Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 28 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
God said to Abraham, Kill me a son. Abe said, Man, you must be puttin’ me on. God said, no; Abe said, what? God said, well you can do what you want, Abe, but—the next time you see me comin’, you better run.
Most often, when people talk or write about the story of Abraham and Isaac, it’s presented as a story about a certain kind of obedience and blind faith; the philosopher Kierkegaard quite famously used this story to put forward an argument for a faith and an obedience that overrule all human standards, all of our sense of what is reasonable or good. And yet—it is also a human mind which hears and interprets what are perceived as commands. God does not—not even in this story, if you read it carefully – appear clear and unambiguous. Before any decision about whether to obey, we determine what we believe to be the command; and we can be quick to attribute to God, or to any other mandatory power, the voices we’ve absorbed and internalized from the broken world around us. And while Kierkegaard’s challenge is famously exciting to undergraduates, it ends you up, in the real world, with a murdered boy.
The philosophical concept of a dead child may be one thing, but the reality of a dead child is quite another, and something all too common in this world. The Dylan song I just quoted, Highway 61 Revisited, is a song about America during the Vietnam War. Think about that war, about so very many wars around the world, where fathers on both sides have sent their sons to die, both sides absolutely certain that a necessary and ultimate force was asking them to do this. Kill me a son.
Think about the young Black men murdered by police officers, killers believing they are acting in the name of an unassailable order, whatever they name it. Or think, on this strangely subdued Pride weekend, of the many generations which the church spent trying to kill our LGBTQ children, think about how high the suicide rate remains among queer youth, especially those whose families and churches reject them. Our society has sacrificed its children on the altars of many idols.
And not only our children. This pandemic has revealed how quick we can be to sacrifice other vulnerable groups—and you may not know that Canada, though we have a relatively low number of cases of COVID-19, has one of the highest fatality-per-case rates in the world, entirely because we allowed the virus to burn unchecked through badly-managed long-term care homes, a staggering human sacrifice of elders who, in many cases, had been moved into these homes by relatives who wanted the best for them and had no idea of the real conditions; and now are allowing it to burn through communities of migrant farm workers—clear signs of how willing our society as a whole is to cast off both those who are no longer valuable to the economy, no longer useful, and those upon whose exploited labour our economy depends.
The obedience of Abraham, the submission to the commands of church or state or economics, the abandoment of personal judgement, is the acceptance of a story of God as supreme killer, demanding the weak bound upon the altar. I do not accept that God, that account of God.
So what are we to do with the story of Abraham? Well, one of the things we have to do is to look at it more closely, because the writer does a very important thing, which unfortunately isn’t apparent in the English translations. There are two different Hebrew words used for God, and they are used, it seems, to make a crucial distinction. Throughout the early part of the story, the word is “Elohim.” This is a pretty common word for “God” in the Hebrew scriptures, but it’s not really a name, it’s more of a title. It can be used for the gods of the surrounding peoples as well as for the God of Israel—it’s a plural form, in fact. Its root meaning is something to do with power, it means something like “Those with very great power.”
It is Elohim who comes and asks Abraham to kill him a son. It was a common enough thing, in that time and place. Child sacrifice seems, from the archaelogical record, to have been a frequent practice. A way to pay off, to mollify, to cultivate the Elohim, the gods of power, the idols. It would not have been strange to Abraham, any more than our sacrifices to the contemporary gods of power are today. To the point at which Isaac lies bound on the altar, this is the story of the commands of the Elohim.
And then, very suddenly, the word changes. And it changes at the exact moment when the story changes; when God’s angel (which, in the Jewish scriptures, really means God himself) comes to tell Abraham to hold back his knife. At that moment, for the first time in this story, and for all the rest of it from that point, it is no longer Elohim. It is Yahweh. And Yahweh is not a title but a name, the unique, the unpronounceable, the untranslatable one name of the one God of Israel.
It is Yahweh who will speak to Moses from the burning bush, it is Yahweh who will lead the children of Israel out of slavery. Yahweh, whose unspeakable name means something like “I am that I am.” Yahweh, not the God of power but the God of pure encounter, the God of being, the God whose extraordinary reality comes into our world as a rupture, as a mystery, as liberation. The God who desires mercy and not sacrifice.
It is Yahweh who says to Abraham, Put down the knife. Do not lay your hand on the boy. This is the moment when God says that the killing of the children must stop. That is not, that is not ever, what this God, this one strange amazing God of Israel, desires from you.
Not unthinking obedience, then, but rather a story about one stage in the long process in which God comes to a troubled and violent humanity and begins to reshape us, to teach us about what God really desires for us, to show us that there are other ways to be. Better, at least, to sacrifice your animals than your children. Better yet – and we can see Israel coming to this as their history with Yahweh unfolds, we can see it in the prophets and in the Psalms—to realize that the sacrifices which God desires are actions of mercy and justice, our heart’s sorrow for our complicity in wrongdoing and violence.
And as Christians, we believe that the story continues to unfold from there, and reveal to us a God who comes to us as himself a vulnerable son of humanity, murdered on the altar of sacrifice. The one who will not respond to violence with power, but who accepts in his own person all that violence and power can do, and continues to offer himself in love. This is our model, a model which asks of us not blind obedience to external commands, but an inner surrender to the complicated demands of service and love, a constant growth in our response to the needs of those around us.
This is the God whose signal action is not the sacrifice of a child or an animal, not the sacrifice of our reason or our will, but the offering of a cup of cold water to one of the little ones. This is the God who calls us to look at our world, to examine it carefully, and to measure our actions by the needs of the most vulnerable, God’s marginalized children. To turn away from the Elohim, from all the gods of power, all the things which lead us into violence or domination, away from attempts to force our ideas of the good onto other people at whatever cost. To put down the knife and set the child free.
It is in this way that we can understand Paul’s potentially troubling language of slavery. We are not bound as unthinking beings, we are not bound as victims or possessions of power. And yet we are bound—in a way which empties out the power of all the world’s authorities. We are bound as any deep relationship binds us. We are called as our whole selves into the life of God, with all the responsibilities this creates. Including, if necessary, the willingness to argue with the gods of power and authority, to question what we may be told is God’s will, to measure it all against the God of encounter, the vulnerable God we meet in Christ. We must, in the end, be bound by love, and by the work of figuring out what the actions of love must be in a troubled world.