Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pentecost 2A

Where was Sarah? That’s what I want to know. Where was Isaac’s mom when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

Did Abraham even consult his wife before taking their son - their miracle child - to Mount Moriah, to stab him until he bled to death, before throwing his body in to the fire to be roasted and then eaten. After all, that’s what a sacrifice was; a holy barbecue where the sacrificial victim was served as dinner.

Did Sarah even know what Abraham was up to?

Many people, including some of the biblical writers say that God was testing Abraham’s obedience. And some say that Abraham passed the test.

He was willing to destroy the person he loved the most on this planet to show his loyalty to God. He was willing to kill, burn, and eat his own son because he believed that’s what God wanted him to do; an act which apparently showed God that Abraham was the right choice to father a nation.

But I’m not entirely convinced that’s what happened, because I’m not convinced that was God’s test. And I don’t know if Abraham passed the test or failed it. 

If killing, burning, and eating your own child was a test of obedience to God, then I’m not sure that such a test was God’s intention.

Was God trying to see how far Abraham could be pushed? Was God trying to show Abraham something about himself? Was God showing Abraham something about God’s OWN self?

When make this test all about Abraham and turn him into a hero for his willingness to commit such an unspeakable act, we forget about the collateral damage, namely Isaac and Sarah. We applaud Abraham’s obedience, but ignore the innocent victims. Abraham’s obedience would have devastated others.

It makes me wonder if we need to reflect on the cost OUR obedience has on others. Does our obedience hurt others, or help them?

Is the desire to be in obedience to God and God’s Word bringing life to the world, or causing pain to innocent victims?

Does our desire to be obedient to biblical teaching inflict unholy suffering on someone? And if so, then is that what God even wants from us?

Are we willing to sacrifice others on the altar of our obedience? And if so, who? And does obedience equal faithfulness?

One of the great young conductors of our time is a 30-year-old Venezuelan kid named Gustavo Dudamel aka “The Dude.” He’s the music director of the LA Philharmonic, and was given that job at the annoying age of 26.

I downloaded a bunch of his recordings from iTunes because he wakes up tired old classics. In his hands Beethoven breathes new life, and Mozart is made alive again.

I also watch to a lot of his concerts on YouTube. He’s a delight to observe. He’s a very emotional conductor but he also has flawless technique. He evokes both a devoted following and a chorus of critics.

On the YouTube version of the final movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, someone posted a comment about Dudamel’s conducting technique which I found astonishing. And as we all know, YouTube comments are ALWAYS a source of edification and inspiration.

This person said, “He’s too young, too emotional to understand such profound music. It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music. He’s forgotten that music is made up of notes, not emotional sounds that hang in the air.”

“It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music.” Wow.

Having spent the first half of my life as a musician I can say that the best conductors and finest performers play the music not merely the notes. They know that the notes are a gateway to sound, not the end.

The best conductors and performers I’ve seen and worked with are the ones who seem to get lost in the music, who appear to embody what they’re playing, it’s as if their very selves get lost in the sounds that they’re making. It’s as if they become the music, it’s as if they are the music made flesh.

And, by contrast, the most boring ones are those who are technically competent, but emotionally absent. The play the notes, but not the music. It’s as if they believe that playing the notes perfectly is all that matters and the aesthetic experience is irrelevant.

Often I worry that we as Christians worry too much about playing the notes of the bible, the notes of obedience, that we forget to play the music of the gospel.

We spend too much time and energy worrying about the words of scripture, the intricacies of the law’s demands, the individual moral admonitions, the details of personal codes of behavior.

So I wonder that if by being obedient to the notes of the bible, we can be disobedient to the music of the gospel; the deep strains of freedom, the flowing melodies of peace, the harmonizing chords of forgiveness, the colorful orchestrations of joy, the counterpoint of justice, and the triumphant fanfare of eternity. That’s the music of the gospel. And when we make the scribblings on the page the focus of our Christian life together, we miss the music that God is singing through those notes.

