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.
In fact, if we heard this story today, we might not take God’s part in it seriously. It would call up all the horror stories we know about parents rolling cars into lakes, or “forgetting” children in hot cars, or acting on a message from beyond to save their children from sin. We would not want to place the blame on God.
We would wonder what kind of excuses the father was making, or whether he had a psychotic disorder. The police would search his computer for evidence of a plan. Op-ed columnists would opine about his motivations; preachers would give thanks that in the end he turned back and did not commit the horrific act intended.
We read this story with 21st century eyes, because those are the eyes we have, and the first thing we see is a terrible demand from God, the sacrifice of a treasured child. It goes against everything we understand to be true. And I don’t care if we make the assumption that Abraham never really thought God would make him go through with it, there’s still a young boy in the middle of things asking his father, “Where is the lamb?”
This is not a 21st century story. It’s an ancient story, told around campfires and passed down over generations in the oral tradition. It’s an ancient story, with an ancient context. We may be tempted to dismiss it on those grounds, but even then, for the family of Abraham, child sacrifice was unacceptable. It was something other people did, people who did not worship the One God. To Abraham, and to his servants, it was unthinkable. That’s why he left them behind and made the rest of the journey alone with his son.
Even Isaac knew something had to be wrong.
Wouldn’t you hate to be in Abraham’s position, asked to do something that went against your personal interests and your religious understandings, something that went against your hopes for your life and your prior relationship with God? This isn’t their first recorded conversation. God promised Abraham descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. Why ask him to sacrifice the one child he had? We can’t understand it. We can’t understand what God wants here. But maybe this isn’t as much a story about God as it is about a person whose faith didn’t waver. When God called, Abraham answered, “Here I am.”
The story was finally written down centuries after its first telling, when the Hebrew people lived in exile in Babylon. Stories already ancient even then sustained a people trying to figure out their relationship with God, who had let them be carried off from home to do their best in the midst of a strange culture. They asked the question, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4) They recorded old stories and wrote new ones, all to reassure themselves that even though life in Jerusalem was a memory, their people and their faith could survive.
Whatever we may feel about the story, here’s what mattered to the faithful exiled in Babylon. Despite how dire the situation seemed, God provided for Abraham. Maybe that meant God would provide for them, too. When God called them to great acts of faith, the story gave them courage to answer like Abraham, “Here I am.”
Abraham’s story seems like a bizarre counterpoint to the gospel lesson today. We go from a knife raised against a beloved son to the offer of a hospitable drink of water. What’s the connection? It would be too easy to say the Old Testament was savage and the New Testament gives us a better way to live, although that has a certain appeal, doesn’t it? We would love to dismiss a story that upsets us and simply conclude that Jesus erases everything that came before.
But let’s give the gospel reading a little more context. In Matthew, Chapter 10, Jesus sends out the twelve to spread the good news. He tells the disciples to take only the bare minimum of possessions with them, to welcome hospitality where it is offered, and to keep moving – shaking the dust off their feet – when it isn’t. There is nothing sugarcoated about his exhortation. They are going out into a hostile world to bring a message that some people won’t want to hear. Jesus has come to bring not peace but a sword. Families will be divided by his message.
The speech to his disciples ends with three elegant and intertwining verses. Let’s break them down:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
o So far, so good. Those who welcome the disciples are welcoming Jesus and therefore also welcoming God.
Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;
o Here’s where we get into trouble. Do you know what usually happens to prophets? Jesus says that welcoming a prophet will get a person treated just like a prophet. But in the end people don’t tend to like prophets, because prophets say uncomfortable things. And where will the righteous get their reward? In heaven.
and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
o The little ones here are not children, but those who are young in faith, in this case the disciples being sent out in Jesus’ name. Welcoming even these junior prophets, who elsewhere struggle to understand their teacher, will get their hosts no earthly reward. It will mark them among the unpopular faithful.
Jesus sent out his closest companions to share his word, warning them that most of the world would not be friendly to them. When Matthew recorded this story forty or fifty years later, he didn’t sugarcoat it, either. Already the people who knew Jesus in his earthly lifetime had been persecuted by the religious authorities and the Romans; some had been killed. Jerusalem had been destroyed again. Matthew wrote for a community that needed the same frank encouragement Jesus gave, so that when God called to them, they might also answer:
“Here I am.”
We are very far away from the times and places of these stories. The average churchgoing American Christian won’t face a decision about child sacrifice, or go door-to-door and town-to-town to tell potentially hostile people about Jesus. So why read these stories? Because no matter how we’re situated, where we live or what we do for work or how much education we have or the configuration of our families, almost every one of us trying to live a faithful life will be called to give up something we love or to risk something that scares us.
It might be a career change, or a move away from a familiar home. It could be the beginning of a relationship, or the end of one. It might be as simple, to outside eyes, as letting our children grow up and leave home.
In the past two years, I’ve been living many of those adjustments. I sent the youngest of my three to college and added a younger child to the mix when I got married. I moved from Maine to Pennsylvania. I stopped serving as a local church pastor and began working for a start-up, non-profit ministry that exists primarily on the Internet. I left a place where people knew me and my work and came to a place where I didn’t really know anyone — and more importantly, no one knew me.
Trying to find my way in a new part of the country, without the relationships of long-known colleagues and without the identity of pastoring a church myself has been, well, a sacrifice and a risk. I wish I could tell you that it has all gone smoothly, but there have been challenges ranging from fundraising to technological skills to things as basic as explaining to people what I do. That wasn’t a problem when I was a pastor in a church.
Here’s the thing I’ve had to recognize. Following God’s call doesn’t always go smoothly. People don’t always appreciate what we’re doing. Sometimes they don’t even see it. A day when everything clicks may be followed by a day when it all feels like disaster. A morning when someone offers you a cup of cold water may be followed by an afternoon where you cannot find that ram in the thicket. Yet no matter how challenging the thing we’re called to do, no matter how it threatens to overturn the established order of our lives, God is still there for us.
The question is, will we be there for God?
This is why we keep going back to the stories of our faith ancestors, to the stories of Jesus and his disciples, looking for the honest exhortations we need to live faithfully today. It may not be easy. Some people won’t want to hear about it. Even those who listen may not understand completely.
We keep going back, in hopes that when God calls, we will answer:
Here I am.
In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(A sermon to be preached at Trinity United Church of Christ in Mercersburg, PA, on Sunday, June 29, 2014.)