A Reading from the Book of Genesis (22:1-14)
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
1 How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day? *
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
4 Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.
5 But I put my trust in your mercy; *
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
6 I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; *
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (6:12-23)
Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Word of the Lord.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (10:40-42)
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The “Binding of Isaac” about which we heard in today’s first reading, is one of the most troubling stories in all of scripture. If we take the time to think seriously about it, we are bound to ask some very disquieting questions. What kind of a father would Abraham have been even to consider such a thing? The text interprets his actions to be a sign of his deep faithfulness to God; but, if he were living today, he would be someone whom we would immediately report to the police and to Children’s Services. This man is dangerous! And there is an even more disturbing question: what kind of God would put Abraham and Isaac in such a position to begin with?
People have struggled with this story for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some have suggested that it is a very ancient, pagan story that Israel took up and modified in order to declare God’s rejection of human sacrifice. We, too, might tend to look on it as primitive, as reflecting a pre-historic and barbaric culture, so different from our own. But I wonder how far from it we really are: how far we, as the human race, have really come from such a time and such a culture.
Recently, Judy and I renewed our subscription to the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, just as we have done for the past 25 years. One of the pieces that Artistic Director and Conductor, Neil Gittleman, has chosen for this coming season is Benjamin Britten’s powerful “War Requiem.”
Britten composed this work for the 1962 rededication of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II. Into the framework of the traditional Latin Requiem Mass, Britten inserted a series of poems by Wilfred Owen, a young British poet who had become a pacifist while serving in the British army during World War I. Tragically, he had been killed just one week before the Armistice was signed.
Among these poems is one titled, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” In 14 lines, Owen retells the story of our first reading: the story of the Binding of Isaac. Then, in his last two lines, the poet reverses the biblical ending and deftly transports the scene from the distant past to the horrendous conflict that was then engulfing Europe. He identifies the ram caught in the bushes as “Pride” and has the angel of God call desperately to Abraham to “Offer the Ram of Pride instead” of killing his son. Wilfred Owen then delivers his powerful finish:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Wilfred Owen’s message was clear: rather than sacrifice their pride, the World War I leaders in Europe had sacrificed, not just one, but 16 million of their children.
As we prepare this August to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of that terrible conflict, our reading invites us to ask ourselves the motivation behind all the wars and other military actions that we, as a nation, undertake. Most of us would agree that there are times when such action is necessary and justified; and we honor all those who have served and especially those whose great love has led them even to lay down their lives for others. But there have also been times when we, along with other nations, have been led into war or to the continuation of an existing war, led to sacrifice our children, not to defend ourselves against any real threat, but more to defend our pride.
When that happens, and when we then as a nation recognize the tragic mistakes that we have made in entering into an unnecessary war or in continuing an unwinnable war, our reaction tends to be to look for somebody to blame. We can blame those who led us into the war or those who have led us out of the war. But there is more than enough blame to go around.
Who ultimately is responsible for what our nation does? Maybe this Friday’s celebration of Independence Day can help us remember. The Fourth of July is not only a day for us, as a nation, to celebrate the life of our country, but also a day to remember the principles on which our nation was founded. Chief among them was the conviction, as the Declaration of Independence insists, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We, the citizens of this country, bear the ultimate responsibility for what our nation does.
We are the ones who choose – or who, by not voting, fail to choose – those who lead our country. We are the ones who need to ensure that those elected leaders act in a wise, responsible and justifiable manner. And we are the ones who, during a time of war or of potential war, need to search our hearts and the heart of our nation to discern the real reason that we are considering this extremely serious action. Is it really necessary? Have all other alternatives been exhausted? Will the likely results outweigh the likely suffering and destruction that a war will cause? Or are we really entering into a war or continuing an existing war simply because, like the old man in Wilfred Owens’ poem, we choose it, we choose the death of our children, as an alternative to slaying the Ram of Pride?
Freedom, St. Paul insists in his Letter to the Romans, necessarily involves responsibility. The freedom with which Christ has set us free brings with it the charge to live by and proclaim the values of God’s kingdom before all else. Many people in our world do not have the ability to determine what their government does, whether it acts in accordance with those kingdom values or not; but we do.
Freedom is not easy, but it is a gift: a gift that carries with it the obligation to use it wisely, carefully discerning our own motives and the motives of those with whom we share that freedom. It impels us to examine carefully the critical decisions that we make, both as individuals and as a people, and to attempt to distinguish, with the help of God’s grace, between the ways of selfishness and pride, on the one hand, and, on the other, the ways of the kingdom of God.