September 2023

Sermon: Hold on Loosely

Genesis 22:1-2; Ephesians 4:31-32

I have issues with many Biblical Scriptures, but the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son is one of my least favorite Biblical stories.  It sort of creeps me out, and I ask myself what kind of a God would ask someone to give up their own child for slaughter.  Most parents would say “over my dead body.”

So who is Abraham anyway, and how did he come to this bizarre scenario in his life?  And what did his wife, Sarah, have to say about it or did she even get a vote??

Turns out that Abraham is an important guy in the Biblical narrative.  He was chosen by God to be the father of many nations.  Probably belonged to the country club.  While God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many people, he and his wife, Sarah, were apparently past the age of having children, and their lack of offspring was a great disappointment for them.  However, God promised Abraham that he would have a child, and Abraham believed God’s promise.

When God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child in their old age, they both laughed.  Their laughter at God’s plan showed their disbelief that God would do what was promised.  God was not crazy about this response.  Their son was named Isaac, meaning “he who laughs.”

Before the birth of Isaac, the plot thickens, because Sarah did not conceive right away, so she took matters in her own hands, and told Abraham to sleep with their handmaid, Tamar.  Because of the massive power differential, Tamar was abused by both Sarah and Abraham.  A son was born of Abraham’s abuse of Tamar, and his name was Ishmael.  This was a disaster, because it was not God’s plan.

God’s promise was for the offspring of Abraham and Sarah’s union.  His name was Isaac.  It would be through Isaac that the nations would be blessed.  Abraham and Sarah were overjoyed with their son, Isaac, and they loved him dearly.

Fast forward, and God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a symbol of his belief.  Let me say again, I think this is a creepy request.  Why would a good and loving God ask an obedient and faithful father to do this?

Corrie Ten Boom helps us to see this story in a different light, and she knows what she is talking about.  As you recall, Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch woman, and she and her family assisted Jews and members of the Resistance Movement during the Nazi occupation.  Corrie was arrested for her part in hiding Jews in her home, imprisoned, and after her release she formed a healing community for survivors of the Holocaust.  When she was asked to respond to the Abraham story, she said something that makes sense to me as a life lesson. She certainly had some life experience under her belt when she reflected:

“I’ve learned in my years that we must always hold things loosely.”  This is especially true when it comes to our children.  We hold them loosely and then let them follow their dreams and callings.  The denouement of the Abraham story was that he did not have to sacrifice his son, but maybe he had to learn to hold on loosely.

There are other things in life that require we hold on loosely.  The fires in Maui teach us that material possessions can disappear before the setting of the sun.  Relationships can end in death.  Friends move away.  Children go off to college.  Dreams can fade or need revisioning. Jobs come and go.  Holding on loosely becomes a life skill.

Today we stand on the cusp of the anniversary of what is now known simply as 9/11. I’m sure that all of us here today can remember where we were on that fateful day.  On September 11, 2001, we learned that we must hold loosely to our assumptions about American safety and security.  Prior to September 11, most Americans viewed the United States as invulnerable to outside attack, and had never entertained the notion of American citizens being massacred on their own soil.  On September 11, 2001, more Americans died than on any other day in our history, and they died on American soil.  The average age of those who died was 35.

On that morning, I turned on my television and saw the first plane crash into the trade towers.  I thought to myself:  this must be some terrible mistake….a pilot must have been lost.  I was completely off base.  

I had previously scheduled a tour for September 11th of one of the prisons where I was serving as Chaplain.  Barbara Doerrer Peacock, now Vice Moderator of the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, was one of the people with me on that day.  Throughout the day, we received federal updates on the events that seemed to be occurring like dominoes.  We worshipped with the inmates, many of whom had relatives who were directly threatened or affected by the attacks.

Following the events of September 11, I received a grant from the national United Church of Christ to reflect upon and record the responses of churches in the Southwest Conference.  There was standing room only in many churches following the events of September 11th, and the Friday following the attacks was declared by President Bush to be a National Day of Mourning.  Sermons emerged that reminded us that Christianity is about a war of love against hate hope against despair, and God was declared to be present even in the midst of our sorrow…even in the midst of us being forced to hold our assumptions loosely.

On the days following September 11, we were not only reminded that we must hold on loosely to certain assumptions, but we must hold fast to certain Christian notions.  We were reminded that Jesus had no power, no money, no military might, and was armed with only the power of love and mercy.  Jesus did not return evil for evil.  Preachers strained to illuminate God in the midst of the dust and debris, the tears and the terror.  Some of the most eloquent statements were made in silence.

Religious leaders pleaded with Americans not to return violence with violence, hatred with hatred, but to live out the message of peace.  We were challenged to hold fast to these notions.  The events of 9/11 prompted Christians to ponder what it means that we are called to be peacemakers, to insist that love triumph over hate, to act out the words of not only Jesus, but the essence of many of the religions around the world.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued the following statement in an open letter that was circulated around the world:

“Dear Friends Around the World:

The events of this day cause every thinking person to stop their daily lives, whatever is going on in them, and to ponder deeply the larger questions of life.  We search again for not only the meaning of life, but the purpose of our individual and collective experience as we have created it—and we look earnestly for ways in which we might recreate ourselves as a human species, so that we will never treat each other in this way again.

The hour has come for us to demonstrate at the highest level our most extraordinary thought about Who We Really Are.

There are two possible responses to what has occurred today.  The first comes from love, the second from fear.

If we come from fear we may panic and do things—as individuals and as nations—that could only cause further damage.  If we come from love we will find refuge and strength as we provide for others.”  

Our New Testament lesson teaches us that we must always respond with compassion.  Is compassion a loosey goosey airey fairy thing that means anything goes?  Does compassion mean that we engage in endless naval gazing?  I think not.  Sometimes compassion involves telling a hard truth, grounding a child, saying “no,” moving away from codependency, moving a loved one into a care home, disciplining a dog.  Compassion involves a loose hold, and sometimes requires us to stand back to give someone room to skin their knees, suffer consequences, or to hear the truth.

On this anniversary of 9/11, I believe that we must pray for those who suffered horrific loss on that dreadful day.  I believe even more strongly that we must let go of petty issues and devote ourselves to building peace in our world.  We must think beyond ourselves, our own desires, and envision a worldwide Beloved Community.  Amen.

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