Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Wounded and Blessed: A Reflection on Genesis 32:22-31

               The story of Jacob the trickster continues.  Having deceived his hungry brother Esau into giving up his birthright, having deceived his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, having deceived Laban into giving him the best sheep of the flock . . . Jacob returns to face the brother he deceived so long ago and who surely hates him still.  Coming upon the liminal River Jabbok, he sends his wives, cattle, slaves and possessions on ahead.  Jacob is alone, awaiting the next day’s meeting with Essau.  Surely he remembered that other night, years before, when he fled his brother’s wrath and dreamed that strange dream of a ladder to heaven.  As on that other lonely night, Jacob has another God-encounter.  
               The scripture says Jacob wrestles an angel in the night, but since angel literally means “messenger from God,” we’re not sure exactly what form that messenger took.  The text in one place clearly says the opponent is a man.  But the story also says that Jacob fought with God. In addition, some scholars root this story in ancient Near East folklore about river demons that attacked travelers at river crossings.  Modern psychology might suggest Jacob struggles within himself as the memory of his mistreatment of Esau floods back.  We can imagine many possibilities for the identity of Jacob’s opponent:  an angel? a man?  a demon?  God?  Jacob’s memory of Esau?  Jacob’s own divided and tormented soul?
               Here’s another possibility.  What if another very human traveler stumbled upon Jacob’s campsite that night, shared the campfire, listened to Jacob’s story, and then relentlessly pounded Jacob with the kind of questions that held him accountable for his past deeds and made him face into his sacred responsibilities.  What if their conversation began this way?
“So, my new friend,” says the stranger. “What brings you to these parts? 
“I’m going home,” says Jacob.
“How long you been away?” asks the stranger.
“Long enough to acquire two wives, two concubines, eleven children.  Long enough to become rich with flocks and herds and slaves.”
“Long enough to worry if the mess you made years ago is still waiting for you?  Long enough to wonder if the folks you left years ago might forgive you?”
“Hey, you know nothing about me.”
“Then tell me, friend, why a rich man beds down at the ford of the Jabbok all alone, no servants or family.  Why an innocent man startles as if every ordinary night-sound is an assassin’s footfall.  I have till break of day to hear your story.  Tell it true.  Tell it all.  If you tell the painful parts, you might be able to walk away from here in the morning feeling the old wounds but able to limp on ahead into some hope.”
               It’s important for me to hold open that kind of interpretation because I’m likelier to hear God’s message from a flesh-and-blood stranger than from an angelic apparition.  Of course, however the message was delivered, the story’s point is the same: sacred messages can come to us in ways that are both scary and heavenly, both scarring and healing.
               At daybreak the stranger is ready to move on.  But Jacob now can’t bear to be alone and holds onto the other for dear life.  Jacob begs him not to go without giving him a blessing, unaware he’s probably already received it.  So the stranger confers upon him a new name with a counterintuitive meaning: Israel— “the person who struggles with God wins” (Gen. 32:28).  Most religions have gods whose chief quality is might.  But Jacob’s God lets the weak ones win.  To lose in a wrestling match with this God is really to win.  It’s like the contest my daughter and I used to have over the wishbone after a meal of baked chicken.  We’d each hold one end of the wishbone, make a silent wish, and then pull the two prongs of the bone until it snapped somewhere near the middle. Superstition says that whoever winds up with the bigger piece is the winner.  Though I never told her, my wish was always that she would have her wish.  My wish always became a prayer for her.  My child never ever lost the contest.  Wrestling with God might be like that.  Or not like that.  Wrestling with God means we do lose what we were wishing for in order to gain something better.  We must lose our life to find it.
               Israel—“the one who struggles with God wins”—became the name for all of Jacob’s descendants. I see that legacy partly in the Jewish midrash tradition, a way of reading scripture that encourages devout people to question the scriptures, and partly in some of the words of the Psalmist, who sometimes rails against God.  I go as far as Marcus Borg in saying we can honor the spirit of the Bible by sometimes saying the Bible can be wrong. . Sometimes we see meanness attributed to God and we have to admit that although the overarching sweep of the biblical story is saving,  not every biblical writer and redactor over the course of many centuries always got everything right.    And if we don’t fight back and name the wrongness, if we don’t wrestle with the Bible, we will lose the possibility of being blessed by these very scriptures.
               Richard Rohr says, “Wrestling with God, with life, and with ourselves is necessary. . . . The blessing usually comes in a wounding of some sort and for most of us it is an entire life of limping along to finally see the true and real blessing in our life. [i]
               Sure. Some folks struggle through life and never are blessed with a deeper sense of God’s priorities, God’s presence, God’s vision.  Some people never struggle with scripture or with their own wounds or with life’s deep questions and so never receive the deeper blessings.  Some continue to grasp tightly at false certitude and possessions and self-images—never opening themselves to better blessings.
               But God’s grace can take life’s inevitable wounds and convert them into blessing.
               Maybe you’ve held on until a loss or sorrow or disillusionment opened you to a deeper layer of reality, a more authentic way of living in this world, a blessing.  Maybe you had to leave some things behind on the other side of the River Jabbok before you could move forward in blessing. 
               Maybe you’d like to share from that experience of a wound that became a blessing . . . .

