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Archive for June, 2014

Many years ago, while I was a seminary student, we had two Quiet Days each year. The first year, I decided that on every Quiet Day, I would use that time to write a poem or reflection of some kind. Earlier in my life, I had sent poem after poem to different literary magazines, hoping to be a published author. No luck. Time and time again, I got rejection notices–some rather abrupt, some kind, but with the same end result. However, amazingly enough, several of the poems I wrote during Quiet Days at Virginia Seminary were published–either in the VTS Journal or in the Anglican Theological Review.

The following poem was my reflection on Ellen Davis’ lecture on Genesis 22. This morning, I preached on this passage, and while I did not include this poem in the sermon, I am posting it along with the sermon.

Reflection on Genesis 22:1-14

 

Dedicated to Dr. Ellen F. Davis

You called me from my father’s land with promise of blessing, and I trusted You.

Hunger made Egypt my exile, and You delivered me.

 

The promise of son and land came again and again, in visions divided by fire, in

Heaven’s destruction of Lot’s family, in a slave’s weeping child, in the cutting of my very body.

Still, though I could not understand, I trusted You.

 

And when the white head of she whom I loved bent over this sweet promise fulfilled,

I wept and thought my heart would burst with joy.

 

Now You have called again, O Lord,

With a voice that slices my soul into countless pieces,

With a voice that burns the promise of stars into total darkness.

 

After so many years and so long the promise, will You now

Seize the heart of my heart?

 

And yet You and I have traveled long together, and I have trusted You.

So now, when You demand back what You gave, my questions stop

In stunned silence.

 

I cannot look his mother in the face, and so

We leave before light for the darkest journey I have ever known.

 

I face You on the mountain, and my white head bends over this sweet boy whom I love.

I weep and know my heart will burst with pain.

 

You have asked too much this time, O God of mine.

But You promised to provide a lamb for sacrifice, and so I struggle to trust.

 

I see nothing but hard stone and glittering knife.

I feel nothing but icy winds of grief that freeze my tears.

I hear nothing but disbelieving whimpers of my son.

 

The Covenant, O Lord, the Covenant!

Do not forsake your promise of faithfulness!

 

For high on this windy mountain of wailing grief,

It is all I have on which to cling.

 

© Sheila N. McJilton

Published in the Virginia Seminary Journal

July 1998

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Sacrifice of abraham, parker“After these things, God tested Abraham. . .”

 The twenty second chapter of Genesis has been referred to by one commentator as “a terrifying text.”[1] Indeed, it is perhaps the most terrifying text in Holy Scripture—with the possible exception of the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet this text has captured the close attention and questions of scholars, theologians, historians, rabbis and artists for centuries.

Questions persist: Is this a story of “divine child abuse”?[2] Did Abraham not hear God correctly? Is this what is called “an etiological tale” to explain the origins of the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice” in human civilization?[3] Is it an example of one man’s faithfulness to God? Or is it about Isaac—a faithful victim—not unlike Jesus making his way to the cross? As I wrestled with this very difficult text, I was continually drawn back to the teaching of my Hebrew Scriptures professor, Dr. Ellen Davis (who is now at Duke University). My notes from her class on this chapter,    as well as her subsequent writings, have helped me better understand about the theological truths in this passage and how it may connects with our own lives. (N.B. Ellen’s thinking very much informs this sermon.)

It is true that the Caananites—pagans—practiced child sacrifice. It is also clear, from the prophetic writings, that orthodox Israelite faith forbade this pagan practice and lived by higher ethical norms. So yes, this story could symbolically represent either the moment of shifting cultic practice or the difference between cultures. Yet neither Abraham nor God name this issue, nor argue against it. In fact, by the end of the story, God bestows God’s divine blessing in abundance because Abraham has been willing to go to such an extreme to show his faithfulness. Furthermore, God never says—either directly or through an angel—that Abraham has mis-interpreted God’s command. This leads us to the inevitable question: What kind of God is this, anyway?

In the immediate historical context, the drama of this story is heightened by several factors. The passage begins with “After these things, God tested Abraham.” What things? The reader is invited to look back.

