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Monday, June 30, 2014

Here I Am

Pr 8, Yr A
Genesis 22:1-14, Matthew 10:40-42
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

     As a young child, my godmother regularly gave me Arch Books, short bible story books written in verse. I still have most of them, from King Solomon's Dream to The Lame Man Who Walked Again. Among these are such child-friendly favorites as "Stephen, the First Martyr," who as you'll remember was stoned to death, "Jeremiah and the Fall of Jerusalem," and "Two Cities that Burned"...a re-telling of Sodom and Gomorrah. So it's saying a lot when I tell you that even Arch Books didn't try to tackle today's story of Abraham and Isaac, which truly is one of the most disturbing in the whole bible. What on earth is it doing in Holy Scripture?
     Abraham—who who has been promised by God that he'll be the father of a great nation—seems to have issues with endangering the very sons who will promote that future. Last week we heard the story of his sending his servant Hagar and Ishmael, the son he fathered with her, out into the wilderness to die after the birth of Isaac to his wife Sarah. Bam!...his chances at that great nation seemingly cut in half, although there's ultimately a promising outcome to that story. And here he is today, acquiescing to what seems to be the final blow to that promise: the command to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. The author of the passage really drives it home, too, with all those "your son, your only son," "his son," "my son" refrains. Abraham has shown his proclivity for arguing with God—he was the one who fought tooth and nail trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, for example—so why doesn't he fight this time? Why doesn't he refuse? Instead, he struggles onward, side by side with his son, each step drawing him closer to a horrible conclusion.
     One interpretation of this story is to frame it as a "just so" story to explain the transition from child sacrifice to animals—a prohibition indicated in several other places in the Hebrew Scriptures—in contrast to the tradition of surrounding cultures. But while that may be part of the reason it's here, and there's no doubt that the God of Abraham and Sarah abhors the death of any precious child, that seems too easy; it fails to weigh the troubling theological implications of the passage.
     Another way to view this is as a story of faithfulness: Abraham's to God and, ultimately, God's to Abraham. Given that when God has called, Abraham's life has generally been turned upside down--you're going to a new land, you're going to be the father of a great nation, your elderly wife is going to have a baby--given that, Abraham might be excused for not answering enthusiastically when he hears God's voice. We really have nothing to tell us whether this was an all in "Here I am!" or a reluctant "Here I am...," but he does speak up. Despite it all, he continues to be in relationship with God, which really is what faithfulness is about. You don't have to like it or be submissive; it's simply that you don't turn away...and Abraham doesn't. Somehow, from somewhere deep inside himself, he trusts that God has his back. It's interesting that when Isaac calls out to query his dad about where the lamb is, Abraham also responds to him with "Here I am," though we can imagine with far more pain and panic in his voice. The connection between his relationship with God and his relationship with his son, his future, is solidified in that common answer. And finally, the deepest sense of relief flooding over him at the very. last. minute. when the angel of the Lord calls out his name again, not just once but twice to make sure he hears, and Abraham, his heart pounding and stomach churning and body shaking cries out in desperate hope, "Here I am."
     It's the culmination of an entire lifetime of faithfulness, turning on the highest stakes possible for Abraham and for God. Abraham, obviously, wants Isaac alive...because he is the love of his life. God wants Isaac alive too...because Isaac is the life of his love for the people of Israel for generations yet to come. When God stops Abraham  from sacrificing Isaac, God says, "Now I know." God has placed all hope, all trust, all the future in the hands of Abraham, and now God knows that confidence wasn't misplaced. God's trust isn't that Abraham will blindly obey or that God can coerce Abraham into an unthinkable action; God is confirming the solidity of the very foundation of the relationship upon which the future relies. There is not one iota of doubt about their mutual faithfulness.
     That's about the best I can do with this passage. Even with that generous interpretation, I'm still troubled by the idea of God even asking Abraham, whom God loves, to be willing to sacrifice everything, though full disclosure requires I admit that I'm more matter of fact about it when God does the same with God's own son. Maybe because I think it's not too much to ask of God but I'm pretty certain that it would be impossible for me, so I'm left to wonder if there's any hope for me if I can't be as faithful as Abraham. Perhaps that's another aspect of the discomfort of this story: is it meant to be the measure by which the rest of us are judged?
     Thanks be to God, then, for the good news in the gospel reading. Where the first reading seems to ask of me far, far more than I can imagine myself capable of, the gospel gives me hope again: "Jesus said...'Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won't lose out on a thing.'" [The Message]  I can do that! I can get a drink, offer a bite, share a seat, give a hug, lend an ear, send a note, bring a can, make a call, say a word. It turns out that in God's longing for our faithfulness, our smallest acts and our biggest sacrifices are equally significant when done with love and trust. In our struggles and confusion, in our hurts and disappointments, in our joys and contentment, give us faith, O God, always to answer, "Here I am, Lord."

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