[i] from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, July 30, 2011, Center for Actions and Contemplation.

Monday, July 18, 2011

From Pillow to Pillar: A 2-pt. reflection on Genesis 28:10-22

Pt. 1: Setting up the story:
Before we hear a familiar story, let’s keep in mind that all the narrative gems we find in Genesis glint with rough-edged, multifaceted characters, none of whom could serve as the poster child for today’s “family values.”  I don’t understand how the Religious Right finds examples of their “family values” in a literalized Bible!  The “first families” of the Bible committed murder and rape.  They engaged in polygamy and incest.  Brothers stole from one another or enslaved one another.  Children were abandoned to die in the desert or narrowly escaped slaughter by the father’s hand.  Parents played “favorites” with their children, pitting one against the other.  Daughters and daughters-in-law seduced and slept with their fathers and fathers-in-law.  

Let’s face it: Abraham and his descendants were the original dysfunctional family.  If you don’t believe me today, you will after our study of Genesis next month.  Most of the narrative parts of the Bible, like most enduring literature, DESCRIBE rather than PRESCRIBE human behavior.  

So put aside the sweet and child-appropriate Sunday school versions of these stories and sink your teeth into some juicy tales told by and to adults.  Genesis tells us the God of Abraham blesses some undeserving scoundrels. 

The trickster, Jacob, who stole his elder brother’s birthright, is one such scoundrel.  And maybe, just maybe, this story was actually designed to evoke our sympathies for the cheated brother, Esau, just so we experience the shock of the wrong guy being blessed.  Just when we think we’ve got God figured out, the Bible tells us we don’t.  Jacob is no paragon of virtue, but God speaks to him anyway.  Walter Brueggemann explains this upside down morality tale this way: 

“It’s a subtle but deliberate way of saying the blessing will work in spite of human character and quality . . . The blessing of God has its way whether we are attracted to or repelled by the object of the blessings.  The narrative shows God strangely at work for Jacob without regard for our emotions about Jacob. . . . The narrative invites [us] to marvel rather than explain.”[i]

Wow.  You and I may not be the final judges of who deserves what.  Many more than 12 people have recently “judged” Casey Anthony.  But maybe even the 12 official jurors were not the final judges of her life.  I’m not suggesting the Bible provides us no moral foundation.  I’m suggesting the Bible, from Genesis to Jesus, cautions me about casting stones.

So as we return to Jacob’s story today, remember that the same trickster who cheated his way into a blessing from his father is now going to receive what may seem an undeserved word from God. He might even, at last, evoke some sympathy from us.  After all, the conniver is now a frightened fugitive.  Fleeing his brother’s wrath, Jacob is without family, country, security.  As night falls, he drops, exhausted and afraid, in the middle of nowhere, using a stone for his pillow.  And then . . . he dreams.  What a blessing!

