Pentecost 10 A / Proper 14
August 9, 2020
“The Lord Was with Joseph”

August 9 Live-streamed worship service

One summer when I was teaching a preschool class at VBS back in Rhode Island, the curriculum included the story of Joseph. Meant to be told over two days, the lesson for day one was supposed to end like this: “And then Joseph’s brothers threw him into a deep, dark pit.”

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Pentecost 10 A / Proper 14 August 9, 2020

Matthew 14:22-33 Pastor Susan Henry

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“The Lord Was with Joseph”

One summer when I was teaching a preschool class at VBS back in Rhode Island, the curriculum included the story of Joseph.  Meant to be told over two days, the lesson for day one was supposed to end like this:  “And then Joseph’s brothers threw him into a deep, dark pit.”  I was appalled.  Who wrote this curriculum?  There was no way I was sending three- and four-year-olds home with that sentence ringing in their ears.  I just told the whole story of Joseph on the first day, and nobody had scary dreams when they went to bed that night.

There’s some very scary stuff in the scriptures, and, although we give Bibles to our second-graders, the Bible isn’t really a book for children.  The story of Joseph bears witness to that – as does the family dysfunction writ large in the stories from Genesis that we’ve been hearing this summer.  Human relationships are messy.  Just ask Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael.  Ask Isaac who loved Esau or Rebekah who loved Jacob.  Or talk to Joseph’s older brothers.  They can all tell us what we already know – that life is filled with joy and fulfillment and laughter, and life is full of envy, sorrow, and struggle.  As one of my mentors used to preach, “Life is hard -- and God is good.”

Joseph, you might recall, is the eleventh son of Jacob, but the first son born to Jacob and his beloved wife Rachel.  Jacob had apparently learned nothing from the disastrous sibling rivalry between him and his twin brother Esau because he fans the flames of jealousy among his own children by obviously favoring Joseph.  Scripture tells us that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any other of his children . . . and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.”  We may picture a coat with stripes of many colors when we imagine Joseph, but no matter what it looks like, it makes Joseph stand out as the one Dad likes best.  And his brothers hate him for that.

As one of my favorite commentators puts it, at this point in the story, Joseph is a jerk.  He tells on his brothers, he flaunts his fancy robe, and he feels a need to share his dreams.  He says to his brothers, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.  There we were, binding sheaves in the field.  Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”  “Oh, really,” his brothers say, “you’re going to reign over us?”  They hear his dream, and no wonder they hate him all the more. 

I don’t know if he’s oblivious or if he’s intent on being obnoxious, but he shares a second dream with them and with his father.  “Look,” he says, “I have had another dream:  the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  This is too much even for Jacob.  “What kind of dream is this?  Now we’re all going to bow down before you?”  Joseph feeds the fire of his brothers’ hatred, while Jacob – who has had meaningful dreams of his own – ponders Joseph’s words.

One day, when the older brothers have taken the flock to pasture some distance away, Jacob sends Joseph to see if everything’s going all right.  When Joseph gets to the place where he expects to find them, they’re gone, but someone tells him where they were headed.  As he comes near, his brothers see him and hatch a plan to kill him.  They say to each other, “Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 

The oldest brother, Reuben, argues for getting rid of him but not outright killing him.  Reuben intends to come back later and rescue him, but the others don’t know that.  So, when Joseph arrives, they strip him of his robe, and they throw him into a deep, dark pit.  It’s deep enough that he can’t get out, and there’s no water in it to drink, so it looks like they’re done with him for good.

And then they just go sit down and eat.  That seems particularly callous, doesn’t it?  They apparently have no second thoughts about throwing their own flesh and blood – even though he’s a jerk -- into a pit.  While they’re enjoying their lunch, they see a caravan on its way to Egypt.  Judah figures that they might as well profit a little by getting rid of Joseph, so they haul him out of the pit, and they sell him to the traders.  For twenty pieces of silver, they sell him into slavery, and the traders take Joseph with them to Egypt.  As a sign of the brothers’ power over Joseph and their hatred for him, they consign him to life as an enslaved person.  That takes a lot of hate.

Reuben missed this transaction, but he’s beside himself when he discovers that Joseph is gone.  What is he going to do now?  In a deception the equal of Jacob’s when he sought his father’s blessing, his sons take their brother Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat’s blood, take it to their father and play innocent.  “We found this,” they say, “does it look like your son’s robe?”  (Notice that they don’t ask if it looks like their brother’s robe.)  Jacob recognizes it and concludes that a wild animal must have torn Joseph to pieces and devoured him.  It’s a horrendous thing for a parent to imagine.  Jacob, distraught, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth as a sign of mourning, and refuses to be comforted by anyone.  “All his sons” – the very ones who have caused him this pain – and “all his daughters” – the ones whose names we do not know -- try to console him, but he will not be consoled.  Jacob says that he will grieve for Joseph until the day he dies.

Meanwhile, Joseph has been “sold in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.”  One day life is good and you are your father’s favorite child, and the next day you are far from home and you are someone’s property and life is hard.  Here in scripture we find for the first time what we will hear in this story again and again:  “The Lord was with Joseph.”  If there’s any good news in this moment to which family dysfunction, jealousy, hatred, anger, and pain have led, it is this:  “The Lord was with Joseph.”

In fact, scripture says, “His master saw that the Lord was with [Joseph], and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.” Joseph, it seems, is smart, skillful, good at whatever he takes on, and no longer a jerk, and so Potiphar gives him more and more responsibility over his household.  As scripture sees it, “[T]he Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.”  Potiphar doesn’t have to worry about anything other than what he wants for dinner.

But then, Joseph, who is described as “handsome and good-looking,” catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife, and she tries to seduce him.  He refuses her advances, telling her that Potiphar has essentially made Joseph his equal and hasn’t kept anything from Joseph except his own wife.  So how could Joseph betray him and sin against God?  She doesn’t like that answer, and she continues to try to seduce him.  She doesn’t give up, and he doesn’t give in.

