"The Sacrifice of Isaac" Carvaggio ca. 1603. Public Domain.
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together. 9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
I’m going to nerd out a bit. I am a huge fan of Zombies. There are classic movies like Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and 28 Days Later, and the still-running television series The Walking Dead on AMC. Recent entries in the genre have branched out. There are now zombie musicals like Anna and the Apocalypse, two Disney movies about zombies entitled Zombies and Zombies 2, the zombie action blockbuster World War Z, and zombie comedies like Zombieland.
While the genre expands, many zombie stories focus on a small group of survivors and the difficult, even impossible choices they must make to stay alive in an oppressively violent, zombified world. The genre is such a force that colleges across the US even offer classes on zombies where students get college credit for watching zombie movies and reading Zombie literature. These classes are not just for film students. Instead, today's zombie-themed courses can be found in philosophy, psychology, and business departments because underneath all the gore, zombie movies often address big human questions like morality, decision making, sacrifice, and what it means to be in community.
But sometimes the violence and doom of the zombie genre can become too much, at least for me. I’ve had to stop watching the Walking Dead series twice because the show is so effective at taking away every window of hope or element of humanity from each of the main characters. For me, the dread of zombie stories can reach a tipping point, where the few nuggets of love, redemption, or kindness aren’t enough to make it worth my time.
Is it sacrilegious that I think of some stories in our Scriptures like zombie stories? A handful, maybe even more than a handful, of our Biblical stories are downright awful. They depict scenes of violence and torture, seem to promote genocide, and represent God and humans at their absolute worst. I believe that, as people of faith, we should challenge ourselves to find the lesson in these stories, the “Word” in all the words. Sometimes, underneath all the gore and inhumanity, we can see Biblical authors probing big questions and searching for answers that address the same theme mentioned above; morality, decision making, sacrifice, and what it means to be in community. But there are times when the story is so difficult, offending and problematic, that like a zombie movie that’s become too much, I have to put it down.
Take today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible – called the “Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22. This lesson comes up in our Sunday reading schedule once every three years. Sometimes when a difficult passage comes up, we opt to go with an alternative, but this one is unique. This story is like a zombie movie that reached the tipping point of awful, but we are still forced to watch. And it’s because this story is central to the development and practice of our faith and other world religions as well. Abraham is a foundational figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which some call the “Abrahamic Faiths.” This specific story is foundational in all three traditions. The story of the Aqedah or “Binding” is chanted during the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The story was central to early Christian theological formation as thinkers developed ways to understand the crucifixion of Jesus and the story of the resurrection. In the Islamic calendar, the “Feast of Sacrifice” is one of the most important holy days for Muslims. It falls after the Hajj and celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son.
But make no mistake, this story is awful. Here’s the context. In Genesis 12 God spoke to Abraham when he was known as Abram, saying,
Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and curse those you curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And Abraham followed God’s invitation. He packed everything, and he and his entire household, including his spouse Sarah, other relatives, and servants, wandered out of the safety of their ancestral lands and their tribe and into a dangerous world. For several chapters in the book of Genesis, we follow Abraham and his group of wanderers around on their adventures. He rescues his nephew from bandits, pretends his wife is his sister and almost marries her away, eludes death, is blessed by a mysterious priest, and tries to intercede with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And then his son Isaac is born, a miraculous birth foretold by God. Our story picks up from here.
One night, God speaks to Abraham in a dream or vision and offers him a test:
‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
Human sacrifice occurred in the Ancient Near East when this story was written down, although scholars argue to what degree it happened. There is archaeological and written evidence that children would sometimes be sacrificed to a local deity when a tribe or people faced extreme hardship like famine, war, or plague to appease an angry god. In other situations, a prominent citizen would sacrifice one of their children as a sign of resolute faithfulness to a deity with the idea that there was nothing of greater importance to give up. Abraham was called out of a Chaldean culture that practiced both versions of child sacrifice and interacted with tribes and cultures that did the same.
In our story, God speaks directly to Abraham, and, interestingly, this is the first time in our scriptures where someone is described loving another person. Abraham loves his son Isaac. Likely we are to read that Isaac is the most important thing in Abraham’s life. And yet, the next day, Abraham packs everything up and heads out with Isaac to Moriah. Three days later, Isaac is lying bound on an altar, and Abraham has the knife in hand when an angel of the Lord stops the sacrifice and points out an alternative – a ram stuck in a nearby thicket. Isaac is replaced on the altar by the ram, which is sacrificed in the son’s place.