HEBREW BIBLE READING         Genesis 28: 10-22  

Pt. 2  Commenting on the Story: From Pillow to Pillar

From scheming to dreaming.  With nothing but a stone for a pillow--hard comfort indeed--Jacob stopped scheming long enough to move through sleep’s doorway into another reality.  A stairway to heaven.  A bridge connecting what we can see with our eyes to what we can apprehend through our spirits.  And this story says those realms are not so very far apart.  Especially for desperate folks like Jacob.  

The dream’s angelic messengers signify there are certain folks who navigate well between these two realities.  You’ve known people like that who somehow connect you to a loftier way of being, to your higher self.  For Christians, Jesus is the chief mediator for us. 

And the very presence of God is also right beside Jacob, announcing a 3-fold promise you and I may need to hear:  1) “I’ll give you and your descendants land,” which means we will survive; 2) “I’ll give you and your descendants purpose,” which is to bless OTHER families of the earth; and 3) “I’ll give you and your descendants my presence,” which is to say we have the capacity to sense the sacred. (Gen. 28: 14-16)  I don’t know about you, but that’s just about all I need: a life of rich relationships, purpose, and a sense of God’s faithful presence.

Now I’m not so sure Jacob the conniver immediately or decisively changes as a result of this God-encounter.  In the last few verses of our reading, it sounds as if he’s still scheming—brashly bargaining that if God will be generous with him, Jacob will to return to God 1/10 of everything he gets from God.  Yeh.  Jacob is still Jacob.  I suppose most of us don’t make sudden or drastic changes.  

But in some way Jacob the schemer did become more like Jacob the dreamer.  And maybe that is all WE can hope for.  Incremental change.  Moments of spiritual transcendence.  A few unexpected encounters with the Holy.  And God blesses whomever God “blessed well” pleases.  As Jesus will later say, in preaching about his upside down kingdom, “The first will be last and the last will be first.”  We see some signs of Jacob’s transformation when he awakens from the dream convinced he’s had a God -encounter, awestruck that he’s somehow stumbled into an experience of the holy, and inspired to mark this encounter.  With a simple stone he gives this no-name place the grand name of Beth-el—the House of God.  Stones in this story are not thrown at others in judgment.  Jacob’s stone helps him dream . . . and then celebrate the Sacred. 

I see two movements in this story that might help open us to a sense of the Sacred.  One, obviously, is the up and down movement of the angel-messengers moving between earth and heaven.  Are there people in your life who’ve brought you an uplifting word?  Are there simple experiences that transported you beyond the everyday?   For me at times it’s as if some very earthy and ordinary person or thing connects me to something inexpressibly sacred . . . through a tearful reunion . . . the fragrance of bread baking . . . a night of restful sleep beside the one I love . . . a sweet dream of a baby born or a lost puppy found or wonder-filled garden explored.  In those moments I’m connected to earth and heaven through some tremulous movement, up and down, inward and outward, simple and sublime.  Why, a stone can become a temple!  And a schemer who grabs a blessing all for himself can become a dreamer whose descendants can bless ALL the families of the earth.  If we allow for this stirring in our hearts, imagine how we might bless others.

But there’s another kind of movement in this story: the interplay between stillness and action itself.  Jacob races from his angry brother.  Then he rests.  Jacob dreams.  Then he actively builds an altar.  It’s a two-step dance: move and pause, pause and move.

Life’s rhythm moves from action to reflection, from work to prayer, from week days to Sabbath, from comfortable sameness to risky exploration and back again, in a life-giving cycle.  But just as Jacob’s stone pillow was transformed into a stone pillar, so too must our dreaming be converted into constructive action.  What we do here as a congregation follows that healthy pattern: we volunteer with Family Promise on a Tuesday and we reflect together on a Sunday.  One-two, One-two, goes the dance.   

We as a congregation are on the verge of moving toward some new possibilities.  Some important dreams have been incubating inside my spirit and yours.  Soon we’ll be enacting more of those dreams.  Perhaps we will literally be moving into a new place that will become sacred for us as we use it for God’s loving purposes.  Maybe we will figuratively move toward new ways of serving our community or deepening our inner lives or developing our welcome to others to help bless other families of the earth.

