Reflection for Sunday 28th June 2020
Well – that cup of cold water that Dominic has just read about would be really welcome in this heat-wave we’re enjoying – and that’s the point, Jesus is saying that we should treat each other with compassion (because dehydration is bad news!) and gentle hospitality.
I begin each day with a cup of tea. There are some – like PG Woodhouse’s Lord Bertie Wooster – who have their tea brought to them.
There was a man who had been a trusted and obedient servant for many years. One morning his employer asked him: “As my man-servant for over 30 years, you have been bringing me my early-morning tea, filled to the brim, without even spilling a drop. How do you manage that coming up the stairs?”
His obedient servant knew he must be honest, so he did as he was asked, and told the truth:
“Sir, it’s simple. I know that you like a full cup of tea; so before I climb up the stairs I take a big sip out of the cup, keep it in my mouth, and as I get to the top of the stairs, I put it back in.” He smiled, at how obediently clever he had been over the years.
Sadly, that was man-servant’s last day in that job. … might it be that wasn’t quite what his employer had wanted? …
We’re thinking about honest, straight-down-the-line obedience today – and how that sits alongside good common sense and /moral sense and faithfulness to the person. I think that’s part of where we are with the story that Jack read to us earlier, about Abraham and his son, Isaac, from the book of Genesis.
Allow me to open-up your ponderings about obedience a bit more with another silly little story – this time around the love of money and the desire to never (but never) let go of it. And ask yourself where obedience sits with that mixture.
There was a man who had worked hard all his life and had saved all his money, but that, and that alone, was his focus in life – and in death! Just before he died, he said to his wife: “When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the coffin with me. I want to take my money to the next life with me.” And he got his wife to promise that she would do as he had asked.
Well, he died. And his wife, in front of the close family, gave the Funeral Director a locked black box to put in the coffin.
Afterwards , one shocked relative said, quietly to her: “Surely, you were not fool enough to put all that money in there with your husband?”
The obedient and sensible wife replied, “Yes. I cannot go back on my word. I promised him that I was going to put that money into the coffin with him. I got it all together, put it into my bank account, and wrote him a cheque – which is now in the black box in his coffin. When he can cash it, then he can spend it.” Hmmm.
Was Abraham obedient like the man-servant? – maybe, because I can’t seriously believe that God would have wanted him to do that to Isaac – or even threaten to! – that’s dreadful enough!
Could Abraham have tried to be obedient like the wife? – and fudge his way round what he should have seen as a clearly unreasonable and deeply immoral instruction – to sacrifice his son!
Were there other things going on in this story? I think so. I have three suggestions:
First, let’s remember that the Scriptures are not a diary written at the time they describe. They look backwards, with retrospect, and, in this case, with a desire to tell the story of Abraham in a particular way. I want to speak of the particular way they told Abraham’s story as ‘the lens’ through which they saw it. So, the lens through which Abraham is seen is that of the Passover – an absolutely central historical event for all Jews and Christians -formative of how the character of God is understood. To this day, Jews still celebrate the feast of the Passover as when God intervened and freed his people from slavery. To free them from the control of the Egyptians, the Angel of Death visits, tragically, the first born sons of each Egyptian family, but Death ‘passed over’ the houses where the first-born sons of the Israelites were asleep. And they escaped whilst the Egyptians were thrown off their guard by mourning their sons. It’s ‘the great escape’ of all time! Big liberation stuff for the Israelites! Now, let me point you to the comparison with Isaac. We heard from Gareth last week just how complicated Abraham and Sarah’s domestic life was. Isaac was Abraham’s first and only son by his wife, Sarah. And, in today’s episode of this drama, Isaac is saved by God from certain death – it’s another epic ‘great escape’ story.
All Jews knew the Scriptures, so they could see that the earlier ‘great escape’ of one person, Isaac is setting the scene for the later ‘great escape’ of the whole people of Israel. Maybe, by saving his son at the very last moment, God defeats not only Abraham but the supernatural forces of destruction. It’s all down to God as the strategic chess master. So – the roots of God freeing from death and destruction are shown to lie in the life of Abraham. The Scriptures show the nature or character of God.
Secondly, I want to dig deeper into that, and suggest to you that the nature of God is that He very much prefers freely-given faithfulness to blind obedience. This story invites all of us with normal human sensibilities about sacrificing our children to dig deeper than Abraham’s tunnel-visioned perception, that unquestioning obedience was what was wanted, and to ask ourselves what this story might be telling us that’s consistent with our previous revelations about the character of God. What jumps out – to me – is that there is sacrifice, self-sacrifice, at the heart of what it is to be God. This is about the embodiment – the acting-out – of love.
