The Faith of Abraham – Lectionary 06/28/2020

Genesis 22:1-14

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Mark 7: 9-13

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Sermon Text

Abraham, as we established firmly last week, had a complicated relationship with his children to say the least. The composition of Genesis places his actions with Ishmael and Hagar and with Isaac on Mount Moriah, next to each other. Reading through the book we see Abraham expel Ishmael and Hagar, then immediately settle in the land he sent them into, and then immediately begin the drama that is known to us today as the, “Akedah,” or “Binding” of Isaac. Younger listeners who relate that term, “The Binding of Isaac,” to a popular flash animated rogue-like, it is an intentional and thematic decision on the creator’s part.

For us as interpreters, the naming of this pericope tells us what takes place. Abraham takes his son onto a mountain and binds him to be sacrificed. Christian writers, often writing through the lens of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, have called this the, “Sacrifice of Isaac,” and highlight what Abraham was willing to give up for God in taking his son to the mountain. The text is not overly concerned with the sacrifice itself though, except to tell us that human sacrifice is not permitted in Judaism and that this is as a scene demonstrates God’s disdain for the practice. Jewish interpreter’s focus instead on the theme of obedience to God.[1]

Yes, at the end of the day it is potentially disastrous to follow Kierkegaard or reformed thinkers in highlighting putting God above family obligations as is often how this text is discussed. While it is true that Christ warns us, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) To take this in a vacuum and not consider that Christ also says we cannot blame God for our inability to care for our older parents, as our Gospel reading for today says, is to cherry pick our scriptures.

In highlighting this particular aspect of Abraham’s sacrifice we risk missing the point as it were. Looking closer at the text, we see that God asks Abraham to offer up his son in the most agonizing way possible. In Hebrew the text clearly demarcates itself so that God builds an anticipation in anyone who listens about what God is asking. God says to Abraham, “Take now your son.” We can image Abraham’s thoughts as he hears this –

Abraham: “I have two of those, I wonder who he means? Does he want me to take Ishmael back?”
God continues on, “Your only (or uniquely) begotten son.”
Abraham: “Does he mean Ishmael as uniquely born to an enslaved woman or Isaac as uniquely born out of a promise of God?”
God: “The one whom you love.”
Abraham: “But I love them both! Even if Ishmael is… absent right now.”
God: “Isaac.”
Abraham: “Oh… Yes, Isaac.”
God: “And go to the land of Moriah.
God: And offer him up.
God: As a burnt offering.
God: On one of the mountains of which I will tell you.

Abraham has to grapple now if he is willing, having just given up one son, to lose his other. Ishmael was cast from his camp, but one day he might come back or the situation might change. However, once Isaac is killed there’s no coming back. Abraham must decide how he must act, if he is willing to sacrifice once again a child that has been given to him. He sits, and he thinks, and he waits. Yet, when the sun rises the next day, Abraham immediately heads out of the camp and the rest is history.

Abraham showed faith in following through with this, faith that only a few people can claim to have known. God and Abraham alone may know exactly what it is like to climb a mountain and prepare to see your child die, part of yourself, in fear and trembling on a cold hilltop, in part by your hand. Yet, at the same time, this story speaks to a specific group across time and space.

For the Early Church, it was not hypothetical that you may see those you love die at the hands of another. To be a member of the Church was to become a member of an illegal sect in several periods of the Roman Empire. Before the Church, Jews faced this danger across the Ancient Near East, and continued to face those dangers as Christianity moved from an oppressed group to an oppressing group in the Late Imperial and Medieval Periods. The command of Jesus to hate our lives and those within them was not that we should be ready at the drop of a hat to cut ties with our loved ones, but that they may be stolen away from us if we take our faith seriously, and that we must be prepared for not only ourselves to come to harm, but those we care for.

