Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon: An Uncomfortable bit of rope

Our lesson today begins with the words, “After these things….” And that’s an appropriate starting point—because there have been a lot of things that have led us here—to this mountain, the aged Abraham holding a cleaver glinting in the sun, about to descend into his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac.
A lot of things have transpired to get us here, to this last sermon in our series about, “The mixed-up, messed-up, origins of our faith.”
We have journeyed together with Abraham and his family. We have watched how God has been faithful despite the sometimes-strained strangeness of Abraham’s relationships with both family and God.
We have journeyed with Abraham and his family out of Haran only to find the patriarch pimping out his wife Sarah to Pharaoh.
Yet despite Abraham, God was faithful to His promise.
We have watched the complex and messy situation in which God’s promise of a son is threatened not only by the feuding between Hagar and Sarah, but also by Abraham’s strange mix of passivity and judgment.
Yet despite Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham, God was faithful to His promise.
We have heard Sarah laugh at God’s promise and we have heard her lie to God’s face.
Yet despite the mirth of this matriarch and her falsehood, God was faithful to His promise.
We follow Hagar and Ishmael into the desert—Ishmael is exposed—about to die, because of another familial blow-up.
Yet despite the mixed-up, messed-up origins of our faith, God was faithful to His promise.

Yet, after all these things, we find a new threat to the promise. God the Promiser tests Abraham and threatens to kill the promise! God appears to be unfaithful to His promise!
Within these 19 verses everything that comes before—every promise, every salvation of the promise, every victory snatched from defeat—is laid bare with the command to sacrifice Abraham’s son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac.
The binding of Isaac—as this section of scripture is so often called—is an uncomfortable bit of rope.
It binds us to sacrifice.
It binds violence to faith.
It binds us to the dark side of God and forces us to untangle the question: “Who! Is! Our! God!”
Yes, the Binding of Isaac is an uncomfortable bit of rope.

Lord God, Parent, Lamb, Dove. Create for us, from the story of Abraham, Isaac, a Ram, and you, a word of God for the people of God here and now. May the Preacher’s words and heart be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

The binding of Isaac is an uncomfortable bit of rope. It binds us to sacrifice.
Listen, with me to verse three of the twenty-second chapter of Genesis. “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.”
In a single verse of scripture Abraham does 6 things. He rises, saddles, takes, cuts, sets out, and goes.
This same Abraham who argues with God in an attempt to save the citizens of Sodom and Gomorra, who says, “what if there are fifty righteous, what if there are 40, 30, 20, 10?” This same man who—for the sake of strangers—stands up to the Creators of all that is—almost trips over himself preparing to sacrifice his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac. Abraham is quick to practice human sacrifice.

And, I wish Abraham was alone in that. I really do!
But I’m reminded of Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” He wrote that World War One could have been averted if old men—the Abrahams of his time—would simply sacrifice their pride—not their sons. The poem ends, “but the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
And on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul today we again see young men—Isaacs—being sacrificed for decisions of Abrahams.
And again on the streets of Baltimore we see Isaac bound up in insane systems that lead to his being stabbed or shot, or stabbing and shooting.
We see sacrifice for Rep, sacrifice for gang affiliation, sacrifice for corners, sacrifice for drugs, and sacrifice for money.
Yes, the binding of Isaac is an uncomfortable bit of rope. It binds us to sacrifice.

But not only that! The binding of Isaac is an uncomfortable bit of rope. It binds violence to faith.
There are those who say that religion is the root of all evil.
There are those who are so horrified by what faithful people do that they would eliminate faith if they could.

And I can’t entirely disagree with them.
I think of the assault on cartoonist Lars Vilk during a lecture he was giving about freedom of speech that happened last Tuesday.
I think of the attempted car bombing in Times Square.
I think of the death threats the creators of South Park received for depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
I think of the violence done in Israel and Palestine by faithful people.
I think of the so-called Christian Militia who intended to kill cops in Michigan in order to fight the anti-Christ.
I think of the bombings of subways and trains in Europe, I think of 9-11.
I think of the attacks against churches and mosques, Muslims and Christians, committed by Buddhists in Sri Lanka and by Hindus in India.
And then I think a frightening thought! “My God! All that religious violence has happened within the last decade.”
(Long pause)

But then I think of Harriet Tubman!
I think of this faithful woman who delivered hundreds of people from the bondage of slavery.
I think of this faithful woman who risked life and limb birthing the Underground Railroad.
I think of this faithful woman who sang songs of faith to further freedom. Who sang “wade in the water” to tell people how to escape tracking-dogs and sang “let us break bread together” as a call to break free of bondage that very night.
I think of this faithful woman who is responsible for the planting of at least three churches in three different cities.
This faithful woman who on her dying bed did not ask for comfort, but instead asked, “do you know Jesus? Because I’m headed to a party!”

