Speak Lord: to your pilgrim people

DSC00541 abraham.jpg
The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing.

‘I will bless those who bless you:
I will curse those who slight you.
All the tribes of the earth
shall bless themselves by you.’

So Abram went as the Lord told him.

Genesis 12:1-4

We journey on from our familiar places to the unknown to which God calls us on.

Lent is a time when we check our maps and sat navs and see how we are getting on.

If we have strayed, we are called back; if we have been faithful we are encouraged on…

And always, as the Lord assures us in this reading, we are accompanied in our journey by the loving Lord.

Abraham. All Saints, Leamington Spa. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: Of continuity and growth…

Abraham, LiverpoolIn recent weeks the second reading at Mass has come from the Letter to the Colossians.

This Sunday we plunge into a sequence of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews, beginning at chapter 11 (readings from Chapters 2-10 came at the end of the last liturgical year). The readings focus on faith, living faithfully and the life of the kingdom.

This year, though, we barely get our toes wet in the sequence of readings from Hebrews before it is interrupted by next week’s sequence of readings for the Assumption of Our Lady, transferred from the 15th August to the 14th, the preceding Sunday.

But this week, Hebrews…

Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen. It was for faith that our ancestors were commended.

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going. By faith he arrived, as a foreigner, in the Promised Land, and lived there as if in a strange country, with Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. They lived there in tents while he looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God.

It was equally by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past the age, was made able to conceive, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it. Because of this, there came from one man, and one who was already as good as dead himself, more descendants than could be counted, as many as the stars of heaven or the grains of sand on the seashore.

All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognising that they were only strangers and nomads on earth. People who use such terms about themselves make it quite plain that they are in search of their real homeland. They can hardly have meant the country they came from, since they had the opportunity to go back to it; but in fact they were longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, since he has founded the city for them.

It was by faith that Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He offered to sacrifice his only son even though the promises had been made to him and he had been told: It is through Isaac that your name will be carried on. He was confident that God had the power even to raise the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead.

Hebrews 11:1-2,8-19

The Letter to the Hebrews is often supposed to have been written to convert Jews, perhaps priests. Certainly, in comparison to some other writings of the New Testament, Hebrews emphasises a continuity between Judaism and Christianity. What is new is fulfilment and completion of the ‘old’, rather than a replacement of it.

And in this week’s passage, the fulfilment of faith in Christ and in the Church is seen to have firm foundations in the Patriarch Abraham and Matriarch Sarah. The faith has been handed on and now it is our responsibility to live it well so as to hand it on entire for those who follow after…

Abraham, Our Father in Faith. Figure by Sean Rice in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Liverpool. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.

 

Speak Lord: Of humanity

Hiroshima Stone

The First reading at Mass today comes from the Book of Genesis. It is one of the great arguments/tussles//debates between God and the patriarchs that is such a feature of the earlier books of the Old Testament, and most notably the book of Job.of the Old Testament.

It is an account of an argument where where Abraham seems to be more moral, more merciful than God!

The Lord said, ‘How great an outcry there is against Sodom and Gomorrah! How grievous is their sin! I propose to go down and see whether or not they have done all that is alleged in the outcry against them that has come up to me. I am determined to know.’

The men left there and went to Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Approaching him he said, ‘Are you really going to destroy the just man with the sinner? Perhaps there are fifty just men in the town. Will you really overwhelm them, will you not spare the place for the fifty just men in it? Do not think of doing such a thing: to kill the just man with the sinner, treating just and sinner alike! Do not think of it! Will the judge of the whole earth not administer justice?’ the Lord replied, ‘If at Sodom I find fifty just men in the town, I will spare the whole place because of them.’

Abraham replied, ‘I am bold indeed to speak like this to my Lord, I who am dust and ashes. But perhaps the fifty just men lack five: will you destroy the whole city for five?’ ‘No,’ he replied ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five just men there.’ Again Abraham said to him, ‘Perhaps there will only be forty there.’ ‘I will not do it’ he replied ‘for the sake of the forty.’

