Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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* Many thanks to church member Margaret Imber for preaching on a very difficult text while Pastor Chrissy was traveling to General Synod.
Abraham to God: "Seriously?"
Today we heard the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. It is a strange, gripping tale, which has been the source of theological debate by both Jews and Christians for thousands of years. The story is strange from soup to nuts. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. That is weird. Abraham says yes. That is very weird. The purpose of the sacrifice is to test the faith of Abraham. This is also odd. Isn’t God omniscient? Wouldn’t he know what Abraham intended to do? Why indulge in such a cruel test?
Conversely, the passage from Matthew seems not strange at all. Jesus promises his disciples before they leave him to proselytize that those who welcome them will be rewarded. Traditionally, most Christians find the story of Isaac difficult to comprehend and feel somewhat reassured by the passage from Matthew. Traditionally, these readings are paired because of the similarity between Isaac and Jesus, each a sacrifice of a loving father. I’d like to suggest today that we should be comforted by the story of Isaac and unnerved by the reward Jesus promises. And while the parallels between Isaac and Jesus are clear, I think these reading belong together because each describes a test and each is about the problems of inclusion and exclusion. It is the test and the problems that make today’s Scripture passages eerily relevant to our own age.
Today’s reading from Genesis begins with the words “Sometime later God tested Abraham.” Later than what? Well, if you recall, the test of Isaac takes place after Abraham banishes his son Ishmael from the newly formed community of Jews that God has created from the man Abram’s family. Abram and his wife Sarai were not able to conceive children, so Sari sent her slave Hagar to lie with Abram. Hagar conceived and Ishmael was born. When Ishmael turned 13, the male members of Abram’s family made their formal covenant with God through circumcision. God, then promised Abram, whom he would now call Abraham, that Sarai, whose name became Sarah after the covenant was made, that though she was long past her childbearing years, Sarah would bear a child. She does and she calls him Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “laughter.”
Immediately, Sarah insists that Abraham drive Ishmael and Hagar from their community. Abraham is reluctant because Ishmael is his son. But God promises Abraham that Isaac, the son of Sarah, will be the seed of the Hebrew nation that God is creating in Abraham’s family. He further promises Abraham that Ishmael, too, will become father to a great, if different, nation.
This is the back story to today’s reading. Abraham is to be the father of a great nation. But he and his wife are old and barren. Abraham has a son whom he loves with his wife’s slave, with his wife’s permission. There is a son, therefore the promised nation can begin. Ooops. Wrong son. God promises Abraham another son, this time, a ‘legitimate’ son. Abraham rejects Ishmael, his first born. He doesn’t want to, but God assures him it will be ok. I always wonder if this is the first time that Abraham raised an eyebrow and said to God, “Seriously?” I’m 90. Isaac’s an infant. I’ve a perfectly fine son in Ishmael. Haven’t you ever heard of having a back-up plan? God, however, is God and doesn’t need a backup plan.
But if God doesn’t need a back-up plan, why does he need to “test” Abraham. I think it may have something to do with his Covenant. There is no back-up plan. God has bet the future of the Hebrew nation of the faith of a single man. If Abraham is not faithful, if he will not commit completely to God, well then it’s possible that the whole Hebrew project could be in danger. God must test Abraham because God has granted Abraham and each of us free will. It would have been fairly foolish of Abraham to reject his Covenant with God when things got tough. But free will means that Abraham and each of us gets to make foolish mistakes. So God tests Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice Isaac. Take your son, your only son, the one you love, he directs. Again, I imagine a quirked eyebrow on Abraham’s part here – “My only son? Thanks to whom, big guy?” In fact, Jewish commentators imagine the conversation went something like this: God said, “Take your son.” And Abraham said, “I have two sons.” He answered him, “Your only son.” He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.” God said, “The one whom you love.” Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?” God answered, “Isaac.” Abraham, like all the Patriarchs, argued with God. He argued until God explicitly stated what he wanted. Abraham wanted to be sure what God was asking of him and to be sure that God was sure as well.
I imagine Abraham muttering as he follows God’s directions. But there is no back up plan. Ishmael is now gone. He is no longer in Abraham’s family and he will not be a part of the Hebrew nation that God will make of Abraham’s family.
To me the most interesting contrast in this story is Abraham’s almost obstinate faith and God’s anxiety about Abraham’s faith. Whenever God calls, Abraham steps up and answers, “Here I am Lord.” He holds himself in constant readiness to follow God’s commands. Whatever God asks of him, Abraham will do. Abraham, as each of us, could have chosen differently, but instead acts as though once the covenant was made, it was inconceivable that he would break it. To Abraham, therefore, it was inconceivable that God would break the Covenant: “God will provide.” Abraham has more faith in God than God has in him. Abraham does not seem disturbed by the fact.
