“I am with you, always”

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 8 – Year A – 29 June 2014

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector

“God tested Abraham. He said: ‘Abraham!’  And Abraham answered: ‘Here I am.’  ‘Take your son,’ God said, ‘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” (Genesis 22:1-2). 

 Wow!  What was God thinking?  What was Abraham thinking?  What I’m thinking is that this passage is downright frightening.  I don’t want to be reminded of a God who asks Abraham to do the unthinkable.  Isaac was Abraham’s and Sarah’s miracle son and the progeny through which God had promised that the nations of Israel would be populated.  

 “… I will establish my covenant between you and me,” God proclaimed to Abraham.  “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations and I will make you exceedingly fruitful;” (Genesis 17:6-7). 

 Just 5 chapters later in Genesis we hear God telling Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, his only son, Isaac.  And I still ask: “Why?”  Hadn’t Abraham been faithful enough?  Why did God suddenly seem to need proof of that faith like we humans need when we’re feeling insecure and weak?  If God is all knowing, then why would He need proof of what He already knows? 

And where was Sarah?  She didn’t mind laughing when she overheard God telling her husband that she would bear a son even though she was nearly 100 years old.  Why wasn’t she now doing all in her power to prevent Abraham from taking Isaac away from her?  What was she thinking? 

As you all know, theology is thinking about God, or the study of God, including God’s nature and relationship with us and the universe.  So the question: “What was God thinking” is a theological one.  Trying to figure out what God is thinking or up to, however, is impossible; but that doesn’t stop any of us from trying.            

It’s amazing how we become theologians when we want to comfort our friends and family who may be suffering when we explain to them that: “God is testing your faith”; or “God will only give you what you are able to bear”; or “We know that all things happen for a reason”; or “God is in control and this is all part of God’s plan.”   

As uncomfortable as I am with such words, I have to admit that this passage from Genesis seems to support such theology.  And so does the Book of Job when we hear Job’s so-called friends tell him in the midst of his suffering: “Know that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (Job 11:6).   In other words, you should probably be suffering more not less!  That must have made Job feel much better!   

Professor, priest and noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor refers to the Abraham/Isaac story as a “text of terror…which (serves) to pry our fingers away from our own ideas about who God should be and how God should act.  …Whether the terror is heard on Sunday or lived on Monday” she writes, “the question is still the same: Do we trust God to act in all the events of our lives, or only in the ones that meet our approval?” 

“…I am almost certain” she writes, that trust was “…something that (Abraham) felt deep within him (that) told him God was present, working it all out – no matter how terrifying the ride.  How else,” she asks, “could Abraham have done what he did?”  (Article in The Other Side Magazine, March- April 2000).  

For many for us, trust is not something that comes easily.  Maybe it takes running out of all options that are within our control, as Job had finally done, before we realize that God has not abandoned us.  Or maybe, like Abraham, we have to live to be 175 years old before we’re able to trust enough to say: “Here I am” no matter when or what God asks of us.

In his book entitled Telling Secrets, (Harper San Francisco: New York, 1991, pp.49-50), American author and theologian, Frederick Buechner relates a story about a particularly dark time for him when his daughter’s life was spinning out of control and he felt powerless to do anything about it.           

He was driving in his car when he became so distraught that he had to pull over to the side of a highway.  He was by himself and overcome by feelings of  helplessness and fear.  When he finally looked up, he saw a car heading his way.   

He noticed that the license plates on that car were the ones with just letters on them.  As the car passed him, Buechner read the word that those letters spelled out: T R U S T.  It didn’t matter that he later learned that the owner of the car worked in the trust department of a bank.  At the time he saw it in the midst of awful pain and deep fear, he took it as a word from God. 

I had a similar experience almost 4 years ago now.  I was getting ready to go home after the Sunday services when my husband, Tenny, met me here at church to tell me that my Mom had just died.  She had been sick for quite awhile and I knew that death was imminent.  But since there is no way to completely prepare for it, it was still a shock when I actually heard the words.   

So many things were going through my mind as I drove over to her house – mostly regrets about not spending more time with her.  I was also remembering the sad look on her face every time I told her I had to leave.  But there was one thing that seemed to get through the fog in my mind and it was some words to a song playing on the radio.       

What I heard in those words were: “You’ve been the best daughter”.  Thinking that I must have misunderstood, I listened to the rest of the song and heard those same words repeated in the refrain: “You’ve been the best daughter.”   

A few weeks later when I was in my car, that song came back on the radio and I waited to hear those words that had recently comforted me.  They were from a Taylor Swift song called “Mine” and this is what I heard instead: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter; you are the best thing that’s ever been mine.”   

It wasn’t even close to what I thought I had heard the day my Mom died.  But it didn’t matter.  I truly believe I heard what I was meant to hear and whether it’s good theology or not, I took it as a word from God.          

So, when we ask ourselves: “What was God thinking?” in stories such Abraham and Isaac or even Job, we are getting at the heart of any theology.  God was and always is thinking about us and waiting for us to have the same trust that Abraham “felt deep within him that told him God was present and working it all out” (Barbara Brown Taylor repeated).    

Reminders that “God is with us always” can come in all different ways and forms and what better way to come than in the form of our newly baptized Nathaniel – so small and perfect and full of hope and promise. 

The words “I am with you, always” were heard when God’s only and beloved son, Jesus, sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples on the day of Pentecost.  In the Abraham/Isaac story, God’s “I am with you, always!” came in the form of a lamb which Abraham substituted for his only and beloved son’s place in the sacrifice.   

Buechner heard “I am with you, always!” in the 5 letters of a license plate and I became aware of those same words in a Taylor Swift song when I needed to hear them the most.  You’ve no doubt been aware of those words, too, in some form or another.  Where were you, and what were you doing when you heard them?