On Sunday, December 2, 2012, over three hundred members of Old South Church in Boston gathered to wrestle together with questions that go to the core of our work: What is the heart of our mission? Where is our treasure? What does God demand of us?
The meeting that ensued was beautiful and deep, difficult and important. The questions at the heart of our robust congregational debate should be discussed with such energy, civility and passion at every church meeting. They brought us together and strengthened us. The testimonials from the congregation over the course of more than two hours of meeting—and in the days and weeks preceding the vote in many meetings and on-line forums—were poignant and powerful ... issuing from hearts in love with God.
It was a remarkable day. It was church. We were church. Thanks be to God.
That night at Evening Worship, Old South Trustee Dan Bergstresser offered this timely and searching reflection:
Like many people of faith, I have always struggled with the story of the binding of Isaac. Rev. Edgerton preached on this last week in Festival Worship. Abraham leads Isaac to an altar, binds him, and is prepared to offer his son as a sacrifice until God stops him. At Old South a few years ago, we had a very interesting service where we brought together scholars from the Jewish, Islamic, and Catholic traditions to discuss their interpretations of this challenging passage in the Bible.
The Jewish scholar offered a very interesting interpretation of the passage, and I have found this interpretation very helpful. Her interpretation: Abraham thinks that he has heard God’s command to kill his son. He certainly has heard God’s voice in his head, asking him to commit this extreme act. But in fact, God interrupts the sacrifice not as a diety for whom some test has been passed, but as a father horrified that Abraham thinks he heard God’s voice telling him to commit some terrible act in his name. In fact, no such demand has been made. God says, instead: ‘Stop! Abraham! The next time you think that you have heard me ask you to kill somebody, or commit some terrible act in my name, please stop and think it over! Why on earth would I ask you to do such a terrible thing in my name?’
The scholar from the Jewish tradition pointed out one lesson that follows. We are imperfect. We can be misled by what we think we hear God asking us to do. Sometimes the voice that we think is God is really fear, or envy, or pride, or wrath, or sloth. When we feel that voice telling us to do something terrible, or violent, or unprecedented, or that will break the peace, we need to stop, take a deep breath. Seek counsel from our elders. There is a pretty good chance that, once we have time to reflect, we will realize that that voice is not the voice of God at all. God is really asking us to come down from Mount Moriah. Leave Isaac be. How could Abraham ever have thought that God was really asking him to do something so rash, and terrible, and destructive.
This has been a very helpful interpretation to me. You may think you hear God telling you to make some terrible stand, or do some radical thing, or place valuable things at risk in the service of some cause. Take a deep breath. Slow down. God needs you to sit tight and muddle through. Don’t do anything crazy. Don’t break with tradition. Don’t break the peace.
Now I am an adult. When I first heard that story, as a child, I identified with Isaac or maybe with the servants helping Abraham deliver Isaac. Now I am an adult, and people, and institutions, depend on me to help make good decisions. I serve as a trustee of this church. And I have heard, in my head, a voice. This voice says ‘Old South is a living church. It is not a museum.’ This is the voice that I have heard – and continue to hear – in my head. It is still there.
This voice has led me to recommend a course of action that has been deeply upsetting to at least some members of our community and of the larger community outside of this church. Our course of action – the course of action which I have recommended, has played a role in the recent breaking of peace. How you assign blame is up to you, but certainly we set things in motion knowing that peace could be broken. It is difficult for me to tell how difficult it will be to recover peace. I pray and believe that it will not be long.
But, because I am human, and maybe because this interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac resonates so strongly with me – I have to admit to having some doubt. I believe that I have heard a voice. The voice has been consistent, and loud, and many others appear to have heard it too. I see a course of action that I believe God has laid out. This course of action does involve a break with tradition. An upsetting of tradition. The course of action I believe that God has called me to has been rejected as foolish by people whose opinions I value. But still I hear the voice. ‘Old South is a living church. It is not a museum. And this church’s best days are ahead.’ What was it that God promised Abraham? That his descendants would be as numerous as the stars? In my heart I see something similar for Old South.
But because this story of Abraham and Isaac resonates so strongly with me, I have a fear – not a paralyzing fear – but something that does kick in inside of my brain – am I Abraham now? Except – wow, here is a thought – was I part of a team that had the guts to go through with the sacrifice? We listened to the voice. We took Isaac up there and we cut his throat. God is great. That is a sobering thought.
The philosophical problem of extremism is an interesting one to me. Does an extremist ever really feel extreme? Or do they feel sane and that the world around them has gone mad? What is the difference between Noah in his garage and Abraham walking up to the altar?
There are times when extreme action, and action that breaks peace, is a moral imperative, and the voice of God telling us to break with tradition is actually God. This interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac, although helpful, must not lead us to ignore the true voice of God when it comes. And God please help us to know the difference. Unfortunately – often when the voice involves comfort, it is not God. Not comfort – God. Comfort – not God. But not always. For example, consider Abraham.
So Noah builds an ark, while being mocked as a fool. Maybe Noah even got some helpful last-minute advice from his neighbors about how he could be building that ark more cheaply, more frugally. But Noah was right.
Samuel Sewall, a member of this church - he broke the peace by admitting to error in the Salem Witch Trials and calling for a day of fasting, prayer, and reparations. He was right, in admitting that he was wrong during the trials.
Our fight against enslavement, and against bigotry and exclusion - that was and it continues to be a good fight. The peace that prevailed with slavery was unjust. You cannot make peace with enslavement. You cannot just listen to the voice of elders who claim that ‘this is how we’ve always done things.’ That boat must be rocked. God demands that we rock that boat, that we upset peace that is false and wicked.
I believe, and I pray, that our breaking of the peace at Old South over the direction of our church turns out to be a healthy and a productive breaking of the peace. And at the moment that is really all that I can do – to pray – and to love God with all of my heart. To love my neighbors. To love you. To love God’s church. To resist wickedness. To try my best to know when the voice that I have heard in my head is actually God speaking, and when that voice is my own pride, or greed, or wrath, or lust, or sloth, or envy, masquerading as the voice of God.
And what I ask from you – is to please help me. Tell me what you think about the voice that I appear to be following. That voice will show in my actions. Because that in the end is what our community is – a group of people, called to be together – to help each other – to be a witness for the power of faith – to help bring peace, and love, and justice, to a world that is waiting for us.
The actions we took today will have important consequences. Right now we do not know whether future generations will view us as people who heard the true voice of God. Or as people who listened to and followed a false voice – whether pride, or laziness, or fear – masquerading as the voice of God. Our actions from this day forward will determine how the action we took today will be viewed by future generations. If we sell these heritage assets as a substitute for our own generosity to the church, and as a substitute for our own careful attention to its affairs, then the best that I can hope for is that I will be remembered by future generations as a fool. If we sell these assets and combine them with our own recklessly generous gifts and service to the church, then we will be viewed as people who heard and followed the true voice of God. We will reveal through our actions from this point forward what has really happened here today.
May God guide us, and may God have mercy on us. Amen.