Monday, July 21, 2014

Sacrificing Isaacs

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 6/29/14

Our Gospel passage follows the sending out of the twelve apostles, with many instructions and warnings. Cast out unclean spirits, says Jesus, cure every disease, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, He doesn’t ask much. But Jesus also warns, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans. Go, rather, only to the lost tribe of Israel.”

I am sending you, he says, like sheep into the midst of wolves. It seems the disciples are being sent out into a very bad neighborhood indeed.

Then comes the good news: Jesus talks a lot about welcoming. He says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” He goes on to say, that whoever offers even a cup of cold water to the disciple, (one of these little ones, he calls them) will never lose their reward.” God will be with them.

Our Old Testament passage is one of the most disturbing and puzzling of them all. Here, a little one is offered not water, but fire. Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. As the story progresses, the son seems to be happily accompanying his father, carrying the wood obediently on his back, only asking finally where the lamb is that they are to sacrifice. We cannot know if Abraham betrayed any emotion when he simply says, “God will provide the lamb.”

Like the twelve disciples, we here at Good Shepherd, have been sent out. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit blasted us out into the wilderness for a forced discernment, just after our baptism of fire. And like Abraham, a great sacrifice has been asked of us.  We had been very comfortable in a gorgeous interior space for a very long time. But that dear space was sacrificed. We were forced into a long exile- an exile during which we worshiped in the same place as the great weekly Friday lunch gathering of our brothers and sisters of the outside world, of every tribe.

These guests are not from the tribe of Israel, although many could be identified as lost sheep. We had to begin to notice that our church community was fed in the building on Sunday at 11:00 and the neighborhood was fed at 12:00 on Fridays. But as I have noted, our Episcopal force field lowered to unprecedented levels, and some of the Friday guests and their friends even began to join us on Sundays.

We were sent out. Out of our comfort zone- out to a new place where we saw who we really were. And even more than simply worshipping in our parish hall, we were sent out to be the church outside, not just welcoming from the inside.
Even just by worshipping here in the parish hall, we were suddenly sent out into the neighborhood, and the neighborhood welcomed us.

I went on another Night Walk Against Gun Violence week before last. This one was based out of McGee Ave Baptist Church.  We literally went out into the neighborhood, as this community of Good Shepherd, with so many others did last October, and we, too were hardily welcomed. As we gathered in a circle of prayer at the spot where yet another person had been shot, a woman came running out of her house in her bare feet, towing her two young sons along, just to tell us how grateful she was that we cared about the neighborhood. One young man even followed us back into the church. At the debriefing afterwards, there were three African American speakers- three Abrahams who are not willing to sacrifice any more Isaacs. The first one, Pastor Michael Smith, told a story about a conversation he had with a person he kindly referred to as a “street pharmacist.” He asked the man, “How is it that you get the trust of these young people? Why do they come to you for solutions?”

The dope dealer (my less compassionate term) said to him, “When the kids go to school in the morning at 8:00AM I am there. When they get out of school and come home at 3:00 I am there. When they sneak out of their houses at 11:00PM to meet up or get snacks I am there.” Then he looked at Pastor Smith and said, “Where are you?”-

He had a point. We have an epidemic of sacrificed Isaacs in our neighborhood and in our city. No one has listened hard enough to hear God saying, no- stop the sacrifice- do no harm to these children. Sacrifice something else!

We here at Good Shepherd have indeed had our own sacrifice. A great loss of something very dear to us. One of the first things we were sent out to do was to take care of each other, and this we have done marvelously well. To me, this closeness we have achieved, this caring for one another shows us that we will not meet with more sacrifice if we continue to open our circle. Because we are sent out all together. So it could be that the only thing that was really sacrificed was our loneliness, our distance from our brothers and out sisters who were so close at hand.

When we come back to our Jerusalem after our long exile, we will see that though the exterior of our beloved church is just the same, the inside will be different. To me it would not make sense to be sent out and then return to exactly the same place. -Our Gospel passage speaks of welcome, and I believe that we are called to make room for more of our brothers and sisters, and to make our church more accessible to everyone.

When the flooring was first being repaired, we discovered that the original floor was almost 100% level, with just a small raised altar at the very front where the priest celebrated with his (and I do mean his) back to the congregation.

We are restoring the level floor, but adding a movable raised platform that can be placed anywhere in the space. It will be the most flexible interior possible. It will be much more navigable for all abilities, and it will put the emphasis on welcoming community.

The other great change is the chairs. We will have one hundred new and beautiful chairs which will seat more people, be much more accessible and comfortable, and allow more welcoming worship styles. We even have a few raised chairs to welcome those with ailing knees and hips. We will be able to express the welcoming circle we share at the Eucharist by forming worship in the round if we want. We will never be the same people as we were before we were sent out, and our space will never be the same either.

We have been sent out. With whatever gifts we have or do not have, we have been sent out to heal the sick, to heal each other, to bring life to those who seem dead, and to take care of the little ones. But most of all, we are sent to bring the church to the lost sheep of every tribe and nation, including our own.        Amen

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