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Posts Tagged ‘sacrifice’

A Demanding God

 After these things 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 sacrifice on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Abraham, the shared patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had an encounter with God – a disturbing encounter, to say the least. Some years earlier, God had promised to make Abraham’s offspring as numerous as the stars. Never mind that Abraham was 100 and his wife was 90 at the time. Sure enough, Sarah gave birth to Isaac after having been barren. Once Isaac had grown into a young man, Abraham heard God tell him to sacrifice Isaac. Forever the obedient servant, Abraham took Isaac to a mountain, laid him on a pile of wood, and prepared to stab him to death before burning his body. As Abraham raised the knife, an angel stopped him and offered a ram in Isaac’s place.

Of the many faces of God in the Bible, the one demanding the sacrifice one’s own child is among the most disturbing. It is completely inconsistent with the loving, nurturing God I experience. It makes no sense that after God promises Abraham countless descendants that Abraham would be directed to kill the one through whom those descendants would descend. The traditional moral of the story is that Abraham’s faithfulness was being tested by God and, thus, he was proven worthy to father a great nation. While I agree that obedience and faithfulness are important, I find myself questioning whether sacrificing Isaac was actually a directive from God.

Interestingly, there are numerous passages in the Bible indicating that God does not want our sacrifices. For instance, Psalm 51:16, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” Likewise, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus twice quotes Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Even so, offering sacrifices to atone for sin and to show one’s obedience to God was a routine practice in the Old Testament.

A common thread running through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that of original sin, which is said to have occurred when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Some believe that original sin is etched into our human DNA, forever making us corrupt creatures and more deserving of God’s punishment than God’s love. When we believe we must earn God’s blessing, we may feel the need to sacrifice something to justify the undeserved gift. Many believe they will pay a painful price for anything good that happens in their lives. Do not misunderstand me; I know it is human nature to sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with good behavior. Even so, why do we focus on the disobedience from a mythical story and ignore the consistent blessings God has bestowed on every generation since? Particularly for Christians, if we believe Jesus bridged the sin gap between humanity and God, why would we continue to feel we can or must pay for the love God so freely gives? Responses of gratitude and generosity would be more appropriate than self-denying guilt. The feelings of worthlessness – our poor self-esteem – lead us to feel the need to offer God sacrifices that God has no need or desire to receive. The sacrificial system may have derived more from our poor self-image than from God’s demands.

Sometimes we simply cannot accept our good fortune. Perhaps this is what happened to Abraham. Ultimately, God had to intervene to keep Abraham from destroying the very blessing God had given to him. We know how that is, do we not? Sometimes our subconscious guilt causes us to sabotage, or at least diminish the good in our life. When we act out of a deeply rooted sense of guilt, the outcome will not bestow blessing. When we act of out of a sense of blessing, God’s love flows through us to bless others. God’s nature is to bless, not to punish. Our human frailties punish us sufficiently already. God is accommodating enough, however, to allow our free will to sink us to whatever depths we feel we deserve. Once we are sufficiently low, God lovingly and patiently works to help lift us out of whatever hole we find ourselves in.

God’s demands are not contrary to God’s blessings. Our hearing, however, may be.

Note: this is the seventh in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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A Disturbing Intruder

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  –James 2:14-17

A gift of grace is something positive received that is not earned or deserved. I often consider God’s grace to be like something nice I do for another who cannot respond in kind. Certainly, there are aspects of God’s grace that fall into that category, such as salvation. There are, however, gifts and graces from God that may not be so free. In his devotional, Seize the Day, Dr. Charles Ringma writes: “Grace always calls us to a response. God’s action toward us is never meant to leave us as we are, but is a challenge to move us forward. Grace is thus never a convenient gift, but a disturbing intruder.” 

I love the life God has granted me. I am comfortable and relatively secure, certainly more so than most others in this world. I am not motivated to change my life, even for the better, if it means risking my comfort and security. While I give God the glory for my many blessings, is that enough? The writer of James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, people of faith cannot retain their blessings by hoarding them. I am reminded of the lyrics of an old folk song: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more!” Gifts of grace are meant to change us and move us forward. When we commit to making the lives of others better, our own lives also improve because our gifts multiply by being shared.

