The Binding of Isaac

sermon on Genesis 21:1-3,5-6; 22:1-14
Word of God, word of life? This is a hard reading so near the start of the Bible and of this Narrative Lectionary year. We’ve just gotten past the sort of mythical ancient events and characters, starting to arrive at people who will provide the context of our specific story. Yet here may be one of the hardest stories in the Bible. That says something amid this book that doesn’t shy away from the human horrors of war and slavery and starvation and rape and pride and greed and politics and family feuding and all the rest. Still, this story is among the hardest, not least because it’s not evils that are against God’s will, but appears to be requested by God.rembrandt angel abraham

Knowing the context makes it even more tragic, even harder. Abraham is really the first main character in the Bible’s story. He’s a progenitor, an ancestor, the forefather for almost the entirety of what comes afterward. But identifying him in that role of forefather was absurd because he had no children. God had promised he would be the father of many nations, but he had to protest and argue and wonder and keep trying fruitlessly. Even up to age 86, the father of…nobody.

His wife Sarah sent her slave Hagar as an alternative effort toward the promise. These women drive the story at that point, while this central biblical character Abraham is like breeding stock from ABS bulls. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, whose name means “God hears” and through whom Muslims trace the story. But this firstborn son of Abraham wasn’t chosen, either by God or by Sarah, who resented Hagar.

13 more years passed until three guests, three angels came to visit. Abraham fed them a meal and they said he and Sarah would have a son. Sarah was eavesdropping and laughed, perhaps delighted, perhaps incredulous (since she herself was 90 years old at this point).

Though they’re old—“as good as dead,” they’re called later in the Bible (Rom4:19)—we heard today that Sarah gave birth to laughter, literally—the meaning of the name Isaac. Finally, the promise is coming true! Of God’s word that they would be matriarch and patriarch of the faith, of a great nation, this blessing that would extend more than the stars of the sky.

And yet instantly piled onto that story and stifling the laughter comes the binding of Isaac, the near-sacrifice. God tells Abraham to kill his son, his only son, this son whom he loves. It’s a remarkable story, for its sparse details, for the little bit that is said and for all that isn’t. We have no idea how old Isaac is, for example.

It says they walk for three days. At the end, Isaac himself carried the wood that would burn. Did he expect what would happen with that knife? What were Abraham’s thoughts on the three-day journey? Much less the question: what did he or didn’t he say to his wife, the mother of his child, before leaving?

At the crux of the story Isaac and his father talk to each other for the only time. It’s often pointed out there are no words of them speaking to each other after this horrific event, but there were also none before. Their only dialogue is the question, “Where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” And the answer, “God will provide.”

As they walked on together, one commentator says it is the longest and heaviest silence in the Bible. What does Isaac suspect? What does Abraham fear or hope? What is going on within and between them? Is Isaac resigned or overpowered when Abraham ties the ropes around him? We can’t understand it. Presumably Abraham didn’t really understand it. Certainly Isaac couldn’t have understood.

It’s cruel and unusual. After that century of waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, as Abraham continued trusting God, kept hoping this dream, this expectation of parenting would come true, for that to be revoked so suddenly in the story, not only as those who have lost a child to tragedy but demanded at his own hand. Awful.

And Sarah’s absence in this part of the story feels glaringly painful. She had trusted and hoped in the promise with Abraham. Just as the dialogue between parent and child ceases after this story, so also between spouses. We have to wonder if Sarah’s laughter departed forever, even if her son Isaac came back from this experience without a scratch, if it annihilated her joy and may even have extinguished her life itself; the next mention of Sarah in the story is at her death.

So what to do with this?

There have been many explanations. That it’s an old violent patriarchal culture is a bad excuse. Some have said it’s a story for the Israelites turning away from neighboring nations’ practice of human sacrifice for animal sacrifice instead. This spot is later labeled as the location of the Jewish temple, that center of sacrificial worship (2Chr3:1). Others observe it’s inappropriate to view sacrifice as the animal substituting for a human death. But even if this is a story about animal sacrifice, why—for the love of all things good—was it told like this? Couldn’t the story have been less brutal, less fearful, somehow not hinting at horrendous child abuse?

Accentuating that horror, the model has been perversely flipped by Christians, moving it back to human sacrifice. Jesus gets labeled both as the ram who is substituted for you, dying in place of you. But he also gets labeled as the son, that where Abraham didn’t kill his Isaac, God the Father didn’t spare his Son. Awful, awful stuff. Correctly labeled divine child abuse. Terrible.

