Sunday, June 26, 2005

Pentecost 6 - Year A

Martin Luther once summed up the Christian life this way:

“A Christian is a perfectly free person, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

This paradox lies underneath each of our three readings for today. Paul writes to the Romans that they are to be enslaved to God, so as to avoid sin. Abraham, the old man prepares to kill his son at God’s behest, no less. And Jesus suggests that even a cup of cold water may be enough to show one’s welcome of Jesus and those who would speak in Jesus’ name.

Slavery is not an easy image for us. We love the bible’s freedom language. We claim freedom as our right, as if it is something we can hold on to or demand. Freedom is known most fully when it is lived with conviction and conscience, not brandished like a sword. We contrast freedom with the slavery of the past 300 years - forced migration, chains, abuse, separation, brutality.

In Paul’s day slavery was part of the on-going economic system, more tied to debt than the slavery we picture. Slavery meant you owed your labour to another. You could still determine who you married, what you did with your spare time, your identity and your religious faith - but of course you would do better if you found a master whose values matched yours. In a world where you had little capital to place against debts, your future labour was a bargaining tool - and if you lost the bargain, you became a slave.

Still, it did mean a loss of choice - of what you laboured at, where you lived. And it certainly meant service - doing the menial work that freed persons wouldn’t do, toiling away for long hours for little or no pay.

This is not something we typically embrace, yet Paul says that in fact we are slaves, whether we admit it or not. We’re either slaves to ourselves or slaves to God. As Bob Dylan puts it, “You gotta serve somebody.” We might hate to admit who or what claims mastery over our lives; materialism, alcohol, work, sports, or whatever - our pursuit of those things can be our masters to whom we become dutiful slaves. Or deeper still, we are enslaved to ourselves, our own self-interest, or our own narrow way of looking at the world.

We can spend our time nurturing ourselves, stroking our egos, satisfying each desire. Or we can acknowledge with joy that servanthood means that we, with all our petty wants and desires, are not the centre of all things. God is the centre, and in the Spirit of Christ we can attend to God by serving one another.

We may be able to see ourselves as slaves as Paul meant it, even maybe embrace it. But sacrifice is something else altogether.

While we heard Jeremiah exposing a false prophet, the lectionary’s other OT reading for this morning is the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son. For many Christians, the image of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac is too abhorrent to try to understand. It comes from the past - a past long gone from most of this world. In ancient Canaan, the sacrifice of the first born was a commonplace ritual. Cemetery excavations from that time unearth many infant skeletons in jars. Jews, back then, changed this from sacrificing the child to presenting the child at the temple along with an animal sacrifice. And so this history and rejection of infant sacrifice stands behind the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

Well and good. But - that niggling “but” remains - the story remains as one of the most difficult stories in the bible, exceeded by the story of Jeptha’s daughter in Judges, a similar story, where she is actually sacrificed because of her dad, Jeptha, vows to God that he will sacrifice the first thing he sees if he arrives home victorious in battle. The first “thing’ he sees is, of course, his little girl who comes out to greet her daddy. But thinking that a hasty vow to God trumps his love for his daughter, he sacrifices her to God. There is still a tradition among Jewish women where upon they remember this girl -this sister - who was needlessly killed by her father. Today, we’d wouldn’t hesitating in calling that murder. Back then, it was tragic, but, hey, a vow is a vow.

But here, Isaac is saved. A ram appears and replaces Isaac on the altar. Yet, if we dig deeper, the story of Abraham and Isaac speaks to us differently than what is presented.

In those days, a child was considered property of the father, to dispose of as he wished. Here Abraham offers up his most precious possession. One time I wondered why Abraham did not offer himself in Isaac’s stead when God demanded a sacrifice. Yet, because the first born son was so important at that time, the way to secure your own legacy, the security of eternal life, Abraham is in fact offering more than his son. Abraham is offering God his future, his legacy, his memory, and his name. To offer Isaac meant to offer his own life over and over again - no longer would Abraham be an ancestor, a patriarch, no longer would he have any lineage, no longer would his grave be attended to and his life preserved in memory and in worship. In other words, he would disappear from the earth with no one to remember him. That’s what he was offering to God.

I think this sacrifice is something we can learn from. We can learn to offer up our lives. We are freed from relentlessly pursuing the myth of happiness in the self. We can give up our cultural goals in order to offer ourselves to other values. We can hold on to the self, but it will naturally diminish and die. Or we can hold on to God’s gifts. We can offer ourselves - in service - to the on-going life of the world just like Jesus asks us to; “however may be my follower must take the cross and follow me.”

So, the cup of cold water that Jesus talks about is more than just a one time event, a grudging gift to these “little ones” offered to satisfy a requirement.

Who are the “little ones”? Most biblical scholars think “little ones” refers to children, or other people who weren’t worth anything in the eyes of most others -the weakest - those least likely to be able to offer anything back. Strangers. Folks who are not tied to the community. One theologian calls them “the little, the least, the lost, the last.” Jesus is talking about hospitality in its deepest, most biblical sense. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. “Phileo”- kinship, or family love - and xenos, meaning “stranger.” Jesus is saying that the cup of cold water is family-love offered to strangers.

Maybe Jesus is saying that we need to begin somewhere - a cup of cold water on a thirsty day. If your hearts can be opened even that wide; God can keep prying it open - wider and deeper - opening us up so we can pour ourselves out for others; poured out like the wine of Christ’s blood to quench a thirsty world. Maybe then, we will know what real freedom looks like.

I recently heard a story where a journalist visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He watched with disgusted as one of MT sister’s cleansed the wounds of a leper.

“I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he exclaimed.

“Neither would I,” the nun responded.

That’s what freedom and slavery look like when live together.

Hailey Louise Iwassa, today you begin your life of freedom and your life of slavery. You parents are offering you, not to continue their name and legacy, but to continue God’s. But you’ll spend your whole life learning the mystery of what that means.

The slavery that Paul talks about is the same that Abraham lived; the slavery of knowing God’s will is built on love for the world, which is freedom. As weird as that sounds, slavery and freedom are two sides of the same coin in God’s economy. Like the slave masters of the bible, God asks for your labour in return for what you have received - salvation in Jesus. But perhaps most importantly, God asks for your heart; for the songs that you sing and the tears that you weep. God is asking for your very life. Because God’s own Son gave his life so that you might live in the freedom of God’s band of slaves; both today and into eternity.

May this be so among us.


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