a sermon, based on Genesis 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017
God said to Abraham, “Take your son…Isaac…whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.”
A bit of the back story…
God called Abraham to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him, where he would become a progenitor of nations. But Abraham and Sarah, his wife, were old and childless. Without at least one child, it would be impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes. Finally, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90, Isaac was born.
Then Abraham, with Sarah, having left their homeland, sacrificing their past for God’s sake, is told by God to kill their son, thereby sacrificing their long-hoped-for present, now fulfilled, and the promise of their future. For to kill their one child would make it impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes.
Nevertheless, “Abraham rose early in the morning…and set out” to do as God had commanded.
What? Suppose any of us who are parents heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to which we ascribe ordering us to murder our children. What would we think, feel, do? Or suppose, as a child, we heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to our parents commanding that they kill us. What would we think, feel, do?
Sometimes when I reflect on this story, an image comes to mind of Sarah watching her husband and son walk toward the horizon with wood for a burnt offering, but no animal for the burnt offering and wondering, fearing what was to be.
Now, God’s command was intended as a test of Abraham’s love and loyalty. A test, we are assured that God had no intention of seeing through to its terrible end. A test that Abraham, in his willing obedience, passed.
Nevertheless it was a test, at first and second glance, monstrously cruel.
It may not assuage the sensitive human conscience to claim that this story is a biblical protest against the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Nor might it be comforting to claim some theological justification for God’s aggression. That God’s command to Abraham to kill his only son is a portent of the sacrifice of Jesus, the only Son of God, to redeem the world. That the sacrifice of Jesus is foreshadowed in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s wonderment about the whereabouts of the sacrificial animal, “God will provide the lamb.” That this explains why we Christians, thankful for the sacrifice of Jesus, pray, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
But sacrifice is sacrifice. Violence is violence. And in a world, whether ancient, modern, or post-modern, filled with gratuitous cruelty, how can this story appeal to wounded human conscience? How can this story assuage souls ravaged by the brutalities of humankind throughout history?
Maybe it can’t!
Or maybe this story is meant to be a biblical wide-eyed, unblinking stare, glare at us demanding that we answer this question: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?
In two days, we Americans will celebrate the 241st anniversary of the birth of our nation. A nation established on the foundation of great ideals – human equality (though honesty compels the confession that we alway need continue to expand that definition from its original intention; for, our founding fathers, in their time of their dreaming and writing, had not in mind women or me as an African American!) and the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” An establishment involving the sacrifice of life against the might of an empire to secure liberty long-sought.
In the bright light of our celebration, again I ask: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?
Speaking always and only for myself, I am a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus who died for his cause, proclaiming, embodying the kingdom of God’s unconditional love and justice. O’er many years, daily I have prayed, in the words of the hymn, to see Jesus more clearly so to follow Jesus more nearly so to love Jesus more dearly. And I am convinced that real living, living in liberty, living unfettered and free from undue restraint – whether without by another’s hand or force or within from fear of loss – so to be and to become who God created me to be is a matter of doing what Jesus did. To be ready and willing to lay down my life. And, in the words of another hymn, as I daily decide to follow Jesus, his cause is my cause. For the sake of loving and being just with you and all people, I am willing to die.
For what are you willing to die, so to live?
Illustration: The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-l690)
 See Genesis 12.1-4.
 See Genesis 17.17, 21.5.
 See Genesis 17.17.
 See Genesis 21.1-3.
 A reference to the words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253): Day by day, dear Lord, of Thee three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.
 Words ascribed to an Indian prince of Garo, Assam:
I have decided to follow Jesus (sung 3 times); no turning back, no turning back.
Though none go with me, I still will follow (3); no turning back, no turning back.
My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus (3); no turning back, no turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me (3); no turning back, no turning back.