Attention and Humility
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Based on readings: Genesis 22.1-18, Acts 11.1-18, John 13.31-35
This week I had the pleasure of going on a safeguarding course. Understandably, the Church is very keen on these, such that vicars end up attending one most years. They’re a sort of health and safety brief but for people. But like all courses, they easily become too generic and so full of “necessary information” that the only way to get through it all is to have someone talk solidly for 5 hours at a glazed airless room. Please understand that my first priority is for St Margaret’s is to be a safe church, especially for children and vulnerable adults. The church’s C3 Safeguarding course, however, seemed suspiciously similar to its C1 course, we did here a month ago, only with less discussion and fewer breaks. I’ve always felt that if Microsoft had placed an inbuilt limit of twenty slides per presentation, teaching across all institutions would be greatly improved. The army, for example, loves Powerpoint like it’s 1997, but it’s telling that there’s an unwritten rule amongst soldiers that you never ask questions. Nothing to prolong the agony.
Now astute listeners will have noticed something of a safeguarding issue in our Old Testament reading, in some respects ill-suited to a baptism. But don’t worry, I know you can’t see the lamb in church for the burnt offering, but the Lord will provide. Of course, the story is so familiar, you may have missed its strangeness, or you might think, the Bible is just full of odd stories, it’s better not to think too much about it. But Abraham throughout history is held up as the model of faith, despite this troubling attempted filicide. So should we be concerned? Does this story advocate child sacrifice? fundamentalism? Is he the paradigm of faith or the harbinger of terrorism?
At the root of Western civilisation, are two sets of stories: the Bible and Homer. Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey, like the Bible, are the work of multiple authors, is very different to the biblical writers. With Homer, everything is stated.If a minor character appears in a scene there’s always a great rambling tangent, and, like someone you may know, you’re frequently asking, “Will this story ever end?”So a god will appear in a scene and suddenly the story breaks and we are told this gods parentage and origin, and a brief account of their activity to this point. Achilles and Hector, fully enraged, are about to do battle, but they will chat first expressing fluently their motivation. Even as Odysseus is slaughtering Penelope’s suitors he’s also telling you why he’s doing it. It’s like the beginning of a Game of Thrones episode, which starts with someone awkwardly recounting the events of the last two days to someone with no clothes on in order to bring you up to speed with who is now dead.
Also in Homer, there is absolute continuity of character. We know Agamemnon, Paris, Helen, and they do not change. Any more than the gods. Just as the characters have epithets — swift-footed Achilles, lovely-haired Ariadne, horse-taming Hector, cunning Odysseus, their personalities are fixed like the stars. There’s no character development, no hidden interiors, and Homer works hard to make the entire narrative clear. You never ask: ‘I wonder why that happened?’
This is not so with Abraham. God speaks to Abraham. We’re not told where or how. Abraham responds simply with a paired back ‘Here I am.’ Then God almost goads him: sacrifice ‘your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.’ No answering back. We don’t hear the desperate wrangling in Abraham. He lives for the promise of God — that he will become Father of nations. Now in his and Sarah’s old age they’ve finally become parents, but despite God’s promise, he’s demanding this child be sacrificed. We do not hear — distress, disbelief, frustration, conflict, anger. From this, his only Son, whom he loves.We hear nothing from Sarah at all. It’s not really a very “woke” story, apologies to all intersectional feminists. The narrative simply progresses on. Emotions and intentions are undisclosed.
So then there’s this journey. “On the third day.” But what happened on those three days? These black three days walking with your son to his execution. How many times does Abraham nearly turn around? How does he wrestle and plead with God?
And here’s the difference between the Greek and Hebrew texts. Even were I a Greek of ancient times I’m not involved in the stories of Homer. They’re entertainment; the stories of gods and heroes. I’m not required to put myself in Achilles sandals. There’re virtues and vice aplenty but the stories are written for pleasure.
But Abraham is given to us as a model of faith. The story needs interpretation. What does this tell us about God, faith, and how to live? Where am I in this story — on the three day march to Moriah — those three opaque, hidden days — carrying both the promise of God and this dire command. Attempting to believe in what has been given to me, what I have held onto trustfully through these years, and yet seeing the inevitable approach of death. And how often have we tried to believe in the promises of a God who will protect and love us, and yet seen disaster around us, felt personal loss, all the evidence of a God who does not keep his promise; but the Bible interprets itself. And when you hear ‘and on the third day’; the crucifixion and resurrection are heard in its echo. And once again we’re dealing with this promise of God and its difficult resolution. Of Christ put to death, of descending into hell; but ‘on the third day’ the restoration of life. The child is returned and the Father’s love is made known.
Now this isn’t neat. Or easy. It’s so familiar we can enjoy it — like a Beatles song that we like because we’ve heard it a thousand times but have no real idea what the words are or mean. ‘I am the Walrus, coo coo key choo’? But these stories are asking more of us. Christ asks us to believe in the possibility of resurrection, when what we see is a world of crucifixion. Abraham on his three day journey must wrestle between the promise he knows in faith and the uncertain command he has been given. He is our model in his honesty, his openness and his availability. Look at how he responds. God calls him: ‘Abraham!’ And he said ‘Here I am.’ Isaac says to him, ‘Father!’ and he says ‘Here I am.’ The angels calls preventing the murder, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he says, ‘Here I am.’ He doesn’t shy away from God, or his son, and to the last moment is present to the possibility that God will interrupt.
Most of us think of faith as something fixed, a sort of certainty. Something that cannot be tested, put to the proof. Abraham shows this is not the case. The constantly moving nature of the world and ourselves, means that faith is not some stationary mast to which we lash ourselves. Nor is it great tablets of stone upon which we write ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’.
Faith is a three day journey to Moriah to wrestle with God over the contradictions between his promises and our experience of a broken and troubling world, a compromised church and our confusion over who this hidden God really is. A faith at all times open to the surprising grace of God. It is not unthinking or dogmatic. It is a profound attention and humility; to be ready at any point to say ‘Here I am’; and to admit at any point — in this I am wrong.
For all the strangeness of politics recently, it has helped in showing us how nearsighted we are, and how unable to see the world from the positions of others. We can blame social media, or a divided society, but an inability to see the financial crisis coming, to see the resistable rise of Trump, of Brexit, of Jeremy Corbyn, of a failure to care for the residents of tower blocks, a late win for the Netherlands in Eurovision, all belies a fixity of opinion that won’t see an approaching storm, and won’t notice the suffering of those not in our social circle.
Faith demands attention and humility. We are all on this three day journey. Faith is there to be wrestled with. Otherwise it will wither or drift into wishful thinking. So if God is calling — are you willing to say ‘Here I am’? Are you open to the possibility of change?
And as we’re concerned today with a baptism, we might ask how we are doing at walking alongside our children. Are we striking the right balance between the simple truths and allowing their questions, and the deeper meanderings of faith? If faith is too simple, it will be rejected along with the other pleasantries of childhood. This is where we need to be alongside our children on the journey. I’ve had a couple of conversations with Dads in the last week about the transition to not being cool, not being your child’s hero. As Oberon approaches being 8 months old I’m only too aware how little time I have left.
And this is a place that godparents have a real opportunity. To talk through the difficult things in life, relationships, uncertainty, decisions and bring their experience and, if the child is lucky, wisdom. If not then experience. But as Lizzie symbolically begins this journey today, we know at least that for these first steps she is in a safe place surrounded by the prayers of Putney, and that she has room to grow and change. That beginning the journey of faith sets us in a family, which will have it testing times, but in which we journey alongside one another, in discovering for ourselves the promises of God.