Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
Ordinary 13A; Proper 8
To whom, or what, are we loyal?
What drives our actions and dictates our choices and therefore the course of our lives and world? What, or whom, do we receive or reject? This week’s readings offer the opportunity to delve into rock-bottom questions about our ultimate allegiances and how those affections and affinities either guide us or rule us. Genesis gives us that iconic, troubling, terrifying text of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac. The details haunt the reader: take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering. Abraham built the altar, laid the wood upon it, bound his son, laid Isaac on the altar on top of the wood and took in his hand the knife to kill his son. Yes, we know, the angel speaks and stops the murder at the last moment. God provides the ram in the thicket. All is well? How does a father/son relationship recover from this kind of trauma? God may well be pleased with Abraham’s loyalty, but what of Isaac’s view of his own father? Does not that family dynamic matter to God? What does Isaac think of the God of his father now? Is this what faithfulness and righteousness looks like?
The larger point that our loyalty belongs to God, that nothing truly belongs to us, that we ought be prepared to hand over all we have, all we are and lose our lives for the sake of the gospel certainly gets made in this horrific story. Nonetheless, such a traumatic tale does not make God look particularly appealing. Does God really test us so cruelly? The litmus test for divine loyalty that Jesus poses in the Matthew reading for this week is a kinder, gentler one. Those who welcome Jesus welcome “these little ones.” Even giving a cup of water to followers of Jesus will be noticed and rewarded. There’s no need to sacrifice your firstborn; receiving the Lord’s disciples and tending to the least of these will suffice. The contrast between the two tests seems stark, and yet, without the willingness to give up that we love the most for God, we will be unwilling to receive the unlovely, those we may deem unlovable, our enemies even, in Jesus’ name.
If we do not seek daily to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will be wholly unable to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s the connection between these two seemingly opposing stories of worshipping and serving God. If our confidence is not in God’s ability and willingness to provide, we will be incapable of giving up anything we deem our own. If we do not believe that all we have we steward for God’s will, we will do everything possible to protect ourselves and hoard that which we mistakenly believe we are entitled to have. The story of Abraham’s willingness to hand over Isaac to God brings painfully home the truth that everything, all creation, those and that whom we hold dearest, do not belong to us. If we do not understand this to the core of our being, we will refuse even a cup of water to those dying of thirst.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it. This is not our country. This is not our land. This is not our property. This is not our church. Even our children are not ours. When we come not only to acknowledge this truth in theory but put it into practice, we give and receive differently. We hold on loosely to things and people and invite God to show us how to accept that which comes into our lives and let go of that which we steward but do not own.
I do not profess to be good at this. I confess that too often I have attempted to control that which I ought to have received and manage that which I should have entered into as a mystery. I have stockpiled jugs of water when others desperately needed only a cup to drink. I have thought about inequity and talked about injustice, but been reluctant to give up much of what I label as “mine” for the sake of those long disadvantaged by policies and practices that benefited me and people like me. In short, I have been a slave to sin even though Christ came to set me free.
The jarring nature of this story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac should shock us out of any complacency or illusion that our faith does not demand real sacrifice. When I read this story during this season of our life together, a season of COVID-19 disproportionately killing people of color and disproportionately impacting those already on the economic edge, I realize that my unwillingness to hand over a cup of water and my inability to recognize that everything belongs to God has cost people their lives and their livelihoods. When I read about Abraham’s faith and understand the cheap grace too often evident in how I live out my own, I understand that my worship of lesser gods has cost other parents their children: sacrificed to a school-to-prison pipeline, lead-infused water, poverty, inaccessible health care, underfunded schools, gun violence, police brutality and so many other altars of idolatrous gods.
I am afraid my unwillingness to recognize that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it, that my ultimate loyalty is to Jesus Christ and that I am to give and receive knowing nothing is truly mine has meant that I have been willing to sacrifice other people’s children on the altars of false gods like greed, scarcity, security and self-protection.
William Barber preached at the Washington Cathedral on June 14. He preached from the prophet Amos, chapter 5. He repeated the refrain: “We have become too comfortable with the death of others.” In light of this week’s readings, we could say we have become too comfortable with the forced sacrifice of others’ children because we have failed to receive all children as God’s own. Have we forgotten that we have been set free from sin? Have we forgotten that God provides? Have we forgotten that whoever receives these little ones, receives Jesus Christ and the One who sent him? Have we forgotten where our ultimate loyalty lies and who alone we worship? It is well past time to remember and live accordingly.
- To whom or what are you ultimately loyal? How is this reflected in your choices? How do you spend your time and your resources?
- What do you see as belonging to you? What would be different if you understood everything as God’s and not your own?
- What does it mean to receive someone? To receive someone in Christ’s name?
- How do you see the Genesis text and the Matthew text for this week relating to one another — or not?
- Who are “these little ones” that Jesus talks about in the Matthew text?
- What are you willing to sacrifice in order to be faithful to God?
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