Updated: 6 days ago
I am so grateful to be with you all today, and equally grateful for the chance this week to get to know some of you through our town halls and meetings.
Last week I took an hour to look up the Scripture passages assigned for today, to see what I had to work with for this sermon. I was so excited for the chance to reflect on scripture with all of you and hoping for a passage that led easily into a message of hope and comfort, a rallying cry for justice and peace, with just a touch of challenge during these already challenging times.
Instead, this week’s passage is colloquially known in Christianity as the Sacrifice of Isaac.
And I’m going to be honest with you: I do not love this text.
I find the story of God asking Abraham to commit child sacrifice & Abraham – who has again and again questioned God before obeying – going along with that ask with no protestations deeply troubling and traumatic.
And I did not want to preach on it.
Philosophically, I believe it’s really important we do not avoid the parts of Scripture that we find troubling and disturbing, the partss that cause us to question our deeply held certainties about God and others and our own origin stories. I have a friend who reflected that he was questioning whether he wanted to be a Christian, and Mennonite specifically, in high school when his Sunday School teacher started a series on “The Weirdest and Worst Stories in the Bible”. For a year they discussed the murder, sexual violations, inconsistencies, and downright confusing passages in Scripture. At the end of it, he chose to remain in the Church, because even without coming to any neat and prim conclusions about these passages, he discovered his church was a place where questions and wrestling were welcome.
Of course, I said that I philosophically think wrestling with difficult scripture passages is important – doing it in real life, and during one’s candidating week! – is another question!
So let’s take a pause, and a very deep breath, pray together -- and be willing to take a long and hard look at this tough but important story in the Hebrew Bible.
God, thank you for your word and the story of your people, faithful and messy and true. Open our hearts and minds to hear you even in this hard text. Amen.
One way of looking at the Binding of Isaac, or the Sacrifice of Isaac, is as a culmination of Abraham’s journey of learning to trust God. I’m tempted to really like this interpretation. How many times has God promised Abraham something he hasn’t believed or has blatantly gone against. Over and over again, Abraham acts in ways that are doubtful. God’s promise to Abraham, that he will be the Father of Nations, was pretty clear. Yet his constant response is one of doubt and, frankly, gross abuse: of both Sarai and Hagar, in an effort to make God’s promise come true. Then he sends his first son away – making me frustrated every time I read in this chapter God saying “Take your son, your only son.” His only remaining son, but not his only son!
Some readers note that Genesis 22:1 explicitly describes God as “testing” Abraham, which may suggest that God never intended to go through with child sacrifice in the first place. This certainly paints God in a more palatable light. Perhaps this “test” was a necessary part of Abraham’s spiritual journey. He has his promised son through Sarai, Isaac, but is there something still within him that doubts? Is this a final moment of transformation that allows Abraham to fully, internally become that Father of the Promise of God? Undoubtably, this encounter in the wilderness forever changes Abraham – and maybe even God.
While the lens that this story is a culmination of Abraham’s journey of learning to trust God has beauty to it, it’s also possible to view this text as a deep failure of Abraham, who has often questioned and talked back to God.
Just three chapters earlier Abraham had a long and intense back and forth with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. And here, well, here he simply hears God tell him to sacrifice his own son and says nothing. I wonder if some of his silence stems from the lingering trauma and shame of having allowed the banishment of his other son Ishmael.
And then there is Isaac, walking alongside his father in the silence. I can’t help but see this story, and Isaac’s part in it, through the lens of child trauma. This is the only story we have where Isaac ever speaks to Abraham. Here – and never again. The three day walk to Moriah has been called one of the longest and heaviest silences in the Bible. But what words are there? Maybe Abraham is about to finally discover and display the faithfulness within him, after all, his words here are “God will provide,” – but where does that leave Isaac? I’m a little unsurprised he never talks to his father again that we know of.
A poem by Rabbi Rachel Barnblat sums up this lens on the Binding of Isaac better than I can. Her poem is called: “Silence.”
Abraham failed the test. For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued but when it came to his son no protest crossed his lips.
God was mute with horror. Abraham, smasher of idols and digger of wells was meant to talk back.
Sarah would have been wiser but Abraham avoided her tent, didn’t lay his head in her lap to unburden his secret heart.
In stricken silence God watched as Abraham saddled his ass and took Isaac on their final hike to the place God would show him.
The angel had to call him twice. Abraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse he wept like a man pardoned but God never spoke to him again.