From dreaming to doing. Jacob’s story challenges me to prayerfully consider our next steps as a congregation,  to recognize and bless the mundane sacredness of our life together,  to remember that God’s blessings don’t necessarily go to those WE think deserve blessings.  For anyone with an ounce of humility, that’s good news.  In these next moments of prayer, we might open ourselves to recognizing the sacred in this time and place.  We might seek prayerful guidance before taking our next steps together.

[i] Brueggemann, Walter.  Genesis.  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  235.

PRAYER: God of Jacob, when we are on the run, show us a place for dreaming.  When we are stagnant, spur us to action.  Be our eternal partner in this dance.  And may we enjoy the dance so much, we’ll forget to critique anyone else’s dancing.  Amen

Following the 2-part sermon, the congregation was invited to move to one or more prayer stations as described below:
(You may choose to move to one or more prayer stations.)
The Genesis reading says Jacob’s encounter with God called forth in him a desire to give something back to God. Making an offering through your church is one way to recognize your blessings and use them toward God’s loving purposes in the world.
You may choose to receive prayerfully the blessed bread of life and cup of joy at the second prayer station.  Bring a grateful heart for the food you have already enjoyed this day.  Move to the Table with an expectant spirit that will allow you to taste and see something new and good. ALL are welcome at the Open Table.
Jacob’s simple make-shift altar was a stone and some oil. He apparently wanted some tangible way to mark a sacred moment and place.  If you would like to enact a prayer for this place and these traveling companions, or if you would like simply to attend to whatever is going on within your life right now, take a stone from the Table, place it in the bowl, and pour a bit of oil over it. 
We’ll later sing several verses of a familiar spiritual.  You’re invited to add your own verse to the song. You may write a 1-sentence, 8-syllable verse to match the rhythm of these words:
          “We are          climb-ing        Ja-cob’s         ladder.”
Your verse might reflect your sense of the movement of your own spiritual life or your dream for this community of faith as we move forward together.  Please write your verse on one of the cards provided and place it in the basket.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Truer Truth

Some folks believe that Christianity is all about believing that a set of unbelievable propositions are factually true.  The various ways we define truth account for important distinctions between what Marcus Borg calls the earlier Christian paradigm and an emerging one.  Representing the earlier paradigm is a letter I read recently in Billy Graham’s column in the Mobile Press-Register[i].  Rev. Graham invokes John 14:6 to affirm that Jesus is the only true path to God.  Graham then concludes with a prayer that God will open the hearts of disbelievers “to the Truth.”

In contrast, Marcus Borg, a writer on Emerging Christianity, would say the Bible bears truth that is not “absolute” but is instead relative and culturally conditioned, truth that is often expressed as metaphor.[ii]  Literalists might say metaphors don’t count as truth, but emerging Christians would say they name a deeper, truer truth.  And Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is Christianity’s foundational metaphor of Truth, even if there are other transmitters of Truth.

I’m going to use the opposite of the word truth to explore it further with the aid of a recent movie. The Invention of Lying is a 2009 comedy about the first person who learned to lie. Here's a trailer:

Let me warn you that the US Council of Catholic Bishops rated this movie O for offensive, calling it: “venomous . . . pervasive blasphemy . . .  an all-out sneering assault on the foundations of religious faith such as has seldom if ever been seen in a mainstream film.”[iii]  Other Christian groups have likewise condemned this movie.  So naturally I couldn’t resist using it in a recent sermon.  I’m not exactly recommending the film.  But I found some so-called blasphemous ideas intriguing and unintentionally supportive of Christian theology, though both the filmmakers and the bishops would disagree with me.  Truth be told, I may have more in common with Ricky Gervais, the proud atheist who wrote and stars in the film, than with the offended Christians who’ve panned it.  No, I'm not an atheist, and I don’t endorse lying.  But the bishops read this film too literally and thus missed an implicit if unintended argument: Religion might be a human creation, but it is our means of expressing, however imperfectly, Deeper Truth about our most sacred and ultimate reality.  The “true lies” that religion tells are not falsehoods but metaphors.  They are our journeys toward the ineffable and songs about life and pictures of that which we experience but can’t quantify. 

