Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost - July 2 2017

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Track 1)
July 2, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

So, Abraham and Sarah have a son of their marriage at long last.  Hagar and Ishmael have been sent away, and, while Abraham and Sarah apparently are not aware, God has provided for them. 

When we get into stories this ancient, it can be difficult to sort out the cultural assumptions and imperatives that lie behind their telling.  There is both Biblical and archeological evidence that children were sacrificed to this or that God, for this or that purpose – to guarantee a good crop, to turn away the untimely storms or floods, or to prove that we love the god more than our own families.

Or any number of other reasons, but let’s stick with this last one for a few minutes.

Genesis tells us that God told Abraham to take Isaac up the mountain and offer him as a burnt offering on an altar that he would build there.

We don’t know what Sarah thought about this idea; perhaps he didn’t tell her.  But he definitely didn’t want the servants to know, so he and Isaac ascended the last bit without them.

Abraham never seemed to question the directive.

What kind of a father does that?

Maybe a father who had seen or heard of other fathers killing their children as offerings to their gods … who didn’t know any other way.  Maybe it was, if not frequent, not unheard of, either.

There’s no indication that Abraham understood anything but that Isaac should die.  This, the same Abraham who had argued against the destruction of two entire cities in the fear that ten righteous men might be killed even though innocent. 

Yet this same Abraham sent away his first son, Ishmael, with inadequate resources, at the behest of his wife.

And now this same Abraham is tying up his son, the father of descendants in numbers like the stars, and lifting up the knife to kill him.

Could you do this?  Even if God – and you knew it was God – said to do this?

Are you sure the answer is no?

Haven’t families sent their sons, and their daughters, too, to war for generations too numerous to count? 

We have a bloodthirsty streak in us, we humans.

We think that some things are worth not just dying for – but killing for.

But is it so obvious that God thinks so, also?  God saved the lives of Hagar and Ishmael.  God told Moses to write, “You shall not kill.”

God died on the cross to conquer the hold that death has on us. 

And God told Abraham STOP, do not kill your son.

One wonders if Abraham was so programmed by the violence around him, the violence that was just as real and common as any we see today, that killing his son seemed a reasonable thing to do, to prove how much he loved his god.

I put a small “g” on that word – because I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that God – the God who died on the cross to break the hold that death has over us all – would ask him to do any such thing.

Take your son, and offer him as a burnt offering.

But don’t go all the way.

Don’t actually kill him.

Many theologians make this story out to be a test of Abraham’s faith. 

And we are all left to wonder if he would have gone through with it. 

Other theologians say that the Bible is making it clear that human sacrifice is not God’s will or desire, because God stopped Abraham from following through on the expected course.

So it didn’t really matter, in a sense, that he might have been willing to go that far; because God never intended that he should – it wasn’t a test of his faith at all, but a teaching moment.

A rather startling and scary teaching moment, one he was not likely to forget, and a story he was likely to tell, and Isaac was likely to tell, maybe around the campfire on a cold night – “Hey, kids, did I ever tell you about the time that my dad tried to kill me?”  And the story was passed on by his children – right on down through the generations, even to today – so we will always remember that God does not expect us to kill anyone to prove our love for God.

How’re we doin’ so far?

There’s another thought we can consider, looking back on this from the far perspective of knowing that God is willing to sacrifice God’s self for us, and doesn’t expect us to sacrifice others for God.

Paul talks about our baptism as our way of dying to sin and rising to life in Christ Jesus. 

We don’t really drown – although I have been told a harrowing tale of a baptism that nearly did result in an actual drowning – it was a full immersion baptism, in a very slippery baptismal pool, where the person being baptized could not get any purchase with his feet, and the pastor didn’t have much better luck pulling him out again.

But in general, the death in baptism is metaphysical, not actual. 

We also talk about being washed in the blood of the lamb till we are – again, metaphorically, people – whiter than snow.

So the death that Isaac nearly died, and the spiritual death of baptism, are linked.  Both acts bring us into closer relationship with God and a closer understanding of the nature of that relationship and of the nature of God.

God doesn’t rule out death of believers.  God did not prevent the death of Stephen, or of thousands of other persecuted martyrs.  Even those who were killed in the name of God. 

God did not prevent the death of the Christ, either.

And Jesus told his followers that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.”[1]

But do you see the difference in God’s actions, in the martyrs’ experience, and in Jesus’ teaching on the one side, and the story of Isaac on the other?

In Isaac’s case, he didn’t volunteer knowingly.  His father tricked him into stepping up, and then tied him up and laid him on the wood on the altar. 

In all the other cases, the one who dies, does so knowingly and voluntarily. 

The early reports of the martyrs of the Roman persecutions indicate that Christians died singing hymns of praise, leaving messages of hope and trust and joy to their friends and families. 

Their suffering, in their minds, proved their love for God, but it was their own suffering, not someone else’s that they welcomed.  To go in joy was to go in the knowledge that they were loved beyond imagining, which was more important than any other knowledge.  Nothing else mattered, because their death in faith would lead to their eternal life in joy.

So, if you run into someone who wants to show their love for God by judging, rejecting, condemning, or killing other people, I think it’s safe to ask if they’ve learned the lesson of Abraham and Isaac. 

 

 

[1] John 15:13.

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