When we make decisions for our congregation or for our national church, when we discern together the direction the Holy Spirit is leading us, when we ask our leaders where they are taking us, when we look to the future of our faith community, the question we ask is “Are we playing the notes of obedience, or singing the music of the gospel?”

I wonder if that’s a lesson Abraham learned the hard way. Who knows what went through his head as they climbed the mountain? Who can say what Abraham was thinking as he wrestled with his squirming son, tying him down on the altar? 

We can only guess Abraham’s thoughts as he raised his knife, and began to thrust it in the direction of his son’s heart.

What did Abraham think about his own obedience? What did he think about a God who would ask him to commit such a horrific act?

If he had questioning thoughts they didn’t affect his actions. Abraham was obedient. A loyal foot soldier of the Lord. A steadfast servant.

But when Abraham felt the angel’s hand on the knife in mid thrust, then saw the ram that God provided for him, something probably clicked, a light turned on inside him, and he realized that, yes, he was obedient, but was he obedient in the right way?

When Isaac asked where the sacrificial lamb was, we think that probably Abraham lied to his son. “God will provide one,” he said. But his eyes weren’t open for a lost baby sheep, ambling up the mountain. Abraham had every intention of murdering his son as a radical, and horrific act of obedience to God.

But at the last possible moment, God grabbed Abraham’s wrist, and pulled the knife from his hand.

And when Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket by its horns, he knew that he both passed and failed the test. He sang the notes of obedience, but not the music of the gospel.

That’s when God unveiled the promise to Abraham; the promise that he and his wife Sarah would give birth to a mighty nation. Now Abraham was ready to receive that promise. Now Abraham’s eyes were open to God’s vast vision for the world. Now Abraham could grasp what God was doing.

Abraham finally understood that God did not demand a fearful fealty, slavishly attending to the notes of obedience, but God desired a total immersion in the music of God’s kingdom.

By sacrificing his son on the altar of his obedience, Abraham discovered that he could be obedient to yet still faithless. Abraham learned that what he understood as an act of personal submission toward God, could cause pain and death to others. Abraham realized that he could play the notes of obedience perfectly, yet miss the music of God.

It was at that moment that Abraham finally knew and understood this God we serve.

It was at that moment that he finally knew and understood that we don’t serve a god of destructive obedience. We serve a God of faithful freedom.

It was at that moment that Abraham finally knew and understood that we serve a God of LIFE, NOT a god of DEATH. We serve a God who creates, not a god who destroys.

We serve a God who raises a son from the dead, not a god who sends him to his grave. We serve a God who makes all things new, who builds a human family, whose people number among the stars lighting up the dark night sky.

Abraham finally knew and understood that his job was not to cower in compliant subservience in the presence of divine power. His job was to shine, his job was to light up the universe with God’s love, his job was to be a beacon of God’s kindness and God’s favour.

With his wife Sarah, Abraham’s job was to give birth to a new people, a new reality, a new way of living.

Together, God empowered Abraham and Sarah to create a nation, a nation that would be God’s light to ALL nations, where God’s vision of love, forgiveness, peace, mercy, justice, and grace, intertwined in a melody of freedom for the whole world.

Their job was to sing the music of God’s glorious realm.

And our job is to continue the song that we learned from our Father Abraham and Mother Sarah.

Our job is to shine. Our job is to light up the dark places of the world with God’s love. Our job is to sing God’s gospel song, a song not of our own composing, but a song placed on our lips.

It’s God who opens our mouths to sing God music of forgiveness. It’s God who gives us strength to sing God’s song of freedom. It’s God who teaches us to sing God’s song of justice, God’s song of mercy, God’s song of peace.

So now we look out at the night sky and see our future, which is God’s future for us, where the stars - too numerous to count - shine with the brightness of God’s love, as we continue to sing God’s song of life.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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