A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 29, 2014 (Proper 8, Year A)
The lectionary, our prescribed cycle of Sunday morning readings, offered a different option for this morning’s Old Testament lesson. So, in good conscience I could have gone with a brief passage from the prophet Jeremiah instead of the binding of Isaac from Genesis. Or, since starting next Sunday we reduce by one our readings for the duration of the summer, I could have just moved that up a week and gone with Romans. And I admit I was tempted. Very, very tempted.
The account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is a tough story. A confusing story. A brutal story. It’s one of those passages we’d all prefer to avoid or skip or ignore. It’s a story that has confounded theologians, preachers, and people of faith for generations — posing tough and challenging questions about the nature of God and the character of one of the great patriarchs of our faith. It’s a lot easier to go the route of conflict avoidance and doing so would make for a much more pleasant Sunday morning for everyone involved. You could greet me at the door after the service, we could shake hands and exchange pleasantries, maybe get some coffee in Upper Weld Hall, and get on with our day.
But I always find it’s important to “lean in” when we encounter these difficult pieces of Scripture rather than acting like Biblical matadors by side stepping the tough passages. Although in the process, sometimes the preacher, as well as the congregation, gets gored. So here we stand ready to take the bull by the horns and confront an abusive, cringe-worthy, therapy-inducing Bible story that we’d rather avoid. Awesome.
Of course, there are ways to justify or explain away the violence embedded in the text. One interpretation of this story — which is absolutely true — is that child sacrifice, if not prevalent, was at least known and practiced in the ancient world. God’s staying of Abraham’s hand at the last minute was a clear message that the God of Israel was not like other gods. That this was a God of loving relationship and mercy; not one who required the wanton destruction of innocent children in the name of appeasement. God had no intention of letting Abraham sacrifice his own son but wanted to make a dramatic statement that there was a new sheriff in town. Which still makes you wonder why God couldn’t have just sent this message via one of his more conventional communication methods like a voice from the clouds, or a stone tablet, or even a fortune cookie. Anything but asking a father to sacrifice his son.
And then there’s Abraham. Really? If God told you to jump off a bridge would you do it? Granted, the Biblical text doesn’t give us insights into Abraham’s inner struggle or emotional turmoil as he wrestled with God’s command but you’d think that any human being with a conscience, let alone a parent, would have at least put up a fight when asked to sacrifice their only child. Or refused outright. Faith is one thing but a blind, unquestioned faith is more Jim Jones or David Koresh than anything we’d see as good and holy and sacred.
And not for nothing but it took a lot to bring this child into the world. No child is expendable but this one took a lot of work. Abraham and Sarah wanted a child more than anything else in the world and, in their old age, were convinced that that ship had long sailed. And who can blame them? I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t see a whole lot of birth announcements sent out from Linden Ponds. And then there was that small matter of the covenant God made with Abraham and the promise that through this child, his descendants would be more numerous than the stars of the sky. In other words there was a lot riding on this young boy and the mere fact of his existence was miraculous. And God seemingly wants to throw it all away.
It’s interesting. Sometimes we like to think we live in more civilized times. We read Scripture and think, yeah that’s fine but no one’s telling us to kill our kids; we’re so much more evolved. We’re all literate, we don’t have barbarians lurking around every corner, and God’s not going to smite us if we act the wrong way or do the wrong thing. We’re not shepherds or nomads, we live on cul-de-sacs. We don’t hear voices emanating from burning bushes, we’re rational beings. We don’t ride around on camels or walk all over tarnation wearing sandals; we drive Audis and wear Nikes. We have laws and government and paved streets and our meat comes shrink-wrapped instead of being wrapped in fur. And we have more technology in our back pockets than they could have ever even conceived of.
But I’m not so sure we can claim to live in more civilized times when school shootings take place in our country seemingly every month; when wars rage all over the world; when millions of men, women, and children go to bed hungry every night; when preventable diseases run rampant; when income inequality between the richest and poorest continues to rise; when access to education is denied to so many; when the earth is being mistreated; when children are abused and domestic violence is an ugly, if often hidden, reality. We could go on and on and on. But you start to realize that for all our advances in some sectors, humanity really hasn’t evolved at all.
And yet, rather than holding all of this up while simultaneously throwing up our hands, we recognize that this isn’t what God desires. That’s not the outcome God wants for us. God’s verbal disarming of Abraham is a reminder that God wants us to put away violence and abuse and injustice. He wants us all to put the knife down and step away. To leave behind the life of violence toward one another and move toward a life a mutual respect and love and forbearance. That’s the difference, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that we also heard this morning, between being a slave to sin and being obedient to righteousness. Of being encumbered by wrong desires which leads to self-destruction and utter hopelessness and being set free to live a life of joy and peace and hope.
I think God wanted Abraham to show some fight, to argue, to contend with God rather than passively do as he was told. We do have choices. And too often we put so much faith in our selves and in our own intellect that we truly believe faith is optional. Something that’s nice; something we do to make us feel good or virtuous. And trust in God becomes an add-on, not a way of life. It becomes something we do only if it’s convenient and doesn’t impinge upon our own desires or our own perceived personal liberties.
Faith in Jesus Christ reminds us that there are some things that need to be sacrificed in our lives. Things that keep us from full, life-giving relationship with God. And there are some things that need to be unbound and set free in our lives; things that keep us from full, life-giving relationship with one another. The one thing that’s clear in the midst of all of this, is that when we, like Abraham, do put our faith in God, the Lord will indeed provide.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014