June 28, 2020 The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

From the Book of Genesis, “Abraham called that place, ‘The Lord will provide.’”  I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I’m not sure about you, but anytime a scripture lesson begins with the words, “And God tested (whomever)” my stomach starts to churn. Now, part of that churning is simply because I don’t like tests. In fact, I “de-test” them – pun intended. In my experience, tests rarely affirm what I know, but rather, what I don’t know and suggest that I am stupid or at least, incompetent.

     But, there is another reason that my stomach churns at those words, “And God tested”. Such a statement causes me to wonder what kind of God, knowing we are far from perfect, would find it necessary to test us as if our circumstances –as if life itself – is simply some sort of game; and in the context to today’s reading from Genesis, I wonder what kind of God would create a test that places a human being’s life in mortal peril?

     As always, there is more to each of today’s scripture readings than meets the eye. In Hebrew teaching, to test something is not about showing its shortfalls, but rather, as a means to ensure that whatever is tested will do what it is supposed to do. Just as we test yeast to make certain it will rise before we add it to flour, Jews believe that the intention of testing whatever or whoever is not about trying to get the person to fail, but rather, to prove to their own selves that they are, indeed, capable of the task at hand, capable, just as they are, just as we are, of living into our calling as people of God if we will choose to do so.

     Now, there are all sorts of theories about God’s intention behind this seemingly dreadful story in Genesis where God commands Abraham to slay his own son – an act that absolutely betrays everything scripture tells us about God’s mercy, love, grace and forgiveness - an act that flies in the face of the creation story where God tells us to be good stewards of all that God has created, to respect the dignity of every human being as created in God’s own image – and I wish we had time to explore each of these theories because they have merit. Nevertheless, those theories miss the point of the biblical and Jewish understanding of testing. This is a story about faith. Abraham demonstrates his faith, his total trust that God will do as God has promised: that Isaac will live and bring a great nation into existence. As Abraham affirms, he is confident that God will always provide for our needs or as a literal translation of this text reads, “Jehovah Jireh” - God will see to it; God will reveal because God is forever present and speaking and directing those who place their trust in the faithfulness of God.

     See, what I find most intriguing about this story is that in God’s “testing” of Abraham and in Abraham’s obedienceto God’s direction, Abraham actually tests God: Will God be faithful to God’s promise about Isaac and his descendants, can God be trusted to do what God says God will do? This test is not about binding or sacrificing Isaac after all. It is not some sick game or an endorsement of child abuse. It is about God revealing that God is always present, ever faithful, and worthy of our trust.

     By the time the Christian church really began to flourish in the 1st Century (AD), keeping the Law of Moses – the Torah – had become the ultimate test of one’s faith and trust in God. You were deemed faithful and righteous, worthy of church membership, of being called a disciple, by how well you kept all Ten Commandments, or at least how well you kept them when people were watching you. But there was great debate in the Churches at Rome and Corinth as to whether or not the Torah had any place in the Christian Church at all because Jesus had given his followers new commandments. Many believed that the new test of one’s faith and faithfulness, the proof of discipleship, could only be answered by how well one responded to Jesus who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, asks why the church is wasting so much time on tests and laws and who does what, when there is so much work to be done. He points out that Jesus’ commandment to love God and love all that God loves affirms what the Torah tells us about our duty towards God and our neighbor. The Torah, the Law, cannot forgive sin but it certainly does teach what is right and wrong behavior, and how to live in a wholesome and righteous relationship with God and with each other. So, Paul asks can we not just move on and grasp that people of faith should always be in the process of transformation, that our minds and hearts should always be challenged to seek renewal by the grace of God so that our faith is never static, but rather, active and demonstrated every moment of our lives. Paul asks, if we are called as Christ’s own, called as disciples, shouldn’t that mean that we seek to be like Christ to our neighbors, to one another, shouldn’t it mean that we choose to live differently? To be faithful just as God is faithful, to be trustworthy just as God is trustworthy, to be like Christ in all things and at all times?

     At this point in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus has been speaking about discipleship. In last week’s lesson, he said following him will be difficult, it will require allegiance to a higher relationship than that of our families: an allegiance to God.

Following Jesus will require a change of heart and a change in our priorities, and such change might cost us everything even our own lives. In today’s reading Jesus says being a disciple is more than just doing what he said we should do. It is about listening to what God is saying and revealing to us in the midst of everyday circumstances, and then applying what God is saying to our everyday lives. Jesus says when we welcome or heed the words of the prophets and the righteous, we find life. If a prophet comes and says if you don’t change your course of action you will die and, therefore, you do change and avoid calamity, the Prophet and righteous have done what they set out to do. Using that example of the righteous and the prophets, Jesus offers that the same is true about God. Discipleship is ultimately about focusing our attention on hearing and then applying or responding to God’s direction: God’s commandments.

You see, many tend to think of true discipleship as working miracles, performing mighty acts, healing the sick, raising the dead. In Matthew 7:22 Jesus speaks of those who at the last day will say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and … in your name perform many miracles?' And I will say to them “depart from me … I never knew you.” Discipleship has never been nor will it ever be about mighty acts as if that proves to others you’re a Christian. Discipleship, and frankly, the test of Discipleship, is simply one’s faithful and steadfast commitment to not only noticesomeone who is thirsty, but offer them a cup of cool water. Discipleship is about always seeking Christ regardless of our circumstances, and then serving Christ in every person we meet. And more often than not, serving Christ in ways that makes a difference in the midst of life’s circumstances is service to Christ that looks out for the best interest, the health and welfare, not of ourselves, but one’s neighbors. Discipleship is about grasping as Abraham affirmed, that just as God is forever present among us and faithful to God’s promises, disciples are always present in the world and  forever faithful to the promises and commandments of Christ.

    Friends. I cannot remember a time in my life when our future as a society has appeared more precarious: Responding to a pandemic – responding in ways as simple as wearing a mask in public - rather than an opportunity to demonstrate love for one’s neighbor has turned into a political statement and an assertion of personal rights over the health and wellbeing of others. And what grieves me as a pastor and priest is that somehow ignoring the health of others is being touted from pulpits throughout the Church in America as proof of one’s discipleship, one’s commitment to Christ. Is it any wonder why people are afraid and asking, “Where is God in the midst of this mess?”

     Our scripture lessons this morning offer a timely reminder that as disciples, as people of God, we are called to be like Christ. To be present in our communities acting in ways that support and nurture the welfare of our neighbors; to stand with our neighbors in the midst of their struggles and worries, and with Abraham, show them that, indeed, the “Lord does provide” because the Lord is ever present and faithful just as we are ever present and faithful.  

     You know, for all my resistance to tests, perhaps today’s lessons are a new test: a contemporary test. A test that, as Abraham, Paul, and Jesus suggest, asks just one question: Are we committed, as disciples, as people of God, to not only hear and listen to God’s voice, but act upon it. Beloved, the answer is a choice – a choice that is ours alone. To that end, may God’s grace and God’s mercy always direct us. Amen.