Monday, July 3, 2023

A Sermon - Given at Renton United Church of Christ

 Genesis 22:1-14 – Abraham Sacrificing Isaac


Gifts Back To God

 This is a story that kind of makes your modern parent voice rebel. So first, let’s take the context into account. The religions of the day were heavily influenced by superstition.  Most people in the region had household gods and a god for every purpose under heaven.  In the indigenous Canaanite religious culture where Abraham moved to, the most faithful ones sacrificed their children. This fulfilled several supposed purposes – to win their gods’ favor, to protect them from natural disasters, and to receive blessings on their crops.

So it is hard to know what was spinning through Abraham’s mind.  He is the biblical character I would most want to take to lunch and pick his brain.   Was he keeping up with the Joneses?  Did some Canaanite guru guilt or embarrass him into it? We don’t know. Often we will just shrug and move on and try to forget about that craziness…. AND YET, the shadow of it invariably arises again each Holy Week when some framers of Christianity claim that God “sacrifices” his son. If God interrupts Abraham’s sacrifice, why would God go through with it with Jesus?  Perhaps we should wrestle with Abraham a bit more.

So let’s take it from a different direction. When I was a boy growing up, my immediate family would hook up with my aunt’s family, and we would go camping at Kootenai Lake in British Columbia.  The cousins, my sister, and I would play a game of cards we called Put and Take.  We would go out and each get 25 rocks – these were our pots of gold.  Then we would take turns being the dealer who would deal out 5 cards to each player. Then the dealer would pull out 1 card at a time and say, “If you’re holding a 5 put in 1 rock.” Then another card, if you have any 3s put in 2… until 6 cards and been drawn. Then the dealer would repeat the process only having people take out rocks.  The dealer could then keep what was left in the pot, or if it ran out, the dealer had to make up the difference. Fun game.  Played for HOURS.  Parents would have to call a halt for us to eat or send us to bed.  Because we played the radical socialized version of Put and Take.  If anyone ran out of rocks, well, you could try to convince someone else to share their bounty, or there were always more rocks to be found in the campground.

Put and take has always been, for me, a simple child’s definition of how Christianity should work. All the players, even God, put in what they have. And we take out what we’re needing – yes, even God. What does God need, you might ask?  It’s clear in scripture – especially the Psalms -- that what God craves from us is gratitude, praise, and devotion.  Remember, God is love.  But what happens to love in a family when one member feels like they’re doing all the work while everyone else just sits?  The entire enterprise that humans label religion or spirituality is entirely about relationships.  Religion takes spirituality off the rails when it gets sucked into power and control games, just as some marriages and families get sucked into that.  But we know that healthy two-way relationships is how the universe is built – and that applies in human circles, human-nature circles, and we see it in biology, chemistry, and physics – put & take. That’s how God set up the entire universe.

But what’s happening in our human realm?  What I see happening is humans pushing love away in exchange for money & power.  How would the world be transformed if we operated out of shared mutual trust, where we just practiced put and take? We could demand it. Sure, duty and obligation form social guardrails, but we’ve witnessed in scripture & elsewhere how guardrails can end up constraining God’s love – twisting it & molding it into some grotesque shapes such as we see here with Abraham – striving to pursue some crazy social-religious practice of devotion to prove to God that he is worthy/he is enough.  Nobody has to prove to God that they’re enough!  God declared creation good at the end of the 6th day. You are enough. That stamp of approval was your birth. But the human ego craves a pat on the head, having control, having certainty that we are better than whatever the idol of the day is.

So let’s bring this back to love – can Love win over the human ego?  God’s love is infinite. On that, we can probably easily agree. (I would also say God’s love is unconditional, but a bit more controversial so I’ll leave that with you to wrestle with and maybe we’ll take it up another time.)  God’s love is infinite. But, as the old Sunday School song goes: “love isn’t love unless you give it away.” How does God give love away? God’s love is going to be the most tangibly obvious if we are demonstrating it.  With a few exceptions, I think that is how God intended it.  That’s how Jesus operated.  But golly dang, if human egos and our out-of-control need to control don’t slip in here. And the next thing we’re doing is hoarding love for “MY PEOPLE”, trying to steer it to whom it will go. Making rules about how it can or can’t be expressed. Then we all get grumpy and fight and throw things and hurt each other. I’m sure that “Dad” probably feels like pulling the car over to the side of the road to say, “If you kids don’t stop it right now, you’re all going to walk home.”