The Invention of Lying is set in a world that looks just like ours—except no one knows how to lie.  You might think: What a morally pure environment with total trust and honesty!  But telling literal truth is an infantile measure of morality. After all, honesty is not always kind.  The compulsively truthful often say some pretty cruel things.  And because of limited imagination, the alternate world’s inhabitants understand reality only in material terms.  For instance, they evaluate other people only on their physical qualities and achievements, so no one can imagine that physically unattractive people have anything beautiful inside them.  Jennifer Garner’s character in the film matter-of-factly tells Ricky Gervais’ character at the start of their blind date that she’s disappointed to see he’s fat.  The inner qualities of a person can’t be verified as true, so they don’t exist and can’t be imagined.  Worse than brutal honesty is this stark objectivity required for literal truth-telling.  That means no one can make subjective judgments or speculate . . . or empathize.

Neither are creative expressions possible in a rigidly truthful world.  For instance, poems and novels are unknown in the film’s world; the only writing is technical or factual.  Ricky Gervais’ character—the world’s first liar—has been an unsuccessful documentary film writer until his discovery of lying allows him to become wildly popular as the world’s first fiction writer for film.  With the discovery of lying, art enters the world.

So does empathy. Jennifer Garner’s character, at first so indifferent to her fat suitor’s feelings, toward the end of the film watches children taunting a chubby child on the playground and, in an understated scene, takes an evolutionary leap forward to IMAGINE what that bullied little boy must be feeling.  We, the audience, see the dawning of empathy in her as she tells the child he’s beautiful inside—and she takes a step forward in her human growth.  To feel what another might be feeling requires imagination, a move beyond factual objectivity into the realm of conjecture and into the region of compassion—where deeper truths dwell.  Maybe we're inaccurate when we see another’s tears and connect that experience to one we've had.  We can’t really know what the other is feeling.  But our attempt to feel with another is an imaginative leap that can take us to a more deeply human place and a truer truth.

Another mixed gift the invention of lying brings to this world is religion.  At a pivotal moment in the film, the Ricky Gervais character is summoned to his dying mother's bedside. There the main character hears a cardiologist tell him and the critically ill mother, with cold objectivity, that her heart will probably give out some time that evening—and in the same breath the doctor recommends the fajitas being served in the hospital cafeteria.  Upon hearing her prognosis, the ill mother worsens.  Panic-stricken, she tells her son that she fears the nothingness beyond death.  With sudden inspiration, the world’s first and only liar creates an assuring story about a place people go to after they die, a place in the sky with many mansions (the very phrase from the King James version of John 14:2—“In my father’s house are many mansions”—often read at funerals).  Since the doctor and others have overheard the story the world’s first liar tells to calm his mother, and since they don’t know lying is possible, they all accept the story as truth, beg the son to tell them more, then urge him to tell the whole world this good news.  In that moment Religion is born, just made up on the spot—a lie—so says the film The Invention of Lying—where “religion” is equated with “lying”.

If you’ve watched any of Ricky Gervais’s stand-up comedy or seen him interviewed, you know he enjoys taking pot shots at biblical literalists.  On the surface, his character’s spur of the moment creation of “a man in the sky” who controls peoples’ lives is an attack on religion.  But on another level his film eventually undermines the idea that there is only the material world we can see and prove.  As the lead characters evolve in their ability to tell a deeper truth, which includes their creation of religion, we see them developing compassionate awareness of another, a love that is beyond the self-serving gratification exhibited earlier, and an imaginative capacity to see not just the material but what’s “inside.”  The film’s elevation of the two developing characters—a new or born again Adam and Eve—unwittingly acknowledges a spiritual dimension to life.  This man and woman become the first fully human beings, and the growth of their characters says there is more to life than can be captured in factoids.  There is perhaps “The More,” to use Marcus Borg’s term for God.  I don’t think Ricky Gervais intended it.  I don’t think the Catholic bishops recognized it.  But the film links the invention of religion to the benign “lies” we know as art, beauty, empathy, and love.