But one day, when he goes into the house to work and she’s the only other person there, she grabs hold of his robe and insists that he lie with her.  He slips out of what he’s wearing and then slips out the door.  She calls out to her household, claiming that her husband has brought this foreigner into their home to insult them!  She says that Joseph tried to rape her but left his robe and ran away when she cried out.  Later, when she shows Joseph’s robe to her husband, she tells him the same made-up story.  Taking her at her word, Potiphar becomes enraged, and he puts Joseph in prison and leaves him there.

“But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.”  Joseph’s management skills are useful to the chief jailer, and Joseph is put in charge of the prison and the other prisoners.  The chief jailer doesn’t have to worry about “anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”  This is probably as good as it gets for Joseph right now -- but he is still in prison.  God is good – and life is hard.

After a while, two of the Pharaoh’s officials find themselves in the prison where Joseph is.  Joseph is put in charge of them, and takes care of them.  One night they both have dreams that leave them troubled.  When Joseph questions them, they say, “We had dreams but nobody knows what they mean.”  Interpretation of dreams belongs to God, Joseph tells them, and then he asks them about their dreams.  Joseph interprets one dream, telling the man that in three days he will be released and restored to his position.  “When that happens,” Joseph says, “do me a favor and say something to Pharaoh so I can get out of here.  I was stolen from my land, and I’ve done nothing to deserve being here in this dungeon.”

Joseph’s interpretation for the second official is not favorable, and he will not only lose his position with Pharaoh but he will lose his life.  What Joseph says comes to pass, but the first official forgets Joseph’s request, and so Joseph remains in prison.

“After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fat cows, and they grazed in the reed grass.  Then seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows in the bank of the Nile.  The ugly and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows.”  The dream wakes Pharaoh up, but he falls asleep and dreams again.  This time, “seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk.  Then seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them.  The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears.”

Pharaoh doesn’t know what to make of these vivid dreams, and he’s troubled by them.  He consults all the magicians and wise men, but none of them can interpret his dreams.  Finally, the official who’d been in prison tells Pharaoh that, a couple years ago, when he and another man and were troubled by their dreams, “a young Hebrew” had interpreted them, and what he had said proved true.  Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who is quickly brought out of the dungeon.  He shaves and changes his clothes, and then he comes before Pharaoh, who explains that no one has been able to interpret his dreams, but he has heard that Joseph can do this.  Joseph replies that it’s God, not him, who will give Pharaoh the answer he seeks.

So Pharaoh lays out the two dreams in full detail -- the fat cows and the thin ones who devour them, the full ears of grain and the thin ones that swallow them up. Joseph tells Pharaoh that these are one and the same dream.  Joseph says, “There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt.  After them, there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land . . .[and] it will be very grievous.”

Joseph advises Pharaoh to choose someone who is “discerning and wise,” and put them in charge of the land of Egypt, so that one-fifth of what the land produces during each of the first seven years can be stored up and held in reserve for the seven years to come.  This makes good sense to Pharaoh, and he can’t imagine anyone more “discerning and wise” than Joseph, “in whom is the spirit of God.”  Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of this whole massive project, noting that only he himself has more authority in Egypt than Joseph now does.  Pharaoh puts his signet ring on Joseph’s hand, sees that he is dressed in fine linen clothing, and gives him an Egyptian wife.  “Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.”

Joseph is thirty years old when he is charged with the task of preparing Egypt to survive a years-long famine.  During the seven years of plenty, he sees that grain from the nearby fields is stored up in every city.  Before the famine begins, there is so much grain in the storehouses of Egypt – “like the sand of the sea” – that Joseph stops measuring it.  It is so abundant that it is actually beyond measure.  During the years of plenty, Joseph and his wife have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  Their names signify to Joseph that God has made him forget all his hardship, his home, and his family; and that God has made him “fruitful in the land of [his] misfortunes.”

When the years of plenty have passed, the famine begins.  There is famine in every country, but in Egypt people still have bread to eat.  When they are famished, Pharaoh sends them to Joseph, who opens the storehouses and sells grain not only to the Egyptians, but also to those who come from other countries where the famine is severe – countries like the one where Joseph’s family still lives.

A robe with long sleeves was a gift from Joseph’s father, but it nearly cost Joseph his life and it brought enormous grief to his father.  A robe caught by Potiphar’s wife, supposedly revealing Joseph’s betrayal, landed an innocent Joseph in the dungeon.  A change of clothes and a shave marked the end of Joseph’s imprisonment.  Clothing made of fine linen came along with his appointment as the “discerning and wise” official who would prepare Egypt for a coming disaster.  No matter what he wore or where he was, “the Lord was with Joseph.”  In times of plenty and times of famine, when things go well and when life is hard, in the Before Times and now, as the Lord was with Joseph, so too the Lord is with us.

Amen        

   

  1. Matt Skinner
  2. Genesis 37:6-7
  3. Genesis 37:9
  4. Genesis 37:19-20
  5. Genesis 37:36
  6. Genesis 39:3
  7. Genesis 39:5
  8. Genesis 39:21
  9. Genesis 39:23
  10. Genesis 41:1-4
  11. Genesis 41:5b-7
  12. Genesis 29-30, 31b
  13. Genesis 41:38b
  14. Genesis 41:45b
  15. Genesis 41:52

Pentecost 9 A / Proper 13
August 2, 2020
Enough

August 2 Live-streamed worship service

August 2 Audio

We may not be making road trips to our favorite places this summer, but we’re continuing our journeys with the families who are our earliest ancestors in faith. The past couple weeks, we’ve traveled with Jacob. Wrestling with his brother Esau even in the womb, Jacob managed to get his brother’s birthright as well as the blessing their father meant for Esau.