Abraham has already had a long journey of faith with God. In other words, this one chapter must not be read in isolation. It is part of a much larger story. At the end of Chapter 11 in Genesis—right after the Tower of Babel story—we are introduced to Abram. In Chapter 12, the Lord says to Abram, “Get you going, away from your land, and away from your birthplace, and away from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you. And I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you and make your name great. And be a blessing!”[4]

God has tried, repeatedly, to connect with human beings, to invite them into relationship with God. Yet these attempts do not work well. Adam and Eve decide they are wiser than the Creator and get thrown out of Paradise. The first son murders his brother in cold blood. Humankind becomes so corrupt and evil, God finally decides that the Great Flood is the only recourse. Then Noah, who was saved, along with his family, exits the ark, plants a vineyard, then has a drinking problem. A group of human beings decide they are so great, they can build a tower that reaches heaven. So God decides to forget humankind in general. “From now on, God will work through one man, one family, one people, in order to reach all people.[5]” God chooses Abram, but of course Abram—later re-named Abraham—fails God too. Not once, but twice, Abraham pretends that Sarah, his wife, is his sister—so he can acquire more wealth. Deceiving lascivious potentates like Pharoah and Abimelech results in larger herds of sheep and cattle, more silver, and land. Abraham buys an Egyptian slave, Hagar, but he allows such mistreatment of Hagar that she runs away into the desert. She returns, but later, Sarah insists that Abraham get rid of her. So Abraham places bread and a skin of water on Hagar’s shoulders. He sends her and his first-born son, Ishamael out into the desert to face inevitable death.

After these things . . .God calls out to Abraham: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and get you going to the land of the Moriah. . .”[6] We hear the horrible irony of God’s words. As far as Abraham knows—for he never sees Ishmael again—he now really does have only one son. At the beginning of their relationship, God had used this same phrase: “Get you going.” Then, it was the terrible demand that Abraham leave his land, the land of his birthplace, his father’s land—in other words, everything that was precious—to go to a place he had never seen or known. The call to be a pilgrim on a strange, wild journey. Now God commands Abraham to “get you going” on a horrifying journey to the top of a mountain named Moriah. God has promised this son as one of blessing, to become nations as countless as stars. God has chosen Moriah—what is now known as “the Dome of the Rock”—for sacrifice. God demands the sacrifice of Abraham’s heart. How can Abraham obey this command? Yet he does obey.

In this silent, awful journey towards the mountain, we see Isaac, who must be old enough and strong enough to carry a load of wood, bearing the instrument of his own death. And note that for whatever reason, Isaac does not resist, run or physically struggle.

If the story of the Binding of Isaac is “regarded as the signal biblical instance of human obedience and unquestioning faith,”[7] as Ellen Davis puts it, we are left to wonder what happened next. The end of this story tells us simply that Abraham returned to his servants and they went to Beer-sheba, where Abraham stayed. But in the next chapter, we read that Sarah died in Hebron. One wonders what this incident did to a family.

rembrandt_sacrifice401x600The great artist, Rembrandt, interpreted this story at least twice in his life. As a young painter, “Rembrandt painted a big, flashy canvas that shows a murder in progress: Isaac is sprawled across a rock, chest bare. Abraham is caught just at the point of plunging in the knife; there appears at his side a curly-headed young man, with an urgent look and just a hint of wings. . .But it is a completely different reading of the story that Rembrandt drew later, when he himself had lost children, and was father to an only son. abraham-s-sacrifice-1655Now Isaac kneels beside the seated Abraham, who is cradling his head, covering the boy’s eyes with one hand. . .This time the angel stands behind Abraham with wings outspread. If Rembrandt earlier painted a barely divine messenger boy, now he draws a strong, sheltering figure, who cradles Abraham as he cradles his son. This is the moment of release from God’s demand. But it comes too late for Abraham to feel relief. He seems not even to see the angel, nor does he look at the boy. He has the unfocused stare, the ravaged expression of someone who has survived something unspeakable. Rembrandt shows us just what it costs Abraham to be fully responsive to God and fully responsive to his son. It costs, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘not less than everything.’”[8]

But there is more to this story. One also may ask what is in this horrifying demand for God. What did God need from Abraham that would cause God to demand such an act of faithfulness? Dr. Davis argues that God has staked everything on this one man, Abraham. And Abraham has already disappointed God. So God—and not the omniscient, omnipotent God we generally think about—needs to know something of the greatest importance—something that God does not know. When stakes are highest, will this man be true to the covenant relationship with God?

