Preacher: Rev. Brian Adkins
Scripture: Scripture: Genesis 22:1-18
One of the first sermons I ever delivered was the week after Grandma Flo died. The text was the Raising of Lazarus. In my grief to preach on that text was challenging but in some ways healing. Now today, it seems fitting the my last sermon at Epworth is on Father’s Day in the wake of my own father’s death.
I’m not going to talk about my dad much in this sermon, but I have asked that some of his music be included in the worship service, so you will hear that in a little while. My dad sang in a gospel band and traveled around Central and Southern Ohio singing the Good News.
For some reason the text I’ve chosen today is on Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Not exactly a story of “Father of the Year” but I wonder whether there’s more to this story than meets the eye. My Hebrew Bible professor, the Rev Dr Jeffrey Kuan challenged us to preach the difficult and disturbing texts- not to skip the tough ones- because they are part of our inheritance and our faith tradition.
So here we go. Genesis 22:10-14.
God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham obeys, leads his son up the mountain, binds him and lays him upon the altar, when miraculously a ram shows up, just in time.
My first thought as I read this story is: Beyond Abraham’s perceived faithfulness, and Isaac’s innocence, and God’s intervention. I wonder what was that car ride home was like? I can only imagine a shell-shocked Isaac staring silently out the passenger-side window at the passing Mesopotamian countryside and eventually turning to his father in perturbed disbelief, asking, “Well, what in God’s name was that about?”
The classic reading of this text is God’s testing of Abraham, and Abraham’s obedient response.
This text presents one of the most difficult conundrums in our faith life. How do we understand this story? Do we believe God to be a god who demands this kind of sacrifice, or who demands this kind of blind faith? Do we believe that God tests us in such ways, too? [I shudder to think of how this text has been used in consoling grieving parents. I’m sure that it has.]
And I always want to ask, where are we in the story? Are we Abraham? Or are we Isaac? Dare I ask, are we God? Are we the one demanding sacrifice, or the one devotedly obedient, or are we the sacrifice ourselves?
One of the challenges in these old stories is that the answer is usually yes. Yes, we are each of these characters. The powerful, the obedient, and the sacrificial; sometimes the actor, sometime the bystander. Maybe that’s how come we can read these texts over and over again. Because there are new truths hidden in them; and each time we return to the scripture, we’re invited to reconsider all that we know about them.
Abraham, being the hero of the early part of Genesis, we can’t help but consider this story from his perspective. In the broader narrative of this book, this is a test of the covenant between this man and his God. And through this episode we may learn something more about the Creator God and his demands of his creation.
In the text there is just one line that invites us into Isaac’s perspective: “Father, behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?”
Leaving the servants behind, Abraham and Isaac journey up the mountain alone. Abraham carries the fire, and Isaac carries the wood. This image has been likened to Jesus bearing his own cross. In fact this whole story has long been seen as a foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of Jesus, his own son. Only in this story, the son is spared. Or is he?
The story reads that just as Abraham is about to bring down the knife upon Isaac, an angel of the Lord intervenes.
Here, the method called “text criticism” of the scripture may shed some light on the story. As Bible scholars study this text, there is strong consensus that there were at least two writers or editors of this text. Throughout the book of Genesis, the voices of different writers and editors can be heard, as evidenced by the words they use for God. One writer- or redactor- consistently uses the word Elohim for God; we call that editor, “the Eloist.” Another voice uses the word “Yahweh” for God throughout, and we call him “the Yahwist.” There are likely others.
One scholar, Omri Boehm in his book, "The Binding of Isaac: [An Inner Biblical Polemic on the Question of Disobeying a Manifestly Illegal Order”] He argues that this story has been redacted at least twice. Looking at cues in the text, he suggests that in the original story “God sets up this tragic task and [being] faithful… Abraham goes along with it. The tension builds and builds until, with his knife raised, Abraham concludes that God is not going to intervene. At that point, Abraham says, essentially, "Well this is just wrong and I'm not going to do it and that ram is just going to have to do." In this version, Abraham is disobedient.
Boehm suggests that a later editor couldn’t live with the idea that Abraham could be disobedient and get away with it, so he edited it to say that Abraham actually did kill Isaac. One final redactor, maybe in effort to countermand child sacrifice, leaves us with this tale of the angelic intervention. God saves the day, at the very last moment. We cannot know for sure whether these theories hold water. But if the original story of Abraham’s disobedience was redacted and replaced with murder, and then last-minute clemency, then we have inherited a truly problematic story- and one that has colored our understanding of God from the beginning.
One commentator writes, “[If this is the case,] the final redactor has stolen from Judeo-Christian tradition a brilliant story and has put us all through hell trying to come up convoluted reasons why God is good in this final version.” It matters. Which version we believe and preach and teach matters. What is written and what is behind the text matters. (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)
As I read and re-read this story, I was stuck on Isaac’s words, “Father, behold the fire, and the wood, but where is the lamb?” And it’s painful to consider that as they approach the sacrificial moment, my God, he still doesn’t know. They’re climbing the mountain and still doesn’t know. He’s carrying the wood and he still doesn’t know. He’s being bound and he still doesn’t know.
