The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Jeremiah 28:5-9; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
This week’s stories are all challenging, spiritually, ethically, and relationally. We need to take exception to the story of Abraham and Isaac to be faithful to the God of grace. Following Christ is ultimately about a life-giving lifestyle, not violence or fear.
To be honest, I am unsure what to do with the passage related to Abraham and Isaac. Given the realities of trauma and violence many children and youth face, this passage has too many red flags and despite its happy ending, presents a vision of God and parenting that is dysfunctional and bounds on the demonic. Though we can see it as metaphorical, like the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the metaphor is too brutal to be helpful and the God portrayed more bloodthirsty than caring. Seeing it as a portrait of trust, as Kierkegaard did, won’t do either ethically or theologically. No loving parent or grandparent, in this case, would require the death of a child or even the threat of a child’s death as a test of faith. I am not even sure that a loving parent or grandparent would follow God’s guidance if God requested such violence.
So, we must address the story of Abraham and Isaac with great caution and critical care. First of all, it is absolutely essential to dismiss young children prior to reading the scripture. Taken literally, as children will do, it represents the worst form of child abuse and portrays God as an arbitrary trickster, testing us with heartbreaking tasks, and then dropping his game of Russian roulette at the last moment. Isaac must have been traumatized by this event. Abraham loved Isaac and was compelled to choose between God and his son. Perhaps, from then on, Isaac also had misgivings about God’s care for him. Despite divine deliverance and parental fidelity, could Isaac ever trust his father again? Could God be trusted with caring for those he loved after this bait and switch on the mountaintop? Perhaps Abraham felt ambivalent about God from then on! Perhaps Sarah grew to hate God and her husband as a result of their putting her much hoped for son at risk! Divine deliverance at the last moment cannot obliterate the harm done by parental and religious violence. You can fear such a god, but can you love this God or assume God’s fidelity.
Moreover, what kind of God is portrayed in this passage? While our faith needs to be refined in the crucible of life, what kind of God requires us to kill to be faithful? This god’s demands sound more like what people would expect from a terrorist, mobster or gang leader, or narcissistic potentate, but certainly not the God of Jesus Christ. What would have happened if Abraham said “no” to God? “Punish me, kill me, but I will not sacrifice my child just to please you. I would rather die than obey your orders!” Oftentimes, we substitute, especially in wisdom literature, the world “awe” for “fear” to be more religiously accurate, but surely this passage means “fear,” and maybe even terror before a bloodthirsty, inscrutable God. In the years to come, could Abraham, Sarah (who must have found out), or Isaac, ever have loved God again? You can fear the God of power and might, but can you love a God whose love is always on the borderline between embrace and destruction, and whose attitude toward creation is ambivalent at best?
For many, the story of Abraham and Isaac prefigures the cross. But a deity who demands the death of his own son to be reconciled with sinful humanity is also spiritually and morally suspect. While we need not dismiss the theory of sacrificial atonement as meaningless, we must remember that it is but one of many atonement theories and that Jesus sacrificed out of free will and not divine predetermination. Jesus could have escaped the cross, as scripture states, but saw going to Jerusalem as fulfilling his destiny.
Psalm 13 joins hope and despair. God appears to have abandoned the Psalmist. “How long will you hide your face?” he pleads. Still, the Psalmist takes his anguish to God in hope that once more God will return. In this time of pandemic and protest, this is a provocative passage worth considering for your sermon. Many of our congregants may be living in their isolation or after job loss due to the pandemic with what they perceive to be divine absence, and some may feel that this sense of God-forsakenness reflects their lack of faith. Listening gracefully and without self-judgment to this passage will enable them to understand and accept their life situation more fully and perhaps sustain them in times of spiritual darkness. Divine absence does not reflect our faithlessness nor God’s abandonment but may reflect a variety of factors – professional, physiological, environmental, economic, and social.
In the passage from Romans, Paul is addressing the lifestyle of believers. Grace embraces and transforms. Grace takes us beyond legalism and a rule book of “do’s” and “don’ts.” Still even in grace, the works of sin draw us away from God and one another and are deathward in orientation. The works of grace build community and restore the soul and awaken us to eternal life. Lifestyle matters! Is our personal and corporate lifestyle reflective of God’s pathway of salvation or self-interest, hedonism, and consumerism? What guides our personal, professional, and political decision-making? Do we disregard the prophets in search of short-term profits? Do sell our souls and planet for a lump of coal? Does our privilege drown out the cries of the poor and marginalized?
While Paul may be speaking of relational and behavioral sins – the individualistic sins associated with sexuality and consumerism – surely today we need to address the “indirect” sins of good upstanding Christians who may abstain from alcohol, pornography, and infidelity, but promote racism, sexism, economic inequality, and divisiveness in their citizenship and politics. I suspect these sins are far more destructive to community and spiritual growth than the private and easily condemned sins.
Jesus’ words connect our relationships with others to our relationship with God. We welcome and encounter God in encountering the other. Our acts of comfort and kindness, especially toward the vulnerable, touch the very heart of God, and transform our own lives. What we do matters to God because it changes the quality of God’s experience. The One to Whom All Hearts are Open truly experiences our actions, and in the interplay of divine call and human response, our actions increase or diminish God’s presence in the world. What we do also matters in terms of our spiritual stature. We are blessed in our generosity and receive the reward of nearness to our Parent and Creator when we transcend personal self-interest and commit ourselves to world loyalty.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD, and the upcoming HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC.