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The One You Love
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 1, 2018
A Reading from Genesis
After these things 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.
This is a hard story. And if only to make it a bit harder, I want to start this morning by talking about church polity. Many of you will remember about a decade ago when the Presbyterian Church finally amended its constitution to allow for the ordination of qualified folks regardless of their sexual orientation. In my mind this was substantially necessary and long overdue but there has been something about that conversation that has nagged at me ever since. The original language, now stripped out of the constitution, opens with the claim that “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture,” and I have to tell you, flat-out, that I have no idea what that means. I know what it’s supposed to mean — I know it’s meant as code for some vision of a traditional nuclear family — but as someone who reads scripture pretty regularly I have no idea what a life in obedience to scripture is supposed to be. It does not say “a life in obedience to God” or “a life in obedience to Jesus Christ.” It says “a life in obedience to scripture,” and I don’t know what that means.
After all, scripture is complicated. We said this a few weeks ago — it’s notoriously difficult. To be sure, it has more than a few chapters that feel very much like behavioral code — I mean, if you wanted to live a life in accordance with scripture you could take Leviticus and Deuteronomy very seriously and you could make sure that you did not have measuring cups of more than one size in your house and yes, that’s really in there — Deuteronomy 25:13 — and yes, these jokes kind of write themselves. But it rarely feels like the folks who talk about living a life in accordance with scripture or who talk about Biblical values or who talk about Biblical standards really care about the size of my measuring cups. It feels rather like we are looking for a moral vision of the good life. It feels like we are looking for something approaching an ethical imagination. And then we read something like this, this story about a God asking a father to sacrifice his only son. And I wonder what possible ethical imagination is to be found in such a story. And I suspect, as for generations we ordained and installed folks on the insistence that they lead a life in obedience to Scripture — I suspect that this is not the part of Scripture we had in mind.
After all, this is a hard story. Abraham and Sarah have given birth at an advanced age — Sarah something like ninety years old. Famously, when Sarah finds out that she’s pregnant, she laughs for joy, and the Hebrew word for laughter becomes the name of this child, Isaac. But after these things, God tested Abraham, saying “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to Moriah,” and a cloud falls over this entire story. It has a gloominess from the first beat, and everybody knows nothing good is about to happen. There’s an old Jewish midrash on this story — a way that the Rabbis filled in the blanks in the text — that imagines Abraham’s cadence here as his way of trying to wiggle out of the demand God is about to make. God says, “Take your son,” and Abraham, not at all liking what he’s hearing, says “Well, actually, I have two sons — Isaac, but also Ishmael, the one I had with my wife’s servant Hagar,” and then God says “Your only son,” and Abraham keeps wiggling, “I mean, I think that’s pretty offensive, God, I have two sons,” and God says, “The one you love,” which kind of cuts to the heart of it, but Abraham dissembles, “I love both my sons,” and then God says, “Isaac.” Take the one you love. Take the one named for laughter itself, and go to the mountain, and offer it as sacrifice.
And so they set off. “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.” This is a story that loves to linger in the detail. Abraham saddles his donkey. He gathers the wood. There is a meticulousness to this story that is not representative of the writing elsewhere in the Abrahamic stories. It is as if the writer has decided to linger so that we can’t skip past the dread of it. Abraham not only brings his son for sacrifice; he has to bring the wood; he has to carry the wood three days journey and even then Moriah seems far away. Later on Abraham takes the wood and lays it on Isaac — he makes his son carry the wood, which is always the part where I can’t really take it anymore. And they go up to the mountain and Abraham binds his son and we didn’t even read the end of the story this morning. We read exactly the text that we read at the Easter Vigil, and that telling doesn’t include the rescue; it doesn’t include God intervening at the end to stop Abraham and save Isaac’s life. But to be honest I’m not convinced that the ending of this story does much to get it off the hook. God saving this child does not make me forget that God sent him into peril in the first place. This story is a deep cut and the ending isn’t much of a Band-Aid.