Traditionally, we might reflect on a handful of themes that fit within our Christian faith. Perhaps we could talk about the reality that there are trials in our lives. We all face difficult choices and long for God to provide when our backs are against the wall. We might remember that the Lord’s Prayer petitions God that we not be led into temptations and trials.
We might also reflect on how obedience or faithfulness to God can be costly. When Jesus talked about discipleship, he often highlighted the costs. In the gospels, Jesus talks about giving up the world, wealth, comfort, and your good name to follow him. In Luke, chapter 14, Jesus talks about the family divisions that can arise from being a follower of Jesus. Today, we donate money to houses of worship, volunteer our time, and make difficult lifestyle decisions because of our faith. When we adhere to the social teachings of Jesus, and his call for justice, inclusion, and reconciliation, we are asked to go well beyond our comfort zones and take stands against injustice in ways that can alienate our families and friends.
Finally, we might reflect on the ways that God provides. This, I think, is one of the central themes of this passage, regardless of its issues. Some writers have argued that this passage is less about Abraham’s faithfulness to God than it is about God meeting Abraham’s hope of provision. Abraham expresses hope that this awful situation will be remedied by God, providing an alternative sacrifice, and God does not let down in the end. Likely, we might gain strength from the reminder that God provides for us, even when the situation looks bleak.
Pulling on this thread a little more, we might consider how we forgo God’s provision and sacrifice our young. One of the leading poets of the First World War, Wilfred Owen retells this story in ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” but ends the story differently:
When lo! And angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not do so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Today when we make disastrous economic and environmental choices, we do much the same. What burdens will our children and grandchildren bear because of our continued use of fossil fuel, groundwater depletion, and deforestation? Because of our choices around development, health systems, income inequality, and education, how will our children find affordable housing, a stable job, pay for college, or make choices about their health? A passage like this might spur us on to think of future generations when we make social choices.
Despite these gracious avenues, however, we might still be stuck with this story. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, something that feels out of character with the God we proclaim. Abraham does not question God throughout the trial. God doesn’t even show up at the end but sends a messenger instead. And reading on, it seems that this event broke every relationship around Abraham. He and God never speak again. In the same manner, Abraham never speaks with Isaac or his wife, Sarah, again. The zombies – the awful backdrop of a trickster God, children sacrifice, and blind devotion become too much.
When scriptures do more harm than good, we should consider moving on. Sometimes the lessons simply cost too much to be helpful. Personally, I don’t know if I’ll ever prepare a reflection on this passage again, despite its importance.
What do you say? Can you find a message of faith in this story, or have you moved on?
Regardless, may God bless you today with enough faith to withstand challenging lessons like these and the courage to challenge our faith when it doesn’t work.
“Roses and Sparrow” Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1833. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Public Domain.
[And Jesus continued instructing his disciples, saying] 24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a servant above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the servant like the master. If they have called the master of the house the devil, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Last week’s reading began Jesus’ second long discourse in Matthew, what some scholars call the “Missionary Discourse” or “Disciples Discourse.” The setup is essential. Immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus and his disciples traverse the Galilean countryside and beyond, proclaiming the good news, healing sick people, helping troubled people, and inviting people to join the cause.
At some point, Jesus looks out on another gathered crowd of folks in great need and realizes that he cannot do this work alone. He pulls together his twelve closest followers and tells them that they will be sent out to do more of the same work.
The instructions are pretty straightforward: “Go, do good where you are accepted.” Maybe at this point, the disciples expect a moving sendoff, something heartfelt and inspirational like Knute Rockne’s fabled “Win One for the Gipper” halftime speech, or JFK’s speech about going to the moon.
Instead, they get a dose of reality. “A servant is not above his master” was a common idiom during Jesus’ day. When I was little, I remember visiting my great-grandmother’s house in South Georgia and seeing a needlepoint hanging on her wall that said, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s the same message. If the head of the household suffers, everyone suffers. Jesus lets the disciples know that they will be treated with the same mixed response as he has. Sometimes that will mean that they will face violent opposition.
At the end of this section, we also have some of the gospel’s most difficult words. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and that his message and actions will cause divisions. His message will even split families.
Within this challenging message, however, there are words of encouragement. Jesus promises that God will be with them, watching over them. This doesn’t mean bad things will not happen; rather, that God will not abandon them when bad things take place.