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Pentecost 9 A / Proper 13 August 2, 2020

Genesis 32:22-31 Pastor Susan Henry

Matthew 14:13-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Enough

We may not be making road trips to our favorite places this summer, but we’re continuing our journeys with the families who are our earliest ancestors in faith.  The past couple weeks, we’ve traveled with Jacob.  Wrestling with his brother Esau even in the womb, Jacob managed to get his brother’s birthright as well as the blessing their father meant for Esau.  What would have been rightly Jacob’s as the second-born son seemed not enough for him, but what he gained through his deception brought loss as well.  He had to flee from his home and family because Esau’s rage over Jacob’s treachery was murderous.

Jacob had journeyed alone toward where his uncle Laban lived, stopping at night to sleep with a stone for a pillow.  There he dreamed about angels moving up and down on stairs connecting earth and heaven, about God standing beside him and promising what had also been promised to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac – descendants and land and being blessed to become a blessing.  God promised to be with Jacob wherever he went and to bring him safely home again.  When he woke, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”  Anywhere, he discovered, can be where God resides.  He called that place Bethel, which literally means “house of God.”

When Jacob comes to Haran, he is welcomed into his uncle’s household.  Over the course of twenty years, Jacob acquires two wives, their servants, eleven children, flocks and herds and a vast amount of wealth.  Trickery, his own and his uncle Laban’s, is part of Jacob’s story in Haran, as it had been in Canaan.  Maybe trickery is part of who Jacob is, part of how he goes about getting, on his own timetable, what God has promised in God’s own good time.  Strangely, to me at least, God doesn’t seem to hold it against him.   

When Jacob and his household leave Haran and begin the journey south to his family in Canaan, they go with God’s assurance that God will be with them and will bring Jacob home. But Jacob has unfinished business to attend to along the way – his relationship with his twin brother.  Is Esau still resentful, still angry, still harboring murderous rage against Jacob?  Hoping to make peace with his brother, Jacob sends messengers to Esau,  telling them to “Call him ‘master,’ and tell him that I, his servant, have been living up north with our uncle, that I have sheep and goats and servants, and that I hope he will receive me kindly.”  When the messengers return to Jacob, they tell him that his brother is coming to meet him -- and four hundred men are with him.

Jacob is distraught.  What does this mean?  Afraid and in distress, he divides up everything he has into two groups, two companies.  If Esau comes intent on destroying him, maybe one company will be able to escape.  Jacob anguishes, Jacob plans, and Jacob prays.

It’s a pretty humble prayer, coming from an arrogant trickster:  “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.  Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.  Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.”  In other words, Jacob prays, “Help me.”

But, despite his plea and his expression of trust in God, he does not know if God will do what God has said.    So, just in case, that night he does some online shopping from among his own flocks for overnight delivery of a present to Esau.  Two hundred female goats and twenty male goats.  Add to cart.  Two hundred ewes and twenty rams.  Add to cart.  Thirty nursing camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys.  Add to cart.  Is this a gift – or a bribe?  A present – or guilt-ridden compensation for what he once stole?

Jacob knows that presentation matters, so he tells his servants to send each part of this gift separately, leaving space in between each herd so that, each time when Esau asks who these belong to, the servants can say, “They are Jacob’s, but he’s sending them as a present to you.  And he himself is on his way to you.”  Why does Jacob do this?  Scripture says, “. . . he thought, ‘I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”

This is a man whose mind is racing and whose heart is, too.  This is a man consumed by fear of what the future may hold.  This is a man who is not going to sleep well that night.  In truth, he’s restless enough to get up and move his wives, their servants, and his eleven children across the nearby stream, along with everything else he has.  Now he is alone for the first time since he slept with a rock for a pillow and was encountered by God in a dream.

What happens next has a primitive quality to it; it’s unsettling and dark and mysterious.  “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  What was happening there in the dead of night?  Did Jacob grapple with his past, set upon by his deceptions and betrayals?  Had Esau come under cover of darkness to do him harm?  Was this a messenger of God whose message Jacob was afraid to hear?  Was God the one with whom he fought?  No matter who or what he scuffled with, Jacob wouldn’t let go.  All night he wrestled.  When all was about to be revealed in the light of day, the one with whom Jacob wrestled struck him on the hip and said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

But Jacob was not letting go until he got a blessing.  The one with whom he strove asked Jacob his name – and then changed it:  “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Although Jacob wants to know the name of the one with whom he has wrestled all night, he gets no satisfaction, no answer.  But he does get a blessing.

He leaves this encounter with a new name, a blessing, and a limp.  Jacob will never be the same.  With every step he takes, he will be reminded of what happened that night.  He calls the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face and lived to tell about it.”

Now, in the light of day, he is about to see his brother Esau face to face.  Will he live to tell about that?  He sees Esau coming toward him with four hundred men.  Jacob puts his children with their mothers, putting those dearest to him – Rachel and Joseph – last.  And then he goes ahead of them all, humbling himself and bowing low, over and over, as he comes near to his brother.  Imagine what is going through his mind – and then picture how Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, and kisses him.  And how they both weep.

“Who is here with you?” Esau asks, so Jacob introduces his family, and they come forward and bow before Esau.  Then Esau asks, “So, what were all those goats and sheep and other animals about?  What were they for?”  Jacob answers, “So you would accept me.”  How does Esau respond?  “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”  Surely, this is one of the most remarkable parts of this story.  Esau, who’d lost out on both his birthright and his father’s blessing, says, “I have enough.”  “I have enough, my brother.”

This is mostly Jacob’s story, but God has surely been at work in Esau -- softening his rage, turning his heart to his brother without Esau knowing if Jacob is any different than he was twenty years ago, and blessing Esau with the grace to recognize that, even without all that his culture said he was entitled to, what he has is enough.  To have “enough” is to be set free from the power of grasping and greed and from the temptation to constantly compare what we have to what others have and then either gloat or feel bitter.  When people today are asked how much “enough” is, they often rather sheepishly reply, “Just a little more than I already have.”