There is a Truth more important than Fact.  The Truth of the spirit brims with compassionate wisdom that facts can’t span.  For Christians, there is Truth of Jesus we live out rather than prove mathematically. As Jesus says elsewhere in John, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  Real truth is not restrictive or narrow.  It’s freeing.  

Followers of Jesus’ way are challenged to grow personally in empathy, in creativity, in compassion so that we can live and speak a deeper truth and thus contribute to transforming this world from what is to what can be--by God’s grace.

[i] Graham, Billy. “Complaints about Bible Likely Mask a Lack of Faith” in the Mobile Press-Register 2D (May 21, 2011).
[ii] Borg, Marcus.  The Heart of Christianity.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hearing God a Second Time

delivered at Open Table

Scriptures: Matthew 10: 40-42; Genesis 22: 1-14

June 26, 2011

Has God ever spoken to you . . . a second time?  Has God ever said one thing and later said another? 

Here’s my most concise plot summary of today’s story from Genesis: God told Abraham to sacrifice his child.  As Abraham was complying, God told Abraham NOT to sacrifice his child.  It’s a story that makes God seem both cruel and capricious. 

God once spoke to me in voices of authority from my childhood culture and the pages of scripture.  He told me—and the voice of that God in those days was always male—to follow scrupulously certain codes of conduct.  He told me to trust his representatives: white people, male people, older people, Southern Baptist people.  He told me that my Jewish friends were going to hell.  He told me that the theory of evolution, however cogently presented by my biology teachers, was pernicious.  He told me that homosexuality was an abomination.  He told me that American patriotism was a tenet of the Christian faith.  I was certain those messages were from God.  Later—and gradually, very gradually—I heard God say different things on those topics.
Most of you have not gotten this far in life without hearing God speak a second time.  Is that second message an amendment or a reversal? God’s contradiction or clarification?  Did God change the message or did we start to hear it differently? 

I don’t think today’s story offers clear answers to those questions.  But it cautions me to aim both for boldness in following my sense of God’s guidance—and humility when attributing that guidance to God.  We know of many pitiful persons who have heard God commanding them to do harm.

Scholars speculate that the roots of this story (found in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions) may go back to a time when an ancient people moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, one step forward in moral evolution. The endless interpretations are based, in part, on how we understand the very first verse of this story.  Verse 1 says this is a story about a test.  The test or quest is a common motif in folklore.  The test stories usually begin as a king or a god sets before the hero a seemingly impossible test of bravery or cunning.

The biblical story never tells us what trait God was testing in Abraham.  It does say he passed.  Those who believe God was testing—and therefore valued above all else—Abraham’s religious fervor, argue that Abraham passed by showing he was willing to sacrifice his very own son in order to obey the demands of a jealous god.  These interpreters of the story teach that God requires unwavering devotion, religious extremism, above all.

But others believe “the true biblical spirit” never calls for violence.  Whether committed by God or in the name of God, whether the blood of Isaac or of Jesus, violent sacrifice is never God’s M.O.  Instead, these interpreters say Abraham passed the “test” of faithfulness by faithfully altering a harmful system of sacrifice, by proving there’s a more mature faith than blind obedience, and that, though we may be tested in life, God is not really the designer or proctor of those tests.  Abraham ultimately obeyed by disobeying that first voice of God and following his better angels.  Real faithfulness produces ongoing religious reform.  This interpretation says God blesses Abraham for not following a cultural practice that was wrongly attributed to God.  Real faith produces religious imagination, which the biblical writers had in abundance, a grace to see possibilities outside the world’s systems.