Anyone who loves someone knows that loving deeply requires deep vulnerable love. While we do not often think of God being vulnerable, perhaps God is vulnerable. Perhaps God needs us to do our part in being faithful when the chips are down, in order to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. God needed to know if God could depend on Abraham. And in the New Testament, we see this again. The Son, upon whose shoulders rested the instrument of his own death, stands in front of Simon Peter after the resurrection. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”[9] Simon Peter, who was to be the rock on which Jesus built his Church, had denied his Lord not once, but three times. Could God depend on Peter? So Jesus, incarnate Son of God, asks Peter to affirm his faith not once, but three times. Jesus had loved, had been totally vulnerable, had opened his heart, and had been faithful, even to the point of death on a cross. These two images: one son of Abraham and centuries later, another son of Abraham. Sparing nothing, giving everything. All for the sake of love.

This truth claims you and me as well. “All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place.”[10] I do not think that God will demand of us what God demanded of Abraham, or what Jesus gave for us—because it was been given at Calvary. Yet the least we can do is to offer God our whole selves to a life of faith and thanksgiving.

With such sacrifices, we will pray that God is well pleased. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

“And Abraham stretched forth his hand,” Woodcut printed on Sekishu white, 2001 by Peggy Parker. http://www.margaretadamsparker.com.

Pictures of Rembrandt’s “Abraham and Isaac” (1634 painting) and “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” (1655 drawing) accessed through Google images.

[1] Dan Clendenin, “A Terrifying Text: Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah,” from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays /20140623JJ.shtml. Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138. Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.

[4] Dr. Ellen F. Davis, “’Take Your Son’: The Binding of Isaac” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), 54. N.B. “Get you going” is Ellen’s translation.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ellen Davis’ translation of this passage in Getting Involved with God, 50.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8] Ibid., 57-58.

[9] John 21:15.

[10] Idem, Kathryn Schifferdecker.

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Numbers 11:24-30

Acts 2:1-21

Baptism of Elinor Smith Allen

 Who Do They Think They Are, Anyway?

Pentecost is a feast day that celebrates the Spirit of God—a Spirit that has moved over the face of the deep, the earth and Her people for millennia. Pentecost is a feast day full of joy, fire, wind, many languages that are all God’s language, and unexpected gifts. Yet it is the unexpected direction of the Spirit that is often viewed with uneasiness—even suspicion. In the book of Numbers, Moses—the leader—is burned out, depressed, out of his depth. In desperation, he cries out to God, saying that he would rather be dead if leadership was going to be like this. God responds by telling Moses to call together seventy elders of the people, so that God’s Spirit can grow beyond Moses.

Yet there’s a hitch in this plan for leadership development. Two of the invited leaders—Eldad and Medad—decide to sleep in late that morning, maybe enjoy a cup of coffee at the entrance of their tents, just enjoy the spring sunshine. So they don’t show up for church. God’s Spirit does not seem to care all that much. The Spirit makes a little side trip beyond the Tent of Meeting. She fills Eldad and Medad, as well as the others who have done what they’ve been asked to do.

Of course, it isn’t long before someone runs out of the camp to Moses in the Tent and tattles.”Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Immediately, the church folks get mad and start to complain.    Who do they think they are, anyway? Eldad and Medad didn’t even bother to dress right or come to worship or make any attempt to be like the rest of us. They didn’t do the liturgy right or pray the prayers or sing hymns. They can’t be leaders if all they don’t do things right, the way we’ve always done them!

Joshua, son of Nun, really gets his feathers ruffled. He seems to be afraid that if someone “out there” gets a healthy dose of God’s Spirit and Power, then there won’t be enough to go around for the others who hold legitimate authority. Moses immediately disabuses Joshua of this Scarcity Theology. “Good Lord,” Moses says. “I am so tired and so burned out by leading this Back To Egypt Committee, I wish the Lord would put the Spirit on ALL of them. Let them all prophesy! Let them all lead! God knows I could use all the help I could get right now.”

