June 29, 2008

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sacrifice or Offering?

Genesis 2:1-14
Matthew 10:37-42

The story of Abraham raises a hundred questions for me, and I do not have the answers to any of them. It isn’t so much that it is hard to understand what happens; the difficulty I have is understanding why. Why would a father be willing to sacrifice the son he has been waiting for his whole life? Why would he go without question to a distant mountain, take the time to build an altar – not an easy or short task – presumably have his son help him with that job, and then prepare to offer that same son as a burnt offering? Why?

And I have to wonder about Isaac, too -- Isaac who asks the single question: Where is the lamb for the sacrifice? – and then is not heard to speak again in this story and very little in the rest of the record of scripture. It is as though the implicit answer to his question, that he is the lamb, shocks him into silence. I don’t understand why he didn’t try to run, why he didn’t resist, why he didn’t argue, why he didn’t try to save his own life.

That the story is told in such a flat, factual, and unemotional tone is even more horrifying. “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. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Genesis 22:9-10) I want to know what lies behind these words that are presented in a manner so straight-forward and matter-of- fact, but are so unbelievably terrible. Did Isaac struggle? Did Abraham try to explain himself? Did he weep? Were his hands shaking? Was his soul screaming in protest even as his body carried out what he thought God was commanding? The story is silent.

Biblical scholars and others have worked for centuries to understand and rationalize the story. But in the end, what we are left with is a father raising a knife over his bound child. If this is the definition of the kind of sacrifice that God requires, I am not interested. It is asking too much, more than I am willing even to contemplate.

And the larger set of questions has to do, not with why Abraham did what he did, but rather why God did what God did. Why did God test Abraham in this way? It seems too hard, not the kind of God I want in my life. So I have been thinking about what it is that God requires of us in light of the story about God and Abraham – doing my own rationalizing, I suppose. What kind of sacrifice does God demand of us?

The dictionary defines sacrifice as “the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” That’s a fine definition, I suppose, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. To me, sacrifice implies something involuntary. When you sacrifice, you give up something precious to you, you give up something you wish to keep, and you do it because it seems you have no other choice.

For example, parents sacrifice for their kids, right? They give up sleeping through the night, having a quiet dinner for two, taking grown-up vacations. They give up their privacy, their freedom and their money – all valuable things that certainly they might rather have for themselves if only it were possible. But to raise their children and respond to their children’s needs and pay for college and do all that, they must sacrifice. In many families, the sacrifice is done in a loving and willing way, but not always. So, to me a sacrifice has a kind of involuntary component.

A sacrifice can also be a way to prove oneself: If you really loved me you would -- fill in the blank: give up smoking, change jobs, study harder, let me have this thing that I want. You sacrifice to show your commitment, loyalty, love, devotion. You give up something because it demonstrates how much you care about something else.

That’s kind of how I think of sacrifice – involuntarily relinquishing something precious and doing it to prove a point. And it seems, on the surface, that this is exactly what God asked of Abraham: Give up the most precious thing in your life. Surrender your son, your Laughter. And do it to pass my test of faithfulness.

I confess that I cannot accept that this is how God acts. I cannot understand how an all-loving God would demand this kind of wrenching sacrifice as a test of loyalty. So I wonder if maybe what God wants from us is not sacrifice so much as offering. Is there a difference? I think there is. When I hear the word offering, I think of something given voluntarily, not coerced. I think of generosity and freedom.

But there is a kind of shadow side to offering as well. An offering is often a form of bargaining, isn’t it? You make an offer on a house, you make your best offer for a used car, companies have offerings of stock. If sacrifice implies an involuntary act, offering seems exactly the opposite – something completely voluntary, something that I decide to make available or give up, but I do it in order to get something in exchange. The location of coercion shifts. You know: Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse.

You know how this works. You say to God: “If you will just help me out of the jam, cure my friend, get me this job, whatever, I’ll go to church every Sunday, I’ll put money in the plate, I’ll read my Bible and pray every day.” We seek to shape God’s behavior, earn God’s love, by the good deeds we offer up.

And in the end, it seems to me that neither sacrifice nor offering governs the kind of relationship God is ultimately calling us to enter. That relationship must be based on an acceptance of the complete and incomprehensible sovereignty of God. For all our brilliance and ability, we can never know the mind of God. The prophet Isaiah had it right: “…My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is the one who tests and provides, the one who demands and delivers, the one who always acts in love, even when that love is too terrible for us to contemplate.

But where does this leave us? Do we blindly follow the kind of commands that make every fiber of our being rise up in horror and dread? Do we go through the motions with an arrogant self-confidence that God will bail us out in the end? Do we become bitter in our losses or try to bargain for what it is we think we want?