Jacob insists that his brother accept his gift, and he says, “for truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor.”  The real gift in this story is the mending of the relationship.  Jacob urges his brother to accept what Jacob wants to give him because God has been gracious to Jacob and Jacob has all that he needs and wants.  Jacob, too, has enough.  Enough and more now.  To receive grace is to see the face of God.  Jacob saw it in Esau.  We see it in Jesus.  Sometimes we receive grace from parents or siblings or friends or strangers, and seeing their face is like seeing the face of God.

Offering someone grace allows them to glimpse the face of God who is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  Through the grace – the undeserved love – that we ourselves offer when someone is expecting judgment, someone just might see in our face the face of God.  Jacob saw that in Esau.  It was enough, and more than enough.  Grace is like that.

Esau plans to travel along with Jacob, assuming they’ll all go to Seir, to Edom, where Esau lives.  Jacob tells Esau to go on ahead, though, because Jacob’s whole entourage will have to go more slowly.  Esau returns to his home – and Jacob goes the opposite direction, toward Canaan, toward the place he still calls home.  Why wasn’t he honest with Esau?  Was he reluctant to test the strength of their newly-mended relationship?  Was he loathe to remind Esau that Canaan, not Edom, was the place their family understood as a promised land?  I don’t know.  Jacob stays a while in Succoth, then buys land in Shechem and settles there.

When his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the son of the city’s leader who then wants to marry her, a sordid story follows, one in which Dinah herself has no voice and in which the carnage that follows her brothers’ trickery forces Jacob to move yet again in order to keep his family safe.  In a dream, God tells him to go up to Bethel, the place where God had once come to him in a dream, and to settle there.  There Jacob builds an altar, and God appears again to Jacob.  There, too, Deborah, his wife Rachel’s beloved old nurse, is buried when she dies.

From Bethel, Jacob’s family heads toward Ephrath, or Bethlehem.  On the way, Rachel, who has been in labor – long, hard labor -- dies in childbirth.  Realizing that she is dying, she names the baby Ben-Oni, Child of Sorrow, but Jacob will call his son Benjamin.  Rachel is buried and Jacob sets up a stone pillar at her grave.  Having never shared a settled life with his beloved Rachel and their children, Joseph and Benjamin, Jacob continues on with his whole family and settles in the land of Canaan, the land promised by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  When Jacob’s father Isaac dies -- “old and full of days,” scripture says – his sons Esau and Jacob bury him. 

Next in Genesis, we find a whole chapter devoted to a meticulous recounting of the descendants of Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites.  Esau’s extended family became a people “with kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites” who were the descendants of Jacob.  The story of Jacob’s family continues in a short novel that comes next in the book of Genesis -- chapters 37 through 50, if you want to read ahead.  The story is told mostly through the life of Jacob’s son Joseph, and we’ll see how the complicated family dynamics and God’s purposes play out in a new generation.  But, for now, this is enough.

Amen                          

  

  

Pentecost 7 A / Proper 11
July 19, 2020
On the Way to an Uncertain Future

This summer, we’re working our way through the sagas about our earliest ancestors in the faith, and we’re in the third generation now. Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac married Rebekah, and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. In looks and by temperament, they were opposites -- and in this family, opposites did not attract.

7/19 live-streamed worship service

7/19 worship audio

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Pentecost 7 A / Proper 11 July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-22 Pastor Susan Henry

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On the Way to an Uncertain Future

This summer, we’re working our way through the sagas about our earliest ancestors in the faith, and we’re in the third generation now.  Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac married Rebekah, and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob.  In looks and by temperament, they were opposites -- and in this family, opposites did not attract.  Last week, we watched as Esau, hungry after he returned from hunting, casually sold his birthright to his trickster brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and some bread.  Years later, when their father was dying, Rebekah and Jacob conspired to steal the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.  “Bless me, me too, father!” Esau had pleaded in anguish over what he’d been robbed of and with white-hot anger over his brother’s deceit.  Knowing how much Esau hated Jacob and that he planned to kill him after their father’s death, Rebekah sends Jacob up north to stay with her brother Laban for a while.  Isaac sends him off with a blessing and with instructions to marry one of Laban’s daughters.

We meet Jacob today as he is on the way to Haran, where his mother’s family is from.  He travels through the day, and when night comes, he stops to find a place to sleep.  Taking a stone -- the hardest pillow ever -- he lays down to rest.  But a restless Jacob dreams a restless dream.  He’s been on the move, and in his dream, angels are also on the move, going up and down on what’s described as a ladder but is probably more like stairs, more like a ziggurat from ancient times.  Messengers of God are moving between earth and heaven.

In the dream, God stands beside Jacob, and God makes promise after promise to him.  The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac promises to give to Jacob and to his offspring the land on which he lies.  God promises that his descendants will be as plentiful as is the dust of the earth, spreading north, south, east, and west.  God promises that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”  Those promises might sound familiar since they are what God has promised to Abraham and to Isaac – land and descendants and blessings for others through them.  Biblical tradition holds tight to these promises, showing no concern for the indigenous people of that “promised” land.  That ought to give us pause.  As contemporary readers, it offers some perspective on why the land has such enormous significance for Abraham’s descendants today, and we can see why seemingly intractable conflicts continue with other peoples who themselves have a long history in what we often call the Holy Land.

In Jacob’s dream, God is not yet done making promises and being gracious to Jacob.  Now God says, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  That’s the verse I write in the Bibles we give our children when they’re in second grade.   It’s a verse that has seen me through times when I wasn’t certain what was ahead in my own life – after a couple miscarriages, when I left a marriage, when I started seminary classes, and when I was discerning whether or not God was calling me to be your pastor. 

“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” is a word addressed to worried people in the midst of a pandemic, to folks who are anxious about a future that nobody’s sure how to imagine, to fearful parents and teachers and kids who wonder what school will be like this fall.  This promise says, “Take a deep breath and know that you are not alone. ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’”  It’s a word addressed to a changing church in a changing world, to a mostly-white denomination in a nation struggling with racism, to a

planet threatened by a climate crisis.  It’s not an “I’ll make things easy for you” promise.  It’s an “I will be with you, no matter what” promise.  It’s an “ultimately you are mine” promise.  See why I write it in the kids’ bibles?