The next most interesting thing in this story is the shadow of Ishmael. He must be excluded both from his family and from his people. God loves him and promises him a nation of his own. But for there to be any nation at all, Hebrew or Muslim, acts of exclusion are required. Is the decision to exile Ishmael fair? From the perspective of Sarah, perhaps not. She resents the way Hagar acted after Ishmael was born, while Sarah was still barren. The mother of the only heir, Hagar, clearly lorded it over Sarah. Punishing Ishmael for his mother’s sins seems unfair. But Sarah is also worried about young Isaac’s claim on the family’s fortune. She must have wondered whether she could protect Isaac’s rights against what she perceived to be Hagar’s arrogance, and Ishmael’s age if anything ever happened to Abraham. To preserve the family, and the nation, Sarah thinks that Abraham must exclude Ishmael. That exclusion is complete and permanent. ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love,” God commands. What about Ishmael? There is no denying that Abraham loves Isaac, but why most this love be won by cutting Ishmael out of his heart. In the Muslim tradition, Abraham visits Ishmael and gives him unasked for and unvarnished opinions about Ishmael’s wife. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the exclusion is complete.
Scholars, theologians and propagandists have made much of Ishmael’s exclusion. Ishmael the Arab, the Muslim. Perhaps the nation of Israel and the nation of Islam must ever be in opposition to each other, some argue - it is foreordained in the Bible. Or perhaps, there is something insufficient in the human imagination that we can only define nations by identifying the people the nation excludes? Who, for example, is a real American? Native Americans, the descendants of immigrants, or the descendants of slaves? Are we defined as a nation by the people we exclude or the peoples we embrace? Today we live in a moment of mass migration, caused by wars in distant lands. Many of these wars were initiated or exacerbated in my name and yours. Personally, I find the insistence some make on rigid exclusion odd. It does not seem to be the response of someone who believes, “God will provide.” I also think it would be churlish of me to insist upon standards of inclusion that my own ancestors did not face. There were no restrictions on immigration from Europe in the late 19th century when my father and mother’s parents came to the United States. I worry that we lack the faith of Abraham, that we can no longer say, “God will provide.”
When Jesus sent the disciples out on the first preaching mission, in the passage from Matthew that we heard this morning, he was counting on those that heard the Good News opening the hearts and homes to the first missionaries. But even here there was exclusion. Jesus told his disciples not to go to the Samaritans or to the Gentiles. The first community of Christians appears to have been as exclusionary as the first community of Hebrews. In fact, the early Church struggled with the question of inclusion and exclusion mightily. Many among the First Christians argued that only individuals in covenant with the Hebrew God could become Christian. For St. Paul, in contrast, the hallmark of Jesus’ new covenant was its inclusivity. In Christ, there is no East or West. St. Paul won the argument. Under the new covenant, the reward Jesus promises to those who recognize his disciples as messengers of Christ and of God, will be granted to anyone, whether Greek or Jew, man or woman, free or slave.
The story in Matthew announces two burdens put upon the shoulders of those who follow Jesus. We must, each of us, be messengers of the Good News. We must reach out to those who are different from us and embody the hospitality Christ and God will offer them. But we must also open and hearts to those who come to us. If we see Christ in the face of a stranger, we must welcome that stranger, feed and clothe them. For each of these persons is Christ in our midst. This is a heavy burden. What if you’re not a good cook, or your place is a mess or you have a home that lends itself to hospitality?
If we want the reward Jesus promises, it doesn’t matter. We must open ourselves to them, because in doing so, we are opening ourselves to God. How do we know the stranger is Christ? What if he is Ishmael? I think perhaps the New Covenant that God made with us, using Jesus as the sacrifice, challenges this distinction. There is a famous, heartbreaking picture of a refugee child, red shirt, blue shorts, sneakers and socks. He couldn’t be more than three years old. He lies face down and dead on a beach. Is he Ishmael or Jesus? I think he’s Jesus. In fact, I think, under the New Covenant, Ishmael is Jesus. And I think many, many people, myself among them, failed to welcome Jesus when they refused to welcome this child. Jesus said: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” A cup of water would have sufficed. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to move from war torn lands in Africa and the Middle East. It is often overwhelming to think of the effort required to see Christ in each of them. The thought of reaching out to offer all of them our hospitality is terrifying.
There are pundits and politicians, in every corner of the world, who seek to motivate us to important decisions through our fears. What Abraham would say to them? I think he’d raise an eyebrow and say, “Seriously? You only have to offer a cup of cold water? Talk to me when you asked to offer your only son whom you love as a burnt offering.” I think Abraham would assure us that we do not need to live in our fear of strangers or the limitations of our own hospitality. God will provide.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.