their stories reflect parental decisions that applied scripture one individual text by one individual text in justification of what bordered on and sometimes crossed the line of abuse.  Their parents feeling God called them to discipline their children with rigidity and force, called them to make them conform to specific ways of appearance and behavior, and allowed them to interact with their children without consideration of the long term physical and mental implications of those interactions.

There are others I have met who feel on the brink of being sacrificed as their parents put all their energy into successful careers, amassing more things and participating in more activities, all in the name of providing a good life for their children.  Those parents driven sometimes by their perception of God’s direction in their lives, sometimes by the force of the culture around them and an absence of a relationship with God, and sometimes a combination of the two.

I am only beginning to hear your stories, so I don’t know if some of you can identify with those scenarios.  I suspect that we can all relate to a somewhere in the middle realty.

Some with parents who love us as much as Abraham loved Isaac.  Parents who feel pushed by their understandings of what God wants to the point that they are willing to sacrifice who God created us to be: pushing us to act, dress, speak, study, think and worship in a way that fits those understandings.

Some with parents who want what they think is best for us, believing they are giving us everything, while in reality they are sacrificing genuine relationship with us, as they buy into the definitions of success created by a culture that rarely considers the broader consequences of amassing things, rather than deepening connections with God and each other.

As I struggled with this story of Abraham and Isaac this week I came upon the image in which the artist shows a loving father with his arm around his son, as they both look at the ram caught in the bushes, the altar of sacrifice behind them and the love-filled means of salvation in front of them.

This illustration put the text into a new perspective for me.  I began to ask myself what is the test for Abraham?  It seems clear Abraham saw the test as, “Are you willing to physically sacrifice your son to God?”  A test he took literally, preparing the altar and binding his son.

As I considered the words of the passage and the artist’s drawing, it seemed to me that God was calling Abraham to give up his son to God, but not in the literal burnt offering as Abraham initially understood it, but in the letting Isaac go to respond to God’s call on his life in the unique way God called him.  God intervened through the Angel to help Abraham and Isaac see what God had provided.  Together their perceptions of how to get there from here were changed.  Abraham now had the ram to put on the altar and Isaac had answers to questions regarding what was to be sacrificed.

In the process, the relationship between Abraham and Isaac changed.  They do not return together.  Isaac goes off and begins building a life further south where he sets up a farming operation.   Abraham returns to Beersheba.  Scripture gives us no evidence they saw each other again until Isaac joins his brother Ishmael to bury their father, neither present when Sarah dies.   Both remain faithful to God, however, it is Isaac, separated from Abraham, to whom God now speaks directly.  Isaac lives out his call differently, faithful to one wife even through a long time of barrenness, staying in the promised land throughout the 180 years of his life, and in other ways.

Except in cases of severe mental illness or distress, few hear God calling them to sacrifice their children in a literal sense today.  Families are however, often called to make decisions and choices which have the same effect.

We can see our faith through the eyes of Abraham, hearing sacrifice as the thing we understand sacrifice to be.  For Abraham sacrifice was a living being laid on an altar of rock and fire.  For us that sacrifice may be understood as making sure those we love follow the patterns of Bible study, worship, giving, and behavior that we understand to be pleasing to God in those circumstances when they see things differently.

I remember how difficult it was for me to decide it was more important that our children felt welcome and a contributing part of our faith community than it was that they wore those beautiful smocked Sunday dresses to worship.  For all of my life there was an expectation that to go to worship demanded a certain style of dress.  It challenged my understanding of God’s expectations to allow my girls to show up in jeans and t-shirts.  Until I saw the ram in the bush by looking in the eyes of our children and realizing God cared about their priorities not their clothing, I was willing to sacrifice who they are on the altar of “God demanded I do it this way.”

There are other places in my relationships with our children and others that I need to take a step back and look at this passage through the artist’s view.  To see where I may be misinterpreting what I hear God saying, and need to look hard past the altar to the bushes to get a better perspective of what being faithful requires.

As I first read the gospel lesson this morning, I wondered how it had any connection to the Old Testament reading.

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (NIV)

As the message developed, it occurred to me that in the moment Abraham saw God’s alternate sacrifice, he began to live into this verse, even though it would be written well after his death.  On that mountain he welcomes the change in direction that being faithful to God sometimes brings, he welcomes his son into a new relationship, and he experiences once again the grace and hospitality of the God he serves.

We are people of the New Testament, coming to understand God’s call on our lives through all of scripture.  In living out these verses from Matthew we open our hearts and hospitality to all those who God sends our way, particularly the young in age and those young in faith.

We consider ways of faithfulness that are not necessarily the first ways that come to mind.

We look for God where God is already working in the lives of others, particularly the little ones who are Christ’s disciples.

We think carefully about the decisions we make that sacrifice, or have the potential to sacrifice who God created our children and the children of others to be.

There is a story about a little boy who asks his father how much he makes an hour and then expresses disappointment that he only has part of that hourly rate in his piggy bank.  The father asks why the disappointment and the son says that he wants enough money to buy his father’s time so they can do something together.

I am sure there have been times I sacrificed time with our children because I felt called to do more, succeed more, give them more, set a good work ethic example.

In light of this morning’s lesson, I think God is calling me to love more, to increasingly recognize and accept who my children and others are as faithful followers of God.  To look for God’s loving hospitality in places outside of where I expect to find it and to do a better job of offering hospitality to others.

God is grace-filled, offering us Rams caught in bushes, to help us get there from here, when we are focused on answering God’s call to faithfulness in the way we have always understood it to be and God needs us to have a new understanding.