Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Fifteenth Sunday in ZOOM Church
June 28, 2020
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So, the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
Well, the lectionary certainly doesn’t help us with the happy mood we want at the beginning of summer, and on Pride Sunday. If last week’s passage from Genesis about Hagar and Ishmael was the saddest story in the Bible, today’s reading must be the most terrible. Ishmael is forgotten as God calls Isaac the only son of Abraham. And then demands that this precious, longed-for child be sacrificed. Many of us probably have a Sunday school memory of it, and perhaps remember pictures of a boy with his father. But what a father! Feckless, chickenhearted, doesn’t even put up a fight when God gives this monstrous command. And what a God! The picture that the ancient writers have given us here is a tyrant, cruel and relentless in his need for submission. Even the happy ending is tinged with fear, and you wonder if Isaac will be marked for life by the visceral memory of being bound on the altar pyre, traumatized by the unforgettable picture of his father with a knife in his hand.
Stories like this challenge us. You just can’t read this as a record of God’s nature, or God’s way of dealing with humanity. The conventional interpretation of it as a legitimate test of faith is pernicious. So, you could just drop it as a crazy old story.
Or instead of asking what it tells us about God, you could ask what it tells us about people. Though it comes with all the trappings of their hang-ups and fears, the shortcomings and injustices of their society, and is written by the religious authorities, you can read the Bible as a record of the struggle of an ancient community to express their experience of God. This story tells us that they understood that obedience was somehow a key to faith. The writers are saying that God might ask terrible things of you, and that you could do terrible, unthinkable things because they were required by God.
Or at least, required by the godly. As we know, so often the powers that be in a society invoke God in their desire to control peoples’ behaviour. Religion is often a source of repression rather than liberation, and leaders are often not hesitant to tell you what God’s will is. In this sense the story isn’t so ancient after all. Think of the children sacrificed as pawns in wars considered holy, babies killed because they were female or twins. Or children given up to government agents and sent to residential schools to be Christianized.
On Pride Sunday, we think of the many parents who have been willing to sacrifice their child on the altar of respectability. To reject the LGBTQ 2+ child rather than defy the religious conventions. To oblige the child to give up their own reality. Remembering that there are many places in the world, including in our own country, where these sacrifices are still required, we give thanks for the changes of the last decades. We recall the efforts it took to make it possible for us to affirm together that ‘all persons are free to enjoy God’s gifts of love, joy and intimacy’. That love is love. We pray for courage and perseverance to continue the work in all the places – in all the hearts – where that work is needed.
In the story, Isaac is spared or perhaps we should say that Abraham is spared – when God provides a ram. Not a really satisfactory solution from the standpoint of animal rights, but it does allow Abraham to let Isaac go free. It turns out that the true God is more compassionate, more original, and more faithful than he may have thought.
But we note that what God provides here is not really comprehensive. It is not the end of burnt sacrifice as a ritual, or the deep reconciliation of the father with the son, or even a new picture of God as more loving than demanding. What God provides in this story is partial, incremental, provisional. We learn that we should watch for such hints of God’s mysterious abundance but not expect that our insights will be final. We are promised that there will be glimpses of the meaning of steadfast love, but we will remain on a path of discovery. We are invited to search with humility, but as we search, we are not alone. And for this we give God thanks. Amen.
Image: Ian Espinosa – unsplash.com