I did not intend to take a whole week off from blogging. But I have basically been living here in the church office for the last 5 days, trying to get bulletins and liturgy and music and sermons sorted. And given my thick headedness, its taken me twice as long as usual to do the simplest things. However, here we are, in the home stretch. Matt is preaching vigorously to the 8 o'clockers. I'm about to head up to the atrium to sort out my empty tomb and have a much needed moment of quiet. This afternoon we will go home and absolutely collapse, hopefully to resume a much missed online life tomorrow. In the meantime, here is my sermon from last night. I post it with apologies to my mom and dad for my misrememberings and bad spellings. As most children, I have probably completely romantecized and over analayzed ordinary life. So, I hope they'll forgive me. And for everyone else, Happy Easter!
Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter
We didn’t take ordinary holidays when I was a child. First of all, I was at school for three months at a time, and then, when I came home for a break, my parents were always busy—doing the pressing work of language learning, translation, and anthropological research. Plus the business of living took up a huge chunk of every day. We had to take the time to cook each meal, wash dishes, fill lamps for the evening, light them before dark, make sure the jars were full of water, the house swept free of dust and bugs. But we always had some kind of outing when I came home.
A favorite was a visit to Miserikoros, a huge ancient volcanic rock sticking out of the ground, some several hours from our house. We would pack up a picnic, and hats, and walking shoes, lots of water, binoculars and the dogs, and usually one or two village friends—Ali or Jai—and head out. The road was fine through town, but once we left the paved and then the dirt road it was a rough drive. Part of the journey was praying fervently that the car would make it all the way. We’d find a shady tree, park, pack up our gear and hike to the rock, with the goal, ultimately, of climbing all the way up to the top from which there was a fine view. It was a steep walk, and hot, and buggy. But once there you could see for miles, the greatness of Africa spread before you, dry, endless, vast. After a rest we would climb around down into the rock itself, a huge dark cave, surely filled with bats and other creatures, but most especially with bones and ashes.
Which brings me to why this was an odd choice of an outing. Miserikoros is one of the many possible places one can go to make a sacrifice in that region. There are all kinds of reasons one might need to make a sacrifice. It may be a matter of routine—to ask for rain, or good health, or prosperity. But it may be because there’s a serious problem—someone is very sick, or you haven’t been able to get a wife, or someone has put a hex on you, or your wife has been unable to have a child. In which case, the sacrifice of a chicken, the spilling of its blood, its life force, on the ground, or, if the problem is really serious, the killing of a dog or a goat or sheep is the best option to gain the favor of those spirits and powers that have ultimate access to God, and also the ancestors, who continue to meddle in the affairs of the living. Because the Senufo people don’t have full access to God, as they see it. God, out of anger at them, has gone very far away into the sky, and left here humans and spirits to muck it out and make the best of it. And the best that the humans can do is to spill out blood on the ground and ask, to intercede, to request that those with power do something. The cave of Miserikoros is dark, the stench of blood thick in the air, the bones scattered liberally. ‘What are you sacrificing’, a man asked my father one time. ‘Oh, nothing, we’re just here to have lunch and see the view’. The man eyed our pudgy dogs and drew his own conclusions.
But we were really just there to see the view, the beauty of God’s creation and care. And I imagine Isaac, on his way up the mountain, at least the first part of the way, felt the same such freedom and security. After all, he was his father’s son, his only son, whom he loved, as much as any longed for, prayed for, delighted in child can feel secure and loved. But as they climb up the mountain, in the heat of the day, slapping away bugs, greater than the heat, is his father’s deafening silence. You can hear it in each line. They walk and walk and climb and nobody says anything. Finally, as the intense heat of noon begins to slack and the relief of the cooler afternoon approaches, Isaac puts words to a basic anxiety.
"My father!" He says
and Abraham says, "Here am I, my son."
And Isaac asks, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
And Abraham says, "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
So they went both of them together.
As long as I have read this story, in the position of knowing the end even as I read the first line, I have always thought that Isaac must not believe Abraham. How could he believe him? There’s no lamb for the sacrifice. But that is ridiculous. Isaac doesn’t know the end of the story. And his father loves him. If his father, who loves him, says, ‘God himself will provide for the sacrifice’ than I am sure Isaac believed him and was relieved. Because they went both of them together. Isaac didn’t take off running back down the mountain. And look at the continued trust, the immense trust of Isaac who lets Abraham bind him, and place him, maybe even lays himself down on the altar, and watch Abraham raise the knife, and says nothing. Isaac is silent. Trusting. Willing, unimaginably, to die, because at this point he had to have understood.