So imagine if you’re able.  A world governed by love and a rule that said, “When doubts arise, just give.”  “Give til it hurts.”  That was Jesus’ example. (Right?)  He never asked, “What’s in this for me?”  He was always about what can I give.  What can I give/how can I give it?  Like him, can I give til it hurts?  Immediately, my ego jumps in and asks, “What if I run out?” “What if I don’t have enough?”  The human ego is sly.  It tries to be rational, but it’s really craving control.  It worries about what-ifs.  Our shadow side is always trying to figure out what must be paid to buy not just God’s love but others’ love as well.  The human ego is always worried about “what’s enough? Don’t get cheated. Don’t get taken.”  We have billionaires (That’s a B – as in Boy is that Bonkers!) STILL insecure, still craving more.  For perspective on a billion: 1 million seconds is 11 days.  1 billion seconds is just over 31 years.  As of last week, Elon Musk’s net worth was estimated at $234 Billion.  This means if he spent $86,000 a day, he would not run out of money for 7,250 years. That’s how insecure and craven the human ego is.  And God says, “No little one.  I AM enough.”   OMG.  I can almost hear the whisper in Isaac’s ear through ALL the centuries– listen!  Can’t you hear God?  “I am enough.  You are enough.  We are enough.”  Just us – ourselves – alone or together -enough!

Returning to Abraham, why was the miracle of Isaac not enough for the old man?  Was he still striving to get God’s blessing or attention, like the cultists he was living beside?  Maybe.  Maybe to get their respect?  Or maybe he wasn’t doing that at all.  Maybe he was, in his own misunderstanding way, just trying to express to God how much devotion and love he had for God and his words didn’t feel like enough. Which makes it still twisted, yes!  But also kind of sweet. How great is our love for God?  Or for this institution, we call the Church?  What would we give to express it?

The thing we forget in our strivings is nobody outgives God.  And God doesn’t even expect you to try.  The Biblical tithe seems to put a limit on what one must give – that 10% of your income guideline that gets bandied about in many a church pledge drive.  But let’s toss that.  It’s a fine enough guideline and all, but what if our guideline was “give in proportion to my gratitude to God for all God has loved me with?”  Then where do you find yourself? And please don’t limit it to thinking only in monetary terms. Maybe just as hard as giving in proportion monetarily is giving up our own attitudes, opinions, and beliefs to find reconciliation or restoration of a relationship or remediation for long-standing wrongs that have fractured and held back equality and justice.  How much love does it require to just accept people for who they are and who aren’t exactly like me? Because no matter what we feel about “the other” – God, in God’s omni-loving way, put them or that thing in our world/life. That includes everything and everyone from the ridiculous: What is a mosquito for? But also to the opposite extreme: a precious, even sacred, Promised child. The stamp of approval Abraham may have been looking for seems to have been provided by the abundance of an Infinitely Loving God. Who is still in that business today – handing out stamps -- even for you. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Smudgy Living

 Ash Wednesday 2023

A common Church ritual that takes place on the first day of Lent each year is where the church gathers and receives on their foreheads a smudge of ashes on their foreheads.  The liturgy calls to mind one's sins, and in the words of the imposition of ashes: From dust, we come to dust, we shall return.  The smudging of one's forehead with ashes this year reminds me of how we allow all kinds of things around us to smudge up or interfere with our pre-birth-given image of God.  As good Christians, we strive to be accurate and truthful reflections of Christ and the one God wants us to be.  Yet, we know we often fall short of that ideal.  If we were perfect reflections of the Holy, we would shine forth with all the radiance of hope, compassion, charity, generosity, kindness, healing, and wholeness... but we don't.  The cross smudge says, "Yeah, I've fallen short." 

An Ash Wednesday service is sometimes a bit comical in how resistant to smudging some people are.  Some just don't want to be smudged, and that's their prerogative.  But others' foreheads just seem impervious to the imposition. Do they have purer transparency of the holy than foreheads that just welcome full-on black smudges?  I pause to hope. 

