Center – The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
As many of you know, my family has recently engaged in that great American tradition known as the family road trip. While it is a very different experience today than it was when I was a child, it still has its moments of trial and bonding. I will admit that we enjoy the modern convenience of movies in the car. In fact, for our family, a key component of a road trip is watching the movie, Rise of the Guardians. 1
For those who are unfamiliar, this is the story of all the childhood holiday heroes (Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy) joining forces against the Boogey Man. Along the way they come to find that Jack Frost has also been selected as a Guardian, and North (Santa) tries to help him find his true center. There’s a great scene where he’s opening Russian Matryoshka Dolls, and at the very center is a wide-eyed child representing North’s sense of wonder and joy.
I tell you all of this because I believe that at the center of our readings today, God is asking us the same question. Through these readings, God is asking each of us to be willing to open up and look inside to see what motivates us from deep within.
And at the same time, God is inviting us to move beyond our motivations – which are limited by our thoughts and feelings – to recognize that we are a part of something so much larger.
In Paul's letter to Roman Christians, he used the word “sanctification” to describe all of this. The goal of peeling away the layers of desire and personal gratification is to become open to what God has done – to give ourselves over to forgiveness and grace such that it becomes our way of doing and being. To be sanctified – as we are through God’s action in holy communion –is to be set apart, as for a special purpose.
And we can’t do that if we are focused on ourselves. We can’t get to the center of who God created us to be if we are still putting on layers; or if we are motivated by our cars or homes or even our children. How about that?
It’s easy to think about getting rid of bad habits (although not so easy to do it). But what about the call to sacrifice something you hold dear? Now, don’t get me wrong, the point here is not to sacrifice things to earn God’s favor – and children are particularly off limits.
I think that is why God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is so disturbing. What kind of God would do that? Of course, that is precisely the point – God is not like other Gods. In that day and age, it was a common belief that sacrificing a first born was a good thing to do. So, this story is one that was told to make it clear that the God of Abraham was not like other Gods.
Still, the text says that God wanted to test Abraham. That’s a strange thing, for God to test. It’s hard for me to think of God as a “pass/fail” kind of God. I don’t have a way to reconcile that kind of God with the God of grace and mercy who tells me to forgive someone 70x7 times for the same offense.
It turns out that the word translated as “test” really means something more like “determine the contents of”. So, God was not so much giving Abraham a chance to fail as God providing a situation that would allow Abraham to demonstrate who was at the center. And while Abraham demonstrated obedience, God also demonstrated compassion and providence. This story proves what Abraham is made of and of what God is made of, but I don’t think I’m alone in throwing up a caution flag here. First off, I believe that God tests us all the time, but it’s not as drastic as this.
God tests us when we see trash on the ground and decide whether or not to leave it there. God tests us through the opportunities of email and social media. God tests us in every relationship and every chance encounter, because every interaction is an opportunity for us to be prophets, to demonstrate righteousness, and to show hospitality.
What else is forgiveness for, if not to live a life that responds to God’s grace and mercy? What is a knowledge of God good for if we are not living like people who are aware of what God is doing in the world? And what is God doing, anyway?
Well, God is remaining present and active just as God always has. It is up to us to see God’s activity in someone else and welcome them. It is up to us to listen for the truth tellers in the midst of all the opinions and assumptions we hear. It is up to us to look for those who are demonstrating righteousness by offering the same grace and mercy that we have received.
And, there is something more. There is yet a calling to sacrifice – not in order to get grace and mercy, but because we have already received it. Because we have been sanctified through our faith in Christ we are also called to shift our priorities over and over again so that we can see beyond ourselves. That may cause us to shift some priorities around, or make some difficult choices that will affect the lives of those close to us.
The good news is that we know that we will not always get it right, but we also know that we always have a table to return to. The good news is that no matter if we even give up on God, God will not give up on us! And while we are called and set apart to offer grace and mercy in abundance, even the smallest cup of water offered to someone in need can be a great and wonderful thing!
So, let us be persistent in prayer. Let us continue to shed layers of privilege and power and greed and status, until we find our true center in the One who loves us beyond compare.
For the God of Abraham is not like the thousands of other Gods that compete for our attention. Truly there is only one God, even though we may act like there are so many other things that are worthy of our devotion. And although we can talk about the sacrifices that others make, this is the God who provided the ram in the thicket and who sent Jesus to show us the way to live and love.
So maybe more than anyone else, we should think of ourselves less like Abraham and more like Isaac. As Paul said to the Romans, “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”
Have you ever thought of yourself that way, as an instrument of righteousness? Maybe you have. Maybe you haven’t. What matters here is that God does. God thinks of you as someone who, as imperfect as you are, can point out or demonstrate or even write righteousness into action.
Of course, not everyone will like that. And there will be times when you will get confused between what you think is righteous and what God does. Which is why we are reminded to be guided by the teachings of Jesus. And Jesus reminds us that the most basic form of righteousness is found in the simplest form of hospitality to “these little ones” – even the least, the ones that can’t care for themselves, the ones that the world thinks is least important.
Start with that. Start with compassion towards someone else, and let that be what takes over your urges and desires. Let go of your hunger for things and you will find that you become hungrier for this bread and this cup – for in this place we are reminded of our true center, we are sanctified by God’s grace, and we are poured out like cold water for the thirsty.
To be sanctified means to be set apart for a holy purpose, and that’s what we’re in for today. Sure, it means that we have something to look forward to after this life. But it also means we have something great to look forward to in this life. Let us embrace this gift today, knowing that grace and mercy are not a way to justify what we have been but a calling for how we will be – on this day and all that follow. Amen.