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Wednesday, July 5, 2017
Open to More:
A Sermon on Genesis 22 and Psalm 13
By Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the Fourth Sunday Following Pentecost
July 2, 2017
Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter. Amen.
Maybe we should pray that again because God knows we are going to need it today with this text. It’s a text that we want to run from, it’s a text that we don’t want to claim as part of our Scriptural canon, it’s a text that raises way more questions than answers, no one particularly loves this text and it’s caused some serious problems and concerns.
Just one example, one pastor proudly boasts of his deep love for this text and one of the story he shares about this text is how it inspired him that when his son became a teenager, he took his son on a hike, to the top of a mountain and he read his son this story and then looked at his son and said, “you need to know I will always love God more than I love you.” I hope this inspired his son the get out of the house as soon as possible and his congregation to find a new pastor because that is a gross abuse of this text.
And there is story after story and sermon after sermon showing how poorly this text has been interpreted and read in our history. And I was sitting trying to listen and figure out what I was going to do with this text when Don Vanderslice stopped by the office one afternoon to see how I was doing and I just unloaded on him about this text. I talked about how scary it was and how poor interpretations of this text have led to some real violence in our faith. I talked about how I hate the poor atonement view we always attribute to this text… as if this makes the entire substitutionary atonement theology redeemable. I talked about my foundational theology of God, largely based on St. Anslem’s ontological argument, that if I can think of something better and more loving than, than I am not thinking of God because God will always be better and more loving than the very best of human thinking. And how I really wanted to just choose an easier text and began to question the entire canonization of this story.
And I said all of that in like two breaths and Don looked at me as if this was not the usual response to “Hey man, how’s it going?” and then he said, “Well Griff, I think you will find a way to preach this text and say something true, you always do.” And then he changed the subject before I went back to my crazy rant by asking if I had seen It Comes at Night. I had not seen it yet and he told me how it was this perfect horror movie and how it had to be a metaphor about the false fears so many hold about Islam and borders and it was just brilliant, that it was incredible social commentary. Which lead to a long discussion about horror movies and how really good horror movies are social commentary because horror movies make us face the shadowy, scary overlooked parts of our life. I mean you look at Get Out (which has to be the most brilliant movie of the year) and how it approaches the issue of race and privilege in our world today. And that is what scary movies and stories always do.
And then Don left the office and I went back to deal with this story and then I realized that works here too, that Don’s entire conversation about horror movies had been midrash on this text. Scary stories do always teach us something and the Bible uses scary stories and ridiculous metaphors to teach us…. The prophets do it, mystics do it, the Bible does it.
And this particular text is certainly a horror story.
The first verse: “After these things God tested Abraham.” And as a reminder “these things” mean wandering into the unknown for 20 years, waiting 20 years to have a child at old age, and already being forced to let one child go. Which seems like more than enough for one lifetime to me. “After these things God tested Abraham and he said, ‘Take your son- your only son- and go to Mount Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice.’” The one child that you have been promised, that child who is the very future of humanity, the one you have waited for so long, your very future- sacrifice him.
And Abraham follows… without question or arguing. Which does not make any sense when you remember that just a few chapters earlier Abraham has spent 17 verses arguing and bartering with God, trying to talk God out of destroying Sodom. However this request to sacrifice his own son gets 0 verses of argument or bartering, which is a clue that we need to pay attention- things don’t add up and something more must be going on.
Abraham follows and he journeys three days and three nights with Isaac, who by the way is not some sweet little boy anymore, he’s aged and he’s a grown man who is old enough to help carry the supplies on the journey, most scholars think he is somewhere between 18 and 40. And it’s Abraham and Isaac and the servants on the journey, note that Sarah is not with them.
And they get to the mountain and Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain. They make an altar, they light the fire and get the knife ready. And it’s now when Isaac says, “Dad, where is the sacrifice?” And my guess is his voice is quivering a bit now because it’s all adding up.
And the story skips here and quickly takes us to this place: “Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son, but the angel of the Lord called to him, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not do this…”
And there caught in the bushes is a ram who will be the sacrifice this day.
So what are we to do with this text? What are we to make of it? To start with I believe we need to begin by coming to a better understanding of sacrifice than most of us have, which Rob Bell does in one paragraph:
“Early humans came to the realization that their survival as a species was dependent on things like food and water. And for food to grow, it needs sun and water in proper proportions. Too much water and things wash away, not enough and plants dies. Too much sun and the plants wilt, not enough and they dies as well. These basic observations brought people to the conclusion that they were dependent on unseen forces they could not control for their survival. The belief arose that these forces are either on your side or they aren’t. Your crops grow or they don’t, you’re able to have kids or not, your animals stay healthy or not. And how do you keep those forces on your side?”
The concept of sacrifice actually makes sense when you look at it that way. So it makes sense that a tenth of your harvest is given to a god or goddess. But what happens when your sacrifice does not give you the anticipated and desired result, you assume you did not sacrifice enough. And so it does not take much time for giving a tenth of the harvest to be replaced with giving something more valuable like an animal, a chicken or a goat, to a bigger more valuable animal, like a cow, until suddenly in order to survive you believe you have to offer the most valuable item you have: your firstborn.