God’s people simply cannot control God’s Spirit. No matter how hard the Church has tried throughout the millennia, it just never works. Again and again—through the times of prophets, sages, kings—the holy chaos of God’s Spirit rushes, tumbles, blows apart human institutional structures. God’s Spirit creates new things, in every time and every age. When Jesus of Nazareth comes onto the scene of history, his very being is like the Spirit of God coming to life again in a world that has been controlled, tightly held and oppressed by political, economic and religious authorities. When these authorities realize that God’s divine spirit has been unleashed in the world again, threatening the status quo, they crucify him. There. That takes care of him. Who did he think he was anyway?

Yet that crucifixion and death does not, will not, cannot stifle or restrain or destroy the power of God. Out of God’s Spirit bursts resurrection and new life. And when the risen Christ returns to God, the promise of the Holy Spirit keeps the disciples in Jerusalem. On Pentecost, this Holy Spirit who has moved over the face of the deep at the beginning of time now rushes, tumbles and once again, She changes God’s people in ways they never expected. Wind. Fire. New understandings. New members of the family. The gospel now expands to the whole world, well beyond Jesus’ immediate circle of followers.

In the midst of this explosion of God’s Spirit, some people are amazed and astonished. Some are amazed and perplexed. And some are amazed and very suspicious. Who do these people think they are—chattering away in foreign tongues with all the strangers in the square–pretending to be filled with God’s spirit? They’ve got spirits all right. I’ll bet those spirits came from a wine-skin, not God. Once again, God’s “fresh and life-giving Spirit”[1] has transformed a group of people. She has given them new gifts. She has pushed them out of the Church into the world to tell complete strangers, through Jesus the risen Christ, how much God loves them.

I wonder what God’s Holy Spirit is doing today, June 8, 2014. Recently, I have read a number of articles posted on Facebook and blogs about the supposed death of the Church. Official attendance numbers are dwindling. What church folks call “regular attendance” is not what it used to be (in times past, you had to attend weekly to classify your attendance as regular; now it’s two or three times a month, if that). Due to public fights over doctrine, thousands of people—especially young people—equate Christianity with a bad virus. To avoid getting infected, they would rather go sit in Starbucks with their laptop, or sit on their front porch with the Sunday paper, than be associated with Christians. Yet I do not believe that the Holy Spirit’s Pentecost winds have died down. As Mark Twain once said—and I paraphrase—“The rumor of [our] death is greatly exaggerated.” What I do believe is that we in the institutional Church run a risk of getting too comfortable with our rules and our rituals. I do believe that we may be boxed in by our expectations of how people should dress and act, and our insistence on doing things the way we have done them for years.

We must be warned that just when you and I think we have contained God in our prayer, our worship, our historic buildings, the Holy Spirit may just blow through and change everything around us.

Thirty years ago, the author Annie Dillard wrote a book entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. Using the imagery of someone on an expedition, Dillard makes some cogent—and, I think, ­­truthful—observations about Christianity and Church people: “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs and shoals, fueling the engines, watching the radar screen, noting weather reports radioed in from shore. No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew. The officers chat; they swear; they wink a bit at slightly raw jokes, just like regular people. The crew members have funny accents. The wind seems to be picking up.

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[2]

If God’s Holy Spirit runs through our Tent of Meeting and our camp out in the wilderness, God only knows what will happen. The tents may be up-ended. God’s people may spill out onto the streets, passing out crash helmets and telling complete strangers that God loves them and at St. Philip’s, so do we—no matter what.

Someone who colors outside the lines may very well get ordained and start to baptize people. She will say that child’s name and trace an invisible cross with blessed oil on her forehead. She will look into that baby’s eyes and say “Elinor Smith Allen, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And that priest will hold, deep in her heart, a wild, rushing Pentecostal hope that someday, somewhere, someone will look at that child of God and ask, “Who does she think she is, anyway?” Amen.

 © The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] David M. Bender in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 16.

[2] Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1982), 40-41.

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