Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Genesis 22:7
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? Romans 6:16
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way/To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
It’s a refrain that brings back childhood memories of singing this old hymn a cappella, of church potlucks and fried chicken, and crafting bar soap cross sculptures in Vacation Bible School. “Trust and obey” we would crow at the top of our voices, often in a questionable assortment of keys. As a child it made sense to trust, and it sure enough made sense to obey if you knew what was good for you, at least where your parents were concerned. My how things change!
You won’t find this hymn in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the official worship book and hymnal of my denomination. Truthfully, I haven’t sung this American classic in years, but somehow as I studied the lectionary for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, the tune and words started flowing like sweet clover honey. Despite the late 19th century flavor and language of the lyrics, there is message of value and timelessness in this hymn’s text. Trust and obedience are at the core of Christian discipleship. My how some things never change!
Trust and obedience are also at the core of this week’s readings from Genesis and Romans. It’s a strange marriage, these texts, and not a particularly happy one. Sometimes one has to wonder what those Revised Common Lectionary guys were thinking. The story of Isaac’s near sacrifice at the hand of his father always terrified me as a child; even today it makes me squirm uncomfortably. Paul’s argument in Romans that we humans are going to be slaves to something, be it sin or righteousness, is strong medicine, too. Yup, give me that hospitality and cup of cold water reading from Matthew any Sunday.
Yet maybe a reminder of our call to trust and obey is not such a bad idea for a sermon. We tend to give short shrift to both concepts in our culture. We are slow to trust and loath to obey. Don’t believe me? Answer honestly these two questions:
Do you trust most politicians? Have you ever broken a traffic law?
I rest my case. And those are simple and pretty innocuous questions. Now put yourself in Abraham’s shoes. How’s your trust factor doing when you’re walking around in those patriarchal sandals? Really, God? You want me to do WHAT?! Does it make preaching about hospitality and cups of cold water sound a lot more appealing?
And what of SIN? Who wants to bring up that three letter word? A lot of folks in the pews do not feel themselves to be in any danger of sin’s grip. After all, they showed up for worship, right? They probably don’t cheat on their spouse or the IRS. They serve on parish committees and give regularly and generously. For most mainline 21st century Christians in America, “sin” is an abstract concept and not a daily reality with which we wrestle. When I think about Martin Luther’s struggles predating his encounter with the book of Romans, I wonder if maybe we shouldn’t be addressing sin in a much more concrete way in our teaching and preaching. How about tackling the big seven–wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony–head on? After all, we have the ability to counter them with grace, righteousness, and sanctification, right?
Any one of the three texts offers ample sermon material to keep one busy for several years, but I still keep coming back to that old hymn from my childhood. The story behind it is an interesting one. Daniel Towner was leading the music at a Moody revival in 1887, when a young man stood up to give his testimony. Although not skilled in theology or biblically literate, Towner recalled the young man spoke a powerful truth “I’m not quite sure. But I’m going to trust, and I’m going to obey.” Towner was so taken by his statement of faith that he jotted down the words and gave them to his friend, John Sammis. An ordained second-career Presbyterian minister, Sammis wrote the lyrics to which Towner set the tune, and “Trust and Obey” quickly became an American hymn favorite.
Trust, obedience, and tough texts are on the menu this week. We may squirm and question Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. We may even prefer to avoid the story altogether, relegating it to the dark corners where we hide the most shameful, confusing, and violent of biblical texts. We may scratch our heads about how to make Paul’s logic accessible and meaningful to those we serve, and before it’s over we may feel like WE need somebody to hand US a cup of cold water. The thing is, dear friends, don’t shortchange trust and obedience. Don’t just leave them as abstract constructs or folks will leave with more questions than when they arrived.
A call to action is required, an admonition to “get the lead out” so to speak. God provided for Abraham, but Abraham had to take note and go get the sacrificial critter out of the bushes. Abraham laid it all on the altar, all the goodness that God had provided, and what he learned is that God’s goodness has no limits, not even those we humans try to impose on God. As John Sammis wrote in the lyrics of“Trust and Obey”:
But we never can prove the delights of His love
Until all on the altar we lay;…
Paul calls us to turn from our slavery to sin to be enslaved to God. It makes sense; if one is going to be enslaved, better to be in God’s camp than trotting merrily and ignorantly down a dead-end path to one’s own destruction. Again, there is a call to action. This enslavement is no passive affair; sure, the grace is a gift, but the sanctification is a process.
“But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life” (Romans 6:22).
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Yes, dear friends, God abides with us, and grace is freely bestowed, but it is up to us to do something, to get out there just as Jesus instructed the twelve in Matthew 10. Yours is the face of Christ that others will see. Yours are the feet that bring the good news. And, yes, yours are the hands that bear that cup of cool water.
So dear fellow pastors, teachers, students, and disciples, whether you lift up Abraham’s trust or Paul’s call to obedience on this second Sunday in Pentecost, just be sure “to get the lead out” and remind us that discipleship and stewardship are not just words or passive concepts. We are called to go and do likewise.
What He says we will do, where He sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.
Consider talking about sharing God’s love through hospitality as the gospel text reminds us. If you are able, purchase or glean from second-hand or Army/Navy stores an assortment of graniteware or stainless steel hiking cups. Give each child one (well-washed, of course) and remind them how simple it is to be the presence of Christ for others. You might even with to bless their cups and use a shell to dip water from the font into the cup to make the living water connection.
Consider using Paul’s words from Romans 6 to talk to contrast the slavery of sin vs. slavery in Christ. What’s the difference? Ask the youth to give examples of both. Discuss in what ways it is more difficult to be a slave to Christ rather than a slave to self (i.e. sin). In what ways is it easier? Consider providing two large pieces of butcher paper and crayons, paints, or markers for youth to make their own “Slave Signs.” Display their finished work in a visible area for all to see.