Proper 8A - Niobrara Convocation
Last weekend I participated in a memorial pilgrimage for St. Alban. He died about 1800 years ago, as the first martyr in England. The Romans were hunting down Christians and had heard that Alban was sheltering a priest, who had taught him about Jesus but hadn’t yet baptized him. When the guards came to his home, Alban traded clothes with the priest, and was taken captive instead. In a trial a lot like Jesus’, Alban’s captors demanded that he renounce this God he now worshiped by sacrificing to the Roman gods. He refused, and they put him to death.
It’s made me hear the story of Abraham and Isaac with new ears. Abraham is asked to give the one thing he most values in the world – his son, the heir he’s been promised, a child of his own flesh, rather than the slave or the son of a concubine whom he’d thought would be his heir. He is being asked for flesh of his own flesh, as a sign of his faithfulness. Yet when the time comes God stays his hand, and an animal is provided instead of the boy. At some point in the history of our ancestors in the faith, they learned that it was far more righteous to offer yourself as a sacrifice, rather than somebody else. In the ancient world, and in some parts of the world today, children are considered expendable – they can be used by adults for their own purposes. Abraham’s story tells of the discovery of deeper truth – the lives of others are not ours to spend.
We have only our own lives to give.
Jesus’ offering of his own life is told in parallel with this ancient story of Isaac. Abraham rides his own donkey to the mountain of sacrifice; Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, going toward the mountain where he will die. The wood of his sacrifice – the cross – is laid on him to carry. The instruments of death for Isaac are fire and knife; for Jesus it is the rule of oppressors, with death meted out by guards and soldiers and craven authorities. Two young men stand at a distance to watch – Abraham’s servants in the first case, Peter and John in the second. God the father provides a lamb for each sacrifice. Abraham learns that God will provide. As he hangs from the cross, Jesus cries out his sense of abandonment, and at the last offers up his spirit. In resurrection the world discovers that God will always provide new life.
The sun dance has kinship with this sacrifice, as the offering of self becomes healing for the people. Wood is gathered, a sacred fire kindled, and sacrifice is made by the dancers. Like Jesus’, this is an offering of self, rather than the offering of another. It is an outward and visible reminder of our connection to creator and creation. The ties that bind dancer to the pole link him or her to the creator, as each revolves around the sun. The dance of offered life in overtly Christian contexts binds us to the son, as we live in conscious, committed relationship to the Lord of the Dance. The “choir” in both traditions stands by, ready to watch, pray and sing, and care for all the dancers equally. They/we offer solidarity and demonstrate their connection to those who offer themselves for the sake of greater life.
The prince of peace made that sacrifice once, on behalf of all creation. We continue that offering in each day and moment by continuing to dance in connection with all that is. The bonds that bind us are ones of love and decision. The heat that surrounds our offering comes from passionate love for creator and creatures, and some of the heat comes from the world’s resistance. We may find that passion for the abundant life of the world in snowstorms or schoolrooms, councils or courtrooms. That passion is a gift for what the collect calls “unity of spirit.”
Unity of spirit is usually the biggest human challenge. We want to see ourselves, or our kind or clan or tribe or nation – or color, gender, or particular way of understanding – as the best or most “right” in the world. We forget that each of us is part of the whole, and that it’s only when we’re connected that we become a living and functional part of the whole. Sacrifice and offering take us toward that wholeness, and the most central part of offering a sacrifice is realizing that something besides your own self is also holy and worthy of honor.
This gathering is a holy reminder of the wholeness of the Sioux peoples, particularly in the face of relentless heat and pressure from outside this body. The witness of this gathering is a sacramental reminder of our wholeness in the body of Christ, and in the body of God’s entire creation. The whole of The Episcopal Church gives thanks for this offering – and so do the people I’ve told about the convocation in recent weeks – Moravians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, members of the Church of England. Your offering of healing and wholeness is a vital contribution, for there will not be justice, wholeness, and peace here or anywhere until there is everywhere.
Daily encounters invite us to the sacrifice and offering of setting aside the need to be first, or right, or the center of things. They come to us all. Occasionally big and public life-committing opportunities come to us as they did for Jesus. The Santee warriors condemned to death in 1862 are a remarkable example, both those who died slower deaths in prison and the 38 who were executed. Those who went to the gallows singing God’s praises became a sacrificial and public witness to the oneness of us all. There are other well-known examples, like the lifelong work of Vine DeLoria, both father and son (and grandfather, the Rev. Philip DeLoria). There are countless others who offer their lives to raise grandchildren or care for teenagers or build bridges between God’s people. Terry Star offered his life as such a bridge.
The willingness to keep offering ourselves, in small ways and large, and in every encounter, is what sacrifice is most centrally about. It’s like saying, ‘I welcome you because I see the image of the creator in you, even if it’s unfamiliar. I trust that you will show me some aspect of God and the holy that I’ve not seen before, and that in that encounter we will find a greater vision of the wholeness God intends for all.’ It can be as great a challenge to make an offering when we’re surprised or threatened by a stranger as it is to walk to the cross or the gallows. Yet we are formed for sacrificial living by the small and daily acts the gospel speaks of: giving a cup of water to a frightened child or an exhausted dancer. We are formed as offering by sheltering a drunk or challenging an unjust sentence. We are formed by those ongoing daily decisions to love, so that the whole of our life becomes an offering, a making-holy, and a making whole, of all that is.
This is the way of setting right the creation, the way of justice and righteousness and peace. When we begin to be formed in that way, we find ourselves willing to give all we are and all we have for the sake of the whole.
Where will you offer yourself for the love of God and all our relatives?
 Many and great, O God, are your works… http://www.godsongs.net/2012/08/many-and-great-wakantanka-taku-nitawa.html It’s in the 1982 Hymnal