But what of Abraham? When I hold my babies in the evening, wrapped up in a big furry blanket, I sometimes wonder if I really love God. Because I really love my babies. And if they were required of me, my own children, whom I love, I don’t know what I would do. Do I love God, that much? Enough to give them completely into God’s hands, enough that they might be taken from me? But Abraham did, he loved God that much, he bound his son, the thing, the person he loved most in the whole world, the person on whom all his hopes rested, and laid him on the altar and raised the knife, and said nothing. Abraham and Isaac silent before God together, utterly at God’s own mercy. Abraham loving God enough to trust him completely. Isaac loving his father enough to trust him completely.
This is the trust and love of a religious nut. I sat in this vast church yesterday, on Good Friday, at noon, the hour that Jesus hung, silent, on the cross, broken, bleeding, facing the full wrath and alienation of God, his father, I sat here with 5 other people. At first, as we sat silent together, I thought, why are there so few of us? Are we nuts? Everyone is driving by outside as if nothing is happening. Why are we here, alone with our Christ, remembering this brutal, appalling, merciful moment in history? Jesus himself was alone, on his cross, on the altar of the world’s sin, his mother and friend alone with him. Silent at his feet.
Because that is what we are really seeing. As you look at Abraham and Isaac high on the mountain, alone against the sky, the knife raised, perfect trust, perfect love, you are really seeing God, the Father and his Son, his only Son Jesus, whom he loves. Only where God staid Abraham’s hand, where God had mercy and provided a ram so that Isaac did not die, when it was his own son, Jesus, he did not stay his hand. Jesus himself was the sacrifice promised by Abraham to Isaac. God himself will provide a lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham said. And that sacrifice was Jesus.
In the cave, surrounded by bones and stench, its easy to wish that there was no need for a sacrifice. It’s easy to hold your nose and hope for the best. It’s easy to run through life keeping it together as best you can, hoping that your good will outweigh your bad, or that catastrophe won’t strike. But the Senufo know better. They know that things aren’t ok, that life doesn’t go the way you want, that there is sickness, malice, barrenness, evil, drought, they know that they need the power of something greater to help them with these problems. They are right. There does need to be a spilling of blood on the ground. There does need to be someone to come into the world to fix the mess that we have made, to atone for the sins of the world. What the Senufo don’t know, and so many of us here in America, and thousands around the world, is that high up on a mountain, on a stone, in the hottest part of the day, that blood was spilled. And that the blood spilled in that one hour was enough for the whole world. That Jesus, in his flesh, in his holy perfection as God and Man was enough. That no more blood needs to be spilled. We need only to have his blood written in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls and we are saved, we, like Isaac, are spared from death, eternal unending death. By his blood, with the power of his blood we can live forever.
But there’s another part the Senufo don’t know, and that many of us forget. That it wasn’t just that Jesus died. The blood spilled out and the atonement, the sacrifice was made. But that was only half. Jesus, his body, bereft of blood, was taken down from the mountain, laid in the cool desolation of a tomb and for three days it laid there. And if he had continued to lay there then everything he said would have been a lie, a sham. All the claims he made, all the promises, including the one to Abraham, would have been completely false. But on the third day, God, in his mercy and goodness and providence and perfect love, breathed life into that flesh once more and gave us back the body we had broken. Jesus, fully alive, fully restored walked out of the tomb and had breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, several of them, with his friends. He didn’t stay dead. He rose, the first of us who will rise with him when he comes again. He died and rose, so that we will never have to die. His blood is enough.
In the cool of the day we would climb down the rock and drive home as the sun would sink, orange and then red and then purple. The trees would become strange giants in the dark. Abraham and Isaac, at the end of their ordeal, climbed down the mountain and met up with their servants at the bottom, relieved to go home to the monotony of dinner preparations and the lighting of lamps. But they would never be the same again. The morning Jesus walked out of his grave and told Mary to stop crying, we have never been the same. We live in sure and certain promise and security of God’s perfect love. We can trust him, completely. Whatever it is that he asks of you to do, whatever sacrifice he requires of you, whatever promise he makes you, you can completely trust him to provide for you, to take care of you, to give you everything you need. Why? Because he loves you, perfectly, enough to die, enough to rise again.
Alleluia, he is Risen!
The Lord is risen Indeed. Alleluia!