Let me be clear that I don’t believe or agree with that view of Jesus. But it’s reinforced by our appointed paired Gospel verse—even though the Narrative Lectionary is a recent innovation, and shouldn’t have some old lack of awareness—that verse pointing to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, words we’ll sing again at communion, a meal about sharing life, not taking it. Yet that verse is applied as a thread to connect this story from Genesis into the Gospel of John’s theological lens for the year. I disagree. And I’d prefer a different paired verse. Maybe Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice” or “Let the little children come to me” or “save us from the time of trial.” Instead we’re pointed again to slaughter and sacrifice and innocent suffering.

The most terrifying aspect of this story isn’t confronting death. For a long time we’ve dealt with situations of war or capital punishment or extreme self-protection or the routines of our daily meals. Any of those, we might trace as logical causes for death. But that it’s God’s request here just seems senseless and capricious, impossible to understand. In a similar moment, Job declares, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). But we might well be more like Job’s wife who suggests he “curse God, and die” (2:9).

This perhaps honest yet troubling portrayal of an unpredictable God wanting a random test leaves us wondering about God’s will, with two competing edges in this story—God tests, and God provides, the opposites of a God who would give and a God who would take away, promising versus demanding, desiring life or death.

In that way, this is the ultimate intense story of that struggle and that constant question of our faith: How does God relate to things not going how we want? What we even term as the “miracle” of childbirth is especially fitting for this emotional question, for the enormous hopes and fears, for all that goes right and the catastrophically tragic that can go wrong. Some of you, some of us have held this question of God’s nature around longing for children and through pregnancies and as children grow and things go well in life, or they face problems. If getting our hopes fulfilled is a blessing from God, when the opposite happens, is that a punishment? A test? Simply an outcome of a capricious God? Would we say through every situation that it happened because God chose for it to happen, that God is in control?

What about when our faith conflicts with what we like or desire or would choose? Some ancient rabbis tried to explain away the story by saying that Abraham didn’t actually hear the voice of God telling him to kill Isaac. But God does ask us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise. We wake up Sunday morning, setting aside this time in our schedule. We put money in an offering plate. We offer peace to each other. We eat with strangers and call them siblings. Today we have events about imprisonment and immigration. We address those issues not through legal wisdom or economic insight, but because we believe God is calling us to stand against society’s norms, though this request from God may be inconvenient for us and unpopular with others.

But that isn’t exactly conceding how horrendous this story is, of God asking for the death of a child. I want us to trust and declare that faith should never lead us to violence, to say that God asked us to kill even an enemy, much less a family member.

That raises the confounding question of why Abraham didn’t argue. Three chapters earlier, he had a long debate with God, arguing that God should spare and not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. But for some reason Abraham doesn’t bother to argue for the life of his son. I think that could lead to seeing that, rather than God testing Abraham, there’s an element in this story of Abraham testing God, proving whether God would stand by God’s promise, whether God would remain faithful to Abraham. I like that notion certainly better than of God testing us, though I’m not exactly sure how testing God has application in our lives, other than perhaps finding confidence in Abraham’s results.

In the end, I don’t have and don’t want to offer a resolution to this story. It needs to remain perplexing and even fearful, to stay challenging. Though I always wrestle to find and share good news in the Bible passage, with this one I can only say thank you for holding onto the hardness with me. With this one, I’m just left wondering how honestly we need to face our struggles, wondering whether the promise was worth it, if Sarah’s laughter ever returned.

 

PRAYERS

Faithful God, we yearn to trust in your goodness, that you provide in our needs. Reassure us of the promise and save us from the time of testing. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Your relationship with us is connected to the land and specific places and through animals. Give us wisdom to treat them honorably, as we honor you. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

You extend your blessing to the nations. We pray that where threats of violence and patriarchy and intimidation still reign, that we can be your people of love and peace. We pray today for conversations about criminal justice and how we welcome our immigrant neighbors. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of sacrificial love, we pray for those who have lost their laughter. We pray for those who struggle with pregnancy. We pray for those who deal with any kind of abuse. We pray for the hard relationships in our families and with loved ones. We pray for those overcome by natural and other disasters. We pray for all who are ill and grieving, especially for … Amid all these situations, hold us in your loving presence. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of our ancestors, we thank you for the faithful stories of our forefathers and foremothers. We pray that your stories of promise continue through the generations, especially today as we begin a new year of Sunday School. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Holy, holy, holy God, fill us with discernment and compassion, that we may understand your will and strive for justice and love on earth as it is in heaven, now and forever. Amen.