We also get a problematic “Do not be afraid” statement from Jesus. “Do not fear those that can harm the body, but the one that can destroy the body and soul in hell.” This sounds a little heavy-handed. The language of this passage is pretty intimidating and alien to our 21st-century ears. But I think Jesus knows well the way people work. In our reading, we might say that he is making social commentary on how his message will be received, family dynamics, and the importance of living a principled life.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enters a harsh and unrelenting world. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, he and his family flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murder of the region’s children. When they return, they settle in Galilee, a rural region away from Jerusalem, so that they can go unnoticed. The Roman empire occupies the land. There are periodic rebellions and violent suppressions during Jesus’ formative years. Corruption between religious leaders, local governors, tax-collectors, and the empire is common enough to be visible to all. Most of the population lives in subsistence poverty, and folks are so desperate that they are going out to the wilderness to listen to the rantings of a wild man named John, who openly criticizes government officials and calls on the nation to repent.
Jesus’ message -- an upending and subversive challenge to the status quo -- will not be received well everywhere. After all, some are benefiting under the current system, and they hold state power and can call on state force. Others, fearing another violent suppression by Rome, want nothing to do with radical change, but to suffer on, with the no hope or future. To acknowledge the presence of God in every person and place is radical. To work for peace for every living soul, and not just a select few, is confrontational. To heal people the system said were unhealable and dare to touch those society says are untouchable is offensive. Oscar Wilde writes that “No good deed goes unpunished,” a reality check for those working to make good social change.
Families, the place where acceptance, protection, and love should be held up as sacred, are not safe from Jesus’ message either. The most difficult and important place to have conversations about social ills is not the public square or cable news, but dinner tables. We’ve made this all the more difficult on ourselves after generations of keeping a false peace in our families by refusing to talk about religion or politics. The most cringeworthy and painful conversation I’ve ever had about racism was with a close family member. Many of us have an uncle or cousin posting racist images and statements on social media right now, their response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and protests over systemic racial violence and inequality in America. How are we supposed to love our family members while being principled about love, justice, and equality? Jesus’ answer was to remember the sparrows. Even sparrows, creatures deemed largely inconsequential by us humans, are on the mind of God. When we worry that we will break a false peace, God is with us. When things go really bad, we can remember that there is no place where God is not.
Finally, Jesus warns his disciples about what it might look like to give up the principled life when he talks about the thing that can destroy body and soul. “Sin makes its own hell, and goodness it own heaven,” writes Mary Baker Eddy. The Dalai Lama writes that “Sin contains its own judgment and punishment.” The early twentieth-century cartoonist Kin Hubbard might say it best, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them.” When we’ve come to terms with the importance of a belief, but fail to live out that belief because of some pressure, there is something, part of our very selves that becomes damaged. Jesus’ disciples have seen an alternative way of organizing life. This alternative way positioned all people and God’s glorious creation in a sacred light. There was no one too sick to save, too troubled to help, too hopeless to hear good news. Divine presence, real work, purpose and opportunity, the right to life and dignity; these are all part of what it means to be created by God. To fail to work toward that aim hurts ourselves as much as it does others.
In recent weeks a group of knuckleheads has gone from town to town, here in Vermont, sticking white supremacist stickers on town halls, rainbow flags, and businesses owned by African Americans and people of color. The rainbow flag at the United Church of Hinesburg was tagged too. These moments are important. They remind us that some stand against an open and free society where all are treated with dignity and acceptance in our communities. At some point, they were taught to hate, in which case, we can only have pity, and ask God that they find a better way. Perhaps we can also be reminded that if we genuinely believe in words like equality, love, and respect, and carry the better heritage of our Christian faith in our souls, we will not stop working until our last breath for a better world. This is what Jesus hopes from all his disciples.
May you remember your work as disciples of Jesus. May you have the courage to act during these difficult times. And may you do all things in love.
“Crouching Figure of Atlas” Balsassare Tommaso Peruzzi (1481-1535). Public Domain.
“Something Left Undone” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Labor with what zeal we will, Something still remains undone, Something uncompleted still Waits the rising of the sun.
By the bedside, on the stair, At the threshold, near the gates, With its menace or its prayer, Like a mendicant it waits;
Waits, and will not go away; Waits, and will not be gainsaid; By the cares of yesterday Each to-day is heavier made;
Till at length the burden seems Greater than our strength can bear, Heavy as the weight of dreams, Pressing on us everywhere.
