We have in today’s readings some very difficult texts.
First, the frightening passage from Genesis, where God tests Abraham. The idea that God would demand that Abraham sacrifice his own son is so terrifying to us that the compilers of our lectionary removed this passage from its more prominent position as part of the Good Friday liturgy. It raises many questions – difficult questions – including who would want to worship a God who makes such outrageous demands?
Then, we have Psalm 13: “Will you forget me for ever, O God?” As we sing this psalm, are we to have perplexity in our minds and grief in our hearts? Are we to cower in fright because our enemy triumphs over us again and again? The psalm does go on to express trust in God, but, honestly, who wants to deal with a God who hides his face from us?
And the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a treatise on sin. The Blessed Apostle depicts sin as the opposite of obedience to God. Our catechism refers to sin as distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation – that’s not exactly the same thing. Because obedience to God, well, that takes us back to the first lesson – and who wants to be obedient to a God who makes such outrageous demands?
Author Phyllis Tribble has referred to biblical passages such as this as “texts of terror.”
But, like it or not, these are part of our sacred scripture, facets of the God revealed to us in the Holy Bible.
For most of us in the Episcopal Church – and even the wider Anglican Communion – ignoring these texts is something of a lifelong devotional practice. It is far, far easier to look away than to confront the painful reality of such texts of terror, isn’t it?
But we are challenged to reconcile the violence in the Bible with the idea of a loving God, and so we tend to concentrate more on the many passages where God is depicted as loving, as nurturing, as caring.
And, fortunately, the scales are tipped from violence to love in the transition from the Old Testament to the New.
The gospels and the New Testament are not entirely devoid of violence, but – on the whole – they depict a God of love much more than a God of vengeance.
The opposite is true of the Old Testament. It’s full of violence – much like the world in which we live.
Regardless of how much or how little violence there is in our biblical narrative week by week, we struggle with it.
Even in today’s gospel passage, Jesus is hardly unconditionally affirming. Let’s examine that more closely.
He speaks of rewards – for prophets, for the righteous. And he speaks of people who losetheir reward.
If the reward is eternal life, who wouldn’t be concerned about losing that? And doesn’t it make us scared to think we could lose it?
And the passages right before today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel have even more terrifying concerns: about sending us out like sheep into the midst of wolves, about being flogged, about being persecuted, and about losing our life for Christ’s sake so that we can find it. Jesus also says that whoever denies him before others, he also will deny before God in heaven. Ouch.
But Jesus also says, paraphrasing slightly, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me … and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, these will definitely have their reward.”
Maybe that’s what we should concentrate on: welcome.
Not fear, not violence, not vengeance – but welcome, acceptance and love.
The world has had enough of retribution.
The world has had enough of aggression.
The world has had enough of terror.
And the Bible’s had more than its fair share of all of these – because the Bible is about the journey of humankind almost as much as it is about God.
So, maybe one lesson to learn from all this is about free will: your choice, my choice, our choice.
Because we are all created in the image of God, we are free to make choices.
Free to choose love, free to create, free to live in harmony, free to reason.
And there’s a flip side to that: We are also free to hate, free to kill, free to foster discord, and free to deny the good sense given us.
Abraham could have said, “No, I will not sacrifice my only son!” to God, but he chose to be obedient. And God spares Isaac.
The psalmist could have cried, “I don’t trust you, O God,” but instead choses to praise God. And God responds with saving help.
Paul could have insisted that “we should sin because are no longer under the law,” but instead proclaims our true freedom in righteousness. And God gives us the free gift of eternal life.
It makes you wonder: If we get all these blessings for behaving badly, how much must God love us?
The answer, of course, is infinitely, without bounds, reservation or qualification of any kind.
God loves us enough to overlook our wrongdoings.
God loves us enough to pardon our offenses.
God loves us enough to forgive.
And, so, how are we to respond? With hatred, malice, fear and prejudice? Or with love, forgiveness, mercy and faith?
The answer is clear.
We are given a choice. It’s up to each and every one of us, each and every day we live.
We can seek to oppress and control others, to amass power and wealth and to serve the demons of this world.
Or we can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
We can affirm the goodness of creation – as told in the creation story in Genesis.
And, following the teaching of Jesus, we can welcome the stranger – offering not just hospitality but acceptance without judgment, giving without obligation and love without condition.
It’s a choice.
So let us choose life. Let us choose justice. Let us choose to offer a cup of cold water to one of those little ones in the name of God.
Let us put our trust in God’s mercy; and our hearts will be joyful because of God’s saving help. We will sing to the Holy One, who has dealt with us richly; through our ongoing choice for good, we will praise the Name of God Most High.