Pentecost 4 ~ Wrestling with God

July 2 2017
Readings: Genesis 22:1-14 ~ Matthew 10:40-42  

After these things God tested Abraham.

No matter how we slice it, today’s story of the near sacrifice of Isaac makes us squirm. We can be forgiven for wondering if Abraham has lost it in his old age and become one of those unstable parents who think that God has told them to kill their child.  And we can be forgiven for questioning what kind of God would ask a parent to make a burnt offering of their son.

Over the year’s, we’ve heard all sorts of insights into this passage, like:  was Isaac less than whole and was this is how they dealt with it back then?  or, was this God’s way of putting an end to the practice of child sacrifice, which was not uncommon in Abraham’s day?

Interestingly, the Qur’an tells this same story but with Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son, as the one to be sacrificed.  Ishmael is not a child but a teenager at the time. And he and Abraham agonize together over the matter of submission to the will of Allah. As with the Isaac story, an angel stops Abraham, and Ishmael goes on to become the father of the nation in which Islam has its roots.

But it was at Iona that I heard a different take on this story that has stayed with me and offers insight into how we approach our relationship with God and each other today. If we go back to the beginning of the Abraham story, we notice that God usually speaks directly to Abraham and Abraham often argues or wrestles with God.  About the third time in 25 years that God promises Abraham a son with Sarah, Abraham falls on his face laughing at the thought (Gen. 17:17).  He’s now 100 years old and he challenges God with the absurdity of the promise.  In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham negotiates with God as to how many righteous people it would take for God to save the city. Abraham has a history of wrestling with God, yet when he hears God tell him to sacrifice Isaac, he doesn’t even bother to question it.

In the parts that take place after today’s passage, we can see that from this point on God never speaks directly to Abraham again.  It’s now always through an angel.

If we continue reading, after today’s passage, we notice that Isaac doesn’t go down the mountain with his father or return home. He goes to live elsewhere. I think we can all understand that. In fact, the next time we hear of Isaac having anything to do with his father is when Abraham dies, and Ishmael and Isaac bury their father together.  And that’s when God blesses Isaac and starts to speak directly to him.

When we look at the whole story in context like this, it appears that God expected Abraham to wrestle with what he thought he heard God say and not be so quick to want to sacrifice his son.

Sometimes it is good to wrestle with God and our assumptions of God. Sometimes we need to wrestle with ourselves.  If our empires and churches had done a little more of that centuries ago, we might have had a better relationship with our indigenous brothers and sisters.  As we mark the 150th anniversary of confederation – 100 years if you’re from Newfoundland – there has been all sorts of healthy dialogue, discussion and debates along the way that have helped make Canada into what I believe is one of the best countries in the world. There is nothing wrong with having conflicting ideas at the same table.  Conflict is energy that when used respectfully can help bring about creative alternatives that are good for the whole.

The Christian faith has been and continues to be shaped by people wresting with God and different understandings of Jesus.  One of the blessings we have is that through the life and witness of Jesus, we have the benefit of knowing something of the character of God.  We know that God may call us to things that are challenging and uncomfortable but they are always constructive, healing, and life‑giving.

This morning’s gospel is the final part of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out on their first solo mission.  He tells them that their job is to help him bring the transformative power of the kingdom of God to the people. He tells them that:

– They are to begin by getting their own house in order – so start with the house Israel before going to the Gentiles.

– They are to freely cure the sick and raise the dead and to expect resistance and division as they go.

– And their only reward is knowing that they are helping to further the commonwealth of God.

That is still our mission today: to bring the transformative power of the kingdom to our time and place. And the church of today – both here and across this country – is wrestling with God, ourselves and each other to figure out what that looks like.

Some think we should be a fortress for the faithful. Some think we are a hospital for the wounded.  And some focus on being a voice for the voiceless. And some are leaving the church because they no longer feel it useful or relevant.

Recently, Brian McLaren’s wrote an article entitled. Why Pastors and Priests are Leaving the Church tells of a woman who says,

The longer I work in the church the more I wonder if the church has become impotent in its ability to have impact in our world.  I often feel the church caters to the expectations and needs of insiders who have lost sight of our call to be radical change agents charged with advocating for and with people who have been pushed to the margins and to fight against the walls that keep them there.   It seems all too often, the church has become a comfortable place where we learn about God but not the place where we expect to actually wrestle with and be transformed by God.

I am not ready to give up on the church.  I believe Jesus is still calling us to continue our mission. First, we get our own house in order. That is what we are doing right now both in the diocese and here at St. Paul’s.

Then we find ways to work together to help bring the transformative power of the kingdom to the people, and we will be transformed in the process. And that can be frightening and painful.  Just ask anyone who is antsy about sacrificing the fullness of the 9:15 and 11 a.m. services this fall to create a third option pilot project.

But if we stay together at the table, if we allow our diverse voices to keep on wrestling together- we may be led to a much-needed model for transformative communities of today.  Maybe, just maybe, by the grace of God, we can give birth to something wonderful right here at St. Paul’s.

Pat Martin +