No wonder then that the writer of Hebrews tied the faith of Abraham to the work of Christ and asked their audience to follow Abraham’s example. The family of the faithful had to be ready for the worst and to look at Abraham and to Christ that they knew that they were not alone in facing this risk. The disasters that came their way were faced not only by the patriarchs, but Jesus himself, and that solidarity was enough to see them singing hymns as they entered the Amphitheaters or as they were crucified along the roadsides.

We, however, are not being dragged to martyrdom by an Empire, nor are we a minority religion scattered across the world as post-Exilic Judaism was. We are the majority religion in the Western World, and especially in the United States, no matter how restrictive a definition of a Christian is used. We are not people who, facing collective persecution and pain, look to this message as one about living a bold faith in the face of persecution. The reality is, that most Western, and especially American, Christians will go their entire life without their faith causing a single negative thing to happen to them, and when it does happen it is more often a consequence of actions independent of  their faith.

The strange thing that we as Christians must grapple with in the twenty-first century United States is that our religion has become innocuous. It asks nothing of us and when we are presented with an opportunity to act upon it we usually reject that opportunity in favor of an easier option. We talk triumphantly about how we must emulate Abraham’s faith and be willing to give up anything we are asked to give up – as long as we are not asked to give up comfort, possessions, reputation, or convenience we are happy to stand up and proclaim the faith we have in God.

Some will say that this is not the case and that there are plenty of stories that demonstrate a Christian willingness to stand up for their faith. To that we can apply a simple test, “What parts of the faith are they standing up for?” Plenty of people will take a stand on things that ask nothing of them. It is easy to, “Stand up,” against things we do not participate in or have no risk of stumbling into doing and when criticized say that we have lost as a result of it, despite the fact we are told to remove logs from our eyes before we remove sawdust from the eyes of others. (Matthew 7:5) It is easy to cause unnecessary fights and then be upset when people find us disagreeable, despite the fact we are told to, “live at peace with one another.” (Romans 12:18) It is easy to cut out family and friends from our lives because we would rather do that than do the hard work of reconciling ourselves to them.

There are situations when fights will occur between people of faith and those outside it. There will be moments when we must speak against evils in the world without reservation even as we ourselves are sinful. There will be moments when we must end relationships because there is an unwillingness on one or more parts to mutually work toward the good of each other.[2] What we mean to say in highlighting the above negative acts is not to say these realities do not exist, but to say that we as Christians are far too willing to find ourselves encountering exceptions rather than rules.

If we wish to be obedient to God, and if we wish to offer up even our most beloved attachments to God, we cannot do so only when it is easy for us because that will only hurt other people. Racial inequality in the world that we benefit from, that is something we must make sacrifices to end. That should be evident to us after the events of recent weeks, when nooses once more can be placed in the workplaces of people, even racecar drivers to intimidate them and threaten their life. Poverty in the world that we benefit from, that is something we must make sacrifices to remedy. When we buy goods that cannot be affordably made without funding slave mining operations across the world or the private prison-industrial complex in the United States the church has to act somehow. When a sickness ravages the world and kills 5 in every hundred people it infects, we should think about sacrifices we have to make. Especially, almost five months in, when that sacrifice mostly comes down to wearing a mask even if it is not comfortable or convenient to do so.

We are people of faith, and faith sometimes demands sacrifices. What we cannot allow to happen is that we invoke that reality only when it is convenient for us. We cannot declare Korban at the neglect of our family, we cannot claim Christian witness at the expense of the least of these, we cannot claim to emulate Abraham when we cannot even get up and leave the comforts of the world we’ve known. Yet, it is only when we take that trip, when we move up into the unknown hills that God shows us along the way, that we will find God’s blessing, and that blessing in abundance. – Amen.

[1] For further discussion see, Joseph Telushkin. “The Binding of Isaac/AKEDAT YITZCHAK” in Jewish Literacy. (New York, New York: William Morrow and Company 1991.) 36-37

[2] I take a moment here to emphasize that, in the case of physically or emotionally abusive relationships this is especially important to remember. A victim has no obligation to their abuser, and we as the Church cannot continue to endanger vulnerable person to soften the blow to our own sensibilities.

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