Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 29, 2014
This summer we are looking at our family tree – the one we share with our Jewish forebears, the one we share with Jesus. Between now and the end of the summer, we’ll be remembering some of the high points and low points of the significant lives in our family. Last week Jodie spoke of an invisible ancestor – Hagar, the servant of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Hagar’s son Ishmael and Sarah’s son, Isaac were half-brothers, sharing the same father. Last week Abraham sent his oldest child away; this week he is told to kill his youngest. Reading the Bible is not for the faint of heart!
Some background might be helpful before we tackle what has been rightly called “a text of terror.” Perhaps you remember that years before, Abraham, received a message from God to leave his home, the only place he’d ever known, and leave his family, the only people he’d ever known, and go to a place only God knew where. He went, with no idea of his destination, taking his wife Sarah with him. Life wasn’t easy during the journey, and he got himself into all kinds of tight spots, sometimes lying to save his own skin. Right off the bat, in fear for his own safety, he lied about his wife Sarah claiming to the pharaoh of Egypt that she was his sister and offering her for the Pharaoh’s harem. Fortunately, the Pharaoh was not as ethically challenged as Abraham, and when he found out the truth, he sent Abraham and Sarah on their way after a good tongue lashing, and along with a number of fine gifts including some camels.
Another time, Abraham argued with God about the appropriate punishment for the city of Sodom. God intended to destroy every last person living there, but Abraham persuaded God that Sodom should not be destroyed even if only ten righteous people might be discovered living there. “Shall not the God of all the earth do what is right?” Abraham asked, as he argued in his attempt to save Sodom.
Later in their story, when God insisted once again that there was still time for Abraham and Sarah to become parents of a child of their own, they both practically fell down laughing at the improbability of that ever happening. Thus, in disbelief and impatience, Sarah urged Abraham to father a child with Hagar, Sarah’s servant, and soon thereafter, Abraham urges God to accept reality; Ishmael is the only heir he is ever going to have.
But, as they had been told, nothing is impossible for God, and sure enough Sarah produced a child at the ripe old age of about 90, and soon began to see Ishmael as a problem rather than a solution. She insisted that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother from their camp and into what would be certain death in the desert. Abraham complied regretfully, and gave Hagar some bread and water to delay the inevitable for a little while.
Obviously, Abraham and Sarah are less than perfect examples of the faithfulness they are remembered for. While it is true that when God called, they answered the call, left home and set out in faith and trust for the place God would show them, in everyday living, things began to deteriorate – with the lying, and arguing, and laughing disbelief, not to mention, forcing Hagar to bear a child for them, and then, of all things, abandoning her and her child, Abraham’s son, to death in the desert.
It is with that very mixed history that our story for today opens. “After these things, God tested Abraham,” it says. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Morah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And what does Abraham do in response to such a command? Does he lie, as he did with the Pharaoh? No. Does he argue with God as he did about the destruction of Sodom. No. Does he fall down laughing at the preposterous suggestion the way he did when he was told he’d be a father? No. Does he consult Sarah on what to do? No.
His silence is deafening. And for that reason, rabbis through the ages have sought to insert some additional dialogue into the first verses of this text. They imagine it going this way – “Abraham,” “Here I am.” “Take your son.” “but I have two sons.” “Your only one” “This one is an only one to his mother, and this one is an only one to his mother.” “The one whom you love.” “I love them both.” “Take Isaac.”
And so Abraham, believing he has heard the voice of God commanding him to kill his son, sets out with Isaac, who carries the wood for his own funeral pyre on his back. It’s no wonder that preachers don’t like to preach on this passage, called the Akedah, or The Binding of Isaac. As one as put it, it is “far too terrible to use in an act of preaching. . . . We preachers must learn to speak of the demands of faith without resorting to stories that employ the abuse and murder of a child to make a point.”[i] I respectfully disagree, because if we don’t speak about it, our silence becomes a deafening as Abraham’s.
But it is no easy task. Sometimes we try to get around the horror of this story by suggesting that it was probably included in scripture as proof that the God of Israel, unlike pagan gods of the time, did not require human sacrifice. Maybe that was the motivating reason way back then when these stories were first told and then passed along from one generation to the next.
