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Pentecost 4 Proper 8A RCL July 2, 2017

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Our first reading is a story that can cause intense responses—shock, puzzlement, even anger. How could God do such a thing to Abraham after all that Abraham has endured? He has just given up his son Ishmael. How could God ask him to give up Isaac?

Biblical scholars Cuthbert A. Simpson of Christ Church, Oxford and Walter Russell Bowie of Virginia Theological Seminary tell us that this is one of those passages that must be put into context. (The Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 642-645.) Thomas Troegher echoes their insights (New Proclamation, Series A 1999, pp. 128-129.)

Scholars tell us that this passage was written by the Elohist writer, who was working around 750 B.C.E. The story of Abraham, depicting the journeys of nomadic people around 1600 B.C.E., dates back several centuries earlier.

One one level, this is a story about the testing of Abraham’s faith. Sarah has had a son, Isaac. This fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of countless people. But now God calls to Abraham and says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Abraham gets up early, makes things ready, and takes Isaac and two young men with him. Abraham is obedient. We have no idea what he is thinking.

After three days’ journey, they arrive at the point where Abraham and Isaac will go on and the two young men will stay with the donkey and wait. Abraham, who is not a fool or a dreamer, tells the young men, “We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” We may be wondering and agonizing, but Abraham is trusting that he and Isaac will come back. He is focused on worshipping God. He has walked a long way with God, and God has always been faithful to him.

So they journey on. Isaac is carrying the wood on his back. Abraham is carrying the fire and the knife. As they walk on, Isaac asks one of the most poignant questions in the Bible. “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham is focused fully on Isaac. His response is full of love for his son and attentiveness to Isaac: “God himself will provide a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Have you ever had a time when you felt God was calling you to do something you did not want to do, something you felt was extremely scary, something that you did not understand, but still you went step by step, trusting in the goodness of God? This is one of those times. The tenderness and deep faith of this moment make us catch our breath. Now Abraham and Isaac are bound together in this deep faith. God will provide.

The story moves on. Everything is prepared for the sacrifice. Now we aren’t breathing at all and our eyes are welling up with tears and perhaps rage. Why would God do such a thing?

Abraham takes the knife. But an angel of the Lord stops him. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns.

Scholars Simpson, Bowie, and Troegher remind us that, at that time in history, the Canaanites were practicing child sacrifice. They say that this story, as wrenching as it may be to us today, is an eloquent statement that God does not want us to engage in that kind of sacrifice. God calls us to offer the spiritual sacrifice of changed hearts and transformed lives.

In our epistle for today, Paul is saying that before Christ came to free us humans, we were slaves to sin. Now, because of the grace given us by our Lord, we are free. We have been changed forever. We are now living in the realm of eternal life, newness of life, fullness of life. We are citizens of God’s kingdom We are moving in an entirely new direction, a direction leading to life rather than death.

in our gospel, Jesus is instructing his disciples. He says that whoever welcomes them will be welcoming him, will be welcoming God. Whoever gives them a drink of water will be giving that drink to him.

The disciples would be going out into the world, two by two. They would be totally dependent on the hospitality of people in the towns and villages they visited. For people who welcomed them into their homes, think what a blessing that would be to those people. To sit with Peter or James or John or Thomas, to listen to what they had to say about their life with Jesus and how he had taught them and what they had done together and what a difference he had made in their lives. That would be transforming, We wouldn’t be able to get enough of that. Our lives would be changed.

Wherever he went, Jesus would take children in his arms. He always calls us to take care of the most vulnerable among us.

What are these readings saying to us today? Our first lesson is a story of faith. God sometimes calls us to walk new roads, and when that happens, we have to take each step, slowly and thoughtfully, and with great attention and deep faith, and we need to trust that God will give us what we need. God will provide. Our first reading is partly about faith and also about letting go of practices that are hurtful, practices that God would not want us to follow. God loves children; God has special love for those who are vulnerable, and God wants us to care especially for those people.

Our epistle and gospel let us know that Christ has given us a great gift, the gift of newness of life, and that gift has been shared and cherished throughout all the centuries since he was here on earth. May we open our hearts and lives to our Lord’s gifts of faith and transforming love, and may we share those gifts.  Amen.

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