Where I come out on this is that what God desires from us is neither sacrifice not offering but rather gift. That is how God is in relationship to us, and how we are to be in relationship to God. When you come right down to it, everything we have and everything we are – everything – is a gift from God. How would it be to live your life with that same kind of holy generosity, to live as though you yourself were a gift from God and a gift to God?

It’s not as easy as it sounds, you know. "Gift" means that we give everything, freely and fully, expecting nothing in return. No coercion, no bargaining, no strings attached. For Abraham that meant being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Isaac who was the living sign of God’s promise, to show that he trusted completely, not in the evidence of the promise – the child – but in the promise itself. For Jesus, it meant letting go of the knowledge of God’s presence at the end and clinging only to the hope that God might still be listening. For the disciples, it meant leaving behind home and family, giving up everything that was familiar, to follow the call of Christ, to live in and with the reality of God-with-us, Emmanuel.

And how about you? What is it that you have come to cherish because it is for you the symbol of God’s love? Are you willing to imagine giving up the symbol for the substance? What would it mean for you to live as though you were both gift and giver?

The God who has withheld nothing from us, not even God’s only son, calls us to live in radical obedience, to follow Christ, to give all that we have and all that we are – not as a sign of sacrifice or an exchange of offerings, but only as a free and faithful expression of love.

That’s all. That’s everything.

God only asks of you what you have to give, which is your life. And you have to be willing to lose your life in order to find it. You have to be willing to give your life to God as a gift in order to find the gift that God would make of you.

And may God grant all of us the grace to be this gift. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

June 24, 2008

This Week's Bounty

My half-share from the CSA this week includes swiss chard, a bunch of scallions, two tender yellow squash, lettuce, and... garlic scapes. I have never cooked or eaten the scapes, but I will make a "from scratch" hummus with them, and if there are left-overs, I'll do a pesto. The vegetables are so beautiful, and it is wonderful to receive this bounty as a kind of weekly surprise. It feeds my body with goodness, it feeds my soul by connecting me in a much more direct way to the kind of farming life that was my growing up, and it feeds my spirit by stretching me to be creative and thoughtful about what I cook and eat. Last week, I made stuffed cabbage: pale and lovely Napa cabbage bundles filled with onions, mushrooms, garlic, carrots, herbs, and tofu -- so good!
I'll let you know how the scapes turn out.

June 23, 2008

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

An Undivided Heart
Psalm 86
Philippians 2:1-8
Matthew 10:24-39

It’s official: as of yesterday, it is summertime. You know, when the living is supposed to be easy. That may – or may not – be true in your world, but certainly here there is nothing easy about today’s gospel. Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, and when that happens, remember this: if you love your family more than you love me, then you are not worthy of me.” No, nothing easy about this. What is going on here?

Here is the context of what Jesus is saying. He has just sent his disciples out on their own. It would not have been an easy mission. There was hostility and skepticism about him and his followers. It seemed to many that he thumbed his nose at the religious establishment. He broke the rules. He hung out with the wrong kind of people and now he had gathered up a whole bunch of others who were doing the same things. They went in the power of his love and that power enabled them to do the kinds of things he did.

But he wants them to know that it will not always be this way. They will not always have success; they will not always find a welcome. If they are looking for a life of peace and ease, this will not be it. The sword that he talks of will slice through their lives, cutting out the old ways like a surgeon cuts out a cancer, even if those old ways include love and loyalty, people to whom they have grown attached. If they want to follow him, Jesus seems to say, they have to choose. They cannot follow him if their heart is divided, if their love is parceled out, a little over here for family and friends, a little over here for God. They have to decide. That is perhaps why Jesus speaks of bringing a sword. In the Greek of the day, the word we translate as “decide,” krinos, means to cut through, to separate. The sword Jesus brings is the sword of decision.

On its face, at least, the decision-making is simple, isn’t it? Just cut out loving and desiring anything that is not God. Simple to say, but it seems impossible to do. It runs counter to almost everything we have been taught to believe, doesn’t it? Certainly that bit about honor your father and mother. But we’ve also been taught to believe that we can have it all, that there are infinite possibilities and we don’t need to make any difficult choices.
It is easy in a place like this to feel entitled to that kind of freedom. But I wonder if it really is freedom. I see a lot of people who are pretty frantic with the effort of trying to have it all:

Trying to have a brilliant career and a close and loving family;
Trying to get ahead at work by putting in long hours and also maintaining a social life and an active network of friends and volunteering for worthy causes;
Trying to have all the latest gadgets and toys even if it means maxing out the credit cards;
Trying to be active in Dwight Hall, participate in a singing group, play a sport and make Phi Beta Kappa.

It doesn’t sound like freedom, does it? And Jesus’ words cut through the accumulated obligations of our lives and it is as though he says to us: none of that stuff really matters anyway. All the things you think are important are nothing. The only thing that matters is loving me. You just have to decide.