And as I read I can’t help but consider the state of the Church of Jesus Christ in the world today. Behold the fire, and the wood, but where is the sacrifice? I see passion in the church- among conservatives and progressives alike. And I see the wood, our theology and our institutions- the means by which the fire moves; but where (and who) is the sacrifice?
Who is the Isaac in the story of the Church (and perhaps society at large) today? Who are the innocent ones being led to the altar, bound, and placed upon it. Where is the lamb?
This is when which story we read matters. In this framing, we may be Abraham. And in some fanatical devotion to what is called obedience, I believe we sacrifice our vulnerable and innocent ones on the altar- out of a devotion not to God himself but to the idols of our texts and traditions. This story seems to legitimize abusive power relationships. It dehumanizes the vulnerable. Not to mention what it does to our witness in the world. What relevance can people today find in a God that would demand, or condone, or turn a blind eye to this kind of sacrifice?
But thanks to the Wesleyan quadrilateral, our texts and traditions are not the only things we have to guide us. We are invited also to bring to our faith our experience and reason, too.
If we can re-consider this text in light of the biblical scholarship, perhaps there is yet some hope here. Because now, more than ever, is when we need that heroic and disobedient Abraham. Now is when we need the experiential and reasonable Abraham. [We’re not living in the Dark Ages anymore. We are living in the age of the light of Christ.]
In that original story, despite his disobedience- or perhaps because of it, Abraham is judged righteous. Perhaps the test wasn’t about blind faith after all, but about reason and faithfulness to the stewardship of God’s gifts and our future. Perhaps it can inform us in our living the Gospel. A Gospel that does not allow us the convenience of being perpetrators or bystanders- in the face of the murder of innocents.
We have some choice in how we read the scripture. We choose whether we read it literally or allegorically. We choose where we place ourselves in these stories. We choose the authority we give to the text itself. We choose whose voice we lift up in our readings. We make these choices, consciously or subconsciously. They undergird our theological perspectives.
As I read, it’s Isaac’s voice- and Isaac’s question- he demands and deserves an answer. Behold the fire, and the wood, but where is the lamb? Having inherited this story, in light of the Gospel, we might ask Where is the lamb? Where is Christ?
There are times when disobedience is the most faithful course of action. [Even as we reject blind obedience, we have to reject blind disobedience, too. None of us has cornered the market on truth.]
In our Confirmation class that has just concluded there was a session called, “Heretics R Us.” It invites critical engagement of our traditions and our scriptures. I want our young people to know that our faith is not dead- it’s not a “once and done” deal- but it is alive and evolving and it belongs to them, to us, to shape.
There is a quote from Allan Boesak, a leader in the anti-apartheid movement, saying, “When we stand before him, God will ask, ‘Where are your wounds’ and we will say, ‘I have no wounds.’ And God will ask, was nothing worth fighting for?’
I am a little ashamed that as I saw the Conference’s attitude and actions toward the people of Trinity United Methodist Church, I was not more disobedient. It was probably inevitable and maybe even proper that the church was going to be closed, but it did not have to be so spiritually and emotionally harmful along the way. It did not have to be done so callously through form letters and accusations. They deserved better.
It is sad when the “power” we have to speak truth to is the very institution that has given us the platform for our ministries.
In my last sermon, I challenged us to let go of the misapprehension that we have the luxury of being bystanders.
I choose to read Abraham’s story as an act of disobedience. And a disobedience that God honored. That if this was a test, it was not a test of obedience but of love.
I close with this quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans, this is part of our Communion liturgy that we say again and again. Romans 12:11 “…Present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” A living sacrifice, not a dead or dying one. Holy and acceptable. Not blindly obedient, but holy and acceptable. To sacrifice our fear and our shame and our reticence. To name and confront and rebuke what is unjust, in the Name and Way of Jesus.
I have been blessed to be a witness to the ministry and passion and faith of Epworth over the past 9 years. My challenge to you and to myself, is to dig deeper, go further, disobey when it is right to do so. And in so doing, we will find that God is faithful, always faithful.
Thanks be to God.
Special thanks to... Preacher: Rev. Brian Adkins
Contributors: Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Judy Cayot, Maria Gallo, Susan Jardin, Orion Lacey, Caroline Lee, Alina, Zachary & Mike McVey, Willa Seldon
2020 Confimands: Ruby Childs, Gabby Downs, Alexander Naar, Gus Schafer, Juliet Sisk-Hilton; Mentors: Judy Cayot, Clark Kellogg, Judy Kriege, Sally Nasman, Meagan Travlos
Special Music: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Cathryn Bruno, Aeri Lee, Caroline Lee, Charles Lynch, and the late Dave Adkins
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
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