In a way, Abraham passed an earlier version of the Kobayashi Maru.  Ah, yes.  The Kobayashi Maru.  The famously impossible test given at Star Fleet Academy that no one passes.  Its true purpose is to test the character of future Star Fleet officers like James T. Kirk, later the captain of the Enterprise.  The only cadet ever to outsmart the Kobayashi Maru simulation, Kirk managed to save his virtual crew by cheating—by changing the parameters of the test and thus creating a different simulated reality that allowed him to save lives. 

Maybe Kirk has the heart of a religious reformer: in touch with the benevolent aims of the universe and gifted with a hopeful imagination of biblical proportions that escapes culture confines.

Maybe Abraham, in hearing God speak a second time, also gets outside human dichotomies and sees a hopeful alternative.  But first he has to leave the constraints of his culture.  When God initially speaks, Abraham reacts without question or reflection and immediately leaves “early the next morning,” according to the story.  But on his 3-day journey to Mount Moriah, a place symbolizing a “higher perspective,” Abraham gains time and distance and some holy imagination.  He journeys to a different land.  There he leaves behind his 2 servants (his power) and the donkey laden with their supplies (his possessions).  Abraham now is freed to separate the voice of a domination culture from the voice of a loving God.  Perhaps he realizes—or the storyteller realizes—that you can move outside culturally defined borders.  

And Abraham, the archetypal patriarch, starts talking with his son.  That’s always a good thing. As they talk, the narrator tells us, twice, “they walked on together.”  Here are the ingredients for spiritual discernment and hearing the voice of God: 1) journeying to a holy place, 2) taking time to nurture our spirits, 3) leaving behind a culture of violence, of power, of things, 4) being accompanied by those we love, 5) opening ourselves to see what God might provide rather than rashly reacting in desperation and depletion.  It took time for Abraham to hear an angelic countermand that stayed the hand of a disturbed father—to hear God a second time.  It took separation from the culture’s trappings to recognize that God’s provisions are in our very midst, a ram there for the taking.  Perhaps “the true act of faith on the part of Abraham is not the blind faith that often has been the dominant message emerging from this text, but rather the ability to recognize [God's voice as different from the culture and to see imaginatively] God’s provision in the ordinary” (Julianna Claassens).
What resources are right in front of you—already within you? Think about a time when you were at your wits’ end and on the verge of inflicting pain--when suddenly you found the grace to keep your composure, to stifle that outburst, to drop that verbal knife you were going to use to wound a loved one.  Tangled up in the brambles of your crazy life you discovered a creative third way to enact compassion, a safe way to get out frustrations without injury to you or the telemarketer who interrupted your supper.  You walked back down the mountain with a sense that God was NOT provoking you into a self-righteous rage but instead providing you a spiritual time out to get a grip, offering you a way to tap into a gracious spiritual reservoir of compassion and imagination. 

But the story applies to us today not only as a model for individual emotional healing within but also of societal healing without.  Instead of obeying the deeply rooted patriarchy, violence, and oppression his culture long ago declared was god, Abraham obeyed a God looming out ahead of human history and thus shifted the course of culture.  The real reason the Bible regards Abraham as the father of the faith, this interpretation argues, is because he renounced an entrenched form of sacrifice that had become morally intolerable. And “he did so in the name of the God his contemporaries thought was requiring them to perform violence” (p. 142, Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroad). To this day the Abrahams in our midst are trying to hear the Still Speaking God and rid us of contemporary forms of human sacrifice.  Yes, we are sacrificing our children today through culturally-assisted suicide when homophobia shames so many of our young people into doing violence to themselves.  We have, to name other examples, systematized human sacrifice in the form of “wars and public executions” (p 142, Bailie). 

Look at this sculpture created by George Segal, intended for the campus of Kent State but never installed there.  Memorializing unarmed students slain while protesting the Vietnam War, it’s titled “Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State.” You’ll find the sculpture today at Princeton University because Kent State refused it.  The 2 modern figures appear to be a young man, his hands bound, his gaze pleading, as he kneels before an older man (his father?) holding a knife at the youth’s chest.  In the context of the Kent State massacre, this modern interpretation of Abraham and Isaac seems to be charging America with sacrificing her sons to a bloody God.  All these years later we are still invoking God’s name to send our sons and daughters off to be killed.  Have we as a nation not walked far enough or high enough with love enough for our children to gain perspective enough on our warring ways?