And yet for all of its horror there is no question in my mind but that this story has an ethical imagination. The histories of interpretation of this story are longer than perhaps any other in scripture and I will do your afternoon plans a favor by not relaying all of them, but consider this one. One of the common traits of the oldest Jewish texts was that they helped later generations understand something about the way the world was. So, why is there an unusual salt formation in one corner of the desert? Well, let me tell you a story about Sodom and Gomorrah and what happened to Lot’s wife when she turned around. Or sometimes these questions are broader, or more symbolic — why did we stop simply hunting for food and start cultivating the land and raising crops? Well, let me tell you a story about Cain, a tiller of the ground, and Abel, a keeper of sheep. And if you read Genesis 22 with those eyes, what emerges is a story about Israel looking at its neighbors and wondering why those nations had practices of child and human sacrifice when Israel did not. This seems to be reasonably credible — that is, that at least some of Israel’s neighbors had cultic rituals around human sacrifice. And we know that Israel has a pretty regular habit of growing envious of the theological practices of its neighbors. And just in case they got so envious that they might think about starting up their own sacrificial rites, let me tell you a story about Abraham and Isaac. Which is to say that for Israel this isn’t a story about why God suggests such a thing. It’s a story about why such a thing must never happen.
For Christians, too, as our tradition has appropriated and understood this story through its own particular lens, it nonetheless remains a story about why such a thing should never happen. Because of course the early church quickly recognized in Abraham and Isaac a kind of prototype story for the story of God who offered up his own son in the person of Jesus Christ. In Mark’s Gospel, at the story of Jesus’s baptism, God’s voice speaks over the waters, “This is my son, the beloved,” almost a beat-for-beat remembrance of that old Midrash. This is my son. My only son. The one I love. Jesus. As Christians we read this story during Holy Week, on Good Friday or at the Easter Vigil, to help us understand the scope and depth of the sacrifice that God makes. The whole point of it is to set the outer limit of what is morally and ethically possible, that God so loved the world that God did the worst thing anybody could think of, that God so loved the world that God paid the steepest price anybody could count, which is of a parent offering up a child into the unknown arms of death. Which is to say that as Christians we understand this story to be the very bedrock of our ethical imagination, and it’s not about Abraham’s faithfulness and it’s not about Isaac’s willingness to follow; it’s about defining the moral bottom, it’s about telling the worst story we can imagine and saying “this is the baseline Biblical standard — this is the minimum criteria for an ethical society — that the very least we can do is not offer up our children as sacrifice. It’s about drawing an ethical line in the sand and saying “under no circumstances.”
And yet here we are, in a world where children are sacrificed all the time.
Consider this. In the United States, while infant mortality rates have been falling for decades, one curiosity remains true, which is that the infant mortality rate among black babies is twice as high as it is for white ones. That is to say, black babies are about twice as likely to die before their first birthday than white ones, a discrepancy that has remained unchanged more or less since World War II. What’s more remarkable is that this statistic remains true even if you control for educational access, lifestyle, even genetic predispositions. Which means that by now the best research we have suggests that the real cause of this discrepancy is social, namely, that black babies die because of the chronic stress to their mothers of being black women in America. Which is to say that racism in America is literally sacrificing children before those children can ever speak for themselves. And the best and most effective programs to curb this trend-line haven’t simply been about prenatal care or nutritional access; they’ve been programs focused on the health of an entire community, like the so-called “Best Baby Zone” in Oakland, California, which is using a combination of health care programming and economic development to lift the well-being of the entire community.
The point is, in a healthy society, in a just society, in a society with some ironic bedrock in biblical standards, these children would not have to die. Nor, of course, would the children we sacrifice to poverty, or the children we sacrifice to abuse. Nor would the children who die in the crossfire in Syria or Afghanistan or Parkland. Nor would the children whose futures we mortgage for the sake of environmental destruction. Nor, of course, would the children who come across our border in search of safe haven and refuge. The point is that there is no more fundamentally visible Biblical ethic than the imperative to love and protect and value the lives of children. The point is that, for all of its difficulty, and for all of its opacity, and for all of its scattered messaging, scripture is remarkably consistent on this point, which is that the measure of a people is their commitment to the next generation. That we sacrifice our children all the time is nothing less than a stain upon our own moral imaginations.
Thankfully, God imagines something else. Thankfully, the story of God that we have and the story of God that we tell is bigger and broader than this story alone. Thankfully, we have the story of God who so loved all of creation that God brought it into being and pronounced it good. Thankfully, we have the imagination of God to the prophet Isaiah, “Jerusalem as a joy, its people as a delight, no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;” thankfully, we have the story of God who so loved the world that God made that ultimate sacrifice and then broke the boundaries of death itself to bring God’s child home. Thankfully everything that we know about God everywhere else in scripture says that this story of Abraham bringing his child up the mountain makes God even madder than it makes me or you. Thankfully God imagines something better. Thankfully God imagines a world where every mouth gets fed and every head finds a pillow. Thankfully God imagines a world where everyone sees the image of their creator in everyone else they meet. Thankfully God imagines a world where each of us, all of us, find ourselves welcome at a table of plenty and unity and peace. And a little child shall lead us.