SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, JUNE 26th 2011
(ORDINARY SUNDAY 13)
FINAL SERMON AT CHRIST CHURCH OF THE REV’D DR MICHAEL GODFREY
Readings: Genesis 22.1-14
One of the great formative passages not only of Judaeo-Christian thought but also of the narratives of post Judaeo-Christian literature is the almost-sacrifice of Isaac. Writers of the late nineteenth century and twentieth century, most notably Sigmund Freud, but reaching back as far as the founder of existentialist philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard, have had a field day with the passage as a narrative of human frailty, anxiety, and psychological vulnerability. One could barely begin to imagine the emotional scarring that the event would have on the young child Isaac, aware enough to recognize the sudden threat to his life represented by his father’s obedience to the voice of God. Enough of us have seen our children and grandchildren give up the narratives of our faith just because it is less exciting than a morning in bed (perhaps I’d better rephrase that!) or a morning of sports or a morning mowing lawns: imagine the excuses we would provide them if our blind devotion to a Higher Power led us to draw a knife and threaten their lives!
It pays then not to read the great formative passages of Judaeo-Christian faith through the eyes of modern or post-modern sociology, psychology, or other humanities and sciences. Perhaps we can plead, in any case, the healing of memories as Isaac and his father make their way down the mountain after the ram is sacrificed. Perhaps, but probably not: I’m not altogether sure I want to play ball with a God who plays too fast with the synapses of my memory banks! On the whole I think we are better off understanding the story as a parable of priority: a brutal and impossible ‘as if’: we are called to live as if we had such trust in God that we would expect a happy ending to an impossible situation. Yet I am only too ready to admit I do not have even a shadow form of such faith: my knife would remain sheathed and I would stay home. God in any case does not ask us to make sacrifice – thank God! – nor to sacrifice others before we sacrifice ourselves (though perhaps one day my children will hearken back, in therapy, to the devastating decisions made by their parents, dragging them from the safety of an established network of friends to an unknown realm and an uncertain future. My oldest daughter does!).
In reality we often need to be reminded that the world of our scriptures is a world vastly different to our own. Even when we read Paul assuring us that ‘the wages of sin is death’ we need a little caution. Our scriptures do link sin, or fallenness, with death within their narratives, from the time of the mythical Eden onwards, but we might also recognize that the cost of cellular structure is decomposition, and that even an object as sinless as a kauri tree – our beloved Tane Mahuta, is mortal. We are, as my guru Bobby put it, ‘stone cold dead as we step outside the womb’, and it may well be that it is misleading in our preaching and evangelism to give the impression either that ‘sin’ is a list of naughty things that we have inevitably done, or that naughty things lead to death: the Christchurch earthquake is not wages for sin. We live in a post-Christian generation that rejected the tenets of our faith at least in part because the idea of a celestial God tallying up our misdoings was somewhat less than attractive as an eternal hope. No: a passage such as Paul’s letter to the Romans needs careful interpretation, though I for one believe Paul was striving towards timeless truths about the need for imperfect humanity to surrender to the reforming, transforming, transcending love of the Creator, the one we encounter through Christ, through the Spirit of Christ, in Bread and Wine and hymn and prayer, in scripture and fellowship-koinōnia and in (but perhaps only after the others), the divine poetry of nature.
Must we, though, take on board some sort of religious dogma at all? The baggage of a God that calls Abraham to impose immeasurable damage on the psyche of his son in the service of faith, or that seems to hand out a death sentence as reward for a few naughty things we may or may not have done (after all, we didn’t eat any fruit in a far off garden) is surely a baggage we can jettison? Modern decades of western society have responded with an overwhelming ‘yes’, and while our patterns of substance abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and the deepest damaging forms of self-abuse (including workaholism) suggest we are not after all better off, we certainly have rid ourselves of some burdens of oppression – as films such as The Magdalene Sisters, for those who remember it – told us with chilling effect.
Surely the teachings of Jesus are simple? In fact many have suggested, at least since the nineteenth century, that we need to rid ourselves of all the other doctrinal and liturgical baggage and simply get back to that; whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will receive the reward of the righteous (even that passage has been brutally abused through history by those who saw themselves as wielding the powers of the disciples). A good bit of social service, the establishment of a soup kitchen or some social reform programme: isn’t that enough? Love your neighbour, don’t diddle your taxes, and don’t swear at old ladies … isn’t that the gospel? I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, after all. Boy Scouts, Rotary, the National Party and the local surf-lifesaving club: aren’t they adequate expressions of goodness, lifestyle equivalents of ‘giving a cup of water’?
Indeed they are, if Christianity is no more than a set of rules. Similarly, what if Christianity is no more than a gaggle of feelings – the re-claiming over and again of peak moments in our lives so that we never come down from the heights, however terrifying, of Abraham’s Mountain, staying up there for ever with our new found ram, getting ourselves baptized and re-baptized literally or metaphorically each time God encounters us in some new life-experience? If that is the case then Christianity is no more than a drug, keeping us on a high, keeping us in a fuzzy and euphoric state of unreality. If Jesus is no more than the key to a good feeling, or a good teacher, then we should join the exodus and play golf Sunday by Sunday.
But, as I hope I hinted last Sunday, and as I hope I have been hinting over and again in our four year journey together, it is neither of these things. Despite my sometimes too-big words, faith is not big words and doctrine, not good feelings and mountain top experiences, nor even good deeds and good living. Faith is surrender to God, the triune God, made known to us in Christ, by the Spirit, the God of mountain top and valley, of birth and death: faith is surrender to receive God through Christ in word and sacrament – always both, and always invaded by God’s Spirit! – and only then to proffer cups of water or financial advice or solace or sermons: faith is the surrender to the God who takes us through the valleys and over the mountains, who never leaves us or forsakes us, and who will, in the end of our times, takes us into the immeasurable joy of divine eternity. Christian faith begins, continues and ends with the acknowledgement that Jesus alone is the Lord by whom humanity enters eternity, and by whom eternity enters humanity. However chilling the Abraham narrative is, it is a magnificent metaphor for faith: faith is surrender into the admission ‘yes Lord, my life and all I love is yours’. We will always fall short of Abraham’s surrender: for that reason we will mutter over and again the plea ‘Yes Lord, I believe: help thou my unbelief’, and stutter our ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you’ before reaching out our hands to receive the miracle of God’s invasion of our lives. Faith is our yes to God, and God’s ultimate yes to us and all creation.