The world around us grows more smudged up with unholiness weekly.  The US society has yet to have a day in 2023 when a mass shooting has not happened.  The vitriolic rants, tweets, news -- many of it from self-proclaimed Christians, leave me wondering what it would take to polish their foreheads and transform the bitterness and violence to empathy and peace. How do we turn from our darker ashy side and be the clearer, shining light of the Holy?  

Therein is the purpose of Lent.  Lent is the 6 weeks of personal devotion, reflection, and practice of wrestling with the scrubbing process to increase deeper and wider transparency of the sacredness that is grounded in each of our basic constitutions.  I encourage you to take advantage of the many activities and offerings that churches all around provide to aid in that process between now and Easter. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Set Aside Tithing

One of the common suggestions to regular churchgoers is to tithe to their church. A tithe is based on a biblical notion that 10% of one's income (harvest) is to be given to God directly off the top. It is a commonly used "goal" suggested when churches do annual pledge drives for the church budget. It is an idea that is as old as the Bible itself. The Christian Church adopted the tithe early in its history, and it continues today in most denominations. Many denominations teach that the tithe is the minimum level of giving expected, with other offerings considered over and above the tithe. I'm going to argue that it is time for the Church to lose the idea and word. 

Through time, the tithe has been intertwined with some of the less Christ-like manifestations of the Church. The Crusades against Muslims in the first few centuries of the Church, for example, were funded by tithes. Tithing was, in essence, a tax extracted by the church around suggestions (or, in some cases, demands) that a person's salvation (from hell) depended on satisfying their tithe. Economically, slavery declined at the tail-end of the Roman Empire, being replaced by feudalism. The aristocracy held the major portion of wealth. While feudalism was a modest step up for the typical family, their "wealth" was marginally held in superficial (and tenuous) rights to the land, not in cash. The Church could use guilt, fear of the hereafter, and persuasion to get the parishioners to give, but if you don't have it, you don't. This is where the Church became more transactional in its approach to giving. Indulgences, a transactional system of tit-for-tat, augmented tithing. "We'll pray your sin away for a small fee." "For an offering of gold or silver, we will ensure your loved one will not have to spend eternity in purgatory or hell." To our modern mind, we might wonder just how gullible were people? Yet, in pre-science cultures, fear brought by superstition and belief in a wrathful God can be intense, and in truth, the hierarchies of the Church weren't that shy about exploiting theologies of God's wrathfulness. 

Because of this historical baggage, the Church would do well to walk away from and bury the term "tithing." No amount of money will "save you" or put you in any stronger position with God than the infinite amount of love God already has for you. One cannot buy more infinity. For churches to say, "Give us a tithe,(just because we've always done it that way,") is a morally bankrupt idea. If the church can't be better at inspiring hope and a vision for a radically different world than we are experiencing, they do not need a block of money just to keep a building standing!

In the book of Acts, we glimpse a more egalitarian hope-filled vision of Church life. We see the communal understanding of the Church. Church is where we find belonging. It is where we can work together to expand and implement the foundational experiences of God's/Jesus' intent for humankind. Utilizing an ethic of Equality in Love, together, people can build the Realm of God on earth. This is not a church built on guilt or arm twisting or fear. It is built on the expectation that my neighbor is part of my family and that working together, we can accomplish much more in this life than any of us can achieve alone. So, giving to the church is giving to our community, which increases our effective outreach to make a difference in the world we find ourselves in. All will benefit intrinsically and extrinsically. The degree to which your passion for that evolving vision grows should be the primary driver for how much you want to contribute, not whether the church hits a set budget number or how much you worry about a non-existent hell. The only hells exist in what human beings do to one another, largely due to the generational trauma imposed for hundreds of years on our families and psyches that nobody - including the Church - has dealt with in a compassionate, understanding, healing way. This is a large part of the work sitting in our laps, waiting to be done.

So, rather than expecting blank checks with "tithe" written on the memo line, let us transform our idea of giving to the church into being an investment in our "Beloved House of Belonging."