June 28, 2020
Genesis 22: 1-14
© Pamela Cranston 2020
"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.”
In today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, we hear the deeply troubling story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.
God says to Abraham: "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.”
What kind of God would demand such a terrible thing and what kind of father would obey?
According to Dr. Kathryn Schifferdecker, Professor of Old Testament at the Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota, there is a Yiddish folk tale that says: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said to God, "If you want to command death, do it yourself."
So, what does this story have to do with loving one’s neighbor as oneself? Or the command in today’s Gospel, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
It is because this 2,500 year old story, which dates back to the very roots of our Judeo-Christian faith, is so resonant – because there is an Abraham in all of us. And there is an Isaac in all of us.
Who is this Abraham? He was the faithful man who at God’s command took a giant leap of faith and left his family and homeland in the land of Ur and set out to follow God to the Promised Land. Time after time, God called Abraham to deeper levels of faith and he obeyed. But now, Abraham, who has given up everything, faces the ultimate test.
From the very beginning of the story we know (though Abraham doesn’t) that God is testing him. In the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say: “Do not bring us to the test”. This is the test we are talking about.
We all have had to face tests in our lives: such as your first driving test (I failed the written part), tests in college or for the bar exam. It could be the test of boot camp or going to war, or having your first baby, or the death of a parent, spouse or child, or standing up for what you believe in at great cost.
It would be understandable if God tested Abraham by asking him to get rid of something bad in his life. Like stopping smoking or drinking or eating too much; or even lying, stealing or committing adultery or any other bad thing you can think of. These are matters of Lenten discipline and the confessional, but are not the ultimate test. God’s test of Abraham is not life as usual—it’s when you know, deep down, that your very soul is being asked of you.
The test that God is asking of Abraham is to surrender the good in his life. To surrender whatever is the source of love, inspiration, healing, identity and ultimate value. Like Isaac, his son, his only son, whom he loved. God is banking everything on Abraham and his faithfulness and also on Isaac, as the sacrificial lamb.
This Isaac who would become the promise of God’s Covenant with Abraham: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.” This Isaac, who carried the wood on his back to the place of slaughter, like Christ. Whatever good in your life that’s hard to let go of.
This is the test we try to avoid: to surrender more and more what is good in our lives until we offer our very selves. What is the most beloved part of your life? What is your Isaac?
In the Vatican, if you go to the Sistine Chapel there is a painting on the wall behind the altar by Michael Angelo of the Last Judgement. Just left of the altar is a door which takes you to “The Room of Tears”. It is a simple room with a plain floor, no famous works of art on the walls, no fancy furniture, just a desk, a red couch, a full length mirror and a kneeler for prayer. This is where a newly elected Pope changes from his red Cardinal robes into the long white robes of a Pope.
When Pope John XXIII came into the room of tears, vested and saw his very round figure in papal white robes that didn’t fit, in the full-length mirror, he said: “This man will be a disaster on television!”
When Pope John Paul II changed into his papal garb, he burst into tears.
I can relate. After I became a Christian at the age of 20, I was a very happy lay person, ministering in the church as best I could. But after 15 years, it became clear to me, from many quarters, that God was calling me to be a priest. This was something which terrified me. I was happy the way I was, I didn’t want the responsibility, I felt like I wasn’t priest material, I was too introverted, I was afraid too much would be asked of me, I was afraid I would fail, I wanted to live life my way. When I finally saw that this is what God (and later the church) really wanted, I had to let go of my way and say yes—and, I burst into tears. Of course, I could have said no, but then my life would only have been, for me, a half-life.
And what about the Isaacs of this world? The innocents led to the slaughter? I thought of him as I watched, like all of us, the world-wide Black Lives Matter protests over the unnecessary killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks and so many others.
Two weeks ago, Reuters published a powerful photo by Dylan Martinez taken on June 13th during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London. The photograph was taken as violence erupted in the city between BLM protestors and far-right counter protestors. It shows a big strong black man named Patrick Hutchinson carrying an injured white counter-protester to safety over his shoulder. This photo could be the focus of so many sermons: on the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, on the Good Samaritan, or on loving one’s enemy.
But it occurred to me that Patrick Hutchinson, this modern-day black Isaac, had every right to be angry after so many years of racism and violence. But he too, like Abraham, was being put to the test. His very soul was required of him. He was carrying his cross on his shoulder.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon about the Good Samaritan once said: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But... the Good Samaritan reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
This modern day Isaac in London had to let go of and drop his legitimate, righteous anger, in order to pick up his enemy and carry him to safety. He was being called to love more than hate. As Jesus said: “The least you did to these, you did to me.” and “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” It’s the same thing.
Sometimes, like Abraham, like Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, and even this black hero in London, we are called to surrender what is beloved in our lives for something bigger than ourselves.
What is the bigger thing you are called to?
I can assure you that God will not let you down. If you have the courage to say Yes, God will walk with you, and sometimes carry you, every step of the way.