And we stand from day to day, Like the dwarfs of times gone by, Who, as Northern legends say, On their shoulders held the sky.
We’re at the beginning of the season after Pentecost – a time in the Christian year that focuses on the growth for the church and our personal growth as disciples of Jesus Christ. The gospel passages that have been selected for the next 20 something weeks will focus on what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Occasionally we will run into a passage like we have today, one where many things are happening within the larger story, and we have to choose to focus our attention on only part of the passage; otherwise, this would be an exceptionally long episode.
Immediately after giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been active in Matthew’s gospel. He performs several healings, calms a storm, and heals two troubled men across the Sea of Galilee. He calls a tax collector named Matthew to join the cause, the person we traditionally attribute the writing of this gospel. We also get a possible resurrection story, which for this gospel is interesting. With all this action, it’s clear that Jesus was more than a traveling sage to Matthew, someone that traversed the countryside, expounding a philosophy by words only. Jesus’ words and actions were aligned.
We can imagine that his followers must have been pretty pumped about all of this. Jesus' public ministry was running on the high hard ground, a time when the early movement was moving swiftly and efficiently. Outcomes could be measured in the folks that were healed and people who were joining the cause. Everything at this point in the story is clicking.
We’ve all experienced times like these. We might call it being in the zone or the groove. These are the times in our lives when our work seemed effortless because it was exciting. Teachers have years that stand out when their classes were exceptional. Businesses have times when work seems essential and lively. Nurses and doctors are part of teams that gel and work seamlessly. The cows are milking well, and the weather conditions are perfect for crops. All the work seems worth it.
The disciples were on the ride of their lives. Verse 35 sums it up: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in the local houses of worship and proclaiming the good news of God’s New Way. And he went about curing every disease and every sickness.” I imagine this as a movie montage, a set of clips set to some inspiring and uplifting music.
But in verse 36, the mood changes. “And when he (Jesus) looked upon the crowds, his heart was filled with compassion, because these people were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” It’s an interesting statement on several levels. Most scholars contend that the crowds Jesus often gathered were people on the margins of society. In Jesus’ day, there was no budding middle class. There was a tiny ruling class which consisted of political families and the families of religious authorities, and everyone else, so there were a lot of people on the margins in Jesus’s day. This class was made out of the people in previous chapters – lepers and servants, the families of fishermen, and people living among the tombs, paralytics, and the disabled. These people had no political power, and many of those folks were considered ritually unclean, thus alienating them from their very faith tradition. Who is helping these people?
The statement that the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd had been, at the time of Jesus, a common political statement. We remember that kings, prophets, and judges in Israel’s history were often referred to as shepherds. To say that they were without a shepherd meant that no one in power had their interests in mind.
We also know, from our Scriptures, that Jesus considered himself the good shepherd of these people. But Jesus’ statement about sheep without a shepherd makes me wonder if Jesus is getting a little fatigued at this point in his ministry. He’s been going non-stop, perhaps riding the adrenaline of good results. The compassion that he feels in verse 36 seems certain to be tinged with a bit of weariness and the realization that even he wasn’t going to be able to help everyone. Longfellow's poem in the previous section describes this feeling well.
And it’s at this moment in our story that Jesus concludes that some of this work must be delegated if it is to continue. So, Jesus summons his 12 closest followers, and he gives them instructions to preach the good news and help the sick. He also provides some demanding qualifications for the work. His disciples are not to ask for money for their work, and they should not take donations. They should also pack light, relying on goods in kind for their continued survival.
He also adds a word of caution. His disciples will meet resistance. Some will even experience violence and be taken to court. Jesus reminds them to stick to the cause and remember that the Spirit of God will be with them through any difficulties.
At least this was Jesus’ pitch. I can imagine Jesus talking with his disciples about this and there being a collective gulp. The original Greek text even allows us to imagine Jesus making this pitch to a big crowd, but only twelve offered to give it a go. Again, these disciples were on the rides of their lives, hanging out with this healer and sage and wondering if he was the one that would free the people from Roman occupation. Now, a portion of this enormous and ambitious endeavor was given to them.
For some folks that I’ve talked to recently, this extended time at home has been a valuable time for completing home projects. Others have taken up a new thing, like watercolors or sewing, or have restarted physical training or mediation.
