June 29, 2014
In her book My Sister's Keeper, author Jodi Picoult tells the story of Anna, a 13-year-old girl, who was born to save her older sister. Literally. Her older sister, Kate, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia when she was two. Along with chemotherapy, she will need a bone marrow transplant. Her six-year-old brother, Jesse, is not a good match. So the parents, Sara and Brian, make a decision. They see a geneticist who configures a combination of their genes into a perfect match for Kate. That match is Anna.
The minute Anna was born, her cord blood was harvested for Kate. Kate goes into remission, and everything should have been fine from that point on. Except it wasn't. Kate relapses. More is needed from Anna. Every time Kate ends up in the hospital, so does Anna. But Anna isn't sick. Now Kate's kidneys are failing, and she is undergoing dialysis. She needs a kidney transplant, and the perfect donor shares a room with her: Anna. But Anna is tired of being treated as Kate's spare parts. So she sees a lawyer and sues her parents, primarily Sara, for medical emancipation. She wants the right to determine what will happen with her own body.
The driving force for saving Kate is her mother Sara. Her fierce determination to save Kate overshadows everything else. I have not had a chronically sick child, but I can imagine that it would be consuming to say the least. So I can sympathize with Sara to a certain extent. But in her constant push to make Kate well, she sacrifices her two other children. Jesse is a troubled young man who is playing with fire to get his parents' attention. Sara has essentially given up on him. And Anna, born to save her sister, is denied her own childhood. She starts to excel at a sport and wants to attend a summer camp, but Sara says no because what if something goes wrong with Kate. Sara will spare nothing to save her child, something that any parent, any person, can understand. But that nothing that Sara won't spare is Anna. Sara seems willing to sacrifice Anna to save Kate.
A story about sacrificing a child is the story before us this morning. While I might begrudgingly give Sara in My Sister's Keeper a modicum of sympathy for the choices she makes, I have none to offer for the story that is before us today. The story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of the most appalling stories in scripture. That's saying a lot because there are a number of appalling stories in scripture. In my opinion, anyone who tries to portray our Bible as nothing but sweetness and light just hasn't read it. The story of Abraham and Isaac is, to paraphrase theologian Phyllis Tribble, a text of terror. In his novel, Son of Laughter, a retelling of the Jacob story, Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner referred to this story. Buechner imagined that even as an old man Isaac was still traumatized by this terrible event in his life. Given what we now know about the effects of abuse and post-traumatic stress, it isn't hard to believe that this may have been true for Isaac. What kind of nightmares would you have after your father almost sacrifices you?
As I prepared to try and preach this passage, I couldn't find any commentator who could dismiss or write off the horror of this story. For it is indeed horrible. In our version, the story begins with the words "After these things, God tested Abraham." What are these "things"? Abraham has been promised by God that his descendants will be more than the stars in the sky and the dust on the ground. The name Abraham means "father of many" or "father of a multitude." But Sarah, in her jealousy over Abraham's son Ishmael with her handmaid, Hagar, forces Abraham to send them away. Abraham does what she asks, and sends his son and his mother into the desert with paltry supplies and little chance of survival. God steps into that situation and saves them both, but now God is putting Abraham to the test, a terrible test. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac and bring him to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there. Abraham does what God commands. He takes Isaac, who carries the wood for his own sacrifice, and travels to Moriah to the mountain that comes be to known as the Temple Mount. As they are making their way, Isaac asks his father about the sacrifice. We have the wood, the fire, the knife, but where is the sacrifice for the altar? Abraham answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burn offering, my son.” When they reach the place Abraham builds the altar, lays the wood on it, and binds up Isaac. He takes the knife and prepares to kill his son. At that moment the angel of the Lord calls out to him. Just as Abraham answered God and Isaac with the words, “Here I am,” he answers the angel the same way. “Here I am.” The angel of the Lord tells Abraham to stop. He is not to lay a hand on the boy. God now knows that Abraham fears God. God now knows that Abraham has placed his complete faith in God. At that moment, a ram appears in a thicket nearby. Abraham unbinds Isaac and sacrifices the ram instead. Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide.”
Abraham passes his test. Isaac is spared. God is worshipped. We should see this as a happy ending, yet it’s hard to be happy when we read a story of God, our God, demanding this kind of test of Abraham; even more demanding it of Isaac. No amount of happiness at the end can transform this into a happy story. It is a terrible story of a terrible test.
One commentator paraphrased a Yiddish folktale concerning this passage. Why is it that God speaks directly to Abraham about sacrificing Isaac, but it is the angel of God who stops Abraham from doing what God commanded? Because it is believed that the angel of God supposedly looked at God and said, “If you are going to demand such a thing, than you will have to do it yourself.”
Even the angel of God was horrified.
It is a terrible story about a terrible test, yet this story has had a profound impact on both Judaism and Christianity. In Judaism it is known as the Akedah or the binding of Isaac. In that tradition Abraham’s faith and obedience are emphasized. In our tradition, it is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice Jesus makes. God tests Abraham by asking him to willingly sacrifice his own son, but in the end it is God who sacrifices his son. I know that both aspects of this story are important to our faith today. Abraham was obedient and faithful. He was willing to do what God asked, even though it seemed contrary to what God had promised. He was meant to be the father of a multitude, but he had sent his first son away, and now he was being asked to sacrifice his remaining son. How would he become the parent of this supposed multitude if he must lose his sons? But Abraham trusted that God would provide, and so God did.
The story of Jesus’ atonement for our sins is foundational to our faith. Jesus willingly carried his own cross and submitted to a cruel and inhumane execution on our behalf. God sacrificed his son so that the world might be saved. God provided the means for our salvation, our redemption, at the cost of the Son; indeed at the cost of God’s self.
Another way of viewing this event in Genesis is by understanding that child sacrifice was an innate part of the culture surrounding Abraham. We read in many other passages in the Old Testament and we hear it from the prophets that God expressly forbids child sacrifice. One reason that this test of Abraham may have been preserved is to show the cultural switch from an acceptance of child sacrifice to the forbidding of it.
But we read this story in an age when child abuse is rampant, when extremists hear and interpret stories like this literally. The abuse and killing of children is a reality. So I think we have to be very careful about trying to justify this story of Abraham and Isaac theologically or culturally.
This is a terrible story about a terrible test. I can find no way to soften it. I know that I am not alone in this. I read a story of a student preacher who attempted to preach this passage. Halfway through her sermon, she gave up and began to weep. Her sorrow gave the congregation permission to do the same. Together they wept at the tragedy of this story, and for the tragedies that seem to engulf our world, our societies, and our lives. One observer of this moment said that by doing this the preacher actually preached good news.
I won’t ask that of us today. But I do see one point in this tale that gives me some hope. Abraham named that place, “The Lord will provide.” Another translation of that is “The Lord will be seen.” I know that in this circumstance God is the initiator of this almost tragedy, but remembering that God is seen, is present in the tragedies that we cause gives me some measure of comfort. God is present when our children are sacrificed to violence that we not only allow to happen but perpetuate with our actions and our inaction. God is present in our mourning, our lamenting. God can be seen when all we can do is weep. God is present when we are faced with awful choices. God is seen and present in our midst at the most traumatic moments of our lives. God is present, not just as a casual observer, but as One who comforts us, and loves us. There is no easy or satisfactory way to read or understand this story of God and Abraham and Isaac. But even as we struggle with this terrible test, may we also be faithful, trusting that God is in our midst. May we trust, like Abraham did, that God will provide. Let all of God’s children say “Amen.”