My sermons tend to make people work anyway and send them off to ponder questions and/or invite the community to reflect on these questions together.
I have more written down and reconstructed, but the place where I leave off below is a good place to stop, for now, so that you can do your own thinking.
I'm thinking our congregation might do a Bible study of the whole Abraham -Hagar -Sarah cycle of stories sometime in the next year. We'll see what folks say. We are on reduced numbers and slow rhythm in the summer, since we are university-affiliated, but that's fine. All in due time.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
June 29, 2008
St. Mary’s House, Greensboro
We just heard a few minutes ago
one of the most disturbing stories in the entire Bible:
the story in the 22d chapter of Genesis
known in the Christian tradition
as the Sacrifice of Isaac
and in the Jewish tradition,
more accurately, as
the Binding of Isaac
or the akedah.
The story is also found
in a different form
in the Muslim tradition.
In the Qur’an,
it is not entirely clear
whether Isaac or Ishmael is the son
who is bound to the altar of sacrifice
but tradition generally says
that it’s Ishmael.
This story is a vital one
for all three traditions
who claim Abraham as a father in faith.
The problem is
that in the biblical story,
No one looks good.
At least to our contemporary eyes.
is a father who acquiesces
to slaughtering his child.
Sarah, the child’s mother,
as are all the other women
who are part of the broader tale
of Abraham and his kin.
This includes Hagar,
the mother of Abraham’s other son,
Abraham, at the urging of Sarah
and under orders from God,
has sent Hagar off into the desert
with the boy, Ishmael. His boy.
the legitimate heir
according to the Bible
is a victim
who is spared
but who doesn’t appear in the story again.
We don’t hear anything about his
going back down the mountain
with his dad and walking home with him for three days.
– Well, would you if your father had raised a knife on you?
in that his death
spares the child;
but of course, he’s now dead.
And God –
God doesn’t look too good either.
God saves Isaac, proving trustworthy in the end,
but first God says to Abraham,
who has already shown plenty of trust in God,
“One more test. Kill your son.”
It’s ethically a very troubling story.
And it’s troubling spiritually
Theologically, if you want to use that word.
God does provide in the end,
and we’ve often heard the story with that emphasis:
if you are faithful, God will provide.
Sacrifice has meaning.
But the story leaves us asking:
Does God test us?
Does God provide for us?
Does God provide for us
only once we have passed a test?
Do we know
that it is God who is speaking to us?
How do we know?
Do we have to be willing to give up
even the people dearest to us
in order to be faithful to God?
Does the story hold up
in the death camps
and the killing fields?
in Sudan and Zimbabwe?
on the other side of Greensboro?
Does the story hold up
in this neighborhood?
in homes both poor and rich
where women and children
are not safe
in their own homes?
It really would have been easier for us to hear
the alternative text from the Hebrew Bible
that the lectionary offered us for today.
But we can’t avoid this story.
We can’t throw it away.
We have to wrestle with it.
It’s our story.
Artists have portrayed it.
It’s our inheritance.
It’s part of our common inheritance
with Jews and Muslims
and it’s part of what divides us from them.
It’s important to engage the story
for some of the same reasons it disturbs us:
with the whole sequence
about Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, and their children
is about rock-bottom basics of life:
and the prevention of violence.
And because the stories
of Hagar, Sarah, Abraham, and their children
are core stories in millennia of living tradition
in three sibling religions
they evoke centuries of interreligious relations,
in the past
and in the present.
This story also raises,
because it is such a difficult story,
the vital question for us as believers
of our relationship to the Bible.
What are we going to do with the Bible?
what is the Bible doing with us?
How do we read it?
Is there only one way to do so?
I want to say a few things about the Bible.
And then I want to invite us
to focus on one dimension of the story
and to do so in the present.
This is a text from the past
that makes us ask questions in the present.
If we were dealing, say, with the book of Kings,
we could look at the text in some kind of historical context
as well as in conversation with our present lives.
We can’t really do that with the Abraham family saga.
It comes to us with the revelatory power of legend.
Note that I put revelation and legend together.
Just because a story comes to us as legend
doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring us truth about our lives,
ourselves, the world around us, and God.
It is revelatory.
its historical context and roots are, at best, shadowy.
Another biblical note:
This story, like the Bible as a whole,
is not a rule book
and it doesn’t necessarily give us people to imitate.
There is behavior to imitate in the Bible.
But that’s not all there is.
The lens of “do as the people in the story do” doesn’t work
-- and it’s not the way we as Anglicans interpret scripture.
Think about it.
Driving Hagar out into the wilderness?
Being willing to suffer the casting out of women and children
who are foreign
or who are from what used to be called the servant class?
Who are from what some call today the underclass?
Sending children to their death?
Or is that already what we do?
The power of the Bible
is often that it offers us
but a mirror.
A mirror of our family relations
of the dynamics of human history
of relations between communities.
A mirror of religion
and the actions people do in religion’s name.
Later in the Bible,
the prophets will certainly point these things out to us
and so will Jesus.
Now the question for us
for today, in this place, from this text, in this time.
This disturbing story
shatters our image of God.
Perhaps it also shatters our sense of self.
I just used a violent image: shattering.
The story is a violent story.
It is a story about trauma.
It probably is hardest to hear
for those who are survivors of trauma,
whether individual or collective.
It is a story about violence.
The world in which the people of Israel
lived 3,000 years ago was a violent world.
The world into which Jesus was born
2,000 years ago was a violent world.
The world in which
Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived 1,000 years ago
was a violent world.
We live today in a world of violence
in which we raise children to send them off to be killed
in wars planned by their elders;
in which women and children
are too often unsafe in their own homes;
in which the descendants of Hagar and Sarah and Abraham
are not at peace with one another.
So this is my question for us
and not one I can or will answer
in ten minutes in the pulpit,
but a question for us as a community,
wrestling with a story
that disturbs our understanding of God.
What is our understanding
[More words to come - but think about the question...]