Proper 8

June 29, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 22:1-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 13
Reading 3: 
Romans 6:12-23
Reading 4: 
Matthew 10:40-42
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
“The Lord Will Provide” could easily be a bumper-sticker. Pasted on the back of a car, next to the fish symbol, it might identify the driver as a Christian, unless the current owner bought the car from a Christian, then the theology comes with the car title. Many such slogans are plastered not only cars, but barns, bill-board signs, and landscapes. “Jesus Saves” becomes drive-by theology. There are a myriad of sound-bite theologies cluttering the cultural landscape. I suspect that most of us occasionally find ourselves mouthing easy bits and pieces of abstractions from the Bible without even thinking about it. In the heat of an emergency, our minds cling to the simplest and most familiar forms of religion.

But the story of the Lord’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac puts the terror back into the reassuring and comfortable idea that “The Lord will provide.” It’s a sound theology, yet it is arrived at through the Valley of the Shadow of Death; it comes at the end of long nights of the soul; the dust of death still clings to that statement, a theology that is hard won. Just ask Abraham.

Asking “How could a good God command such an evil deed?”, though serious, seriously misses the point of the story. It is often on the laundry list of talking points for atheists making the case that if there is a God, then God must be evil.

This story is part of the DNA of the human condition.

After the birth of the son, and the thrill of the promise made good, after cleaning up after the celebration when the whole village turned out to congratulate this surprised couple on their good fortune against all odds, there comes that quiet moment of having to live with the consequences of what has just happened. This is true even after the miracle of a normal child birth when there comes the realization by the parent that now I am vulnerable to life in a whole new, raw, way. After the balloons and the flowers and the showers, the baby is brought home and the real work of new life begins. Along with the love and warm joy is also terror lying under layers of hope and promise for the future. Every parent knows this terror. The new mother or father lies awake at night being pressed hard into the mattresses by dark thoughts of harm, threat, death and utter loss. There are dreams of the baby floating away into the void, just out of our grasp; a house is burning down, flames lapping at the crib, and the parent unable to move. Fear plants the seeds of sin at these moments, as Sarah and Abraham know so well.

Abraham and Sarah are supposed to go home with their miracle child and, hand-in-hand, walk into the sun going down over the Sinai, to live happily ever after. They might not live to see grandchildren, but at least their future is secured, to the seventh generation, amen. “Thanks so much, God, and we will see you later. We will call if we run into any trouble.”

A disconnect happens between the gift and the gift giver. The gift easily becomes our possession, our right, ours to manage and protect and serve. The fulfilled promise then becomes at risk of becoming the new idolatry. Our sense of the future then contracts, it narrows, onto this child, this hope, our hope. What a thin reed, though, to bear the full weight of our expectations of a secure future. Will even a child sustain a future? The story says, let’s see? Let’s see if Abraham will make that mistake and put Isaac’s gold-plated infant-shoes on the altar? Surely, if God has fulfilled the promise, it is guaranteed to persist, even though it persists on our terms. “Thanks, God, we’ll take it from here. We don’t need you any more. We have everything we need right here in our arms.”

But once they settle into their secure future, the command comes: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go and offer him as a burnt offering upon a mountain of which I shall tell you.” What? Put the child at risk? What about the promise? What about the future? With surgical precision, the story puts the blade to the throbbing heart of this old man. With the economy of a nightmare, the scene jumps out of the dark: “My father! Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” The phrase “My Father!” burns and the acrid smell of fear lingers in the air like smoke from the burning house. And then comes those searing words: “The Lord will provide.” Fear and Trembling, indeed.

A careless preacher could easily run into a thicket of theodicy, trying to protect God’s honor and goodness; but that would turn out to be a ditch from which you can go no farther, stuck and unable to move into the story.

What are Abraham’s options? He could have simply disregarded the command and stayed put, or gone into hiding with his family. But how can you hide from the risks of life? Where could we go to pursue our hope for the future and be safe from the threat of loss?

This story isn’t about God, anyway; it’s about the risk we take in hope for the future. In this case, that hope came in the form of a child, as it does for many. The story is asking, what would happen if our most cherished hope for the future was put at risk? What would we do? Would we react out of fear and desperately try to control the outcome on our own terms? No, this story is not about God, it’s about life and death, the joy of hope and the risk of loss and how do we live in such a maelstrom of competing, contradictory, realities. Knowing the risks, how are we even able to move into the future without getting stuck in the goo of fear? The story is about the nature and quality of the trust that is required to step into an unknown future. The story is about Abraham, and every parent, and every person who is tempted to saddle their hope to anything other than God.

The Lord will provide. But at what cost to us? What will the Lord not provide? That is the dark side of the same coin. The Lord will not succumb to our demands, our affidavits of guarantee, and our writs of security and offers to “help” God with the future by providing our architectural plans for security, armies and guns and national risk management. “We will take it from here” is the opposite of “The Lord will provide.”

Paul makes the point in the Romans text that we are slaves to something. There is no sense in the letter to the Romans of complete freedom from everything. When we are free from slavery to sin, we are free to be slaves to righteousness. Bob Dylan makes the point in a song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He says you can be this or that, and the chorus responds:

                But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
                You're gonna have to serve somebody,
                Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
                 But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Paul uses the model of Abraham to make the radical point that trust in God is all that is required for righteousness. But trust in God means complete trust, no matter what the circumstances might require of us. It means stepping into an unknown, even impossible, future, without managing it.

