This week and next, I am preaching a short sermon series. Returning from vacation this last week, coming home to America in time for the celebrations of July 4, I have had some mixed feelings. (Who doesn’t have mixed feelings coming back from vacation?) But these feelings are specific, and to me troubling. As a kid, I loved the fourth of July, the fireworks, the hotdogs, flying the flag. As an adult, especially this year, I feel the weight of responsibility that comes with citizenship in our republic. This year, more than most, I’ve marched. I’ve written letters. I’ve called my representatives and senators, and I don’t see many immediate results. Honestly, I’m a little frustrated with the state of our nation. So today and next week, the Sundays surrounding July 4, I have a series of questions for America.
Before we get to the questions, let’s take a look at the Bible. We have spent the last few weeks in church hearing stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, the matriarchs and patriarch of our faith traditions. We’ve been reading the “founding stories.” The beauty found in these stories is stunning. God takes Abraham out under a cloudless night and says to Abraham “look at the sky. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.” Sarah laughs, when she hears God’s plan that she will conceive in her old age. She’s 90. Laughter is appropriate, holy. Sarah laughs, and at long last Abraham and Sarah have a son, and they name him Isaac, laughter. The stories are beautiful, and, if we’re honest, the stories are problematic.
Last week we heard the story of Hagar, Abraham’s mistress who bore his first son Ishmael. Sarah and Hagar are rivals, and their sons grow rivalrous as well. After seeing Ishmael taunt Isaac, Sarah wants “the other woman” and her child out. Hagar and Ishmael are left out in the desert to die. The story is painful, ugly. How could we believe in a God who would allow such inhumane treatment? Well, these texts are problematic, and there’s a great deal going on behind the scenes. Still I am struck by these stories, because just when I think: “I can’t believe in a God who would bless such behavior,” the text turns. God shows up for the characters who were cast out.
All this backstory is recalled ever so briefly in in today’s lesson. Speaking to Abraham, God calls Isaac, “your only son.” Now God should know better. As we heard last week, God saved Ishmael in the end. Ishmael will also found a dynasty. Abraham will be the father of many nations. The founding story is beautiful and problematic. Today’s text is frightening, and a pattern for salvation. We’ll get deeper into the Bible in a bit.
As I thought about the beauty and the problems of these founding stories of our faith, I found myself also thinking about the beauty and difficulty built into our national stories. When I lived in Washington DC, I used to love to visit the monuments on the National Mall at night. If you’re traveling to Washington, I can’t recommend a nightime visit to Jefferson and Lincoln more highly. You’ll often have the whole place to yourself, and the way the park service lights the marble at night is magic. Standing in his psuedo-Greek Temples, looking out over the Tidal Basin, I loved re-reading Jefferson’s words, lit up against the dark sky. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The monument does its job. You can’t help but contemplate beauty of our founding story.
The United States were built on the bedrock of equality. And yet, there in the text we can hear the problematic element of our founding story as well: “All men.” As Angelica Schuyler sings in the musical Hamilton: “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.” Knowing what we do about Jefferson also begs the question, ”How could the architects of freedom also perpetuate the enslavement of Africans?” Our founding stories are both beautiful and problematic.
Like Isaac and Ishmael, like Sarah and Hagar, our founding stories set up rivalries. In America, often those rivalries are based in racial identity. Toni Morrision has said “Race” is the fundamental metaphor neccessary to understand the “construction of Americanness.” “American” has been defined as “white.” This was literally true at the time of our founding. Enslaved African Americans were only counted as 3/5 of a person by our constitution. And they only counted in order to give their owners more power and representation. Latinx, Asian, and Native American communities have also had their personhood legislated. We have set up racial rivalries across American History.
I entitled this sermon series: “Questions for America.” My first question is this:
“To whom does America belong?”
This morning we heard Jesus’ words about Welcome. Welcome the little ones. Christians believe in fundamental welcome. We hear that this is a nation with Judeo Christian values, but how often do we welcome the way Jesus would have us? How often do we see Americans as Americans? How often are Asian Americans and Latin Americans asked, “Where are you from?” and then “no, really, where are your people from?” How often are black citizens denied basic protections for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even life?
