Come home to Calvary
For the careful listeners out there, you might recall last week, when telling the creation story, I made a claim about how God creates in love, and with hopes for our flourishing and life. Yada yada yada.
And then today, the Narrative Lectionary gives us this passage, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. And Abraham goes through with it, until an angel freaks out, yells “chicken”, and points out a ram hiding in a thicket.
Before we unpack what’s going on here, I will spend a few minutes catching you up on what happened between chapter 1 and chapter 22. Abraham and Sarah are some of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the biblical narratives, whose story began when his father left their country, and took his family to another land, where they were foreigners. When Abraham was 75 years old, God told him to travel again, to yet another land as a sojourner. Our story of faith begins with immigration, and people seeking new life in new lands. Never forget this. And God promised that Abraham would be a blessing, and that God would make of him a great nation. Which was quite a promise to an older couple who’d had no children. More than the stars in the heavens would be their descendants, God said. Abraham and Sarah are lifted up as great ancestors in our faith family tree, and while that’s a fine thing to do, it’s also important to acknowledge that they are both kind of shady. Maybe that gives us hope—if these two can be matriarch and patriarch of our faith tradition, then there is surely hope for us all. It also reminds me not to limit the people I think God can or should work with, and through. And it reminds us not to pretend our ancestors were perfect just because they’re our ancestors.
On their journeys, Abraham passes off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister. Twice. He decides men will kill him to take her, so he gives her to them in order to save his life. Twice he does this. God intervenes for her, but not before some traumatic experiences have surely happened to her, as she’s been given to other men by her husband. Sarah’s behavior is also entirely human in some less than admirable ways. Even though God has promised them many offspring, when that doesn’t happen in a timeline one might expect, they take things into their own hands, and forget about the trusting in God part. Sarah tells Abraham to take her servant Hagar as another wife, planning to have her give birth to a child for Sarah. Which Hagar, the non-consenting woman, does. After Ishmael is born, Abraham seems fine with things, but Sarah is not. She’s terribly jealous and mean. Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac and then she sends Hagar and Ishmael to die in the wilderness. Abraham goes along with the plan. Again, God intervenes, but not before Hagar and Ishmael have been through some trauma.
So when the author of Genesis writes that God tells Abraham to “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.” What do you notice? I notice that Isaac isn’t Abraham’s only son.
Surely God knows about Ishmael, since God just saved him and his mother.
Surely the author of Genesis knows that because they just told us the story in the previous chapters.
Surely Abraham knows he has another son.
What are we to do when scripture offers us an unreliable narrator? Or when many voices are excluded from the telling of the story?
This story is told in a way that leaves out a lot of details, viewpoints, and dialogue.
Like, what is Abraham thinking as he decides to obey this command of God’s even when he’s ignored some other commands of God along the way? What does Isaac think as his dad puts him on a pile of wood, ready to burn? I bet that impacted their relationship down the road, don’t you think? What does Sarah think of the whole situation? I am fairly confident Abraham didn’t tell her he was going. A connection between this text and the sacrifice fly in baseball occurred to me Friday night when we watched the Giants beat the Braves in extra innings. Because as columnist Dave Barry has said about baseball, and might also say about this story. “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there is a man on base.” Sarah went through a lot for this child. Let’s be clear that when couples faced infertility in the time of the patriarchs, and often still today, it is the woman who was blamed for the lack of children. Sarah has been burdened her entire adult life with her childlessness. I’m pretty confident if God’s message had been delivered to Sarah instead of Abraham, she would have given the Almighty a piece of her mind.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book When God Is Silent, writes this about what Jewish Midrash, or commentary, says about the aftermath of this story. “The encounter on Mt Moriah was so overwhelming that Isaac was blinded by it and Abraham became deaf, while Sarah died of grief.”  I don’t know if any of that is what happened to the characters, but in truth, when the narrator has already revealed themselves to be somewhat unreliable, it is understandable that we want to fill in the blanks. Taylor also says this:
“Where (certain Biblical passages) are obscure, troubling or incomplete, perhaps we should leave them that way. Who are we after all to defend God?… Our job is not always to explain them…. The discord – like the silence – is God’s problem, not ours.” I’d argue it is a little bit our problem because we have people out there still lifting up child sacrifice as a faithful thing to do. Not quite in the way Abraham did it, perhaps, but over 1,000 children under the age of 18 have died by gun violence in the US so far this year. In the 9 years since 20 children and 6 teachers died at Sandy Hook Elementary, we have enacted almost no meaningful legislation to curb gun violence, but some sitting members of congress continue to insist that the massacre never happened and that these families are making it up.
We still see child sacrifice as a faithful thing to do.
Not every child in our country has access to clean drinking water. Not every child has access to medical, dental, and mental health care. Weekly COVID-19–associated hospitalization rates among children and adolescents rose nearly five-fold during late June–mid-August 2021, the CDC reported this month.  Children are among the people paying the cost when we, as a nation, refuse to take this virus seriously. I have a friend who pastors a church in a small town in a Western state. Her young daughter has a brain tumor. And she can’t go to school in her community because she’s the only kid who was wearing a mask in her class, and her health is too fragile to risk catching Covid. This community knows and cares for this child, and people have contributed to her medical costs, but they won’t do the simple act of wearing a mask to care for one of their own. If people are willing to sacrifice children they know and love, what does that say about how well they will care for children they’ve never met, or who speak different languages, or worship different gods? We still see child sacrifice as a faithful thing to do.