Specific to Jacob is God’s promise to bring him back to where he has come from.  It is Rebekah’s hope that Jacob will be away only for a short time, but it will be twenty years before he returns, and they will never see each other again.

When Jacob wakes from sleep, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”  The ordinary, random, one-day’s-journey stopping place is where God comes to Jacob in his dream.  If he’d thought this was where God would show up, he’d have been reluctant to camp on holy ground – or maybe he would have absolutely avoided it, given that he’s fleeing for his life after deceiving his father and his brother.  What Jacob discovers is that anywhere at all can be “the house of God . . . and the gate of heaven.”

Well, that certainly invites us to broaden our understanding of where “the house of God” really is.  This building, this sanctuary, this “house of prayer” is God’s house.  But when we cannot all be here together for worship as we have been in the past, surely God is in other places – like your homes – that are “the house of God . . . and the gate of heaven.”  Where is God?  God is with us – here, in your living room, around your table, in Jacob’s story, in bread and wine, in God’s promises for uncertain times.

Jacob did not expect to encounter God in an ordinary place.  We may not be expecting that, either.  Jacob’s dream was a remarkable gift, and such experiences are few and far between, even in the scriptures, so we might not find our sleep interrupted by divine beings.  However, we might experience less spectacular – but equally unexpected -- encounters with God in our ordinary lives.  Where have you experienced God’s presence lately?  When have you stood in awe recently, knowing that even though you’re not in church, you’re in the presence of something holy?  When or where or through whom has the grace of God come to you in recent days?

I hope you’ll ponder these things – and then, maybe, like Jacob, you’ll somehow acknowledge those experiences in some concrete way.  Jacob took the stone that he’d used as a pillow and he set up it where he could find it when he came that way again.  He poured oil on that stone, and he called the place Bethel, which means “house of God.”   When you wonder about an unexpected place where you recognize that God has met you, maybe you’ll mark it with a stone so you can return to it and remember how God was in that place even though you hadn’t realized it.

I have the advantage of living for a whole week with the texts for the coming Sunday, so I’ve been remembering the unexpected places that God has shown up in my life – not just lately, but over the years.  In my studio at home, I have the journals and sketchbooks I’ve kept when I’ve done eight-day silent retreats.  Two of those retreats, in particular, left me saying, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  Not in those words, exactly, but with that meaning.  I’ve tied thin red ribbons to those two journals, because now and then I need to go back and reread parts of them so that I remember how God was in that space, in my artwork, in meetings with my spiritual director, as I gathered treasures on the beach, and even in my dreams – and I hadn’t known that would be true.  Those beribboned journals aren’t exactly like a stone for a pillow, but they bear witness to the same thing Jacob marked with a stone – that God surprises ordinary people in ordinary places with God’s presence and God’s promise to be with us wherever we go.

God comes to Jacob in a dream and promises land, descendants, blessing for others through Jacob and his offspring,  and, not only will God be with him wherever he goes, but God will bring him home again.  This part of the story usually ends with Jacob renaming the place Bethel, house of God, but there’s actually a little more to the story.  Jacob makes a vow, one that might be understood in a few different ways.  He says, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all that you give me, I will surely give one tenth to you.”

Hmmm, you might think – after all that God has so graciously promised, Jacob’s response is to make all this conditional?  A guy who is running away from a brother who hates him and who is headed toward an uncertain future says to God, “Well, if you keep your promises, then you’ll be my God, this place will be your house, and I’ll offer you a tithe of all that you’ve given me.”

One way to understand Jacob’s vow is to remember that he is himself a trickster, someone who’s not averse to deceiving others, someone used to taking action to get what he wants for himself.  Maybe, since this is his first encounter with God, he wonders if this is too good to be true, so he’s not going all in with it yet.

Or, perhaps he’s wise to wonder whether he should trust his own subjective experience.  Maybe ancient faith journeys call for questioning and discernment just as our own faith journeys do.  After all, we have all of scripture and lots of partners to be in conversation with when we wonder if we’re hearing rightly what God might be saying to us.   Jacob only had his grandfather’s and his father’s experiences of God’s promises to draw upon – and some of those promises had not even begun to be fulfilled.

A third way to think of Jacob’s vow might be to see him gathering all God’s promises together and already imagining some day returning to Bethel where he will give thanks for all that God has done for him.

Jacob is a complicated person, so it’s not at all clear how he himself understands the vow he makes the morning after God has comes to him in a dream.  He sets out anew, still on the way to an uncertain future.  He has left behind a brother who hates him, a mother who loves him more than she loves Esau, and a father who has been tricked into blessing him but has also sent him on his way with God’s own blessing.  Jacob is headed for Haran, the place from which God called Abraham and Sarah, and where he will take one of his uncle Laban’s daughters as his wife.  He takes with him a whole lot of family baggage.  On the way, on the journey, he will be sustained by God’s gracious promises – not only of the land and of many descendants and of all families being blessed through him, but also of the intimate presence of God with him:  “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.” 

That’s a promise meant for all who are on the way to an uncertain future, all who have a little trickster in them, all who carry some family baggage, all who wonder if God can be trusted, all who meet a gracious God in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  In other words, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” is a promise for each and for all of us.

Amen     

 

                               

   

For these three interpretative possibilities, see Esther M. Menn, “Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a) posted at workingpreacher.org.

Pentecost 6 A / Proper 10
July 12, 2020

Family Dynamics

Unless you’re an only child, you’ve got stories to tell about sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. In our household, it was all about being “the golden child.” Particularly as teenagers, Hannah or Joel would do something amazing or particularly helpful and would then smugly say to their sibling, “Who’s the golden child now?” It drove me crazy, even though it was mostly – mostly -- not meant to be taken seriously.