Abraham said, ‘I trust my Lord will not be angry, but give me leave to speak: perhaps there will only be thirty there.’ ‘I will not do it’ he replied ‘if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘I am bold indeed to speak like this, but perhaps there will only be twenty there.’ ‘I will not destroy it’ he replied ‘for the sake of the twenty.’ He said, ‘I trust my Lord will not be angry if I speak once more: perhaps there will only be ten.’ ‘I will not destroy it’ he replied ‘for the sake of the ten.’

Genesis 18:20-32

The argument is won by Abraham’s appeal for mercy for the innocent and just.

A week ago a debate was held in the House of Commons where it was argued that the  government would./should be prepared to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Britain. And spend billions of pounds in order to be able to do so.

Threatening to use such weapons in order not to have to use them is a different matter to actually using them, of course – so long as they never do get used. But what a risk, what a calculation… And, potentially, how morally corrosive the policy.

  • Why does God give in to Abraham?

The Hiroshima Stone. National Memorial Arboretum. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: Goodness & good news

Trinity Russia Museum IIIThe first Reading at Mass yesterday came from the Book of Genesis.

It was part of the narrative about Abraham and Sarah, and the birth of Isaac, their son, God’s promise.

The story is about God’s graciousness to his people, but interestingly this present intervention of God is expressed through Abraham and Sarah’s graciousness to the Lord.

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up, and there he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and bowed to the ground. ‘My lord,’ he said ‘I beg you, if I find favour with you, kindly do not pass your servant by. A little water shall be brought; you shall wash your feet and lie down under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you shall refresh yourselves before going further. That is why you have come in your servant’s direction.’ They replied, ‘Do as you say.’

Abraham hastened to the tent to find Sarah.’ ‘Hurry,’ he said ‘knead three bushels of flour and make loaves.’ Then running to the cattle Abraham took a fine and tender calf and gave it to the servant, who hurried to prepare it. Then taking cream, milk and the calf he had prepared, he laid all before them, and they ate while he remained standing near them under the tree.

‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him. ‘She is in the tent’ he replied. Then his guest said, ‘I shall visit you again next year without fail, and your wife will then have a son.’

Genesis 18:1-10

Abraham and Sarah did not know who they welcomed to their table. They were also, the story goes in to reveal, by now unsure that God would fulfil his promise to them of a son.

And yet they are generous and they are faithful. They interpret the signs of the times in order that they may do good for others: ‘That is why you have come in your servant’s direction.’

  • What promise of God to you do you treasure and wait for the fulfilment of?
  • For whom do you do good today?

Trinity of the Old Testament. Russian Museum, St Petersburg. (c) 2015, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: Of your love for us

Bathhouse Buna

The first reading at Mass today, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, comes from the book of Genesis and speaks of the covenant with the Patriarch Abraham, our Father in Faith. Here though he is still but Abram!

Taking Abram outside, the Lord said, ‘Look up to heaven and count the stars if you can. Such will be your descendants.’ Abram put his faith in the Lord, who counted this as making him justified.

‘I am the Lord’ he said to him ‘who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldaeans to make you heir to this land.’ ‘My Lord,’ Abram replied ‘how am I to know that I shall inherit it?’ He said to him, ‘Get me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these, cut them in half and put half on one side and half facing it on the other; but the birds he did not cut in half. Birds of prey came down on the carcases but Abram drove them off.

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, there appeared a smoking furnace and a firebrand that went between the halves. That day the Lord made a Covenant with Abram in these terms:

‘To your descendants I give this land,
from the wadi of Egypt to the Great River.’

Genesis 15:5-12,17-18

Abram/Abraham and his story are far from uncomplex, far from untroubling to our contemporaries because of cultural differences, but also from the start the inconsistencies, and the ‘wrong choices’, all in the text for all to see, sit alongside the nobility and trust and faith that Abraham also exhibits.

Here though the emphasis is surely more on God. God offers the covenant, pledges his life (God’s life) on his faithfulness (God’s faithfulness.)