And this was the practice in Canaan. It would not have been odd to hear about someone sacrificing their first born to the gods and goddesses, in fact it might have even be a way you measured devotion (and we need to always be careful about systems we have to measure devotion… they interest us but they never interest God- - a love trusts but does not measure and test), in fact it seems to be a common practice.
And as uncomfortable as it makes us we have to realize that Abraham’s story begins the practice of monotheism but Abraham spends a great deal of his life with multiple Gods, I don’t know that his view of monotheism is, like ours, that there is one God but that his view is this God is greater than all the other gods.
Which means this first verse, “Take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering” might shock us but it does not shock Abraham. And I don’t think it’s a crazy assumption to think that Abraham might just assume that this is exactly what God would want because that is what all the others gods desire and that maybe God never uttered those words…. Which might be exactly why Abraham does not spent 17 verses arguing with God like he does when it comes to Sodom…. Destroying a town does not make sense, but sacrificing your first born does.
And it might be a warning to us about making sure we are paying attention and listening to the right God. Which means this horror story is once again, like all great horror stories, incredible social commentary and it exposes the shadowy scary parts of life, like believing that a God would ever ask you to sacrifice a child, like reminding us of the importance of making sure that you are listening to the true God.
Because the true God is not the God who demands something immoral and reprehensible, the true God is the one who provides. And that might be the most important thing we hear today…because there are a lot of folks right now claiming to hear and follow God’s will and it looks immoral and reprehensible… And the true God is not the one who demands something immoral and reprehensible, the true God is the one who provides for everyone.
My read of this text is that the only time God shows up is right before Abraham gets himself in way over his head and does something that can’t be undone. Our God, the true God, is the one who steps in to say “never would I ask you to kill in my name.” (and this too is something we need to pay attention to because there is a current of nationalistic Christianity that is getting scary close to “kill in God’s name” and it’s going to take churches and followers like us to stand up and say No). Our God is the one whose way is love. Our God is the one who provides for us over and over again.
Which might be why after this passage this God is referred to as the God of Abraham because the true God was revealed here. And to chase a rabbit just for a minute, but there is needed redemption at the end of this rabbit chase. I don’t think Abraham is the first one to understand this God. Sarah does not journey with Abraham, which is interesting because since Genesis 12 they have done everything together and that ends here. When Abraham leaves to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah and Abraham are never again together until he goes to bury her. And my hunch is that Sarah knew, the God who came to our tent and gave us a child would never ask us to do this, the God of laughter would never ask us to cause mourning and weeping, you are not listening to the True God. But of course in partriarchical fashion, she gets left out. But I think she is the first one to get it and the God of Abraham should be the God of Sarah and Abraham.
At the end of the story the God of Sarah and Abraham is the God who provides. And that is the one true God. That is the God we worship this day.
And because it’s so important that people understand this, the story is told over and over again to remind folks who God is and to remind people to listen to the right God, the true God. The question we must always be asking are which God are we listening to? Because this horror story is just as important for me and you as it was for its first audience.
Sure it might not be a request to sacrifice your child but what else have the gods asked you to sacrifice? The gods of money have surely asked you to sacrifice a dream or even a vocation to serve them, I know you always wanted to be a writer but being a doctor will pay better and you can have more. The gods of war are constantly asking us to see one another as competition and in the way instead of relating to one another as siblings sharing this earth and sacred journey, that person there seems to be getting more than me and instead of celebrating what they have we either try to one up them or we dismiss them. The gods of power are constantly reminding us of the pecking order and who is more important than who, who has more, who has privilege and trying to get us to play by the rule: the one with the most in the end wins. The gods of image are always reminding us who we don’t look like and how we don’t match up to the ideal The gods of tradition remind us of all the rules and systems that keep things in place by narrowly defining things like marriage and family. And in the scariest words I heard last week at CBF: “If you want to be a true proclaimer of the Gospel you must stand up against the Lord of money, America’s first God.”…. And that is just the start, there are all sorts of gods whispering into our ears each and every day.
There are many gods whispering into our ears and trying to get us from the Way,
And this story must teach us over and over again that our God is not like the other gods, our God is provider, our God has a better way, our God is the way of love.
And we best be always listening because we that voice is always speaking to us and we never know when and how we might hear it. It might be your heart reminding you of your true calling in life, it might be a prophetic voice on the margin singing songs about community and not competition, it might the words of the Gospel reminding us that the last will be first and the first will be last, it might be a partner telling you that you are beautiful, it might be a sunset, it might be a Charles Hesston like experience, it might be a hymn and it might even be in the voice of a friend telling us about a horror movie and opening up Scripture in a whole new way.
What I know is that the true voice of God sounds like life, freedom and love.
And it is the voice of salvation.
And it’s the only voice we need to hear and follow.
Because when it’s the only voice we hear, all things are possible. When it’s the only voice we hear well suddenly our lives look a lot more like Jesus Christ, who followed this voice and none other. And that is our calling to join Jesus and to follow the voice of God only and go wherever it leads.
So may we listen so that we can join with the Psalmist and declare: “but we trusted in your steadfast love and our heart rejoices in your salvation.”
Amen and Amen.