But as historically interesting as that tidbit might be, it is little comfort for us today in a society that would have Abraham behind bars or in a psych unit in a heartbeat if he tried such a thing. And it leads us to the misguided conclusion that these stories from long ago really don’t have anything to do with us today; they are dusty, ancient relics of barbaric bygone eras.
Sometimes we try to explain this story by pointing to Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God in the face of the most awful thing that could possibly happen to any human being, the death of his child. The argument goes that God is totally other; we cannot control God; we cannot know all that God knows. And so, even though things seem terribly unfair and unjust at times in our lives, when seen from an eternal perspective, there is a guiding purpose that we finite humans are simply not able at the moment to understand. So we sing hymns like “we’ll understand it better, by and by.” And when we’re really grasping at straws and trying to make sense out of the inexplicable, we say really stupid things like, “God needed another angel.”
Others have looked past the child Isaac altogether, and said that he merely represented the promise of God; he was a symbol. And Abraham, being faithful to the end, was willing to trust that God would find a way to fulfill God’s promise. But can we reduce Isaac to a symbol? He isn’t an inanimate object; he is a child. He wasn’t simply an abstract promise; he was a boy. He wasn’t simply a means to an end; he was a human being. And we are all children of God, and scripture tells us that none of us ever is simply a means to an end.
Still others point to this story as a prefiguring of the crucifixion story, saying Abraham’s willingness to kill his son is a foreshadowing of God’s allowing his only son to be crucified for our salvation. Just as the ram was provided to save the life of Isaac; so Jesus was provided as the sacrifice to save our lives. This reasoning is flawed in a couple of ways. First, it does a disservice to the power and validity of Old Testament scriptures by making them dependent on the New Testament for their ultimate meaning. And second, it affirms that the primary reason Jesus died on the cross was because God put him there.
This affirmation calls into serious question the nature and character of God. What kind of God requires the death of a son to prove anything? But knowing what we do about God from other places in scripture – that God is love and that God’s mercy is boundless, that explanation sounds more like something we’d come up with than something God would do; we are the ones who sanctify violence as a redemptive tool I believe that Jesus gave his life willingly to demonstrate the forgiving love of God, not that God required it of him.
All this being said, what then are we to make of this story, this horrific episode in the life of our father in faith, Abraham? For centuries it has been told as Abraham’s successful passing of the ultimate test of faithfulness. But, for today, I would like to suggest something else. What if we are wrong in assuming he passed the test.
What if the real test was whether or not Abraham was willing to stand up, and say “No!”[ii] It is clear that God wanted to learn something about Abraham. Abraham had failed to protect the dignity of his family members, first with Sarah in Egypt; then with Hagar; and then with both Hagar and Ishmael as he sent them away to certain death in order to placate Sarah’s jealousy that he himself had helped to create. Maybe God wanted see if Abraham would take the opportunity to redeem himself. He’d thrown Ishmael away. Would he do the same thing with Isaac? Would he realize the error of his previous behavior and this time, this time, say NO when told to kill his own flesh and blood?
But Abraham silently takes Isaac on the terrible trek to Mt. Moriah, without offering a word of objection, and when Isaac asks where is the lamb for the burnt offering, he evades the question by answering “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And sure enough – when God learns what God wants to know, God does provide the lamb. The angel of the Lord says, “I know that you fear God.” If that’s what God wanted to know, then God got the right answer and Abraham passed the test because he feared God. But what if God wanted to know if Abraham loved God? Loved God in Isaac who was made in God’s image? Loved and trusted God enough to say “No.”
I have thought long and hard about this story this past week. And coincidentally or not as I thought and prayed about the story, about the cultural differences, about faith, about obedience, about the will of God, about fearing God and about loving God, in our own United Methodist Church an Abraham and Isaac story was playing itself out. Maybe some of you are familiar with Rev. Frank Schaefer, who in 2007 agreed to officiate at the wedding of his son to his partner. As a United Methodist Minister he was forbidden by our Book of Discipline to perform a same-sex marriage. But as a father, who had seen his son’s pain almost verging on suicide, had seen the discrimination he had experienced in his life, had spent hours encouraging and supporting him, and affirming God’s love for him, he could not then refuse his son’s request; it would be a denial of everything he had taught and of the God he believed in. And so he married the couple, not in the church, but in a restaurant; not in their own state, but in a neighboring state; not in front of his congregation, but in front of a few gathered family and friends. He didn’t advertise what he did or seek publicity; he didn’t inform his congregation about it. It was a private family matter.