We’ve talked a lot about silence lately. Silence and complicity. I wonder: how is God horrified by my silence in the midst of horrific violence? In the midst of others using the name of God to justify exclusion and --- dare I say it --- the sacrifice of children. Tamir Rice. Treyvon Martin. And, here in Cincinnati, the 16 Black infants per 1000 who die before they reach their first birthday – that is twice the rate of White infant mortality and more akin to the rate of developing countries than a city that holds the world’s third best children’s hospital. A figure I am far too often silent about.
Is God stricken with horror?
Sometimes, too, Scripture – even really, really hard Scripture – is Personal. We all have images and feelings that arise for us when we turn to the Bible. If this is a story about Sacrifice, asking what we are willing to Sacrifice and what we might be willing to talk back to God for – and it involves children – I can’t help think of our foster daughter.
Two years ago when we were just starting to think that, despite the fact we hoped for reunification with her mother, we were more likely moving towards adopting our then foster-daughter. There was then a series of circumstances the arose that felt at the moment like God coming down and saying “Take your daughter, your only daughter and go....”, but in this case, not to the mountaintop of Moriah but to make the painful choice to not adopt her and instead allow her to go to a white, conservative Evangelical, heterosexual, 23 year old couple who wanted to take her and her brother together. Maybe unlike Abraham here, I could see the reason behind this – keeping the siblings together when the state wasn’t going to allow us to because of the size of our home – but I did not want to do it. It felt so unjust – this family who was wealthy and already pregnant with another child so easily -- Still, there have been a very few times in my life when I truly felt like God was asking me to do something, and I just couldn’t deny in my heart of hearts that this this was one of them – even though I didn’t understand. And I am not about endorsing Abraham’s silence in this text, but I also vividly remember my own. I remember nodding when Social Workers asked me if I was sure this is what we wanted to do. I remember I didn’t fight or even really ask why. I am about 61% now thinking that letting her go to this family was the right decision these days. One of my own spiritual disciplines is living with the many times I’ve heard God’s voice wrong or perhaps have heard God’s voice correctly but done the wrong thing. When I read this text, I wonder if I share that discipline with Abraham.
And while wrestling with the giving up of children is how I connect to this story, for better or for worse, the themes here go far beyond that. What does it mean when God asks us to give us a relationship? A job? A home where we are comfortable? A habit? And what does it say about God to us to even be asked to do those things? Maybe there’s a lamb in the thicket moment. I certainly hoped and hoped for that with our foster daughter – up to the moment I passed her over in a dingy elevator downtown, I hoped someone would pop in and say “No sorry! That was just a test!” But sometimes, it isn’t a test, and we are actually asked to do really, really hard things. And what about our country right now? As we reckon with the continued and continuing violence of white supremacy, one of the necessary questions is indeed: what are we white people willing to sacrifice to rectify this injustice? How uncomfortable are we willing to get? Are we willing to walk, in pained silence, up mount Moriah, trusting that the world God intends for us is indeed just and is for all of our wholeness, but knowing we need to let go of the world as we know it in the process?
This text indeed asks a lot of us.
We are in a really hard, really messy season where a lot is unraveling in our personal lives and in our country and in our world and some of that is being beautifully reknit....but some of it isn’t. And I really wish I could offer a neater, sweeter conclusion to this story and this sermon, something uplifting and hopeful in a major key. In the end, I don’t have a resolution to offer for this passage. There isn’t really an end to the story here, unless we turn it into some extremely pat narrative about God having a plan to save Isaac...even though God was the one who asked Abraham to sacrifice him in the first place. I think that’s far too narrow, just as I question whether the quick assignment of this story as a prefiguration of the crucifixion of Jesus is too narrow. I’m not questioning that God is faithful in this story – I just wonder if that faithfulness is wider and far more mysterious than neat conclusions and goes far beyond the provision of a lamb.
When people ask me to tell the story of Zennie, our foster daughter, I often use the line: Some stories just end, they don’t conclude. I think that is also true of Genesis 22 and the Binding of Isaac. Perhaps we, in this time and age and church and space, are still living into the conclusion. We can have confidence though that the conclusion is coming, God’s justice is coming, as we say each Sunday: Another world is possible and she is on her way – even if we can’t perfectly see it yet. This is a passage that asks us, more than anything, to keep wrestling and facing our own struggles, to ask ourselves to keep taking these stories and scriptures seriously, to keep looking for God’s faithfulness in this story and in the wider story of the Children of Abraham, even when it isn’t always obvious.
The hope I do have is back in my friend’s story about his unconventional Sunday school class: it was the honestly and wrestling itself that kept him connected to his faith and church. That’s my hope here: that being real and honest as a community about the challenging parts, might just be the best possible conclusion there is.
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