Sermon, 6/28/20: This Is not a Test

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4 Pentecost, 28 June 2020 A
Psalm 13; Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

After these things God tested Abraham. Gen. 22:1

One would think that, [after decades of existing as pupil/student or professor on one side or another of a desk in a learning situation in a classroom, I would have overcome my aversion to tests].  To quote directly from that portion of today’s letter of Paul to the Romans:  “By no means!” (6:2a)  As a student, I had what one might call a love-hate relationship with tests.  Being of above-normal intelligence, I looked forward not only to demonstrating that I had mastered the materials of a course, but also that I had done so better than my comrades or that, at least, I was competitive with the student who might have performed slightly better than I.  In retrospect, an example of hubris, perhaps, but so [it was].  At the same time, while I did not actually loathe tests, I did feel that tests never allowed me to demonstrate truly or deeply the energy [into which I had invested] the course material to demonstrate that I had given thought, beyond simply passing a test (especially a detested multiple choice exam) to the implication of the material being taught.  I felt unfulfilled.  Perhaps another example of hubris?

As professor, I had to accept the fact that tests were traditionally the primary, if not often sole, means of judging how well students had comprehended the contents of a course.  In addition to having to spend long hours reading the infamous blue books of my generation, I [often had] to interpret what a student, although native to the language, had attempted to say.  And, recalling from my own student days that tests rarely allowed students to demonstrate in-depth “wrestling” with concepts, I was not to permit empathy and my past aversions to cloud my judgment of a student’s performance.  Tests were a shorthand, quick, objective measure [that] my mentors had used and so did I.  Yet, it was not these two approaches or reflections on testing that today caused me discomfort.  Rather, there was something else.

This week, while reading [The World Is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, NY: 2005), a book by the renowned three-time Pulitzer Prize winner journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman, feelings that] I had relegated to the deepest recesses of my brain reemerged.  These were feeling from my childhood.  Feelings of uncertainty, feelings of fear, feeling of helplessness, of having ultimately no control over my own destiny.  Friedman’s rehearsal of the years of the Cold War revitalized those uncomfortable times when, in a classroom as an alarm sounded, we children were instructed to seek shelter beneath our wooden desks!  As if such shelters would protect us from a nuclear explosion!  We heard also on radio then, and today still, announcements made by our Emergency Broadcast Testing System, which promised to provide further information were it a true emergency.

Friedman’s work brought back memories of an encounter in my early adulthood when, on the Western side of the Berlin Wall, a West GBerlinWall.Bernauer_Strasse_1973 (2)erman police officer rushed over to me to tell me to stand back from the Wall on the Bernauer Strasse where individuals had jumped, some to their death, in order to escape impending isolation from family, to escape the tyranny of an oppressive, corrupt government.  I had bent over to pick up a piece of the first wall, crudely and hurriedly built, that had fallen to the ground.  For his part, the officer, as he subsequently explained, had sought to protect me from harm as my actions could have prompted East Berlin police to aim and to fire their weapons at me as someone who may have been attempting to dismantle East Germany property.  I [simply wanted] a souvenir, which I still possess.  The West German officer, when he learned that I was a US citizen, put a question to me [that] today, years now since the Wall has fallen, still haunts me: ‘Why did your government not take pieces of the Wall as you are doing?  Why did your government not step in, in order to prevent its erection?’  I rephrase the officer’s question: Could the USA not have provided a substitute sacrifice, another way out of the tyranny and lockdown for which the USA had received advanced warning?

The Old Testament lesson, which we read today and read every third year, [has tested my thoughts from my earliest remembrance [of] Sunday School, Morning Prayer, or Holy Eucharist].  First, I knew from Sunday School that Abraham had another, [ ]older son, Ishmael, the result of a union between Abraham (when he was still Abram) and Hagar, the Egyptian maid of Sarah (then Sarai) when Sarai had believed that she could not give birth [.]because she had passed [child-bearing age].  After dissatisfaction and enmity arose between Sarai and Hagar and Hagar was expelled with a jug of water from Abraham’s compound, Isaac assumed Abraham[’s] sole attention.  And Abraham was assured by God that Isaac would succeed Abraham as leader of the Hebrews.

Abraham was put to the test. His son Isaac had no say in the matter, like those of us who were told simply to duck under our desks.  However, Isaac’s concern was clearly voiced.  In an era when Biblical Hebrews, like their neighbors, engaged still in animal sacrifice, an altar was prepared.  Arriving at the place of sacrifice, Isaac inquired: “My Father…Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7)  In Abraham’s mind, as Biblical history enlightens us, he, Abraham, was being put to a test.  And because he was willing to sacrifice his son, who was more dear to him than his own life and from whom was to come the nation of Israel, Abraham not once questioned God’s support.  And God came through for him.

Perhaps as denizens of the 21st century, we can reconcile ourselves with the Happy Ending of a potentially tragic outcome, even as Biblical history does not address the potential trauma [that] Isaac himself may have endured, trusting simply in his father’s good will, believing as children today are prone to do.  However, Isaac’s possible trauma was not the central issue here, but rather Abraham’s trust in God.  As people of faith in the 21st century, when animal sacrifices are no longer a means to express our worship of the Divine Creator, and as people of faith believing [that, nevertheless, God] provides for us in times of distress, must we not ask ourselves the question regarding the guise in which God appears to us in these days of uncertainty and distress?  Did we not read, also in Biblical records, that the unseen God appeared to Abraham in the guise of three strangers, three visitors, to whom Abraham gave hospitality?  Is it not possible that God intervenes in human history, in your and my unique circumstance, via other humans who undertake research, promulgate laws and distribute guidelines in order help us address and fulfill our needs and to correct long-standing social injustices?

While reading Thomas Friedman, I came across a statement [that] was made at a time when I was a student in Germany, then West Germany.  Then-President Lyndon Johnson, like all of us [flawed mortals], appealed to our better selves.  A sacrifice had to be made if we were to bring harmony into our collective lives.  He described the much-needed sacrifice [that was surely] shaped by God’s Spirit when; [in his 1964] Great Society Speech, said:

We have the power to shape the civilization that we want.  But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.  Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country.  They sought a new world … So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life. (Friedman, p. 276)

A sacrifice for the altar was offered.  But it was not an animal nor a human sacrifice.  The sacrifice was to lay self-centered aggrandizement on the altar of community enhancement.  An articulation of President Johnson’s advocacy for the disenfranchised is heard in our brief gospel ready for today, when Jesus, summarizing his mission to the twelve disciples, says:

He who receives a prophet … shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man … shall receive a righteous man’s reward.  And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water … truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.  (Matt. 10: 41f.)

Throughout human history, various cultures and various peoples have articulated in innumerable ways their belief, that there does exist a power that stands at the ready to promote unity and harmony among all people.  They have articulated what needs to be sacrificed.  We have the opportunity, even in today’s climate of uncertainty, to lay on the altar that which hinders us in our advancement of humankind.

May we not lose hope that within ourselves, in our own time and circumstance, we have been given the power to build and to overcome obstacles, as well as the power to acknowledge that we are even stronger when we join forces with others who answer the call to establish that community [that] God had promised Abraham.  This is not a test given us by God.  Rather, before us today and each day ahead, we have been given the opportunity to make good on, to wrestle with, the promise made to our forefather Abraham.