 

 

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Ellen Janean Oliversen Wade

November 21, 1955 + June 4, 2017

Psalms 35:1-5 & 23; Romans 12:3-6a,9-13; Matthew 6:26-29

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For all of the hardness of your loss without Ellen, I’m at a loss for never having gotten to meet her. In spite of that, it seems I’ve had some good verification in hearing repeatedly a few important details. In fact, two out of the three things I first knew about Ellen seem to come up again and again, in stories, in reflections written online, in photos and the shape of this gathering today. Those two of three things are that she was good to be around and that she loved Door County.

The good to be around fits with assessments of her customer service, of the relationships she established throughout her long career with USDA, connections with meat inspectors that stretch around the country, of people who both valued and enjoyed her. That personality makes it seem pretty reasonable that she said to Shannon not too long ago that she was thinking she could be a senator. We probably could’ve used her there.

And, speaking of Shannon, the good to be around is also importantly a word for family, for that strong caring marriage the two of you shared and all that went with figuring out life together for almost 40 years. It’s also for her parenting and grandparenting. Erik referred to his mom as his “rock,” which we’ll come back to in a minute with one of our Bible readings, saying he could always lean on her and she was never nosy but always open for his questions. And that she was good to be around also fits for being a daughter, and a sister, also very hard losses.

As a sister points us to Door County, a place where she could count on good time with family gatherings, where she could find tranquility and beauty, where she could snap photos of every sunrise. Along with mountains in Colorado, the lakeshore in Door County was a place that fit for her, Ellen’s own landscape.

So as we gather for this memorial service and the chance to remember Ellen, it is good and fitting that we remember her personality and relationships and care, and that we remember her delight in Door County.

I started by saying that those were two of the three things I first learned about Ellen. But for this moment, I also have to say that the very first thing I learned was that she was dying, when Jean came to tell me that Ellen was in the ICU with lots of things going wrong and she probably wasn’t going to come through it alive. Besides the fact of those medical issues was also Ellen’s viewpoint on illness and facing death: I’ve been told she probably felt ready to die, that she’d been having trouble eating for more than a year, that she was her usual stubborn Norwegian self in not wanting to go to the doctor, that she wouldn’t have wanted extraordinary measures.

Some of our task gathered here is to figure out what to do with all of that, how to hold onto it, to figure what we believe it means. Today is for looking back to celebrate life, to recall the many good things with and about Ellen. And today is about putting that not just in the past but in a larger perspective. And today is also for holding the tragedies and the endings and the loss, and finding a place for that, too, in the same larger perspective.

For that perspective, we’ve got several Bible readings for placing Ellen’s story within God’s story. We have readings about delight in nature, and our relationships, and facing hardness, about the spread of life in its ups and downs, good and bad, its fullness and also the lack in its ending, in death.

From the Psalms we heard God described as walking beside the still waters with us, a verse where it’s easy to picture the relaxation of the lakeshore and the calm of Door County. In the other Psalm, we heard of God not only as one to enjoy nature, but as the creator of these good places, who holds the waters and the heights of the mountains, who wants those things for our lives and is concerned for their wellbeing in the same way God is concerned for us.

That reading also used the term “rock” for God. I was intrigued that you called your mom “your rock,” Erik, because it’s an unusual image, both for God and for people, since it is so inanimate, so un-cuddly. But it makes sense. Calling your mother your rock and knowing God as the “rock of our salvation” is about reliability, about steadfastness, about ways that will not be swayed, like an anchor in a storm, like a warm and trustworthy place you’ve always been able to come home to.

I’d say it is important that what you recognized in your mom is also a characteristic of God, that the two are related. Just as we know God’s goodness through our enjoyment of natural beauty and re-creation, we also know and experience God’s love and care through the love and care of others. That’s why we heard the reading from Romans. It could seem like a list of rules for behavior—don’t think too highly of yourself, use the gifts you’ve been given, love genuinely, don’t give in to evil, be patient. But I didn’t include those as instructions, but as what Ellen seemed already to embody for you, how she lived her life. If we would describe those as godly traits, as how God wants us to relate to each other, we could say that she was living faithfully, whether she knew it or not, and whether she had to work at it or it just came naturally.

With that, we’ve said something about how Ellen’s relationships and her love for Door County fit into God’s larger story. But what about facing the end and her death? This one is always hard. Our readings remind us and assure us that God delights in life and strives for the best life and fullness of life for us. Hardship and illness and death are not part of what God desires for us. That might makes us wonder: would God have wanted Ellen to try harder, to listen to doctors, to fight for life? And where is God in it now?

I guess I’m holding the end also with a couple of our Bible verses. Jesus reminds us that worry can’t add a single hour to our life. He doesn’t explain why illness or death hound us, but he does assure us that God’s care and compassion and blessing are even more insistent and persistent. With that promise, there’s nothing ultimately to worry about.