Certainly, we have the free will to determine the purposes for which we will share what we are given. Indeed, we have a responsibility to pass along our gifts in intentional and responsible ways. But our gifts are to be used for purposes beyond our own selfish desires. In that respect, as Dr. Ringma writes, gifts of grace may not be such a convenient gift after all, but a “disturbing intruder.”  They are like doors inviting us out of our comforts and into new experiences in community with others. Acknowledging and being thankful for our gifts of grace is important, not because we hope to be loved more (which is not possible), but so that love and grace can flow through us to others. Like a faucet that must be left open for water to flow, grace is made new by flowing through us. Our cup remains full, even as the waters of love and life flow to others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Accept the invitation of this disturbing intruder.

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Dust to Dust

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It lasts for 46 days and is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray and fast. These are important practices because in order to prepare ourselves to receive the new life contained in Easter, we must first shake off the shackles of that which keeps us from receiving new life.

Fasting is sacrificing something that we will miss in order to remind us of something else of importance. Commonly, fasting is giving up a certain type of food, often dessert. Fasting, however, need not be limited to food. We can deprive ourselves of other desires in our lives, so that our deprivation reminds us throughout each day of the reason for our sacrifice.

Prayer is spending time with God. Most of the time, for most of us, praying is simply talking to God. We share our hopes and concerns; we pray for others having a difficult time. We express gratitude for the blessings of the day. One thing we often fail to do in prayer, however, is to listen. Lent is an opportunity for intense listening. When we listen with an open heart and mind, we open ourselves to transformation and rebirth.

Much of the time, we are narcissistic creatures. Our perception is that the world revolves around us, and we believe that our ego – the self-image that is formed by the world – is our true self. Unfortunately, when our ego has free rein to shape us how it will, we come more to resemble beings of earth than of spirit. Sometimes, I feel the need for an ego-fast. Some fear that by allowing our earthly egos to die or diminish we will become mindless, colorless clones. Instead, we become more complete expressions of the unique God-character we were created to become.

Lent, when experienced prayerfully, is a great equalizer. When we strip ourselves of earthly possessions – those transient, egoistic things that set us apart from others – we are truly one in the Spirit. We are not the same, but we are one. We are neither more nor less unique than our neighbors are. Lent encourages us to get back to our spiritual roots, back to the image of God from which we were created. Only when we release the need to set ourselves apart from others will we begin to manifest as the truly unique and precious expressions of God that we are. And we will notice and appreciate the God-expressions of others around us. As for our bodies, they come from dust, and to dust they will return.

Come home to church this Sunday. A little “dusting” may be in order.

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 Poor Stewardship

Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Ezekiel 34:2a-4

I have found myself in positions of stewardship since 6th grade, when I was the Chief Crossing Guard for my school. My responsibility was to assign a trained crossing guard to each intersection around the school before and after classes. In the days before paid, adult crossing guards, the 6th grade class shepherded the younger children safely across the streets. Being appointed the Chief crossing guard was an honor of sorts, I suppose, but it seemed a lot of responsibility at the time.

A shepherd stewards the sheep in his or her care – leading them to food and water, keeping them safe from predators, healing their wounds, and reuniting them with the flock when they wander away. Near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter that those who love him (Jesus) will feed his sheep. Good stewards take their responsibility seriously, understanding it to be a holy calling. There are numerous examples of solid, sacrificial stewards in our history: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale to name a few. They used the power, authority, gifts, and talents available to them for a higher purpose – lifting others up – and not allowing the allure of personal gain to deflect them from their calling.

The writer of the book of Ezekiel proclaimed God’s judgment on the poor stewards of his day, calling them shepherds who used their sheep for personal gain. These were harsh words directed at the behavior of the unethical “shepherds.” Although I know there are excellent and faithful stewards in our world today, it seems the poor stewards – the ones who steal from their charges – are more likely to be glorified. News stories abound about greed in the C-Suites and Boardrooms of corporations. Many people consider an honest politician to be an oxymoron. Ministers and Elders of churches too often treat themselves as being among the needy in their care. Is this type of behavior the norm today? I do not believe it is. My point, however, is that the examples of stewardship we are most likely to find in the news are examples of poor stewardship. God calls us to be faithful stewards, using the resources available to us for the care of those in need. As in Ezekiel’s day, we are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and lead the strays back into the family.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find a flock to join…or a flock to tend.

