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July 12, 2014

Mercy, not sacrifice!

Holy Scripture — the Bible — the Word of God — if you’re Jewish, you say the Torah, Prophets and Writings — are central to life in the Spirit. But there’s a lot of material in the Bible, so there’s plenty of choice. Various synagogues and churches make choices about what to read aloud in weekly worship. In some houses of worship the preacher picks a suitable passage for the sermon of the week. In others the choice of passages comes from a predetermined one-year or three-year cycle.

At St. Paul’s Church (Episcopal), we share a preset three-year cycle of Bible readings with our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Congregational churches. Each Sunday we have an appointed reading from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), another from one of the letters of the New Testament and a passage from one of the Gospels. We round all this out by praying a chosen Psalm together.

My seminary professors explained that these appointed readings are good discipline for preachers like me and for our congregations: We can’t dodge the parts of the Bible we find troubling.

And that is true. Some parts of the Bible are deeply troubling. One of them came up on the last Sunday of June. In Chapter 22 of Genesis God commanded Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac to a mountaintop to kill him and burn him and make a human sacrifice of him.

That’s a deeply troubling story. It’s a Bible passage to make a preacher wonder, “Couldn’t I just take that Sunday off?” But, of course, the answer is “no!” This painful story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is as much about today as it was about the Iron Age. It teaches us truths about human nature and God’s love for us.

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