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This story…this troubling and difficult story…has been around for a long time. It has been worked and re-worked, interpreted and re-interpreted, becoming one of the richest sources of theological dilemma in the Bible. In part because this story provides us such a stark and troubling scenario. What is notable is to see how many of the interpretations seek to let Abraham off the hook. It’s a test…Abraham really doesn’t do it after all…he knows that God will not let the sacrifice actually happen. And maybe this is because we have so much invested in Abraham. He and Sarah, Genesis tells us, are chosen by God to be the foundation of Israel, for the book of Genesis is first about the creation of the world but then about the creation of Israel. God makes this covenant with Abraham, but then Abraham does some stuff that might lead God to some buyer’s remorse. He does not always act justly. He does not make moral choices. He shows himself, at times, to have as much or more dedication to the idea that a great nation will come from him than he does to being the kind of person through whom God wishes to raise up a great nation.
I have to tell you, I’m not quite so eager to let Abraham slide here. After all, just a couple of chapters earlier when God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues for the lives of people he doesn’t even know. He manages to get an angry God to agree not to level the place if there are even 10 good people there. And yet when he hears the voice of God asking him to commit an equally awful action, perhaps an even more disturbing action for this is his son, there’s nary a peep from him. No protest at all, he just starts packing up the knives. He doesn’t tell the servants what he’s doing, nor does he say a word to Sarah. In fact, we don’t hear from her at all, and in the very next chapter, she dies.
When we are about to do something that we know is wrong, a pre-meditated event, it is not time for a press release or a group text letting everyone know that we’ll be commencing with the sinning real soon. No, we hide it. We sneak around in the shadows and keep things quiet because we know it’s wrong. This is what Abraham is doing. So, my question immediately becomes – why is he doing it?
Is it because he believes that God has told him to do this? Is it because he is still trying to prove some loyalty to God? Is it sheer obedience? Or is this story more about God than it is about Abraham? Do we get in Abraham what we get from virtually every other character in Genesis – complexity, brokenness, moral ambiguity? Isaac is not the first person Abraham has been willing to sacrifice. He gives up his wife to Pharaoh for an unknown fate, and his first born Ishmael and his mother Hagar to the certain death of the desert when Sarah seeks to cast them out of the house. It’s not like Abraham is the model of piety and morality before he sneaks off (and I do mean sneaks off) to complete this gruesome and awful deed. So what is the action of GOD in this story? Is God engaging in some high stakes testing…not a test of Abraham’s obedience, but of his limits? When will he say no? What will be a step too far? Will he ever risk discomfort or danger, or even failure, for the sake of other human beings?
At times in Genesis, Abraham seems to follow different voices, as if Abraham is speaking for God in his own head. As if he is really doing what he wants to do and just claiming God’s blessing or command for his actions. How many times, church, do we see this scenario repeated over and over? If we claim God to be love, the ultimate source of compassion, grace and hope, then any “command” we might hear from such a God would need to correspond with compassion, grace and love, right? Whether it is Ishmael or Isaac or even Jesus, I believe that God’s command for how we treat our children cannot violate our own limited sense of love and grace, or it isn’t God’s voice we’re hearing.
I still don’t want to let Abraham off the hook here, because Abraham lives in the same world we do – where various interests compete for our attention. We have to balance the pull of “the world” with the dedication of our faith lives, the demands of our responsibilities in life with the obligations of the “kin-dom.” And they don’t always match up. And when that tension comes into play, what choices do we make? How do we determine which voice to follow?
This Sunday marks the beginning of a week in which nationality will be lifted high, “America” celebrated with food and family and an endless loop of patriotic fervor, to the constant soundtrack of Lee Greenwood. And whether it is flags in the sanctuary or the assertion that we should be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit or get public money for our churches and synagogues (’cause I don’t hear anyone clamoring to give tax monies to a mosque), our loyalties are divided. When we sing patriotic songs in the sanctuary I never sing them quite as loud as I do elsewhere, because I always feel that tension between my patriotism, which is particular, and my faith, which isn’t supposed to be.
We must often struggle with what we think is best for us as a country, a distinction that I don’t believe that God cares about, and our responsibilities as followers of a God who loves us all, regardless of nationality. It is often the case that an action that might be best for the United States of America runs absolutely counter to the Gospel. Could it be, in this high stakes test, that God is learning that we humans often dedicate ourselves to an ideal so profoundly that we lose sight of the values the ideal embodies? We love the idea of security so much that we’re willing to sacrifice our freedom for it. We are dedicated to the preservation of church buildings and denominational identities so strongly that we stop learning to risk, to reach out, to even engage in our faith as the gospel teaches us to do. We can be so dedicated to claiming the title of Christian that we forget to actually be one.
In the cacophony of voices that compete for our attention, how do we hear God…and are we really certain when we finally decide which voice to isolate out, that it is indeed God’s? After all, when a child comes out to their parents, especially deeply religious parents, there is often this dilemma between what they’ve been told is the “word of God” and their love for their own child. And we know that parents at that point make all kinds of decisions. How do they know what God is really trying to say to them?
In her fascinating book, When God Talks Back, psychological anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann engages with The Vineyard, a nationwide collection of evangelical churches predicated on the idea that we are in relationship with God…real relationship, as in being able to converse with the Divine and to learn to not only speak to God but to hear God speaking back to you. Approaching this task as an agnostic, as someone with a diverse and often distant relationship with God, the author tries to take people’s experiences sincerely, and with respect. Though she doesn’t necessarily believe the way they do, she accepts that they do…and then writes a 300 page book about what she discovers when she spends time with people who are actively trying to talk with God.
Her experience leads her to believe that we don’t know…like intrinsically KNOW. We have to learn what God sounds like, or rather unlearn what God doesn’t sound like. And, she points out again and again, we never do that alone. Who is there to say, “Wait a second, Abe?” Who does he consult, which seems reasonable thing to do, when he gets this kind of a message from God? If I heard this severe an instruction, I think I’d want at least a second opinion. But Abraham actively avoids such a thing and surrenders to other voices – the lure of pride or ego or ambition, the drive of obligation to family, friends, jobs, life, they all compete with God’s voice – even in our hearts and heads.
What Luhrmann determines is that there is no set formula for discerning the voice of God save one thing…we cannot make these decisions alone. We have to work them out together. This is why this story, hard as it is, has been and continues to be so powerful. It reveals to us the complexity of trying to live faithfully. As you all sang last week – we’re all a part of God’s body and we need one another to survive. This is a world full of complex and competing voices, and if we are to hear the voice of a God we need each other. For I cannot hear that voice clearly enough – only WE can.
This is why here in this place we don’t have an altar table. We have a communion table. We don’t come, one by one, to place our sacrifices here, we gather around it, together, to share and to eat and to commune. We come here with all others – ALL others – to remind ourselves that God is not on our side, God is WITH us. ALL of us.
Come to the table, friends…let us listen together.