Abraham may be our Father in Faith, but God is Father of all, and source of all blessing.

As we come to the Lord in this day and everyday, with our complexities, mess and contradictions let us rejoice in his faithfulness.

Bathhouse in Sufi Monastery, Buna, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (c) 2015, Allen Morris.

Taste and see: The Sorrow and the Pity

Jagger 1

The first reading on Sunday came from the book of Genesis.

In the light of Christian revelation it points us to the self-sacrifice of Christ, Son of Mary and Son of God: a self-offering which win salvation for us.

God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he called. ‘Here I am’ he replied. ‘Take your son,’ God said ‘your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’

When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he said. ‘I am here’ he replied. ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son.’ Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.
The angel of the Lord called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self – it is the Lord who speaks – because you have done this, because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants shall gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.’

Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18

The passage has been inspiration many artists and writers. In this anniversary year of the second year of World War the following poem by Wilfred Owen deserves our attention.

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old.

Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

Jagger 2The savagery of that text reminds us of how for all its bleakness and moral challenge the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis, because of the love  and goodness of God, does not, end with the sacrifice of the son.

And yet so many sons and daughters are sacrificed still to human greed and fear and hatred and prejudice.

Pray for peace, pray for reconciliation.

Photographs showing details from No Man’s Land by Charles Sargeant Jagger, 1919-20. Property of the Tate Gallery, photographed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (c) Allen Morris, 2007.

Speak Lord: God, on our side…

The Cruficied, Aix 2014With the second reading the logic of the Liturgy of the Word for the Second Sunday of Lent starts to reveal itself.

The first reading retold the story of the testing of Abraham.

The psalm has us confess the presence and care of the Lord for us in all our circumstances.

Now words from St Paul offer us still further encouragement and hope.

With God on our side who can be against us? Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give. Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen? When God acquits, could anyone condemn? Could Christ Jesus? No! He not only died for us – he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.

Romans 8:31-34

Genesis tells us of the testing of Abraham, but that at the last God stopped the father sacrificing his Son. The New Testament tells us of God’s Son offering himself for the salvation of the world, and nothing would or could stop his self-offering.

St Paul says, after that what could shake our faith in God’s love and care for us.

  • What does cause you to fear or doubt?
  • In quiet trust, seek to bring that to the Lord in prayer, and know his love for you.

Photograph is of medieval Corpus, in Le Musée du Vieil Aix, Aix en Provence. (c) 2014, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: Of the unspeakable…

Abraham and Isaac York

The first reading on Sunday comes from the book of Genesis, and is one of the most morally troubling of text. How does one judge God to be in this story? And how does Abraham come out of it all?

God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he called. ‘Here I am’ he replied. ‘Take your son,’ God said ‘your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’

When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham’ he said. ‘I am here’ he replied. ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son.’ Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.
The angel of the Lord called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self – it is the Lord who speaks – because you have done this, because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants shall gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.’

Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18

  • Does God intend ‘only’ to test Abraham? If so is it a legitimate thing for God to do?
  • Can there be any justification for Abraham’s being willing to sacrifice his son? Can ‘just following orders’ be an acceptable response for such an action?

Abraham is no stranger to morally ambiguous behaviour. If you have forgotten this about our ‘father in faith’ do re-read the relevant chapters of Genesis. But note how in those cases his behaviour regularly becomes subject of the narrative. Here, in the (purposed) sacrifice of his son, he is simply, bravely (?), righteously (?), doing what God asks.

The book of Job warns us against judging God. Yet how can we not, if we are to do justice to our humanity?

This  passage pushes us to the limits. It stands as testimony to the unspeakable which is so regular an experience in human society: think Sophie’s Choice; think of the countless other situations where people find themselves faced by appalling choices.

Pray for them.

Otherwise we who merely listen and watch can but listen, notice, and be grateful that for us the moment passes…

 Carving of Abraham and Isaac, York Minster. Photograph (c) 2007, Allen Morris