A Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason at St. Theodore’s Episcopal
Church in Bella Vista, Arkansas, on June 26, 2011.
The Scripture Texts for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 8, are:
Genesis 22:1-14 [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."
When I was a college student at Sewanee, I kept a study carrel in the bowels of the library. Buried behind rows and rows of books that few ever saw fit to check out, I would take refuge there as I read class assignments, studied for tests, and wrote papers. Because Sewanee has an Honor Code, students could safely keep their books and belongings there year-round, and since we were given access to the library at all hours, there were many times when I sat there, late at night, and was struck by the silence—sort of sequestered in a cave of books.
When my brain began to reverse the directional flow of information—dumping instead of absorbing—I would take a break and browse the stacks of dusty books that towered around me. Many of the journals the library kept were shelved down there, in the basement, and there was one journal that, at the time, seemed wholly peculiar and even absurd: The Journal of Philology—literally, the journal for word-lovers. Authors of journal articles would write in depth about the origin or meaning of words—simple words in our language. When I needed a break from my studies, I found the inane minutia of this Journal of Philology to be paradoxically refreshing.
Now you may be thinking—Who could possibly produce enough fodder simply writing about “words” and phrases of words used in speech that would fill a 100-page magazine once a quarter? And who would ever pay for a subscription for such esoteric information? But there it was, published continuously since 1880 by philologists, for philologists.
I would like to suggest that, as Christians, we are all called to be philologists—not because it is our objective to mine each word for its full meaning and dimensionality. Language is porous, evolving, and cannot be trimmed neatly around the edges. But we are called to be philologists because we are ultimately seeking to understand the Word of God—the source of speech that lends meaning and dimensionality to our lives. The Word of God. What is it that God is saying to us? Can we hear it—and if we hear it, can we possibly understand it, and if so, can we respond to it?
And so, on this day, when we get perhaps the most terribly unsettling Word of God in all the Bible—the instruction for Abraham to slay his own son Isaac as a test devised by God, we struggle. It is too raw, too offensive. For decades, the Church’s lectionary deleted this passage from the cycle. But the Revised Common Lectionary has restored it, inviting us to wrestle with its meaning and implications in our lives. There it is in the Bible, so what are we to do with it?
I could stand here and parse the passage in ways that would render it less offensive for us today. There were, after all, traditions of cultic sacrifices of children in the Ancient Near East, and thankfully our tradition has abandoned such practices.
Or I could spiritualize the passage to say that God was not making such terrible demands on Abraham and Isaac, but it was the inner struggle of Abraham’s spiritual conflict—he loved the boy so much that maybe his son had become an idol which he worshipped instead of God, and a voice deep within told him he had to slay that idol in his life in order to have God and his son in their proper places.
Or perhaps, as some suggest, this is just a mythical story to teach us what true faith is—that we would do well to emulate Abraham and be willing to throw everything else away for the One whom we call God.
Some great theologians through the centuries, including Luther and Calvin, have simply concluded that God contradicted himself [sic] on that day—that God tested, then seeing Abraham’s faith, chose to provide instead. God changed his mind.
For my part, I want to say two things about this unsettling story from Genesis: first, that our scriptures contain problematic elements that don’t pass the test of ethical accord with the prevailing identity of God as “the source of all goodness.” This story, as it has been historically recorded and codified in scripture, is one such hiccup.
But is not central to our understanding of who God is, or who we are to be. Obedience is not the supreme virtue, especially when it requires something so heinous as the murder of a child. Love is the supreme virtue in the scriptures, in the revelation of God, and it is for us as we strive to live as ones who would engage others in the name of Christ. Our actions—be they religious, professional or vocational, or political—must be informed by the supreme virtue of love above all else, if they are to be congruent with the will of God.
But the second thing I want to say about this difficult passage is that we would do well not to just throw it on the scrap heap of indifference. It is not irrelevant.
Abraham’s example of faithfulness, even as contextually misguided by the ancient culture of child sacrifice as it may have been, is nevertheless a model of spiritual devotion worthy of our consideration. Note how in tune Abraham is that he can converse with God with ease. His ears seem perked for the next words to flow from the divine lips. “Here I am” he says three times, as if expectant that a new directive will come that will avert the disaster. Even in the dark belly of the scene, as he ties his son to the pyre, he is able to tell his son that God will provide, and truly believes it will be so.
Oh, to be so open with God, to have such conversations with God!
I am reminded of a book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled When God is Silent. The title alone should cause us to shift in our seats. Her thesis is that we are famished for a fresh word from God—famished because we have filled ourselves with a cacophony of noisy words that deflect our attention and yet never eliminate our hunger.
Taylor suggests most of us don’t like talking to God directly. We seek the “immunities of indirection,” and we seek someone trained in the domestication of God to tell us what is God is up to or what God wants from us. (
, 58ff). Taylor
Prophets, priests, preachers, liturgies, books, the Bible even—these are the mediators of God’s voice through the centuries, even unto our own time—perhaps because we are convinced that the experience of listening directly to God is too risky, too raw. Child sacrifices aside, there is a lot at stake if we really allow God to have claim on the whole of our lives.
The truth is that God has never stopped calling to us, not as a test, but out of love; I fear it is we who all too often turn a deaf ear, unwilling or unable to hear. God has persisted though, and in the fullness of time, Jesus, a prophet in his own right, engaged his audience with the very Word of God. As Fred Craddock once said, in Jesus the voice of God came not in a shout, but in a whisper. And to hear it, we must hush, lean forward, and trust that what we hear is the voice of God. (
, pg. 57). Taylor
It is the same voice of God, the one who created us in love, who has redeemed us, who sustains us. Who provides for us, and as philologists, as lovers of the Word, what if you just listened, really listened for the Word of God to come afresh into our midst?
What would you hear from the divine lips?
How would you respond?
How, then, would you live?
May we have the grace and courage and faith, as daughters and sons of Abraham, to hear and respond to the voice of God. Amen.
Brown Taylor, Barbara. When God is Silent.
: Cowley, 1998. Boston