"Faith: Act 3," sermon by Rev. Fred Kinsey
One way to describe, Original Sin, is our human capacity to sacrifice our neighbor – their reputation, their money, or, God forbid, their life – in order to save ourselves. Especially when it’s our reputation or money, our freedom or life, that’s on the line. Jesus came to give us the anti-dote – the vaccine, if you will – and taught us, to love your neighbor as yourself; and to start by reaching out to the least of these, the little ones. That’s how we will overcome the evil, sinful, and sometimes, bloody, sacrificing of one another.
And so, I don’t want to skip over our First Reading today – this narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac, or should we say, the near sacrifice of Isaac.
But first off – OMG! – this story is un-nerving, to say the least! We have to get that out there, right away! On its face, it’s horrifying – that Abraham would plan to kill his son as an act of faith – and that God would command it. This is not the God we know and worship today. I mean, which is worse – that God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, or that Abraham seemingly complies without protest.
Most scholars and theologians of our time, use Phylis Trible’s term, “texts of terror,” to refer to stories in the bible like this.
Robert Alter, says, “The abrupt beginning” of this passage, “and stark, emotion-fraught development of this troubling story have led many critics to [also] celebrate it as one of the peaks of ancient narrative.” (Alter, notes from his translation, Gen. 22:1.)
It is certainly shocking – terrifying – to our modern ears. But it resonates as a story that is saying something keenly important, from ancient times, about who we are, and who our God is.
Abraham and Sarah, lived some 25 centuries before Jesus, in a time when human sacrifice, was not, uncommon. Gil Bailie concludes:
Far more than we moderns generally realize, human sacrifice was a fact of life among the peoples of the ancient Near East, in tension with whom Israel first achieved cultural self-definition. Israel’s renunciation of the practice of human sacrifice took place over a long period of time... [but] No biblical story better depicts how the Bible is at cross-purposes with itself on the subject of sacrifice than does the story of Abraham and Isaac. . . . What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of, almost doing what he didn’t do, but of, not doing what he almost did, and not doing it, in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries, thought it should be done. (Violence Unveiled, p. 140)
In other words, child sacrifice, usually the sacrifice of the first-born, was common. Abraham does what God commands, not sacrificing Isaac, and instead sacrifices a lamb in his place –which marks the beginning of the end of human sacrifice, and substituting the alternate practice of animal sacrifice.
Paul Nuechterlein says that, there are two names for God in this text. In the beginning, the God who tests Abraham, is the God of Israel’s past, Elohim. But the God of their future, the God of the covenant, is Yahweh. And Abraham names the place YHWH-Yireh, which means, “On the mount of the LORD there is sight.” (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_8a/)
So what insight does Abraham have there?
Abraham and Sarah have been pursued by God for some time now. And it’s mostly been about their progeny. God has promised them they will be the parents of a great nation, who will be more numerous than the stars of the sky, and the sands of the seashore. And it has been more or less, one long test all along the way, as they moved from Haran to Israel. Yes – they agreed without complaint, in the beginning, and immediately went. And midway on their journey, in Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness,” St. Paul’s favorite text.
But in between, Abraham and Sarah often waver in their faith, even resisting God’s call, unhappy with their situation, even at times, openly disobedient: Abraham passing off Sarah as his sister to the Pharaoh who takes her to his bedroom; and Sarah impatient with God’s promise of a child, giving Abraham to her handmaid, Hagar, producing Ishmael – huge complications in their relationship with God.
So, this story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, is a turning point in the whole narrative of Abraham and Isaac. Something, happens here!
That Abraham would be called on to make a child-sacrifice, was not the scandal of the story, to its original hearers, some 4 ½ Millennia ago. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ and that, this story is repugnant to us, is a testament to its ‘bending toward justice,’ some 4,500 years of human history later.
As they go, Isaac raises the only question, the only shadow of a doubt. “Father,” he says, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” He is not innocent of what is possible! For this last leg of the journey, Abraham even took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on the back of his son Isaac, ‘the wood he had earlier split, early in the morning, wielding his axe,’ now in his hand. But Abraham is all unwavering trust in God. He replies to Isaac, “‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together,” says the text. (Alter translation and notes)
When they arrive, and Abraham is preparing the altar, even laying Isaac upon the wood, now, we hear no further peep from the ‘son, his only one, whom Abraham loves – Isaac!’
Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver –
-- and YHWH’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And the messenger said, “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God… And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns…”
And, so the sacrificial animal was given. Abraham sees it – just as Abraham promised his son as they walked together, that God would see to providing the sacrificial lamb, there on YHWH-Yireh, or, ‘on the mount of the LORD there is sight!’
Abraham – finally, completely, now in his old age – trusts in YHWH, the LORD. He knows that God sees, and will provide. Abraham is not in control, his God is! The wrestling match between the two is, over and done – it’s a win/win, for both God, and Abraham. And for us, we see that historically, and theologically, the sacrifice that God requires, is not human sacrifice, but here, turns and transforms to animal sacrifice – a definite upgrade – until when the prophets, 2 millennia later, will again reshape our offerings to God, requiring not animal sacrifice, but mercy.
And finally, at the end of all the ages, as it says in the letter to the Hebrews, is when Jesus reveals on the cross, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that he is marking the end to sacrificing, once and for all, and instead – being redeemed by God on the 3rd day – we are able to look up at the cross to see, and our eyes are opened, to the free gift of Grace, to love our neighbor as ourselves!
And yet, as we know, sacrificing our neighbor, raises its ugly head in new ways all the time. And it sticks up now, in this time of the virus of COVID-19, in the midst of the virus of 1619, more obviously. Those states, for example, that are disregarding protocols for reopening business, and laying it on the sacrifice, essential workers are making, like so much firewood, is insidious. To claim it is a choice between the economy and our freedom, is an un-holy sacrifice. The movement to do this a month or two ago, came after the White House realized it was disproportionately black and brown and poor people, who bear the brunt of contracting and dying from coronavirus. And the callous disregard for hospitals, over capacity now, is apparent for all who have eyes to see. Pushing for this sacrifice, like it is acceptable collateral damage, puts our nation’s Original Sin, on full display.
Finally, in our gospel, we are given eyes to see, when [Jesus said to the twelve:] 40“Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; 42and 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.”
In the Kin-dom of God, we are able to raise our eyes and see the sacrificial lamb on the cross, who died, so that we can see and understand, that sacrificing our neighbor, is not sanctioned by God, or any moral authority – and that, ‘loving our neighbor,’ is now, the journey we are all called to be on, and fulfills the realm of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
Let us listen and live by the call of God!