And if this was hard for his first disciples, when he stood before them, spoke with them face to face, taught them, touched them and ate with them, how much more difficult is it for a world who has not seen him in 2000 years. Plus, our lives are infinitely more complex than theirs, filled with distractions, debts, duties, to-do lists a mile long. How do we get our arms around what Jesus is telling us? How do we embrace this hard saying? Don’t get excited; I’m not going to tell you anything that will make it any easier, but I am going to try to open up a bit of the meaning of this teaching.

Do you recall Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees (Matthew 22:34-40)? They were seeking to test him and catch him in a public blasphemy that they could use to discredit his ministry and demoralize his followers. They came to him and asked him which was the greatest commandment? It was a trick question because there are many great commandments. Even if you narrowed them down, you’d probably still count at least ten. But Jesus took all of those ancient instructions and summed them up like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. This,” he said, “is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is just like it. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In other words, all love begins with the love of God. That is to be first and foremost. But this kind of love is not disembodied. The true and wholehearted love of God is always grounded in the context of this world. If we do not love those whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen (1 John 4:19-21)? How can we love one another if we do not love our own self? And how can we truly love our self if we do not love others?

So how do we go about this, doing as Jesus teaches, loving God with our all of our heart?
Well, for one thing, we seek the strength of community. On Sunday, you know, you can stay home and read your bible, Google a sermon, and hum a hymn all by yourself, but it isn’t the same as coming here and being together, is it? We need each other. Dietrich Bonheoffer said “I need my brother to speak the word of Christ to me, because the Christ in my brother is stronger than the Christ in me.” Being a Christian is not something we can do solo. To be Christian is to be part of the body of Christ. And it is in the body, the church, with each other, that we find the strength to love as Jesus loved.

And that kind of love, loving God with a whole heart, means that we take seriously our own calling. Every Christian has one. We are all called to ministry – not just those who go to seminary and become pastors. You may not know what your calling is but God does. Have you ever heard about the practice of sealed orders? As a way of protecting the integrity and safety of a voyage, a ship’s captain would receive an envelope that was not to be opened until the ship was at sea. When the contents were revealed, then the captain would have instructions for the journey. Some people believe that each one of us has our own sealed orders, holy orders from God, and the work of our lives is to discover what they are, to come to the place where the instructions for our own journey are revealed. That revelation is the result of discernment -- prayer and listening and faithfulness. It is finding out what God means us to do, who God means us to be. It is understanding the ministry to which God would have us give our heart, our whole heart.

And, finally, in order to love as God loves, we must honor our origins. I think it is easy to forget that humankind was created in the image of God. When we remember and honor that, we start to know what it is to be Christ-like. As Paul put it: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” (Philippians 2:3-6).

And what exactly would it mean to have the same mind in us that was in Christ, to live out the imago Dei that is in each of us? It would mean learning to love the world as God loves. God watches over those who are so numerous as to be almost invisible, those who are lowly and worthless in the eyes of the world. God’s eye is on the sparrow, on the least and the last and the lost. And if we are to love God, then our eyes must be opened to see the preciousness of everyone, not just those who are near and dear to us. There is to be no hierarchy of love, no division within our hearts. Is this easy? No. So we come here to be together, we pray and listen for our own calling, and we remember that we are the reflection of God’s love in the world.

And we take heart in this: the God who watches over the sparrow is always watching over us, in love and tenderness and mercy and grace -- whole-heartedly watching.
And we are called to do the same: to keep our eyes on God so that we can see the world – the whole world –with the radical, inclusive love that comes forth from an undivided heart.

May it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

June 11, 2008

A Half Share of Produce, A Full Share of Life

This year, I signed up for one of the local Community Supported Agriculture projects, Holcomb Farm. This was the first week. My half share included a bunch of white salad turnips, two green garlics, a lovely lettuce, and two heads of pak choi. Tonight I made supper from this wonderful harvest. I sliced the turnips in halves and quarters, tossed them with olive oil and sea salt, and roasted them (450 for 10 minutes, turn, another 5 minutes or so). I sautéed the turnip greens with olive oil and added the green garlic with lots of the green scapes, also sautéed. I had a bit of good bread leftover from dinner last night, contributed by a friend, and a slice of cherry upside down cake made with fresh cherries, from another friend. It was so good, this food from the earth, from my friends. It was like eating summertime. Tomorrow, I will have a salad with the tender green lettuce. Or I will steam the pak choi and sprinkle it with soy Parmesan cheese. And next week, there will be more vegetables and maybe even some strawberries.

Taking part in a CSA is like real life somehow – often good, a bit unpredictable, not something that can be easily planned, but challenging and surprising, pushing you to try things you never even imagined or knew existed. So I will not plan my menus this summer but will instead take what comes and do the best I can with it. I imagine there will be things that I like a lot (pak choi) and others that I don’t much care for (fennel), but it will all be nourishing and I will give thanks for it.

I will do this with my half share of produce – and with my full share of life.