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Pentecost 6 A / Proper 10 July 12, 2020

Genesis 25:19-34 Pastor Susan Henry

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Family Dynamics

Unless you’re an only child, you’ve got stories to tell about sibling rivalry and parental favoritism.  In our household, it was all about being “the golden child.”  Particularly as teenagers, Hannah or Joel would do something amazing or particularly helpful and would then smugly say to their sibling, “Who’s the golden child now?”  It drove me crazy, even though it was mostly – mostly -- not meant to be taken seriously.

Family life is messy, and, given human nature and human sin, there’s no family without some measure of dysfunction -- hopefully, not so much that it keeps both the children and the adults from developing healthy relationships and thriving in life.  A colleague who was doing the best she could as a single parent used to tell her teenagers, “When you’re in your thirties and in therapy, be kind.” 

There are plenty of biblical families, like Isaac and Rebekah’s, who could have benefitted from some family counseling.  Last week’s story from Genesis ended with the marriage of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac to Rebekah, a woman who was kin to Abraham’s family in Haran.  When she arrived in Canaan, “she became [Isaac’s] wife, and he loved her.  So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

If scripture were a fairy tale, we might expect to hear that they lived happily ever after.  Scripture, however, is anything but a fairy tale.  It’s the story of God’s loving and saving way with God’s people, and it reflects humankind’s bumbling, fumbling, stumbling way with coming to know and to love God, especially as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Sibling rivalry, domestic drama, and arguments over who God likes best are part of the biblical story, and they’re writ large in the lives of Isaac, Rebekah, and their twin sons, Jacob and Esau.

In the book of Genesis, before we get to the birth of the two sons, we get a biblical version of ancestry.com.  In a few verses we learn that Abraham not only had a son, Isaac, with his wife Sarah, and a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s slave girl Hagar, but that he later had several children with another wife, Keturah.  In time, he gave gifts to all those adult children and sent them to live at a great distance from Isaac, the son who would inherit everything.

We learn, too, that “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, . . .  and was gathered to his people.  His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . with his wife Sarah.”

The sons of Ishmael go on to live somewhat settled and somewhat nomadic lives as twelve tribes in Arabia.  No daughters are mentioned, but that likely reflects the patriarchal perspective of those who recalled these stories of our mothers and fathers in the faith.

Now we come again to Isaac and Rebekah.  Like Sarah before her, Rebekah had no child.  Scripture tells us that “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren, and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.”  This sounds neat and tidy, but Isaac was forty when they married and sixty when Rebekah finally became pregnant, so there is surely more to be told about those years of waiting and hoping and praying and being disappointed before Rebekah finally conceived.  Her pregnancy was difficult, and she was miserable – so miserable that she wondered whether her life was worth living.  When she turned to God, she came to understand the struggle going on within her belly as not only about those two babies, but also about two peoples who would be divided and about expectations that would not be fulfilled. 

When Rebekah finally gives birth to these restless, warring babies, Esau is born first, but with Jacob’s hand grabbing his heel, jockeying for the best position as long as possible.  The wordplay in Hebrew about Esau’s red and hairy appearance and about Jacob’s clutching his brother’s heel will show up in other stories about them.  For now, I imagine Rebekah’s relief and Isaac’s joy over the children they have longed for.

These, however, will not be twins who totally understand each other or share a secret language or do everything together.  Instead, “[w]hen the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.”  Nowadays, I bet Esau would be watching “Deadly Catch” or “Homestead Rescue” on tv while Jacob might be a fan of “Home Town” and “Beat Bobby Flay.”  There’s more to the family dynamic here than different temperaments, however.  There’s a big, red, waving flag:  “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.”   Uh-oh.  Can you hear it?  “I’m Dad’s favorite.”  “So what?  Mom loves me best.” 

Now we come to today’s reading from Genesis.  While Esau’s been out hunting, Jacob’s been cooking.  The stew simmering over the fire smells delicious to Esau.  “Give me some of that,” he says to Jacob, “because I’m starving to death.”  Jacob sees an opportunity, and he takes it.  “Sure,” he says, “but first you have to sell me your birthright.”  Esau, apparently not good at delaying gratification, says, “Fine.  What good is a birthright if I’m going to die of hunger?”  And so he trades what’s his by virtue of being – just barely -- the firstborn for a bowl of lentil stew and some bread.  He eats and drinks and goes on his way.  A birthright for a bowl of stew – no big deal.

Except that it was.  Remember how Sarah was intent on her son Isaac getting what the firstborn is meant to have, even though Hagar’s son Ishmael was older?  Remember how Abraham caved to Sarah’s demand that he send Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness so Isaac would have no competition for the birthright?  In ancient times, a birthright determined who would head the family after the father’s death.  It allocated a double share of the family wealth to the firstborn – two-thirds for him and one-third for his younger brother – which very often meant that the younger brother would have to work for the elder one.  The golden child, it seems, was the one who just happened to have been born first – which in Isaac and Rebekah’s family was Esau, though Jacob had done his best in utero to keep that from happening.  Now Jacob was first -- by virtue of Esau not valuing what had been rightfully his.  Esau seems remarkably unconcerned about this transaction, but imagine being a fly on the tent wall when Esau told Isaac what he had casually given up and when Jacob told Rebekah what he’d so cleverly acquired.  Toxic sibling rivalry and blatant parental favoritism, seasoned with disrespect and grasping, are a recipe for disaster and division then and now, aren’t they?  A heaviness, a weighty sadness, is part of this story.

It gets worse, actually.  Years pass, and when Esau is forty, he marries one of the local women, “a Hittite woman,” and we are told that “they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.”  Family dynamics change when someone enters or leaves a household, and this change has brought sorrow to Esau’s aging parents.

Having lost his sight and aware that his death may be near, Isaac calls Esau to him.  His father asks him to take his bow and his quiver of arrows and go hunting so that he can bring back game and prepare the kind of savory meal that Isaac enjoys.  And then Isaac wants to give Esau his blessing.