And, as the 23rd Psalm reminds us in concluding, there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Your shepherd will bring you through all the dark and deadly valleys, past what would hurt and harm you, even illnesses within your own body, and bring you to eternal life, to blessing that will never stop, never end. That’s the promise we hold today for Ellen, and the fullness of your story with God, too.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Barbara Ann Allen

29 July 1935 + 26 November 2015

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:1-7

 

I don’t know much of what to say to start this sermon besides that life sometimes goes how we want it to, and sometimes it doesn’t. At least there seems to have been that mix for Barb, and for you around her.

For the part that goes right, we could hardly find better words than what Justin shared for us from the book of Proverbs. It even wove in words about thread that could make you think of the beautiful Christmas stockings she knit.

But so much more than that is just the concern for life shared that those words spoke and that Barb embodied. Beside those words in our own terminology, the phrase “high school sweethearts” seems like an epitome of things going right, of life being how it should be.

And lasting! What a gift not only that love from early on, but that was together for 60 years of marriage. Through the years, then, you can think of moves to each new place with your career, Bob, and her care to help in succeeding, and establishing a new home and getting settled and making everything right for another new setting in life. Proverbs says we should be certain to praise such a wife, and that is clearly one of the good parts today, in being able to recall and celebrate those parts of life well-lived.

And it wasn’t just as a wife, but also as a mother, and a dear friend, and as a grandmother who cared so much and could be such fun, riding the flume over and over, or traveling with the motorhome, or enjoying sunsets from the houseboat and even daily these last years from home, for that pause to appreciate. These are the things where we truly notice life is going how it should.

But that still leaves us with questions for the other times. Proverbs doesn’t address much of that. It just says “she does good all the days of her life.” But for Barb, those of us who are left behind can’t help but miss her and feel like we wanted more of those good days of her life. We wonder about how surgeries go and what should happen. We think of how our lives go on now without her. There doesn’t seem to be much explanation or clear-cut right answer for all of that.

And there are the things that are so much more complicated. Proverbs said to help the needy, and there’s a detail from Barb’s life: I’ll continue to picture her with the good she was part of in helping out at the Food Pantry. But it was a good that goes along with a bad, trying to alleviate hunger, but we’d have to confess that hunger shouldn’t need to be a problem in the first place.

Some multi-layered complexity goes also with this moment at the end of Barb’s life. Even when we aren’t ready to say good-bye, still she was accepting of the end, ready to be done struggling with too many bad diagnoses and too little energy. Yet her resolution isn’t always ours, as we’re ambushed by what happens in each other’s lives. So we don’t have larger explanations of why she went first, of what happened that she’s gone and we’re still here. And even for her, we have to know the ambivalence, that she really would have loved to be at Jenna’s graduation next month.

For all the right in life that goes how we want it to, and even being able to celebrate and enjoy and remember those many good times, still we can’t just ignore or forget about the other side. Today, at this gathering, we need to be able to address that, too, and need some sort of word for it.

That is where our faith comes in, including the reminders today from our other Bible readings. This life is not only for striving to be happy and helpful through however many days we have. As blessed as this existence God has given us can be, that is not the sum total of what we believe or understand.

The Revelation reading reminds us of what we can look forward to, that there is more to come, that for any of our uncertainties or resentments or sorrows now, for whatever we don’t understand and wish would be different, that in the end we will meet resolution, that God will come directly to be with us and so every tear will be wiped away, and mourning will be no more, and pain will be no more. And all of that because death will be no more.

That is the heart of our faith, the core of what Barb could trust, the promise of resurrection and life to come.

But even now, our faith points us toward something more. Just as God didn’t create us for the all-too-fleeting pleasures of this life only, neither are we just waiting for that eventual day of joy and being brought together again in a heavenly promise. Even for the hard days of life to come in these weeks, even for the sadness and crying and confusion that are part of this time of loss, even for these struggles of the last months for Barb of wearing out and not having doctors be able to do what they wished, for all these moments, this is also the core of our faith, a faith that we remember during this Christmas season identified in God who came to put on our flesh and be Immanuel, God-with-us. From heaven above, Jesus was born to enjoy family and to feast and to be part of this world. But he was also born to know our hurts and our brokenness and our yearnings.

This is what the 23rd Psalm holds all together for us almost as if summarizing: the God who walks along with us, is with us in times of plenty and peacefulness—the sunsets beside calm waters—and just as much accompanies us in the worries and the hardships of shadowy valleys and even going through dying and death. And beyond that, at the end, this God through our risen Lord Jesus will bring us again to our eternal home, to feast in unbroken celebration. In life, in death God abides with you.

Just as you knew the often private Barb through love, so God also is revealed in love that persists, endures, and brings new beginnings.

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