I moved into a new home last fall, and time in the Hamilton household during the pandemic has been filled with many homesteading projects like cutting wood, digging gardens, and repairing a deck. I’ve noticed a sense of dread creep in recently, though. It seems that even as work gets done, the list of projects gets longer and more expensive. It’s so much easier to dwell on those things that are left undone at the end of each day than to check off those items that were completed. The walls still need to be scrubbed, the zipline still hasn’t been installed, the fence needs moved, again, the trail to the brook hasn’t been created, wood hasn’t been moved, and on and on. That feeling, the sense of being overwhelmed is real, and we all experience it in our lives.
We are all experiencing a different kind of overwhelm as well. The pandemic continues, and our usual support systems are upended. The nation continues to confront the realities of our racist history. We struggle to find effective ways to be allies in this confrontation and work to examine our own white privilege and place in systems that hurt people of color. We know that lasting change will require more than placing a Black Lives Matter sign in our yards or sharing a Facebook post, but we just don’t know how to go about it.
Today’s gospel lesson might help those of us that feel this way. For Jesus, the ever-busy savior, compassion was the guide. Maybe he thought he could bulldoze the problems of this world with a few extra hours here and there, another healing, or one more speech. Until he realized he couldn’t. Struggling people outnumbered the hours in the day. Problems continued to come. Systemic oppression could not be lanced with a single voice. Realizing his limitations (perhaps having some compassion on himself), he called on others to help. By doing so, he realized that others have a role to play in lasting change.
If you are feeling a little overwhelmed these days, have some compassion for yourself. When Jesus was confronted with the reality of hurting people, he complained about his society’s leaders, felt terrible, and tried to do too much. And then, he went about it a different way. He reevaluated his resources, his followers that until now had been along for the ride, would become disciples and thus extensions of his hands and feet. He continued to work hard, but he made this work all the more impactful by stopping to think.
There is a lot of good we could be doing these days if we didn’t allow ourselves to get overwhelmed. Perhaps we need to reevaluate our resources, include others or be willing to step out of the spotlight.
May you do good work this week and remember that you are part of God’s plan to make this world a better place.
A Psalm of thanksgiving. 1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. 2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Living with a sense of gratitude is a real challenge these days. We are stuck in a pandemic, watching racial tensions escalate around the world, and feeling anxious about what to do. There is a collective sense that whatever comes next, the “new-new-new-normal” will look very different than the lives we inhabited just a few months ago. What an anxious time!
It seems that we can be grateful when everything is going well for us. But it would help us all to remember that gratitude and thankfulness are essential survival tools for times like these.
Our scriptures were written during times of trauma and upheaval, even those passages that beam with a sense of gratitude like today’s lesson from the Psalms. War, famine, systematic oppression, high infant mortality rates, poverty, and disability are just some of the issues the writers of our sacred texts confronted daily. Far from seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, these lessons of gratitude served as reminders that people are resilient.
We can all think back on difficult times like the loss of a job, relationship, or serious health challenge, and how awful that time was. But we got through it with the help of time, strong relationships, prayer, and healing. Sometimes there were lessons learned. Other times we merely survived. But we are still standing. Even survival is something that can provoke a sense of gratitude.
We cannot gloss over the troubles our world is facing with positive thinking. But we can draw on the fact that we’ve faced difficult times before and have come out on the other side, time after time. We do well to remember those times of resilience and the many people and places that helped us along the way.
Even now, we have many reasons to be grateful. Take a few minutes today or tomorrow and make a list of those things. "For the Lord is good. Our God’s steadfast love endures forever."
“The Boyhood of Raleigh” by Sir John Everett Millais (1870). Here a sailor tells a young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother a big fish story.
Matthew 28:16-20* New King James Version
16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Statistics play an important part in many sports. My brother and I collected baseball cards growing up, and I can remember spending hours going through decks of cards and looking at their backs, where lines of numbers represented the quality of player and season. When I was little, Kirby Puckett was my favorite player, and I remember that there was a lot of bold font used for the numbers on his cards, showing all the times he led the league in hits, runs batted in or batting average. From the numbers, my brother and I could learn to tell whether a player was good, bad, or average.
But statistics in baseball rarely have the final say. Kirk Gibson’s numbers from the 1988 season were terrific. In his first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he managed to hit .290 with 25 home runs, and 76 Runs batted in on his way to a Most Valuable Player Award. But during the playoffs, his body had broken down. By the time the Dodgers made it to the World Series, Gibson had a torn hamstring tendon in his left leg and a strained MCL in his right. Before Game 1 against the Oakland Athletics, he received injections in both legs, and he spent most of the game in the clubhouse icing and watching the game on the television.
