Did you ever have the experience of reading the Bible, or hearing a passage read in Church, and saying to yourself: What’s that all about? I don’t get it. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve probably all had that experience – clergy included – and this morning’s reading from Genesis may well have been one of those times.
It’s the story referred to by Christians as “The Sacrifice of Isaac;” Jews call it Akedah, “The Binding of Isaac.” Not only is the meaning of this story hard to grasp, but it’s the very sort of passage that makes some people want to run away from God, or religion, or at least the Old Testament, saying “If that’s what God is like, I don’t want to have anything to do with him” OR “Well, that’s the God of the Old Testament; I’m a Christian, I believe in a God of love, like we read about in the New Testament.” And, almost as if to prove a point, the Gospel reading this morning is all about welcoming, and receiving rewards, and being kind to people in need; could these two readings be further apart in their depiction of God?
To makes matters worse, because Easter was so late this year, we are jumping into all of these summertime, post-Pentecost readings much later than we usually do, and so we are missing the build up to each of these passages which we would otherwise have heard over the past several weeks. So we would have heard much more about Abraham and Sarah, and God’s call to them to leave their home and start out on a journey; and then heard God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and that his descendants would be as many as the stars; only to hear later that Abraham and Sarah had such difficulty conceiving a child that they took God’s plan into their own hands, only to muck it up before Isaac was finally born, the miracle child of their old age.
And if we had started the Season after Pentecost Gospel readings several weeks ago, we would have heard some of Jesus’ teaching and healing, and then heard Jesus calling the twelve disciples to be his followers, and giving them instructions about what to do and what to expect as they join in with Jesus’ mission.
But instead we just jump into this lectionary cycle mid-stream; we jump into this story of Abraham and Isaac with no warning; maybe we’re even a little blind-sided by it. Why in the world would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, his child? What kind of cruel and capricious God is this? It’s very tempting to turn our backs on this story, or to say in a perfunctory way: God wants us to have blind faith in him – and leave it at that. But neither approach is fair to the Biblical narrative, or to our human experience.
Isaac was the promised child, the proof of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the vehicle through whom God’s blessings were to come.n And so, I think, part of what is going on here is that at a time in the very early history of God’s people, when they were learning what it meant to be monotheists, to worship one God, to have an exclusive relationship with the Lord of Creation, they were still sorting it all out, and they were living in a time and culture where human sacrifice did sometimes take place. In the midst of all of that, God wanted Abraham to be clear that he was in the relationship for God himself, and not for the benefits he might receive in the way of descendants, or posterity, or even showing off how powerful his God could be when compared to the other gods of the people among whom Abraham and Sarah travelled and lived. It was important for God alone to be Abraham’s commitment, and so the willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God was a willingness to put God first. Now I realize that probably doesn’t sit too well with our twenty-first century point-of-view, and there are many questions that we can and should ask of this story, but the willingness to put God first and foremost is a major aspect of what is being offered to us here.
Another important aspect to this passage is that it is true to human life - in the sense that we can find ourselves in painful, awful circumstances, not of our own making, and sometimes we are asked to make choices that we can barely begin to fathom, yet God is with us even in those most difficult times. God did provide the ram in the end, the animal to be sacrificed; God was there with Abraham and with Isaac all through their ordeal, and God is with us in our times of fear and confusion and pain.
If this sermon was a movie this is the place where one scene would fade out and another scene would fade in, but the only way you’d know what was happening is that a caption would appear at the bottom of the screen saying something like: “20 years later….”
Only this time it’s two thousand years later , so please make the jump with me.
We’re moving ahead about two thousand years to hear Jesus as he is winding up his instructions to the disciples: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…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." Jesus is giving the disciples the authority to represent him, and to represent God in their work; if the people they are sent to welcome the disciples they are, by extension, welcoming Jesus and welcoming God. The disciples are emissaries, ambassadors on God’s behalf, full participants in Jesus’ mission to the world. They are drawn into God’s life and work as surely as if they were Jesus themselves, and whatever good or kind act a person does for one of the disciples will be counted as a goodness or kindness done toward God – that is what Jesus is saying to the disciples.
But his words are not meant just for those twelve people two thousand years ago, but also for us who are Jesus’ followers here and now. The mission that Jesus entrusted to the Twelve he has given to us in our own generation. We are invited to be emissaries, ambassadors and full participants in Jesus’ mission; there is work for each of us to do in making God’s reign and purpose for us humans a reality. God invites us, and trusts us to be partners with him, knowing that if we spend enough time with Jesus - doing his work, speaking his words, loving as he loves – we will become like him, we will find that “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”
And so as Christians, as Biblical people, as people of the Word, we hold on to Genesis and to Matthew, to the story of the Binding of Isaac and to the instructions given to the disciples. We know that our faith and our God encompass the experience of heartbreak, suffering and things beyond our comprehension, and also the joy and purpose of being drawn right into the heart of God’s meaning and work. To say otherwise is to cut our fabric of faith too small, it is to deny the fact that every facet of human life and human experience is open to God.
But it is hard work – this holding on to Abraham and Isaac, as well as to the Gospel, at the same time; it sometimes pulls and stretches us in ways we might not find so comfortable at first. And certainly the world around us has a difficult time understanding that Christian life and faith can’t be put into neat and tidy prescribed boxes and categories, and the culture is always trying to get us to say the simple, on-or-off, black-or-white thing about God or faith or life.
But we Christians stand firmly rooted in the God who became incarnate in Jesus; the divinity who took on our humanity; the mystery and the power of the universe which makes itself known in the daily chores and tasks and minutia of human life and relationships.
We know that our God has a big story, rich with details and emotion and meaning and so many different characters; a story with plenty of room for us to live and move and have our being in it. This is story we have to tell; this is the story we take out into the world, to share with all who need the power and the presence and the purpose of God in their lives.
Let us pray. Lord God, you call us to be true to you, and to tell the truth about this human life you have given us. Help us never to lose sight of the reality of suffering, nor the joy of new life; and build our faith day by day as you send us into the world as your ambassadors, emissaries and friends. We ask this in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 26, 2011