But a member of his congregation found out about the marriage and brought charges against Rev. Schaefer, who was then tried last November by a church tribunal, and given a 30 day suspension during which time he was told to reflect on his commitment to the Book of Discipline and his obligations as a representative clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. At the end of the 30 days, he returned to the court, and was asked if he was now willing to support and uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety in the future. And he answered he could not do that, commenting honestly that no one can uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety! He was then asked to surrender his ministerial credentials, and when he refused; they were taken from him.
He appealed the verdict, and an appeals court ruled this past week that the earlier court could not impose two distinct sentences – a suspension and a termination. They ruled that someone cannot be punished for something he has not yet done. And since he had fulfilled the requirement of the first sentence, having served the 30 day suspension, they re-instated Rev. Schaefer as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church retroactively to the last day of his suspension.
This verdict in no way settles the ongoing conversation, often argument, within our church regarding marriage and ordination of homosexual persons. And I don’t bring it up this morning as a part of that argument. I offer it as a real example, right here, right now, among people of faith, of a father, who had to choose when tested – he had to choose between the rules of our denomination –and granted, the Book of Discipline should in no way be confused with the word of God, although I think some people do — and his love for his son. When faced with this choice, he chose love, he chose his son. It wasn’t an easy decision; he made it knowing he would potentially lose his livelihood, everything he’d worked for, and be forbidden from following his call from God within our denomination to which he was devoted. Nevertheless, he would not sacrifice his son to be obedient to the rules. He would not bind his son as Abraham bound Isaac.
Seeing this juxtaposition of the ancient father and son and the contemporary father and son has given me much to think about. Our ideas about God have changed greatly since the time the book of Genesis was written. And while it is appropriate to fear God, I believe that fear should be grounded in awe, not in dread of punishment. And while we are at times put to the test – in fact life can seem to be one big test after another — I believe that God walks with us through “the valley of the shadow of death” and does not participate in setting up the conditions for our distress.
Furthermore, I believe we must be careful as we listen for the word of God to hear its challenge as well as its command. God gave us free will; God gave us reason; and God throughout scripture has close, loving relationships with those who ask a lot of questions. Whenever we think we are acting at the command of God, we have heavy responsibility to think and ask questions before we act. There is no doubt that God can ask of us things we never thought we would be asked to do, things that stretch us, take us way out of our comfort zones, and lead us into unfamiliar territory. But one thing I know for sure; God will not ask us to harm another human being physically, emotionally, or spiritually because all human beings are made in God’s image, and to kill another person is to kill a part of God.
God might very well, however, ask us to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of another – Jesus said, there is no greater love than when a person gives up his life for a friend. And we have seen examples of this – the stranger who donates a kidney, or someone who darts into traffic to rescue a child. Members of the police and fire departments are prepared to do this every day. And of course there is the most recent Medal of Honor recipient who threw himself over an exploding grenade to save the life of his comrade. We must remember always that there is a huge difference between offering our own lives and taking the life of another.
At the end of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, after Abraham has bound Isaac and placed him on the altar, as he raises the knife to kill his son, an angel of the Lord calls out to him urgently, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him!” For many Jewish interpreters of scripture, the ram has been seen as the most important part of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac because it is the symbol of the fact that, in the end, God stopped Abraham from killing his son. God did not want Isaac to die. Because God is the God of life. God is the God of Love. God is the God of mercy. When Abraham failed the test; God did what God always does – God saved the Isaac, and with him God saved the promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] John Holbert, “A Nasty Little Bit of a Tale: Reflections on Genesis 22:1-14,” Patheos, June 22, 2014
[ii] Allen Pruitt, “The Binding of Isaac,” allenpruitt.wordpress.com, June 26, 2011.