Did you hear the story of Aaron Bailey, another unarmed black man shot by police officers, this time in Indianapolis, last week? Yes, Aaron had a criminal record. But wasn’t he more than his record? Did you know that Aaron was a volunteer at Christ Church Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis? Did you know he was a regular guest at their Sunday breakfast? Who counts as American? Whose lives matter? To whom does America belong?
There is a fundamental problem in our national story. Racism has been called “America’s original sin.” I believe it is important to name it as such. But this story also has beauty, and the beauty has the capacity to overcome sin. Over our 241 years (I think I got that math right), over our 241 years of history, women and people of color have asserted their rights to citizenship.
Historically we have believed in equality, in freedom, and in their expansion. As a nation, we do not believe freedom is a finite resource. You don’t need walls to protect freedom. Walls fence us in. Freedom grows when more people are free. The more free our neighbors are, the more free we are. Freedom grows exponentially. But if we start policing hard lines of belonging. If we say: “you are American, and you are not,” it leads to some of the darkest moments in our history.
My question about who counts sends me back to our story this morning of the binding of Isaac. Historically the Jewish and Christian people have seen this scripture as a story of salvation. God spares Isaac. In the end God does not demand the sacrifice. (The irony for Christians is strong. In the end God does not require the sacrifice of an only child, and yet when God’s only Son came to us, we killed him. We demanded blood. But that’s another sermon). We’ve read this story as salvific historically, but for readers today it still seems barbaric.
I’ve never been able to fully embrace this story, and as I read it in preparation for today’s sermon it was the silence that stood out to me. Where is Abraham’s protest? Why does he just quietly prepare to heed God’s command to kill his son? For that matter, where is Sarah? She fiercely defended Isaac in last weeks story, where is she now? Where is her protest?
Traditionally, even in the New Testament, Abraham and Sarah’s silence is intepreted as a sign of their faith. “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” the book of Hebrews tells us. I’m not sure I buy this story. I want to know where the missing verses are. Where is Abraham’s argument with God? Where is Sarah’s persistence?
This is my second question, it’s for our text today and for America:
“Can protest be prayer?”
For this question (as I’m sure you can tell for most of my questions in this series) I have a strong opinion. Yes, I believe, protest can be prayer. As the ACLU bumper stickers proclaim “Dissent is patriotic.” Full disclosure, I borrowed the phrasing of my question from another preacher.
Over our vacation these past two weeks, we had the opportunity to worship on a Sunday morning at the Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is the tallest steeple in America, built to be “an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation.” It’s a huge cathedral of a place. We went for the architecture, and to see a big successful diverse church. But we went especially to hear one of my homiletical heroes, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, give a sermon. She’s an incredible preacher.
I borrowed my question: “Can protest be prayer?” from Dr. Butler. In a sermon she preached the day after the Women’s March (she marched in Washington DC), Dr. Butler talked about what she realized as she joined the gathered crowd of pink hats on that January day:
Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope.
I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore. I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up. And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices. Together.
Sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy, and protest can be prayer.
I can’t believe God required Abraham and Sarah’s faithful silence. I think God answer’s the question “Can protest be prayer?” with a loud yes! God wants dialogue. God wants people to stand for justice. Faith isn’t always quiet and polite. Faith can be nasty. Protest can be prayer.
Tell Abraham and Sarah. Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends and cousins, and the people on social media. Are you feeling distressed? Stand up. Pray. Get out there on the streets. Ask yourself, am I praying for this country with my silence? Could I be praying with my feet?
On Tuesday I dare you, celebrate. Remember the beauty of our founding stories. Remember the promise. All people are created equal. Then ask yourself: “To whom does America belong?” Ask yourself: “Can protest be prayer?” Then, let’s ask those questions together of our country. This fourth of July, let’s ask some Questions of America.