If you look to Jewish scholars, they emphasize that Isaac knew what was going on – and, amazingly, went along with it. It was, they say, a voluntary self-offering – a self sacrifice.
By contrast, early church fathers saw the child, Isaac, as a prefiguring of the adult Christ; and, seen this way (through a different lens), the self-offering of Isaac merely foreshadowed the self-offering sacrifice on the cross of Jesus.
And both understandings can be useful for us, today, as we emerge in a mixed-up way from lockdown. For us, sacrifice, self-offering and compassion for the sake of all who are in need, is where I reckon we’ll always find God active.
Thirdly, this story raises questions about certitude in relation to the mystery of God as we experience Him all around us. How do we cope with mystery and with uncertainty? There’s plenty of both around at the moment. Abraham coped by importing certainty (tunnel-visioned) massively. How about us?
Would we like certainty? – you might think that’s a bit like asking, ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ … But, hold on, … because if we knew everything about the future with certainty, our lives would be drained of emotion. No apprehension or fear, but also no surprise and pleasure, no joy or thrill— everything expected. It would all be about as exciting as last year’s weather report. If our world ever turned predictably totally certain, life would be mind-numbingly dull. We try to obtain certainty of others – our bankers, doctors, and political leaders. What they deliver, however, is a range of probabilities – often conflicting with each other; and the unscrupulous ones try to give the illusion of certainty.
Now, what I’ve just said is common knowledge, but we don’t apply it very readily to our perceptions of what God is saying to us. We may have got used to the story of Abraham convinced that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. However, let’s firmly register that this is absolutely contrary to all that we know about God. You can’t justify sacrificing anyone – let alone your children! anywhich way.
So what is this about? I think, on one level of interpretation, it’s showing us that Abraham made one totally massive mistake, with potentially disastrous consequences. Why did he do that? Because he was certain that he was right. He was absolutely convinced he knew the mind of God, and certain of what he was to do. He didn’t question, argue, negotiate or discuss it with others. Certitude had closed his heart and his mind. Allow me to suggest, in the light of this story, that we ought to be wary of our certitude, when we are absolutely convinced that there is only one way and we’e got it figured out, especially in regard to the mind of God. Certitude should be for us a red light.
After all, if Abraham was willing to question, and argue and negotiate with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah why would he not do so for his own son, whom he loved deeply? What’s gone wrong?
Abraham’s mind was made up. His heart had closed. There was nothing more to be said. That’s what had gone wrong. But, mercifully, God was not having it! God sent a ram and an angel, shouting, ‘No!’
Abraham offered a sacrifice on the mountain. The text says it was a ram. But I reckon that the real sacrifice that day was Abraham’s certitude. Maybe that’s the real reason we can call him the father of our faith. He sacrificed his certitude of knowing the mind of God, and had to trust the mystery and the silence of God. He was rewarded for his obedience – not only would his descendants be as numerous as the stars and the sand, but he learned discernment – he learned trust.
And what about us?
The point is that God is not a divine control-freak needing blind obedience, rather, it’s about trust – us being able to trust that God sees our perplexity and confusion. If we can have that trust, then we can live with what we don’t understand and can’t control. With trust, we no longer need to reduce things down to false certainties. Rather, we can ‘Wait on God’. How? The clue is in the Gospel reading which Dominic read to us just now.
Jesus chose a cup of cold water as an illustration for a reason. It was Jewish tradition that if anyone came to your door, for whatever reason, you welcomed them; usually with sweet cakes, olive oil and wine. But, if you were poor -water would be offered from the local well.
And, lest we forget, there as still hundreds of African and Asian remote villages that do not have a well, or regular rain water. 700 million people worldwide face a severe water shortage. Suddenly, seen in that context, a cup of water takes on a huge new significance and it becomes infinitely precious.
Let us wait, then, with faithfulness, more than blind obedience or chasing certainty. Let us wait, trusting that God’s providence is that of the Passover, always bringing us sacrificially from slavery and death to new life. Let us wait, as we emerge from lockdown, with compassion and hospitality – giving a cup of cold water, and also being glad to receive one. Let us wait with the joy of knowing that, whatever happens, we are loved into all eternity.
Helper of the lost & poor , Gracious Spirit, calm our frenzied anxious world, its dissonance & pain. Help us to wait on you. Show us the good at the heart of life, the spark of God in each one of us. Lift us up that we may go forward in trust & hope. Amen.