Rebekah overhears this conversation, and she recounts it all to Jacob.  She sends him to get two young goats from the flock so that, while Esau is out hunting, she can cook that savory dish for Isaac.  Then, she says, Jacob can take it to him and get the blessing intended for Esau.  Jacob doesn’t think this will work because Esau is a hairy guy and Jacob isn’t.  But Rebekah has a plan. 

She cooks what Isaac likes to eat, outfits Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, covers Jacob’s hands and neck with goatskins, and sends him in to Isaac with the savory food and some bread she has made.  Jacob goes in and says, “My father.”  Isaac replies, “Here I am; who are you, my son?”  Jacob claims to be Esau, “your firstborn,” and says that he has done what Isaac asked of him and is bringing what he has cooked for him.  “Sit up now, and eat,” he says, “so that you may bless me.”

Isaac is confused, wondering how it’s possible that Esau could have gone hunting, cleaned and cooked the game he caught, and come back to him so quickly.  Jacob blithely assures him that it’s because God has given him success.  Isaac calls him closer so he can touch him to be sure that it is really Esau, and he is deceived by what covers Jacob’s hands.  “The voice is Jacob’s voice,” he says, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.”  Isaac asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?”  and Jacob replies, “I am.”  Isaac takes the food prepared for him, and he eats and drinks.  He calls his son to him, breathing in the smell of Esau’s clothes, and asking for a kiss.  And then he gives Jacob, not Esau, his blessing.

Jacob is hardly gone before Esau returns with the savory food he has prepared for Isaac.  Going to his father, he asks Isaac to sit up and eat, so that he can bless him.  “Who are you?” Isaac asks, and Esau replies, “I am your firstborn son.”  Trembling, Isaac wants to know who then it was who brought him the food he ate and received the blessing he gave – a blessing that he cannot take back.  Jacob’s deception is now obvious, and Esau cries out “with an exceedingly great and bitter cry” and says, “Bless me, me also, father!” 

Isaac tells him that Jacob has taken away Esau’s blessing, and Esau, distraught, rails that now twice Jacob has grabbed what didn’t belong to him – first the birthright, and now the blessing.  “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” he asks Isaac, who says that he has already made Jacob lord over Esau, the older brother now to serve the younger one.  “What then can I do for you?” Isaac asks.  Esau says, “’Have you only one blessing, father?  Bless me, me also, father!’  And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.”  All that Isaac can offer is a second-best kind of blessing, one that acknowledges the conflict and division between Esau and Jacob and yet looks to a time when Esau will break free from what binds him to his brother.

By now, Esau hates Jacob.  He decides that he will wait until Isaac dies, and then he will kill Jacob.  Rebekah finds this out, and she makes plans to send Jacob to her brother Laban in Haran, assuming that after Esau cools off and forgets about what Jacob has done to him, she can send word for Jacob to come home.  Better to lose one son for a short time, she thinks, than to let him be killed and then lose her other son as well if he is executed for murder.  Isaac calls Jacob to him, tells him to take a wife from among Laban’s daughters, and, with a sending blessing, Jacob goes on his way.  On that journey is where we will meet up with him next week.

Genealogical research sometimes reveals baffling, unflattering, or even appalling things about our ancestors, just as scripture does about our ancestors in the faith.  Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau are part of the same flawed and faithful family that we are, part of God’s family of siblings who can’t always get along, of parents who play favorites, of people who grab what isn’t rightfully ours, who connive and deceive, who let hatred simmer in our hearts, and who often make a mess of our relationships.

And yet . . . and yet . . . we, like Isaac and Rebekah and Esau and Jacob, are flawed and faithful people whom God loves.  That tells us way more about God’s character than about our own.  There’s a lot that’s not very admirable about these ancestors in the faith, but there they are, populating these sagas that we’re immersing ourselves in this summer, sagas that Jesus himself knew well.

And so, when Jesus begins a story by saying, “There was a man who had two sons. . .”, we know better than to expect some neat and tidy story.  Knowing Isaac and Ishmael’s complicated family story and Jacob and Esau’s family story of envy, deceit, and conflict shapes how we hear Jesus’ story in which we meet two sons – and a father who has more than one blessing to offer and more than enough grace for his whole flawed and faithful family.

Amen

  

           

      

1. Genesis 24:67

2. Genesis 25:8, 9a, 10b.

3. Genesis 25:21

4. Genesis 25:27

5. Genesis 25:28

6. Genesis 26:34-35

7. Genesis 27:34

8. Genesis 27:38

Genesis 22:1-14
June 28, 2020
Janet Waters

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

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Genesis 22:1-14

June 28, 2020

House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Janet Waters

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

I graduated with a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1987.  It was never my intent to be a parish minister – my interest was in prison work.  One of the things I loved about my education was learning more about preaching – how to construct a sermon, how to interpret a text, and how to connect the good news of the Gospel with our everyday lives as Christians.

I wrote my first sermons as part of the requirements of my preaching class, taught by the late great Pastor Peter Gomes and I preached them in the chapel at Memorial Church in Harvard Square.  My first real opportunity to preach in a real church service came when I returned home to Michigan to visit my family at Christmas time in 1986.  My father, pastor of a Lutheran church in my hometown, asked me if I would preach on the Sunday before Christmas.

My field education work at Harvard was an eye-opening exposure to prisons and prison life, at several of Massachusetts’ most noted penal institutions.  For that first sermon, I connected some of my profound experiences of finding the presence of God in the deep recesses and difficult environments of life in a lockup with the presence of God in the birth of Jesus in a lowly stable in Bethlehem.  My father really liked my sermon, which of course was a great feeling.  It also encouraged me to use that sermon to enter the annual preaching contest at Harvard.  Who would ever think a divinity school would have a preach-off?

