Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pentecost 3A

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 into 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 Abraham himself? Was God showing Abraham something about God’s OWN self?

When make this story 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 bystanders?

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?

When we impose Christian values on those who do not share our faith. When we try to control other peoples’ behaviour because it doesn’t line up with how we interpret the bible. When the content of our proclamation is more more the hammer than it is the cup of cold water on a hot day, are we being obedient, sacrificing others to maintain our own understanding of faithfulness?

Are we willing to sacrifice others on the altar of our obedience? And does obedience even equal faithfulness? Can we be strictly obedient to God and God’s Word, yet still be unfaithful?

One of the great orchestra conductors of our time is a 33-year-old Venezuelan kid named Gustavo Dudamel aka “The Dude.” He conducts around the world but his main gig is 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, a comment that 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 a profound piece. It’s as if he’s forgotten the notes and is simply conducting the music. He’s doesn’t seem to see that music is made up of notes, not just emotional sounds.”

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


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 disappear 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. They 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 and emotional experience of the listener is secondary if at all important.

Often I worry that we as Christians worry too much about playing the notes of the bible, the notes of obedience, that we neglect 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 behaviour.

In other words, we get bogged down in the “Do’s and Don’ts.” We act as if we believe that faith is about doing all the right things and staying away from doing the wrong things. We equate “faith” with “obedience.”

So I wonder that if by being obedient to the notes of the bible, we can be unfaithful to the music of the gospel; the deep strains of freedom, the flowing melodies of peace, the harmonizing chords of forgiveness, the colourful 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 synod or 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 important question to ask is “Are we playing the notes of obedience, or are we 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 he and Isaac climbed the mountain? Who can say what Abraham was thinking as he wrestled 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? Did he wonder what got him at this place where he would kill his child to prove something to God?

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

When Isaac asked where the sacrificial lamb was, we think that probably Abraham lied to his son. “God will provide one,” he said. But Abraham’s 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 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 faithful?

And when Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket by its horns, he knew that he both passed the test and failed it. He played the notes of obedience, but missed the music of God.

That’s when the clouds parted and the stars lit up the mountain, and God reminded Abraham of the promise God made to him and his wife Sarah; the promise that they would give birth to a mighty nation. The promise that their family would be too numerous to count. The promise that their offspring would light up the world with God’s love.

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.

God showed Abraham who God is, by showing him who God is not.

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 yet still unfaithful. Abraham learned that what he understood as an act of personal submission to 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 to 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 of God’s creative power.

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’s 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. It’s God who gives us tongues to sing God’s song of mercy. It’s God who moves us to sing 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, and with the generations that are to come, continue to sing God’s song of life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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