Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 26, 2011
Every Tuesday morning from 9 to 10 a group of us meets to read the scriptures appointed for the coming Sunday, to make some sense of them and offer creative ideas to the lucky person who is entrusted with the task of unpacking and preaching them.
This week we all took a long deep breath after we read the Genesis lesson. In the fifteen minutes following, we debated whether or not to include this reading in Sunday’s liturgies or to choose the more benign option from the Book of Jeremiah.
“What impression of God and religion,” we asked, “will folks get if they’ve been away from the church for a long time or have not been raised in any faith tradition and then hear this violent, awful story?” For the rest of our time together we focused on the alternate reading from Jeremiah, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the short Gospel—having all but dismissed the story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. That just won’t preach, I said to myself.
But then I got to thinking. Even if we choose not to read this story, many of us know it. And, sooner or later, someone who reconnects to church is going to hear it. Are we doing more of a disservice by ignoring it than confronting it head on? Then I read a commentary on the passage which asserted that Danish philosopher Sǿren Kierkegaard believed this story to be at the heart of the Christian faith. So I put on my big boy preacher pants and sat with this text for the rest of the week hoping that what God would inspire me to say today would vindicate my decision not to dismiss this passage.
Is there anyone who didn’t cringe at least a bit when the lesson was being read? It’s a terrible story, isn’t it? At best it is a mysterious, demanding story. It raises deep and troubling questions like, “What kind of God asks a father to kill his son?” Remember that Isaac was not just Abraham’s only son but his wife, Sarah, and he waited for years and years to have a child.
Why would Abraham think that God would demand such a terrible sacrifice? In any civilized society, a person would be condemned and convicted and vilified for even attempting to do such a thing. And what about poor Isaac? Can we imagine how traumatized we must have been? How could he ever regain trust in his father having come so close to death at his own father’s hand?
The story does not explain any direct lesson. There we are on the trail to the mountain with Abraham and his son and two other men whose purpose for being there is never revealed. Then we find Abraham preparing the altar of sacrifice, his naïve son wondering where that required lamb was—not realizing that he, in fact, was to be that lamb.
Some scholars have suggested that this passage makes a statement against the practice of child sacrifice which was common among the pagan neighbors of the Hebrews, but that’s a stretch.
Of course, there is the obvious association to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—“the lamb led to the slaughter”, as the psalm says—himself an only son—but none of this seems to justify why the story has such prominence in scripture, much less be something with which we should be overly concerned. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?
The way I see it, this story has a two pronged teaching for us moderns. First, it should heighten our awareness about the abuse of children in society and the way they are sacrificed in any number of ways—for example, in attitudinal and behavioral ways. Are we sacrificing their precious young years—a time for exploration, imaginative play, and the beginning of a life long relationship with God by filling their days with all kinds of stuff?
Our sophisticated culture, the education system, and parents can overload them with expectations of the number of sports they need to play, activities for which they need to sign up, extracurriculars they need to pave the way to college acceptance—sometimes requiring a full time social secretary to mange all of it for them and their parents—but allowing little or no time for any kind of faith exploration or Christian formation.
Are we sacrificing their ability to be social human beings, to develop and maintain and grow meaningful relationships because of the plethora of mechanical gadgets they own?
Two weeks ago I was eating in a rather nice restaurant on Washington Street. The table next to us was occupied by parents and their two pre-teen children. They sat in silence—the parents checking emails and texting on their blackberries and the kids playing video games. What a sad phenomenon that a family that may not have many opportunities to sit together for a meal passes the time in their obsession with electronics rather than engaging with one another in meaningful conversation.
The second prong for me is found in our asking why Abraham never questioned God about this outrageous order to kill his only son. I was talking about the story with someone the other day and he said, “I would have just said “no. sorry, God, I won’t do that and I’ll just have to suffer the consequences.” Why didn’t Abraham do that?
Is this story a metaphor for our right to stand up to others when we are feel that a part of us is being sacrificed, that we are being attacked unjustly—particularly where we are the most vulnerable? Is it giving us permission to tell God “no” if we think we are being asked to do something that flies in the face of everything we hold dear and precious and wholesome?
Finally, the third prong, which I believe is related to the Gospel passage today—one in which Jesus calls us to the ministry of welcoming others in his name, even—perhaps most notably to the welcome of the littlest and least in society, the disenfranchised and those on the margins. As a community that has a guiding principle of radical welcome, we would do well to delve deeper into the meaning of that invitation and how we respond to it.
That welcome is offered freely, to everyone—no matter who they are or where they may be on their journey of faith. We qualify it further by saying that you can belong before you believe. What we don’t want to miss, however, is the reason for providing that welcome: to create the opportunity for all to experience a radical transformation in areas of their life where it may be needed, especially with respect to the kind of relationship they may have had with God and the church because of the practice and teaching of simply “bad religion.” And there is plenty of that around.
As Episcopalians, we have a rational and balanced way to process stories as perplexing as this passage from Genesis about God’s testing of Abraham. It is the result of the insightful work of theologians in our Anglican tradition like Thomas Hooker. Unlike fundamentalist believers, we take the Bible seriously—not literally. In other words, we use the gift of our reason to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.
But in our serious consideration of scripture, let’s not just attempt to weaken or water down the faith that has been handed down to us throughout the ages nor just sugar coat it in order to make it palatable and easy to swallow.
A God who is radically welcoming and who loves us unconditionally and outrageously can also be a God who demands something from us in return—maybe, just maybe at times a sacrifice— not to death but to life—a God who gives us the option of saying “Yes” or “No” to the possibility of great things that God wants for us—great things that may involve just as great a risk.
God has never asked me to sacrifice anyone I love to prove my faithfulness nor do I expect that God has asked you to do that. God welcomes us just as we are—who we are—but loves us far too much not to provoke us to become all that we can be.