And confronted with these twin realities—that our faith can bring about violence and death, and that our faith can bring about freedom and life—I feel again the reality that the binding of Isaac is an uncomfortable bit of rope. I feel the rope grow tight with the overwhelming responsibility we have. Faith is like fire, it can create or destroy, cook a meal or burn down a forest.
Yes, the Binding of Isaac is an uncomfortable bit of rope. It not only binds violence to faith, but that causes us to pause and reflect.
It binds us to the dark side of God and forces us to untangle the question, “who is our God?”
And, as I look down at Abraham’s son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac, there on the altar, I think too of the young people who will be confirmed this coming week—and I think of our youth who will be participating in Youth Involved in Worship. And I think of what kind of God we are passing on. Faith has so much power, so much potential, so much authority and sway. When we pass the torch do we pass along a light in the darkness, or the fires of holocaust?
And you know what? I’ve taught confirmation—I’ve worked on Youth Involved in Worship. If passing on faith is simply passing on a neutral tool that can be used for good and evil we’re in trouble—we as human being—we as children of Abraham—are inevitably going to sacrifice people to this powerful tool. Because we are bound to sacrifice.
But I’m here to say that faith is more than a tool. It is more than a power that can be used to free slaves or blow up buildings. Because this uncomfortable bit of rope drags us to a point at which we have to ask, “who is our God?”
Inevitably we cry out for the revelation of the personality that spawned faith.
And ultimately that God is not neutral!
When we ask, “who is our God?” The very voice of God responds by shouting through the sacrificial night saying, “Abraham! Abraham!” I am not that kind of God! “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”
It is not only the promise that we trust! We can also, with joy and relief, trust in the nature of the Promiser. The nature of our God. Our God is a God who “demands mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not holocaust.”

But maybe I’m getting too abstract… I mean I have a tendency to do that.
If you come with me just a little farther I will tell you about a vision, a daydream, I once had.
As some of you know this text, genesis chapter 22, is a piece of scripture that rattles around in my soul. It is in these 19 verses that I spent a year of my life studying before going to Seminary.
You know, whenever St. John’s has a celebration involving food… in other words whenever St. John’s has a celebration… someone inevitably talks about fattening me up.
Well I can tell you why I’m so skinny! I’m so skinny because for a year of my life the only thing that touched my lips were the words of Genesis chapter 22!
One evening while studying at my desk at Tyndale House Library over in England—a copy Jewish Antiquities sitting open over there, a few translations of the book of Jubilees over here, blurry eyed from studying too long without drinking any coffee—I stopped seeing my messy desk and my books—and I sort of drifted off.
I saw Mount Moriah where Abaham took Isaac. It was a chilled morning under a grey and cloudless sky. The sun inched into view—its rays splayed out like crows feet on an elderly woman’s face.
Four figures marched up the hill, one was old, tall, and wise. Behind him three figures followed at a distance. It was Abraham leading his three children, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
They reached the pinnacle of the hill and hastily constructed an altar.
And when they finished that, Abraham turned to them and said, “I am to slaughter you, for it is God’s will,” and as he said this he took his knife from his belt.
“Father,” the three said in unison, “put down the knife, for we remember Isaac and we know that God does not demand blood.”
And at that moment the Angel of the LORD swept down and said, “You have passed the test, for you know Me by My nature.”
And with that Abraham wept, and put down his knife, and hugged his children tightly.

Then he looked up and saw the world we live in now, and he said, “My children. Yours is a generation unlike mine. In my day it was God alone who could knock down the tower of Babel.”
With that he picked back up his knife, “Now,” he said, “19 men armed with only these can board a plane and did similar. Now religious people are killing each other in Baghdad in order to insight uprisings. Now human consumption can cause a new flood and our bombs can being about Armageddon.”
“In my day it took scribes, clay tablets, and horses to get your voice heard… now keyboards and instant communication touches every part of the world. Now being respectful to your neighbor is a global affair.”
And with that he threw the knife on the altar. “Yours is a generation in which individuals can impact the whole world as never before. You carry a responsibility that previously was both the burden, and the pleasure, of only the elites and the statesmen of the world.”
“Don’t you all see! You’ve become god-like and never even noticed. And this violence that, somehow I passed onto you, must be extinguished.”
“So, please, bind your hearts to a new oath—to a new promise. Shake off violence you people of faith.”
And at that very moment the three siblings—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—affirmed that oath. And they lit the altar pyre and melted the knife of Abraham.
And with that the Angel of the LORD came a second time. And he said, “Oh, sweet Abraham, you have learned much. You have freed yourself and your descendants of violence, but you still have one more lesson. Move beyond saying no to violence—for that is simply a necessity of the time—the only option to keep humanity from co-annihilation—from collective suicide. Move to affirmation—move your children to always say yes to love, mercy, and compassion. Live into the great and timeless truths of God that are at the root of all three faiths. Despite the mixed-up, messed-up, new, and complex world we live in, continue to be faithful as I am faithful to you. Bless all the nations of the earth, for that is your calling.”