The myth of redemptive violence is as old as civilization.  The Babylonians believed their god Marduk created the world by killing Tiamat.  Pope Urban II declared God was ordering the first Crusade to save Christendom.  Thomas Jefferson said the tree of liberty must be periodically watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  Caiaphas, the chief priest said of Jesus, “it is better that one man should die than that the whole nation be destroyed” (p. 6 Bailie).  In times of crisis and social upheaval, religious convictions are tapped in order to find a scapegoat for society’s ills and in that way restore some semblance of order.  Today the undocumented workers from south of our border are among the latest scapegoats whose punishment will, many believe, stave off economic and cultural crises. But surely God has provided for us.  Surely we don’t have to scapegoat more innocents.

Because as Christians we have seen Jesus’s story expose and reject the myth of redemptive violence.  “The New Testament account of the crucifixion replays that primitive myth in order to reveal its perversity (p. 7 Bailie).  In Jesus, the scapegoat is clearly, once and for all, revealed as indisputably innocent.  “In Jesus, God is finally seen as the one who chooses to suffer violence rather than sponsor it” (p. 66 Bailie).  That is the story we can choose to live.

How would Jesus have us treat today’s scapegoats?  With a cup of cold water, I believe.  Literally.  An organization in Arizona has in recent years been placing containers of water in the middle of the Sonoran desert, not to entice or enable border crossing but to stem the deaths of migrants fleeing intolerable poverty and violence in Latin America.  Since the early 90s when the US began militarizing the U.S./Mexico border, the human remains of at least 5,600 people have been recovered from the Sonoran desert.  No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths) advocates for more just and humane immigration policies while providing direct aid to prevent deaths wherever possible.

“Driven by economic inequality, thwarted by ill-conceived US border policy, and ignorant of the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert, thousands of men, women, and children have already died trying to cross the Mexican border” ( So diverse faith-based groups organized No Mas Muertes to try to save lives.  While in seminary I visited their office in Arizona and spent one night sleeping on the floor of a way station in the village of Altar, Mexico, where men, women and children, hosted by a Catholic priest, receive temporary shelter after being caught at the border and sent back south into the Mexican desert often without sufficient food or water for the return journey.  I heard the stories of people whose desperate situations in Guatemala and Nicaragua propelled them to try to cross into the US.  And as harrowing as the trek through desert had been, they told me they would try it again as soon as they got their strength back, because it was the only way their families would have a chance for survival.

Something is broken in this system.  But demonizing the strangers in our midst is not the solution.  Creating unenforceable and xenophobic laws in Alabama is not the solution.

What would Jesus do?  Let’s put our Old Testament story alongside our Gospel reading for today: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward.”  Jesus would welcome, welcome, welcome.  But he would warn the welcomers that such a welcome will garner the kind of reward that prophets and righteous persons receive. His use of the word “reward” is bitterly ironic.  The Hebrew prophets were despised, sometimes killed.  Some “reward”! Nevertheless, Jesus speaks a second time—asking us to “give a cup of cold water” in the name of a disciple.  A cup of cold water might seem the slightest aid, the least effective way to do justice.  But out on the Sonoran desert, a cup of water is the difference between life and death for men, women and children who think they’re following God out into the wilderness, who are hoping to find in the brambles of the desert some life-saving water, who bring their children with them, praying God will provide a way.  But some will be sacrificed to the God of fear and scarcity.  Child sacrifice has not ended.

Real problems don’t get solved through polarized thinking.  I suspect that some Alabama legislators sincerely believe God spoke to them about creating a law to protect the people of Alabama from “illegals.”  I wonder if, upon further reflection and prayer, some of our legislators might hear God speak to them a second time.  I wonder if there is some way you and I can, through prayerful and imaginative discernment, help stem a violent impulse and offer a cup of cold water.