After these things God tested Abraham. (Genesis 22:1a, NRSV)
Let me tell you some of the ways I have approached the story of the binding of Isaac. I have triangulated with the congregation against the text. I have rejected the notion of tests from God. I have preached it as a horror story, identifying with Isaac, not quite sure whether the villain should be Abraham for saying yes or God for demanding this sacrifice.
The story makes me uneasy, but so do my previous attempts to interpret it. I continue to react against the idea that God would test Abraham this way, even if God planned to disrupt the events with a ram in the thicket. This demand from God is a violent swerve away from the path set out for Abraham and his descendants. How can they be like stars in the sky if his son will be sacrificed? (And why allow Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away if this was going to happen?)
If I were preaching this week, I would name the discomfort of the story and try to bring the listeners into sympathy with Abraham’s position if not his decision. Think how we might struggle if asked to do something that not only went against our hopes for the future but upended our understandings of, and with, God.
Look how we are struggling right now.
The brief text from the gospel this week concludes the instructions of Jesus to the disciples as he sends them out to represent him. He has warned them that they will not be universally well-received, that his message will set family members against one another, that they must lose their lives in order to find them. They are bringing a counter-cultural message, and we can’t help but remember that the reward most prophets receive is persecution, not popularity.
The test before us is multi-layered. It goes against our hopes for the future and our past understandings of who God wants us to be. We cannot count on our usual practices to carry us through a time of grief and uncertainty. We’re reconfiguring, adapting, and reinventing. We cannot rest on our comfortable assumptions that politics and the church have nothing to do with each other. We are learning what our power is, and what it is not, and also where it may be used for God’s good purposes and where it has been used in the past against that purpose. We must examine the texts (see Romans) handed down to us and interrogate our use of words that do not mean the same thing today — or the same thing to everyone who hears them.
The test the church is facing in our time is like the test God set for Abraham. It is like the test Jesus set for the disciples. Are we willing to risk our lives and our legacy to be faithful to God?
The answer must lie not solely in our personal piety but in our collective commitments.