The game looked to be in the bag for the Athletics by the ninth inning. Jose Canseco had crushed a grand slam in the second inning, and pitcher Dave Stewart had held the Dodger’s hitters in check. Pitcher Dennis Eckersley, arguably the best closing pitcher at the time, entered the game with a 4-3 lead. With two outs and a runner on first, Kirk Gibson was called on to pinch-hit. Gibson limped up to the plate. A lengthy at-bat with several awful looking swings got Gibson to the moment every baseball and softball player can recite: bottom of the ninth, full count, two outs, runner on and down by one. Eckersley delivered a backdoor slider low and away. Gibson swung, and the ball sailed high into the air and over the right-field wall. Kirk Gibson had done it! A game-winning pinch-hit home run to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. Gibson hobbled around the bases, pumping his fist while the crowd at Dodger Stadium went crazy. The Dodgers would go on to win the 1988 world series over the Oakland Athletics, 4 games to 1, and Gibson’s home run would become, perhaps, the most iconic hit in baseball history.
The stories we tell do more for us than statistics. When we remember the people who are no longer in our lives, we recount our stories with them, not the year they graduated or the number of jobs or list of achievements. The stories we carry with us keep the memory of them alive, and when we get to tell those stories to others, a part of him continues on.
In many churches, this Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time that we acknowledge and explore the mysteries of our Triune God. Matthew 28:16-20 is today’s gospel lesson because it’s the clearest Scriptural reference to the Trinity, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Espousing a trinitarian theology, however, is not the primary or even secondary concern of this passage. Often labeled the Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20 contains Jesus’ last words to his disciple in this gospel. His message is twofold: go make disciples, and I will always be with you.
What does it mean to make disciples? The word “disciples” can be a little confusing and even loaded. But when we look at the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul, it seems that the primary action of disciple-making was to tell the stories of Jesus. In Acts 2, Peter stands in front of a large crowd for the first time and tells stories of miraculous works, teaching, oppression and injustice, death and resurrection, and situates the story of Jesus in the broader context of human suffering and liberation. Later, Peter and John retell the story to the local religious council. In fact, the story is told over and over in the Book of Acts. In the letters of the New Testament, Paul does the same, mixing advice and ethical sayings with stories Jesus’s life and ministry. Becoming a disciple then involved responding to the stories of Jesus.
I am a fan of St. Francis of Assisi’s most famous quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It, I think, points to the ways we are to live out the teachings of Jesus, to embody the practices of healing, generosity, and peacemaking. But telling the story of Jesus is important too. Telling the gospel stories remind us that the principles of good and justice are bigger than us and that we participate in a rich heritage of those that have worked to make the world better for centuries. Telling the stories of Jesus also keep Jesus with us, perhaps something he perceived when he promised to be with his disciples all their days.
Stories are vital for human existence and shape the way we understand the world around us. Recently, we’ve been confronted with the story of George Floyd, who was killed on May 25, 2020, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video has helped to tell the story of a black man who was held on the ground by police officers. One officer pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe. Throughout the ordeal, Mr. Floyd tells the officer that he cannot breathe, and the video shows him crying out for this mother before he slips into unconsciousness. Mr. Floyd would later die on his way to the hospital.
Would we consider a similar retelling of Jesus’ last day, perhaps an obituary from the gospel of Mark?
Jesus of Nazareth (December 25, 0 – April 3, 33) was killed while in the custody of Roman imperial soldiers last Friday. He was arrested at Gethsemane, a garden overlooking the city the previous night. Before his arrest, onlookers said he did not look well and overheard him say, “Daddy (Abba), Father, remove this cup from me.” He did not resist arrest. Later that evening, he was brought to a religious tribunal where he was beaten. Without being tried, Jesus was beaten again when he was remanded into the custody of the Roman imperial guard. Pilate, the official in charge, decided to kill Jesus by crucifixion. Because of the severity of his beatings, Jesus was unable to carry his cross all the way to Golgotha. Simon of Cyrene, a black man from western Africa, was forced to carry the cross the rest of the way. Once they arrived, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, and he was hung up as onlookers gathered. The soldiers mocked him while he hung there, dying. So did some that watched. Jesus breathed his last breath around 3pm.