As I’ve said before, it is easy for me to find ways other people are making bad choices. How might we be the ones making choices that could sacrifice our children’s futures, their health, their well being?
Maybe we’re more like Abraham than I wish we were. I wonder what God’s view of this story really is. I wonder if when God was testing Abraham, the right answer would have been for Abraham to call out “what is wrong with you? Why would I kill my child? Any child?”Maybe that’s the test God wanted Abraham to pass. Maybe God wants us to value the lives of our own children, and other people’s children so fiercely that we are willing to take God to task for a terrible idea.
Everything I know of God is at odds with the idea that God wants us to kill our children, or even be willing to kill our children, in order to prove our devotion. I recognize that good, therapeutic counseling didn’t exist back when this story took place, but wow. This is a group of traumatized people who could use some help. They are wounding other people in their unhealth. As we keep reading through Genesis we’ll see how the dynamics of the families affect future generations and how trauma keeps getting passed down. Many of us have seen it play out in our own lives too. And so let me make a plug for the gifts of counseling. It has been such a help in my life and I encourage you to both seek it and to create a world that makes it affordable and supported for everyone.
One of the parts in this text that needs a little exploration for me is the refrain of “The Lord Will Provide”. Yes, God did come through in the stories, saving Sarah from her husband passing her off as his sister, saving Hagar and Ishmael, saving Isaac with the ram in the thicket, etc. But I think the author of Genesis didn’t intend for the “Lord will provide” to be an excuse we utter when we want God to clean up our poor behavior.
God told Abraham he’d be a blessing for the world, but Abraham didn’t remember or trust that promise when his fears kicked in about his beautiful wife being desired and taken by other men. God provided a way to clean up Abraham’s bad behavior. God promised Abraham and Sarah they’d have children. They took matters into their own hands, creating the whole triangle with Hagar. God provided a way to clean up their mess. God’s provision in much of this story happens when God has to repair our brokenness, our lack of faith, our refusal to trust. I’m not wanting to argue that if you trust in God that bad things won’t sometimes still happen to you. Because we all know things will still happen to us, regardless of our level of faithfulness.
But the stories of Abraham and Sarah and our biblical patriarchs are told for different reasons than why the newspapers report on crime. Last week, I said that the point of the creation story is to remember who we are in relation to God, who created us in love. Similarly here, the stories of our ancestors in the Book of Genesis are told to help people remember our relationship to God. In these stories, God is actively speaking with the characters, instructing them, directing them.
We don’t hear God’s voice directly, in the same way Abraham did. We hear God’s voice through others. We hear it through the person of Jesus. We hear it through others. And it can be just as hard, or just as easy, to understand as it must have been for Abraham when he heard the call to go to Mt. Moriah. Some days we get it right. Some days we don’t. When I’m trying to discern where God’s voice is among the cacophony of noise in our world, I try to remember God created the world in love and everything I know of God is love. So, when I’m discerning what God is calling me to do, or has happened a while back, if God was calling me to a new congregation, I try to use love as the filter. If I forget to do that, I’m likely to use my ego as the filter, or some other metric of achievement.
I firmly believe God still speaks to us today.
Are we listening? Are we understanding?
Like Abraham and Sarah, we’ll get it wrong sometimes. And sometimes it takes a while to hear it clearly. Long before I discerned my call to move here, other people were hearing it for me. Over a period of 4 months, I had a number of people say some version of “there’s this church that is looking for a pastor and I think it might be you”.
It took a while, which is often the case with me, but ultimately, thankfully, I heard God’s voice through the voices of others who lifted up my gifts that I hadn’t quite seen, and I am so thankful to be here now, with you, figuring out where God is now calling us, how God wants to use us to be a blessing for the people of this city. I very strongly feel the Lord’s provision in this move to be here. Even in the midst of the pandemic, and with all the unknowns in front of us, God will provide.
God still speaks to us today.
Are we listening? Are we understanding?
Christopher Heuertz offers a loving kindness meditation, which helps me better keep my ears and heart open to hear God’s voice.
I invite you to repeat it after me.
May I be filled with faith.
May I be a source of hope.
May I be aligned with love.
After praying that for a few minutes, the meditation turns its focus outward, on people we love, on people we maybe don’t want to love, on people we will never meet.
Repeat after me.
May you be filled with faith.
May you be a source of hope.
May you be aligned with love.
And after praying that for others for a few minutes, the focus moves again.
Repeat after me:
May we be filled with faith
May we be a source of hope
May we be aligned with love. 
What if Abraham and Sarah had been able to pause in the midst of their days and pray that prayer for themselves, for others, and for their community?
We can’t undo the trauma of the Genesis story, and we can’t erase trauma from our own lives, either. But we can move through it and heal what can be healed.
May we be filled with faith.
May we be a source of hope.
May we be aligned with love.
The Lord will provide. Amen.
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”