A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on June 29, 2008
Based on Genesis 22:1-14 (Proper 8A)
People sometimes ask me, “What’s your favorite passage in the Bible?” And I usually hem and haw and mutter something about the wonderful breadth of Scripture. But of course the nature of being in a living, breathing relationship with God means that the Bible speaks precisely what we need to hear at any particular moment in time. So to have a favorite passage is really impossible – at least for me.
On the other hand, no one’s ever asked me about my least favorite passage in the Bible. I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to have one – at least publicly. But if so, this morning’s story from Genesis of the binding of Isaac ranks right up there. As a priest, I understand the deep theological implications and the importance of exploring what the passage says about the nature of our relationship with God. But as a father of two young sons, the story makes me cringe. The whole concept is abhorrent and I’d love to just skip over the whole thing. As a priest I can’t do that. When the story comes up in our three-year cycle of readings it can’t be ignored – it is deeply embedded in our faith tradition. So it can’t be left to hang out there without comment. As a father I’d love to let it wither on the vine and preach on one of the other passages. In fact, since we’re doing two rather than three readings during the summer I could have avoided it completely and perhaps no one would have been the wiser. Though I’ve found over the years that it’s precisely those passages we don’t like or don’t want to hear that often speak to us the loudest.
This familiar story can certainly be read metaphorically – perhaps it’s even intended to be read as such. Isaac represents the Israelites; Abraham represents God. The Israelites are seen as God’s firstborn son. God has tested the Israelites through great suffering and then called them back to faith through the renewed promises of covenant relationship.
It can be read as a polemic against child sacrifice – a practice well known in the ancient world. God allows Abraham to raise the knife before making it clear that this God is different from other gods. A bold way of stating that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not require murder. Faithfulness, yes, not human sacrifice.
This passage is also about trust. Abraham trusts God enough that he is willing to heed God’s call to sacrifice his son – his “only son” – as the text stresses. A son that had no rational reason for being; a son born to parents beyond child-bearing age. A son that was the fulfillment of the initial promise between God and Abraham – that Abraham’s seed would be more numerous than the stars of the sky. A son that represented the last hope for future descendents. So Abraham demonstrates a faith in God that transcends any earthly ties; a trust in the goodness of God that surpasses human understanding.
The story brings up the issue of sacrifice. Sacrifice as the giving to God of something you love. And what could Abraham possibly have loved more than his son, his “only son?” This theme would have resonated deeply in the ancient culture of religious sacrifice. Making a sacrifice to God was an act of faith so what God asked of Abraham was a ritualized offering placing Abraham’s life in the context of service to God. For Christians the story foretells the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which begins to make the passage at least a bit more palatable to me.
None of this minimizes the horror of the story. As it unfolds it makes you want to cry out, “Run, Isaac, run! Get away from your crazy old man!” And at the same time it makes you want to slap some sense into Abraham. “It’s one thing to be a religious zealot but for God’s sake don’t drag your son into this!” And then you start thinking about other statements from Scripture. Not the least of which is Jesus’ statement from Matthew that “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Hmmm.
I’ve heard people say “I like the New Testament God but I just can’t deal with the God of the Old Testament.” And I understand where this comes from – there’s no great flood in the New Testament where God wipes out everyone but Noah, his family, and some animals; there’s no Book of Leviticus listing hundreds of obscure and obsolete religious laws. God doesn’t smite people in the New Testament.
And yet it’s all the same God – they cannot be separated simply because we find certain stories distasteful. Rather we must go ever deeper into the text recognizing that Scripture itself is not God but a window into the nature of God and our relationship with the divine. And I find that God is most often found in the struggle for reconciliation; that God is found in the engagement of the text.
Are we really interested in worshipping a God who seemingly toys with humanity? It’s not a game, of course. A deep reading of the text shows that this is a test for God just as much as it is for Abraham. Is Abraham “The One” or should God seek another? God doesn’t know. Which also says that God isn’t the master of predestination some would have us believe. We’re not merely puppets. But through this encounter God learns that Abraham is indeed the chosen one out of whom the chosen people will arise. And after the ram appears in the thicket God pronounces, “Now I know.”
Perhaps the passage speaks prophetically about the thousands of children who are sacrificed on various altars every day. The altar of politics – thousands of children are forcibly enscripted into armies across the world. Or the altar of the global sex trade – which is fed by the American appetite for pornography. Or, closer to home, our children are often sacrificed on the altar of corporate success. And that is a painful reality.
We’re left with more questions than answers this morning – questions about the nature of God and humanity’s relationship with the divine. Questions about our own response to faith and God’s role in our search for meaning. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is through questioning that faith is strengthened. You can be both questioning yet faithful; doubtful yet obedient. Which is no surprise in a faith full of paradoxes: out of darkness there is light; out of despair there is hope; out of death there is life. But still.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008