 

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Life Notes—June 6, 2013 

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  John 15:12-13

We hear a lot about sacrifices made out of love for others.  Military personnel risk their lives on a daily basis out of love for their country.  Firefighters and law enforcers risk their lives out of love for their communities.  Jesus willingly gave up his earthly life out of love for us.  Stories of sacrificial love are inspirational; and we wonder at the sort of love that leads one to lay down their life for another, especially an unknown other.

Most of us live a relatively tame and safe lifestyle, thanks to the sacrifice of others who make it so.  And the thought of needing to lay down our life for another is foreign.  But that may be too limited an understanding of what it means to lay down our life for our friends.  In his essay The Leader as Servant, Robert Greenleaf discusses love in the context of community.  He writes, Love is an undefinable term, and its manifestations are both subtle and infinite. But it begins, I believe, with one absolute condition: unlimited liability!  As soon as one’s liability for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that much.”  The context for these words has to do with our tendency to isolate those members of our community who, for various reasons, do not blend well into typical community structures.  He mentions orphanages, penal institutions, mental health hospitals, schools and nursing homes and notes that sometimes separating the constituents of these types of institutions from the greater community works against efforts to ever successfully incorporate them into it.

Greenleaf’s underlying message is one of love and community.  For a community to thrive it must work for all its members.  We cannot simply quarantine away those who do not easily fit, with the reasonable exception of those who pose a significant danger to the rest of the community.  But sometimes we quarantine folks because it is inconvenient to accept responsibility for them, even when they are family.  Thus, his concept of unlimited liability. If we accept unlimited liability for others there is simply nothing helpful and within our power we will not do for them.  Whether at home, at work or in the world.  And the difference in this type of laying down one’s life for another is not so much a willingness to die, as a willingness to inconvenience ourselves. Perfect love claims unlimited liability for another.  It simply will not give them up.

Rev. Sharon Howell will preach downtown where Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary.  Mitch preaches at the west campus where worship is at 9:00 and 11:00. His sermon title is “War No More,” based on Isaiah2:2-4.

Come home to church this Sunday.  Christ’s love responds to need, not convenience.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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Life Notes—December 27, 2012 

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  John 1:12-13

Christmas is over.  The Christ-child was born (again) and Santa came (again). The presents have been opened, some returned and others destined for re-gifting.  The relatives have (mostly) gone home. The weeks of preparation made for a successful celebration, at least hopefully so.  Only the clean-up is left, along with preparing for New Year’s Eve and Day, then off to begin another year.  Ho hum…

My life path was uncertain when my first child was born.  Of course, Carrie and I had planned for it, at least as much as one can plan for a new life being born into an already existing life.  I knew I would have to give some things up—sacrifice, if you will—in order to be the father I wanted to be and my daughter needed.  Some activities and areas of focus in my previous life simply were not going to be compatible with this new life.  Three years later our second child was born, bringing more changes, more sacrifices. Carrie and I invited these children into our lives and willingly rearranged our lives to accommodate them.  Today, they are both in college and you know what?  Looking back, I cannot think of anything I “sacrificed” to accommodate my children.  In fact, at every stage and at every age I wanted to freeze their development and our lives at that point.  Whatever I might have given up was not worth holding on to, anyway.  I gained more adventure and desirable options for my life choices than I ever dreamed possible.  No, our children are not without their shortcomings.  And yes, there have been times we chose one path where a childless couple may have chosen another.  Certainly, children are expensive, but there has been nothing that feels sacrificial, at least not compared to the daily blessings these lives-with-my-life have wrought.

So, what will we do with this Christ-child born again to us this Christmas?  What will we have to sacrifice to allow this new-life-within to be nurtured and thrive?  Like any relationship dependent on us, we must take the first step, whatever that may be.  Once we begin, additional steps will appear.  And as the relationship grows, parts of our old life will begin to fall away because we have found something more fulfilling, a new and better life that makes the previous one seem old and stale and boring.  Remember, it is to YOU the Christ-child is born!

Life worship downtown is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00.  West campus worship is at 9:00 and 11:00.

Come home to church this Sunday.  Let the adventure begin!

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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