Sermon for Trinity 4/Pentecost 5 (Proper 8)

Proper 8

Knuzden 26th June 2005. Adapted for 2nd July 2023

This week Muslims in Blackburn, and around the world, have been celebrating Eid al Adha – the feast of the sacrifice. It is a time for prayer, the sharing of food and gifts, It is the Feast of the Sacrifice, and its origins lie in an account in the Quran almost identical to the one in our Old Testament reading today. The crucial difference is that, to Muslims it is their ancestor Ismael who was saved from slaughter, rather than Isaac. Nevertheless, there is, I think, a shared story here. Traditionally, for Christians, this story also prefigures the Cross – the sacrifice of God’s Son. This isn’t without its problems: like the story of Abraham and Isaac, it does make you wonder what sort of God God is. Tyrannical, violent, bloodthirsty? I think we have to be very careful before we use this story as a parallel with the Crucifixion – God providing Jesus, instead of ourselves, to be sacrificed. 

The story of Abraham and Isaac is, of course, an appalling story. Heaven forbid that God should expect us to sacrifice our children – we do hear about people who still do this, and it is a truly terrible thing. And yet – and yet – a few weeks ago, 100 children, it is thought drowned when a boat carrying migrants sank in the mediterranean: it got very few column inches in the press compared to the five wealthy men who died in a submarine viewing the Titanic. Perhaps this story gives us the opportunity to stop and think about how much we really do care about children in peril. It is possible to see those 100 lost children – and thousands more besides – as victims just as much as Isaac was about to be. Victims of global inequality, greed and poverty, war and violence: does anyone really care?

The thing about Abraham is that he was in the very early stages of discovering who God was. He was really the first person who believed that there was one God and that this one God was everywhere – this he discovered on his travels through the desert where he was the first person to come to the understanding that wherever he went, God was already there. He had no Bible – Old or New Testament – to tell him what to believe about this God who had made himself known to him. He only discovered by trial and error – and the incident over the potential sacrifice of Isaac was definitely in the latter category – an error.

I guess that child sacrifice may have been quite a common activity in the worship of other gods at the time. So in this story we can see God leading Abraham down another path – one of the many ways in which Abraham’s religion was radically different from other religions of the time. Child sacrifice was out – thanks heavens for that. Through Abraham thousands of generations have come to know that this is not what God wants.

What we should notice is that God’s promise to Abraham – to have more ancestors that there are stars in the sky – was put in peril by this demand for sacrifice. God’s promises were fulfilled, and Abraham simply had to trust that this would be the case even when hope was at the point of destruction. If there is anything to be learned from this story it is that we must continue to trust, continue to hope, even when everything seems to be hopeless – we must continue to trust in God’s goodness and love in a world that seems to be at the point of annihilation – just as Isaac was.

Today’s Gospel reading is about welcome. It is written in the context of the first Christians going out into the world with the Good News of Jesus: where they were made welcome, GOd was made welcome too. We can, I think, take the general principle of welcome without worrying too much about the context. Elsewhere in the Gospel it is made clear that when we give food or drink to others we are giving to God. We know this isn’t easy – I recently gave a tenner to someone who came to the Vicarage asking for help – he said he was a diabetic and had come out without his medication and needed a taxi home – he would return in a few days and pay me back. I was fairly certain I would never see that tenner again, and so far I haven’t. Was it the right thing to do? I’m not sure – he may have spent it on drugs or gambling or alcohol. Would I do it again? Yes, probably – simply because if I had said ‘no’ I may have been turning away someone in need. It grates because, these days, I don’t really have the means to hand out ten pound notes to anyone who asks,

So the general principle remains, but how to put it into practice is problematic. Generally speaking I think Christians could put more effort into solving the worsening inequality and poverty in our country and in the world. When I was in my 20s the General Synod considered a report called Faith in the City and subsequently set up the Church Urban Fund. Every parish church in the country was challenged to raise money – by 1991 £18 million had been raised from Church members. This church would have had a fundraising campaign. For many years the Church Urban Fund was used to fund projects which combated poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and so on. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an awful lot better than nothing. The Church of England is a lesser Church now, having turned inwards and become primarily concerned with its own internal affairs and protecting itself from criticism because of its failings over safeguarding. We are, it has to be said, very keen on evangelism, and we’re very good and management (or at least many would like to think so)  but we’re not so good at the love – the ability to see in the faces of those in need and of strangers, even the faces of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, the face of Christ – and to give a glass of water, a sandwich, a place of safety, a warm welcome.

I think today’s Gospel reading inevitably leads us to the place of repentance. The Church, of which we are a part, has become inhospitable, ungenerous, exclusive and unkind. Here, we are a very small cog in the machine, but we must do whatever we can, in our own small way, to welcome, to be kind, to include people, to offer that drink of water or whatever is needed to bring life refreshment and hope. That’s up to us as individuals and as a church. Hopefully people will see God in us, and we will see God in them. And that is the key really: to see the wonder of another person, to recognise them as a child of God, no matter how broken, and to welcome or to provide as if this was Jesus.

This isn’t easy. But who said being a believer in GOd, a follower of Christ, was going to be easy?


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