Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Proper 8 Year A

Proper 8 A

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1
-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

(Revised Common Lectionary)

The Abraham/Sarah narrative reaches a climax: God instructs Abraham to take his and Sarah's only son, miraculously given to them by God long past their child bearing years, and offer Isaac as a sacrifice. God instructs down to the last detail how it is to be done. In all innocence, the young boy Isaac carries the wood and knife to be used in his own murder. Just as Abraham raises his hand with the knife in it and prepares to thrust it into Isaac, an angel stops him at the last possible second and says, "now I know that you fear God."

psalmist shifts in just a few verses from desperation caused by God's absence to joy, singing his memory of God's kindness.


Against Jeremiah's gloomier
prophecy, Hananiah prophecies an early return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon as well as the return of the sacred vessels to the Temple so ritual can be renewed. Jeremiah replies that he hopes Hananiah's prophecy is correct, but reminds all that the tradition "from ancient times" is that all past prophecies foretold "war, famine and pestilence."

The psalmist recalls God's covenant with David as
cause to trust God's faithfulness, justice and mercy.

Paul offers a corrective to his
emphasis on grace over the Law. It is not a license for disobedience. Rather, grace has changed our heart. Now we voluntarily become "slaves" to God so that we can, paradoxically, know real freedom.

Having just shocked his listeners by suggesting that following him could cause alienation from family and friends, Jesus now offers the identifying trait of a new community-- "whoever welcomes you welcomes me." And you will know
them by even the most basic, simple acts of thoughtfulness, such as-- "a cup of cool water" to a child.

(The Revised Common Lectionary provides for Christians to read and interpret in sermon and conversation the fundamental narratives of the Hebrew scriptures in sequence over several consecutive Sundays. The RCL retains as an alternative a reading usually from various prophets that seems more to fit a "theme" in the epistle and gospel. So, with this reading we conclude reading over the past five weeks most of the Abraham/Sarah narrative, which is, of course, the foundation of all biblical narratives-- "Old" and "New"--that follow.)

The seventeenth century priest and poet George Herbert declared "the godly are exempt from the Law" but not from obeying God. This idea that there is religion beyond "religion," a morality that precedes "morality" and obedience that is more relationship than obligation astounds and captures many writers regarded as Postmodern
, including Jacques Derrida and John Caputo.   But the seminal work is Soren Kierkegaard' meditation on Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his own son, Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843.  Kierkegaard's passionate obsession with what Abraham was ready to do makes Abraham the "Father of faith," because, "By faith Abraham went out from the land of his fathers and became a sojourner in the land of promise." (All citations are from the Princeton University Press edition re-issued by Doubleday/Anchor in 1954, p. 31)  Abraham "believed for his life," (p. 34), "believed the preposterous." (p. 35)  Throughout his life, from the time he left the security of his homeland until this frightening moment, when he is actually prepared to sacrifice his own son, reveals  that "the first movement of faith [is always] infinite resignation." (p.48)  What Abraham reveals, which makes him "the Second Father of the human race," (p.31), is that anyone who dares accept God's invitation to relationship encounters the "impossible," dares to stand "in an absolute relation to the absolute...." p.129)  "Everyone shall be remembered, but each shall become great in proportion to his expectation."  Kierkegaard wrote unforgettably. "One becomes great by expecting the impossible, by expecting the eternal, but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all." (p.31)

We can draw (at least!)  three pertinent points.

First, conventional standards are not biblical expectations. Conventional morality makes sense; obeying God can, as with Abraham, go against everything we hold sacred. As Caputo writes: "the sphere of absolute responsibility is beyond duty, because in doing one's duty, what ought in principle to be done, one is related to a universal principle, not to God."
(Prayer and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 200Matthew's Jesus at first utters the expected terms of ethical hospitality, but then undoes the whole system of expected ethics by going to the absurd: anyone who gives a glass of water to a child is ready for God's "reward."

Secondly, the location of a dilemma between conventional morality and relationship is at the very center of one's moral, psychological, spiritual, and social identity. It is unique, solitary. (See comments for Proper 7A.)  And, it shows up in the simplest acts to the most vulnerable.

Thirdly, very unexpectedly, choosing loyalty to relationship over universal "duty" creates a crisis out of which comes a paradox: by being willing to give up life's assurances, one can in fact know life as never before. Derrida writes: "this is the moment when Abraham gives the sign of absolute sacrifice, namely by putting to death or giving death to his own, putting to death his absolute love for what is dearest, his only son; this is the instant of absolute imminence in which Abraham can no longer go back on his decision, nor even suspend it.
In this instant, therefore, in the imminence that no longer even separates the decision from the act, God gives him back his son...." (The Gift of Death, p. 95)