Anyway, I won the contest that year, and the Billings prize of $400 that accompanied the win.  That gave me confidence in my preaching, or perhaps hubris is a better word.  Later I was asked to preach at another church here in Massachusetts.  I worked hard on that sermon.  I researched, and I wrote and I edited and I wrote some more.  When it was finished, I was proud of that sermon too.  I sent it along to my father for his commentary – supposedly – I think I was more interested in his praise.

What I got back from him shocked me.  It was far from praise, it was more like a rebuke.  As I recall he said something like, “Janet I can see that you worked very hard on this sermon, that you read and you investigated and you wordsmith-ed.  In the end, you failed on delivering the one requirement that I believe should be contained in each and every sermon that you or I ever deliver.  You failed to state clearly and simply the good news of the Gospel – that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.  That is the central point, always.  Everything else is secondary.

Our text today from the book of Genesis is commonly referred to as “The Command to Sacrifice Isaac” and it is one of the most difficult lessons in the whole three-year lectionary.  It is horrifying to think not just of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on an altar but painful to contemplate what that must have been like for both of them as Abraham went through all of the steps necessary to carry out the order, right up until God puts a stop to the whole thing.  There is more horror in this story that we never really talk about – the horror experienced by Hagar.

To make sense of any of this story we have to consider it in the context of the arc of the great epic tale that begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will comprise a great nation.  We have been immersed in this arc for the last several weeks.   It starts with God’s call to Abraham to go to the land of Canaan, where God would make him the father of a great nation. 

Decades go by, Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any children, and they have grown old.  Their trust in God’s promise begins to wane, maybe God forgot about it or God didn’t really mean it, or, maybe God needs a little help in the execution of the plan.  So Abraham and Sarah take matters into their own hands. 

As read this portion of the text I am mindful that recent events in our country compel us all to look at familiar material in new ways – to acknowledge issues of race and gender.  The description of Hagar’s part in today’s drama is sugar coated.  Here are the facts that should be noted for what they are.

Hagar was a black Egyptian woman – she was Sarah’s slave.  Sarah brings her to Abraham so that he could conceive a child with her.  There is nothing about this scenario that implies consent.  This is really where the horror starts.  Because there is no other word for this but rape.  That’s where Hagar’s horror begins.

Then Isaac comes along and now there are two sons.  What to do?  Sarah knows.  Once again Abraham and Sarah think God might not handle this situation according to their liking.  Best to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael so there is no question who will father the great nation God had promised.  Because what if God picks the wrong son? What if God is partial to the first-born? 

At Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert.  It’s not like they just sent them into the next town.  He had to know that it was likely that mother and son would die in that harsh environment, where adequate food, water and shelter were not available.  Abraham and Sarah didn’t kill Hagar and Ishmael outright, but this was a pretty good effort at making sure that Ishmael would never present himself as competition for God’s great blessing.  Hagar is beside herself with grief that her son is dying and she is powerless to do anything about it.  Her horror continues.  God intervenes in this situation too.  He saves Ishmael and his mother and promises that Ishmael too will father a great nation.

When first I began thinking of this text from Genesis, I had in my mind that God was exposing for Abraham and for us a side of God’s self that was different from the gods that other people worshipped.  A sacrifice of a living thing – sometimes even a child – was common throughout all “religions” during Abraham’s time.  Did God use the drama of Isaac’s ordeal to show that Abraham’s God wasn’t that kind of God?  That our God instead chose to sacrifice God’s own Son, Jesus, rather than Isaac, the son of another?

In my reading for today I came across a different interpretation from Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton.  He calls us to see this story through the lens of the parallel stories of Ishmael and Isaac and encourage us to read those stories together.  He notes that in both stories “the central drama is an apparent death march for each of Abraham’s children, with God saving each child at the last moment.  In both stories, divine promises are vindicated:  from Ishmael no less than Isaac, God will make a great nation.  He poses this possible message from God to Abraham:

Just as you sent Hagar out into the wilderness on a death march with her only child - now you will taste your own medicine; now you will be sent out on a death march with your only child.  Just as you attempted to cut off Hagar and Ishmael from inheriting the covenantal blessing - now you will taste your own medicine; now you will contemplate being cut off from the covenantal blessing.  You attempted to exclude; now you will feel what it’s like to be excluded.  You maneuvered for gain; now you will face losing everything.  Now you must renounce and relinquish.  Now you must be humbled.  Now you must choose between arrogant faith and genuine faith, between faith-for-the-sake-of-gain and faith-for-the-sake-of-love - for love seeks to serve and to share, not bring blessings to itself!

The story of Abraham and Sarah is rife with examples of faith in God’s promises coupled, at the same time, with doubt that God will actually follow through.  We can view the command to sacrifice Isaac not as a test that Abraham will pass or fail.  Instead we can see it as a faith strengthener, a faith clarifier.  God is leading Abraham in the direction of humility and service, on a path to faith that does not rely on what Abraham does but what God has done for Abraham.  God calls Abraham to shed his fears, his distrust, and his own need to control.  God calls Abraham to trust God.

So the story of Abraham and Isaac is really a story for us about our faith.  It is a call for us to examine how often our faith in God and love for God gets intertwined with our doubts, with our attempts to control outcomes, to manipulate situations in the way in which we think things should go.  How often do our acts of faith combine our devotion to God with another motivation that is more about what a good Christian I am; what a good person I am. 

When I write a sermon my focus should always be on the delivery of the good news of the Gospel.  How often do I encourage it in the direction of hoping people will notice what a smart person I am?  I can tell you that every time I write a sermon I get to a point where I have to rein myself in a little bit.  I have to pray to let the Holy Spirit work through me – so that I am not working to impress my listeners.

In the end God doesn’t call anyone to sacrifice their only Son.  God has done that for us when Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.  What God calls us to do is the same as what God called Abraham to do.  We are to believe what God promises us and trust God will care for us.  We are to know in our hearts that it was the sacrifice of God’s Son that redeems us.  Amen.