It’s always about the choice: the choice between two roads, two futures, two ultimate commitments, God or idolatry, fear or trust.

The choice that is presented to Abraham is existential. He cannot opt out and back away from the command and quietly go home. That would be a choice. Choices are demanded of us. The Bible stories are always about choices. Paul says you serve either one master or another. There is no neutral ground. Door one or door two. And over door one is the word “fear.” And over door two is “trust.” Which will we choose? Neither is easy. The Bible stories seem to believe that behind door number one is a spring-loaded snake. Esau found this out the hard way: “Why are you angry? If you do well (Choose what to do with the anger.), will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door.” Gen 4:6-7. Open the door and out pops the weasel, terrorizing the chooser. But there is emptiness behind the fear. “Why are you afraid?” Behind the fear door is the echo of our own nightmares, and the seed of sin.

Opening door number two brings another set of existential problems: vulnerability, loss of control, the threat of deferring to another’s power, letting go, loss of ego. God in the story turns out to be a stand-in for the demands of life. And idolatry is always the seductive temptation.

Process Theology and the text
The experience of loss is woven into the experience of life. From a process perspective, the immediacy of each moment fades as it passes into the next moment. Gain and loss, life and death, are part of the rhythm of growing into the immediacy of the moment and then fading into the next moment and on and on. It is the process of the unfolding of everything. God “lures” this unfolding by providing possibilities to each unfolding moment that are relevant and graded to that moment. Like a cook over a hot oven, stirring, tasting, adjusting, and being involved in each step of the unfolding of a dish. Once the dish is finished and presented, and consumed, it’s on to the next dish. No dish is meant to last, but to be enjoyed, relished, experienced. There is the admonition to “trust the process.” What that means is to trust the way God provides new possibilities to each emerging moment, taking the whole world into God’s own experience and nothing is lost to God.

Process theology places an emphasis upon the present moment as the place where life is—not in the past, which is dead, though the present moment grows out of the past, and not in the future, which is abstract, though the future lures the present moment to a range of possible satisfactions. Choice, therefore, is a crucial factor in each emerging moment. A choice must be made as to how to take account of the past in response to the lure of the future. Choice comes in the form of demand: we must choose.

The Abraham and Isaac story fits very well with a process view, because it models the kind of trust that is required to move into an unknown future with a sense of trust in the one who provides new life and new possibilities.

Preaching the text
The unvarnished truth of life is that, even if someone lives a long, full life, we all will be eventually stripped of everything—everything--our youth, our health, our loves, our accomplishments, our possessions, our hopes and dreams, our bodies. Beyond our efforts of due diligence and necessary prudence, there are no guarantees, but only either terror, or a knowing trust. Maybe the question we should ask ourselves is “Why do we have the illusion that anything will last?” This is life in the valley of the shadow of death. The story of Abraham and Isaac passes through this valley.

A sermon could easily focus on the Abraham and Isaac text. The preacher could simply tell the story with embellishments, which is what the story invites. It paints the scene with quick, simple, strokes, and expects us to fill in the details, the tensions, the feelings, the contradictions, and the impossibility of the human dilemma. Our questions keep piling up on us with very few answers. They back up against the wall of the simplicity of the action of the story. Again, God commands, and Abraham responds in trust. What does Abraham say to Sarah? What happened when the father and the son’s eyes met at the moment when Isaac realized the purpose of the trip? Were there words between them? What was the quality of the silence between them? What would Abraham do if he had gone through with the command and actually ended Isaac’s life? Would he turn the knife on himself and curse God? Would he carry on in faith? What would faith even mean under that outcome? Jesus’ words from the cross would then be relevant: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It happens. People are forsaken. Then what? What could faith possibly mean when everything is stripped away?

How could the story turn out any other way than it did? If Abraham went through with the killing, who would trust God again? Yet, turning out the way it did, though we are relieved, it seems too easy and convenient. Later reflection on this story, especially with Paul, looks at Abraham and what his willingness to give up the gift meant to him and ultimately to us. We are supposed to look at him as a role model of faith. Paul is interested in explicating the nature of idolatry and the story of Abraham becomes the opposite of idolatry in Paul’s view.

Or the preacher could focus on the role God plays in this, and other, stories. God’s commands are often verbalizations of the natural boundaries of life. For example, in the Garden, God specifies the boundaries of life. Or the Ten Commandments, as a statement, point to the boundaries of life.

Paul talks about being a slave to righteousness, or rightness, with God. The preacher could focus on Abraham through Paul’s use of that story to make the point how radical trust in God is.

Children and the text
Talk about choices. Play a game with the children. Hide your hands behind your back with a piece of candy in one hand and a rock in the other. Make some of the children choose. Talk about how we have to make choices in life. Even not choosing a hand is a choice. And even if we make good choices, it doesn’t always mean that things are going to work out the way we want them to. That’s how we grow; that’s how we live. We move through life by making choices. God is the one who helps us make good choices for ourselves and for others. God is the one who gives us choices.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.