Today we heard the shocking story of Abraham and his son Isaac” of how God said to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And how Abraham moved to sacrifice his son. And how it turned out to only be a test. How God stopped Abraham from making this sacrifice. And the horror we feel at the idea that God would demand the sacrifice of an old man’s only son, that our God would ever demand a human sacrifice.
From our position in the 21st century, we wonder why such a horrible story found its way into Jewish scripture. From our vantage point, it is easy for us to overlook one of the main points of this story: it is easy for us – especially if we try to take the story literally – to not see how this story teaches that human sacrifices are not desired by our God.
The idea of human sacrifice is so foreign to us that we don’t consider that at the time this story was first told, the sacrifice of living human beings was an integral part of some pagan religions. This story about Abraham and Isaac makes one thing unambiguously clear: that following our God does not require and will not accept the sacrifice of a human being.
And that’s one of the problems with reading scripture literally: it is easy for 21st-century readers to miss the point. Even when reading the King James translation. But that is only one part of our problem here today. Preachers who read the Bible literally have become the popular spokespeople of contemporary Christianity. They are the ones who are quoted in the media, who show up in our Facebook feeds, who dominate the news cycle. Part of that’s because they often – and intentionally – make pronouncements that are so far beyond the bounds of reality that they become “newsworthy.”
Of course, that’s why these ‘preachers’ say outrageous things. They need to gain attention, to generate media coverage, to galvanize their base, to boost fundraising income, or to gain viewers. This is a well-known strategy often used by conservative politicians as well. It is how they broke the coalition that forged Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It is how they fill their churches, support their TV shows, and win elections.
Here’s how it works. Someone like televangelist Pat Robertson says Hurricane Katrina’s flooding in New Orleans was God’s punishment for gay marriage or for Roe vs. Wade or for some other “sin.” More recently, TV personality Jim Bakker said the last election was ‘The Greatest Miracle I Have Ever Seen!’ Word of their outlandish statement becomes a news story, spreads through the internet. People who believe what these pastors say feel encouraged. The rest of us are outraged or laugh.
After decades of this cycle, many Americans have turned away from religion. They choose “none of the above” in surveys gauging religious preference. Many Americans have come to see any Christian as an ally of a toxic form of religion that murders abortion doctors, hates gay people, wants to bully transgender Americans, and force their religion on the rest of us through “religious freedom” bills which give government approval to discrimination by those whose Jesus calls for hatred of LGBT people.
Think I am overstating the situation we face right here in San Francisco?
The Next Door website is one of the ways we let our neighbors know of our services here as well as events at the Cyprian’s Center. Recently I posted word of a Sunday service and saw this response:
I don’t think there is a place for bizarre religious plugs
on this forum.
Within minutes, two people had “thanked” the author of this comment. Moments later, someone commented:
Agreed. Freedom of Religion means no “Christ” agendas.
After reading these and thinking about it, I posted a response noting that usually those who found our theology “bizarre” were “conservatives who oppose universal health care, don’t believe America has a racism problem, and promote homophobia in the name of their own religious freedom.”
One of those who had commented earlier felt this was a personal accusation against their character. Another wrote:
That’s a pretty damning comment for a supposedly religious leader. Just more hate speech when we need exactly the opposite.
And I almost answered back: “Sorry but I’m not a religious leader –in fact, I’m spiritual and not at all religious.”
But I didn’t. And as the days went by more and more of the people who know us spoke up and defended our right to tell people about the things we do here to increase the power of healing and art and resistance and community to the corner of Turk and Lyon.
What stays with me from this exchange is the idea that a religious leader shouldn’t be assertive in speaking up while working in 21st century San Francisco. Because if I as a priest push back, if I make a point forcefully, I am somehow not following the meek and mild Jesus who always turns the other cheek. I am tired of that Jesus. I don’t have time to be polite anymore, to speak softly anymore, to make peace with oppression anymore.
People, we’re not living in the idealized West reflected in the song Home on the Range, we don’t live in a place “[w]here seldom is heard a discouraging word, And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Instead, we live in a place where too many people are homeless; where too many young people are living in the streets; where the AIDS/HIV epidemic continues to spread like wildfire through the African American community; and where every day people are evicted from their home to make way for a more affluent tenant. We live in a nation whose immigration policy is designed to intimidate and terrorize people into being compliant with an increasingly authoritarian president. On a daily basis, our country suffers from the emerging effects of man-made climate change. Over and over again, young men of color die at the hands of police or white people in what can only be described as needless deaths, and they are deaths for which justice is rarely found. And we live in a nation where politicians who campaign to protect a “right to life” of a fetus are rushing to deny health care to millions of Americans, a move which will kill thousands of people each and every year.
And me: I can’t do meek and mild anymore. I can‘t be polite for fear of hurting some privileged person’s feelings or offending someone who has a different religion. Because that is what fundamentalist, evangelical belief has become: a different non-Christian religion. It is a religion with little in common with a Christianity based on the teachings and life of Jesus.
And I have to say that here today on this Fourth of July weekend because people are being hurt by the heresy of fundamentalist and evangelical religion. And I have to preach this here to reclaim and rescue Jesus from these false prophets, money-grabbing evangelists, and jaded politicians. We need to make a Declaration of Independence from Evangelical Hersey
We need to be clear that real Christianity centers on love of God and of our neighbors. We need to be clear real Christians don’t hate or hurt in the name of Jesus. We need to be clear that judgement is left to God but forgiveness of ourselves and our neighbor: this is our spiritual path. Most important: through our lives we have to show people what it manes to be a real Christian.
And if saying this means I don’t meet someone’s standards for being a “supposedly religious leader,” well I am good with that. For the truth is that people of privilege always criticize those who speak up for those who are being hurt by the cost of maintaining that privilege. They are like the guy who is more upset that you said “Ouch” out loud, than he is bothered by the fact that he is still standing on your foot.
Let us pray:
Creator of this and every universe,
you call us to radical loyalty
beyond all earthly claim of tribe or politics or nation
Grant us strength to offer ourselves to you
as people who have been raised from death to life
through Jesus Christ,
and shape our spirit so we may make this pilgrimage together,
resisting the evil which threatens to encircle us,
hearing the cries of those who are in pain,
and living lives made radiant by your love,
this we pray in the name of the Jesus
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.