Sermon for Sunday, February 25, 2018 || Lent 2B || Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
History is full of turning points – those moments when one event or one decision alters the fabric of the future. The turning points we remember happened on the world’s stage: the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, which contributed to the United States entering World War I; or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which did the same 26 years later; or more happily, the moon landing on a summer night in July 1969, which spurred the scientific dreams of a generation.
In my 35 years, I have witnessed some world changing turning points. I was six years old when the Berlin Wall fell, too young to appreciate what its destruction symbolized, but old enough to remember just the same. On a Tuesday morning in September of my freshman year of college, I was waiting for an appointment in the admissions office when I heard a tinny voice on the radio announce that a horrible accident had happened at the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane, before we grasped the horrible reality of terrorism. Today’s teenagers do not remember this event, just as I do not remember, say, the Kennedy assassination or the fall of Saigon.
But I hope, I hope with all the fervor in my heart, that our teenagers will remember the events of eleven days ago, Ash Wednesday, when 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I hope they will remember it not as another school shooting, but as the last school shooting. I hope they will remember it as a turning point in the history of our country.
To be honest, I’m probably naive to hope for such a turning point. I grew up in the age of school shootings. Whereas many of you probably practiced drills in school where you got under your desks in case of a nuclear attack, today’s students do active shooter drills. In April 1999, I was a sophomore at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when thirteen people were killed at Columbine High School in Colorado. At that time, the Columbine massacre was The School Shooting, not another one.* We sought comfort in the delusion that this was an isolated case, the devilish work of a pair of deviants. But then shootings kept happening, and the American psyche retreated behind a repeated ritual of mourning the dead without follow-up action. I know I thought the Sandy Hook shooting would be the turning point. I was naive then.
But I don’t think I am this time. In 1999, there was no such thing as social media. There were no camera phones. Students like me had no notion that we might document our lives on the Internet, which was still, even then, pretty rudimentary. But today’s teens have had the ability to connect globally their entire lives. I know social media is blamed, and rightly so, for many ills, but I’m telling you right now, you are about to see the positive force social media can be. For an entire generation of digital natives just had their Columbine, and the students of Parkland will not go quietly into that good night.
On Ash Wednesday, children like Parkland students Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Katsky, and David Hogg were victims. Now they are advocates. This is what turning points do to us: they change our identities.
And here we bring in our reading from the book of Genesis. Abram went out into the desert under a starry sky. And “God came so close to Abram and Abram came so close to God”** that Abram knew God’s promises, God’s covenant, God’s dream for the future. God tells Abram that he and his wife Sarai will be parents, and their offspring will be more numerous than the grains of sand in the desert. But it’s totally impossible, this promise of God’s. As new and old translations alike say, “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” And yet, God makes the promise anyway: “I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.” To seal the covenant, to mark this as a turning point in history, God changes Abram’s and Sarai’s names. They are now Abraham and Sarah. They were called barren. Now they are called fruitful. They were called the last of a line. Now they are called the “ancestors of a multitude of nations.”
No matter how world-shaking a turning point is, there are always people at the heart of it. Every turning point is personal, both for those immediately impacted and for those who feel the ripples. Emma Gonzalez survived the shooting in Parkland, gave an impassioned speech about gun control, and is now helping organize the student movement. Her witness rippled to me and sparked this sermon. If I am to partner with Emma and her fellow students, I too must change my identity. With God’s help, I must change, like Abram and Sarai changed. I must go out under the starry sky and allow myself to come so close to the God who is already so close to me. And enlivened by the life-giving promises of God, my name, too, can change. I will no longer be called helpless, but courageous. I will no longer be called bystander, but ally.
Turning points happen and the world changes when the courage of one becomes the catalyst for many. We Christians know this, for our savior’s courage led him to the cross. Centuries earlier, Abraham brought his son Isaac, the same child promised under that starry sky, up a mountain. The boy carried wood on his back for a sacrifice father and son would make there. But when they arrived, there was no animal for the sacrifice, though Abraham had promised his son God would provide such a one. Instead, the father took his son and tied him up and laid him on the pyre and drew forth his weapon.
In those days, child sacrifice was practiced by all the minor cults of the area. They burned their children to satisfy their false gods of wood and stone. And here was Abraham about to join them and prove his God was just as bloodthirsty as the false ones.
But wait – could this be another turning point in history? Yes! For an angel stays Abraham’s outstretched arm. Look over there! A ram is caught in the bushes. That is your sacrifice, not your precious child. Only false gods demand the sacrifice of children.
At that turning point in the history of God’s people, it wasn’t Abraham’s name that changed, but the name of the mountain. Abraham called it, “The Lord sees”; the Lord provides new vision, a new way to live so unlike the death-dealing ways of Abraham’s neighbors.
At this turning point, or what I hope will be a turning point, the Lord continues to provide new vision in the witness of our young people.They have had their names changed. They will no longer be sacrifices or victims. They will be new voices. They will be agents of change. And with God’s help, my name can change too. I can stand with them. I invite you to do the same.
* Two shootings led up to Columbine – Paducah, KY (Dec. 1997), and Jonesboro, AK (March 1998) – but I don’t remember them receiving nearly the amount of press Columbine did. As someone who was in high school at the time, however, I remembered the names (and spellings) of those two tones with crystal clarity. I only had to look up the dates.
** This is my favorite phrase in the entire Godly Play corpus of stories.
I am proud that my bishops, the Rt. Revs. Ian T. Douglas and Laura Ahrens are active members of the group, Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Here is what they had to say recently.
Banner image: “Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio (1602)