dying to live


Epiphany 1-22-17 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.[1] Without at least one child, it would be impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes. Finally, when Abraham was 100[2] and Sarah 90,[3] Isaac was born.[4]

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.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690)

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.[5] 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,[6] 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)


[1] See Genesis 12.1-4.

[2] See Genesis 17.17, 21.5.

[3] See Genesis 17.17.

[4] See Genesis 21.1-3.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

8 thoughts on “dying to live

  1. Dear Paul,

    This is a very problematic story, isn’t it? I have always bristled at the idea of God’s “testing” Abraham in such a horrifying way, and I am so glad you brought Sarah into your sermon. Years ago, when I began to seriously think about patriarchy and the feminine Divine, I came across a midrash on this text wherein God approached not Abraham but Sarah, commanding that Isaac be sacrificed. Sarah’s immediate response when the voice comes to her is to ask, “Who are you?” Yahweh insists that he is God and restates his command that Isaac be sacrificed. Once again, Sarah’s response is “Who are you?” Once again, Yahweh identifies himself as God and restates his command. This happens a third time, with Sarah responding “Who ARE you?” and going on to declare that anyone commanding that she kill the son that God has given her cannot POSSIBLY be God. At that, Sarah turns her back and walks away. The suggestion is that at that point, Yahweh learns something important about what it means to be God.

    If the purpose of the story is actually to demonstrate that human sacrifice is no longer necessary and is wrong, for me, this version actually succeeds better than the original.

    Thanks for reminding me of my lifelong struggle with that story and with the wonderful experience of finding that beautiful midrash.



    Liked by 1 person

    • A lovely, indeed, loving midrash. I oft have heard many of my sisters in the faith declare that if God had asked Sarah, her response would have been wholly different and no less (perhaps more) faithful from that of Abraham. Moreover, your sense that God learned something about being God from that encounter/experience with Sarah reminds me of my understanding that Jesus learned something more about being a Messiah of welcome, hospitality, and inclusion from his encounters with the Samaritan woman at the well and the Canaanite women

      Additionally, as I reflect on the sacrifice of Isaac story, it is not lost on me that, reading on in Genesis, shortly thereafter Sarah dies. Could it be – as another midrashic “take” – that Sarah, Abraham and Isaac returning home and he telling her what God commanded and what happened, heart-and-soul-sick in horror, died?

      Always, my love,


  2. Reflecting on your sermon’s penetrating question, “For what are you willing to die, so to live?” While I think the question what we are willing to die for is an excruciating and excruciatingly insightful question, I also have started to think in terms of what that is in and of ourselves are we willing to allow to die, or in stronger terms, to kill, in order to live? And that question, I think, is also a part of the Abraham and Isaac story. In fact, your suggestion that Jesus learned something about how to be Jesus from the woman at the well and the Canaanite women, I think shows his willingness to allow some of the cultural norms he may have been raised with and that may have been a part of him at one time to die in order that he might live the life he was born to live and become what he was born to be. The same with God in the Isaac story and midrash: became willing to allow the part of God that required human sacrifice in order to be God to die. That, of course, all echoes our well-loved Answer to Job : ). I love the idea of God learning to be God, of Jesus learning to be Jesus, and both requiring interaction with humankind.

    I hope more and more that humans can become willing both to die for and to kill off the parts of ourselves and our cultures that keep us from seeing one another, respecting one another, loving one another, realizing that we are tied to one another through a Divine unity and that nothing can separate us from that unity. I hope we are willing to relinquish those parts of ourselves in order to be what I believe we are created to be and to live as we, I believe, are destined to live.

    With much love and gratitude to you for keeping me thinking and believing, dear Paul.


    Liked by 1 person

    • God, have mercy, yes, Karen! What am I willing to allow to die in me, verily, to kill that I might be and become who God created me to be!

      Again, yes.

      A truest and most terrifying of self-inquiries, I think, feel, and believe…

      Truest because it rings of deepest reality…

      Terrifying for it means putting to death something within me that, by virtue of being within me, is that which I hold dear (even if in clutching fast to it, it is killing me! – like my resistance to forgiving another, the holding onto my bitterness for dear life is death, for it is poisoning my soul; yet, I, in idol-worship, perceive my right to claim my hurt, as a form of worship, though self-reverence it is!)!

      Much more work to be done here for me.

      Thank you! Love you!


      • Emilia came over this afternoon after she got off work, and she and I were talking about your sermon and our discussion about the Abraham and Isaac story and reminiscing about her first hearing of it. When she was little, we always used to read her a story from the Children’s Bible before she went to sleep and before her prayers. I don’t know how I could have temporarily forgotten this, but the first time I read her the sacrifice story, when she was probably about 5 years old, when I got to the part about what God said to Abraham, her eyes got very big, and she said, “Ooooohhh, Sarah’s not going to like this!!!” Out of the mouths of babes!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Paul,

    I replied to this with my whole heart and it didn’t post. I doubt I can recreate it all, but the gist of it was that I’ve always struggled with this passage because I know how hard it would have been for me if God had asked me to make such a sacrifice. You even allowed me to preach on thi sermon once.

    I love the question you posed because it’s hard. I believe I’d lay down my life for others who were being mistreated because God wants us to love all of our neighbors, even those we don’t know. There have been many folks of late who have died protecting others, especially those of the Muslim faith.

    I’ve defended two people in the last year and in both cases I knew I could have been injured or worse. One was a bank teller who was simply ding her job and was being bullied by an angry customer and the other was a Donald Trump supporter who made a derogatory comment to me and then I protected her from an angry group on the subway with us.

    People have a masked me why I defended her. I’ve said I don’t know but I actually do know. As much as I disliked this woman and her comment I knew that God would want me to protect her. I think we should protect those who can at times be their own worst enemy. I’m sure the woman could have cared less that I protected her, as she was encouraging the crowd to yell louder!! At least I slept well that night believing I had some what God wanted me to do!!

    Thanks again for asking us the hard questions!!

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • AND Loretta, you, in knowing you did the right-God-oriented-thing in protecting the one who, in her vitriolic violence unto you was no friend to you, stand, I believe, on the right (righteous) side of secular and sacred history. Thank you and deepest love in honor of your witness to God’s truth

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s