Some of those familiar with Jesus said that he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors, and other sinners. Others, those close to him, said he was kind and compassionate, a healer and teacher. For fear of reprisal, none of his family or friends could be reached at this time. A brief vigil will be held Sunday morning at the tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome. The Empire has promised to violently crackdown on any protests.
At some point every year, churches across the US are confronted with yet another death of a black or brown person at the hands of authorities, or white supremacists. The killing of unarmed people of color has become part of the Christian Liturgical year, a time, or season where we observe our racist history and the ongoing outcomes of failing to address it. Many churches fail to observe the season, either feeling too much pressure from the white base our lacking the courage needed to move from faith to action. Churches that do keep the season will serve as resources to their community, no matter how imperfect, and will march, retrain, confess and speak out against police brutality, racism, and the systems that perpetuate ongoing oppression. It goes without saying that this liturgical observance is a penitential one where churches offer more opportunities for truth-telling, confession, repentance, and direct action.
This penitential season is different than other seasons under the same category, however. The penitential season of Advent ends in the good news of the Christmas announcement that Jesus has been born, God is with us. The penitential season of Lent culminates in the good news of the Easter declaration that Christ is risen. As of yet, the penitential season that marks the death of people of color by the hands of white people lacks good news or divine presence. We are still waiting. Until then, there can be no redemption, only the shame of this grievous sin.
We know the stories of racism and white supremacy in the United States. Those stories should be enough to inspire action to change our laws, weed out bad guys from places of authority, and educate our children properly. These stories should be enough for us to stop using excuses like, “but this was how I was raised,” or “this doesn’t really affect me.” I wonder why it’s so easy for us to forget that our Lord and Savior died in much the same way, or how we can confess Christ and still hate our human siblings of color in violent and oppressive ways.
It would be helpful for us to read the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others like Philando Castile, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice from the people that loved them. The podcast show notes have links to their obituaries, which, in many cases, were written by those closest to them. I pray that, when we hear their stories in the broader context of oppression and the fight for life, equality, and dignity, we respond, becoming disciples of a better way. We will be deeply troubled and divided people until we do. Amen.
“How to be a Poet” (to remind myself) - Wendell Berry Given
i Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have—inspiration work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity…
ii Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
iii Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”
Psalm 104:24-24, 35b
Breath plays a vital role in our Scriptures. The word is mentioned nearly 100 times in its original Hebrew and Greek. In the beginning, Adam was made out of dirt but did not have life until God breathed life into him. The Psalmist exhorts “everything that has breath” to praise God. The author 2 Timothy describes Scriptures as “God-breathed,” and in the gospel of John, Jesus breathed on his disciples, and they received the Holy Spirit, a precursor to Pentecost.
Psalm 104 is, for my money, as good as Scripture gets. It places human beings in the proper context of a vast and wonderful cosmos. There, humans are neither inconsequential nor dominators of their surroundings. Instead, humans are creaturely, part of a web of creation that God loves and sustains through wisdom, power, and love.
For the writer of this Psalm, breath is part of God’s provision, a type of short-hand for life itself. It is God’s to give and take away, a way to describe the mystery of human existence and its many natural variations and durations. The point, though, is that the breath is God’s, and when creatures are given life, they carry part of God’s very presence with them.
When the last breath left George Floyd’s body on May 25th, it was stolen by people and a system that had no right to take it. The videos of his encounter with Minneapolis police are horrific (Here is the New York Times video that provides valuable context, but understand, this is graphic: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html). At this moment, we are reminded once again, that our nation’s unconfronted racism has real-life consequences in the lives and death of black and brown people.
My faith tells me that George Floyd was sacred. He was given breath by God and carried with him part of God’s very presence. But violence desecrates what God has made sacred. It takes control over something that was not meant to be ours to control. Through force, coercion, abuse, and manipulation, we have robbed black and brown people of their lives and livelihoods in this country. We are not right with one another, and we are not right with our God.
Maybe words of hope will come another day. I’m afraid I don’t have them now. I feel sad and ashamed and angry. I know that I am complicit in racism and white supremacy, what Jim Wallis calls “America’s Original Sin,” and that there are no more excuses for this. It no longer matters how I was raised or to what degree it affects me tucked away in rural Vermont. None of us can carry our excuses with us anymore.
Please consider what’s taking place right now and keep those in danger close in prayer. Pray also that our leaders will do better and making lasting change and stop issuing threats. But don’t consider it for too long. We probably already know what we need to do. The question our faith poses is, “will we finally have the courage to act?”