June 28, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Rev. Mark Hatch
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever?
how long will you hide your face from me?
How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day?
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?
Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God;
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him,"
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.
But I put my trust in your mercy;
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly;
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Sermon: Would You?
Would you do it? Do you have it in you? Are any of us truly capable, truly ready, truly prepared for such an incomprehensible task? “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” [Gen 22:2] Not the utterance of a madman, not the voice of Satan, not the delusion of an unwell person, not the incantation of a Canaanite or Phoenician cult for whom such infant sacrifice was common. No, this is the voice of God, this is the very call from Yahweh, this is the word of the Lord, testing Abraham, asking Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, compelling Abraham to prepare and make a human offering. How would you respond? What would you do? Could you kindle such a terrible fire? In a classic Bob Dylan song from 1965, the lyrics speak more bluntly of confusion and chaos:
“…God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run…” 
Like most fathers of my generation I was privileged and moved and awestruck and humbled to be present at the birth of my two children. When Ruth was born I shall never forget remarking, amidst the tumult and clamor of childbirth, that this was the single most religious experience of my life, and that remains true to this day. When she breathed her first air of this chaotic world, when she uttered her first of many cries into an already noisy land, I saw at once the miracle of God in creation as described in the beginning of scripture: “The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” [Gen 2:7] And so with breath came life, and with that life came the beginning of a long, strange, wondrous journey of potential and hope, of uncertainty and possibility. And with that first breath, more than anything else, there came into this world and into my life the very incarnation of love itself. Make a “burnt offering”? What kind of God asks such deeds of us?
Two years later, I relived that same joy when my son Benjamin entered the world. And over the years I have held fast to the mischievous smile on his face and heard his infectious laughter and listened to his endless jokes and social commentary. In those tender and gentle moments of parental epiphany, instances of pure light and revelation, I have seen all that a child can be. I have seen my life in his. I have seen my own past in his unfolding future. I have been moved and scared and thrilled, trembling before the fleeting innocence of youth and yet drawing sustenance and joy from the fragile possibilities which his still, young life portends. On this Sunday morning, I feel confident that Abraham felt the same sentiments toward his beloved Isaac. And so when God calls the Patriarch to sacrifice his son, and when I hear myself asking: “Could you, Mark, make a literal victim of your own beloved child?” I confess to you that the answer is ‘no’. How could I? How could anyone? And I ask, in still more profound despair and disquiet: What kind of God is this? What kind of obedience and sacrifice is being called for? What kind of twisted “test” is being laid at my feet? What does such an inauspicious and dark moment foretell for the faith journey?
“The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” [Gen. 22:7ff] , Isaac asks with childlike innocence and abiding trust. Still unable to face the truth, still unable to draw his son into this gruesome ministry, Abraham passes the buck: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” He proceeds with a kind of unnerving and blind submission that is, at many levels, both inconceivable and incomprehensible. And thus the harrowing ordeal continues, Isaac is bound by his own father, the fire is carefully prepared, and a knife is drawn so as “to kill his son.” Then, and only then, at the very last moment, the angel of the Lord appears, Isaac is spared, a ram is sacrificed in his stead, we are assured that “the Lord will provide”, and the tale is apparently complete. Needless to say, we can scarcely imagine the terror which Isaac endured. Needless to say we can scarcely imagine the confusion and conflict within Abraham himself. Needless to say, even though we always know the outcome of the story, I still recoil in horror and anger and dread. Yet again, and yet once more, and yet every time I encounter this awful scene from scripture I ask myself: “would I do it?” and the answer is still ‘no’.
Clearly, we are meant to make some long and remarkable leap of faith from the grim events on Mount Moriah to the sweat, dust, and agony to come on Mount Calvary. St. Paul reminds us that we “have been freed from sin and enslaved to God” [Rom. 6:22] and that therefore we apparently gain the “advantage” of “sanctification.” Seems like a pretty tough way to get there, however. I think I liked the rainbow in the sky or the feeding of the 5000 a lot better.
Maybe all this “testing” hits too close to home, whether it be one’s beloved child or anything which we hold dear, presumably at the expense of a full and utter abandonment to God and to God’s plan. Maybe we are each like Winston Smith in “1984”, locked in Room 101, with God as Big Brother knowing exactly and precisely where to probe and reach each one of us, at some point of ultimate vulnerability and breakdown, so as to discover that of which we are truly made.
Maybe we are meant to discover and identify some ultimate distinction between the temporal and the divine, some line of spiritual demarcation across which we must courageously pass before this whole faith story can be fully revealed. In the Gospels, Jesus himself foretells such great suffering and prophesies His own death, but when Peter intervenes, injecting a note of both empathy and sanity into the tumultuous undercurrent of events, he is rebuked with otherworldly implications: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [Mark 8:33] Yet surely one could make the case that a child is about as divine as it gets, so what’s the problem with setting one’s mind decidedly on that? Such condemnation, such testing, would have us believe that it is somehow wrong or failed or immature or weak to love a person so much, to cherish a person so dearly, that you could not possibly countenance or participate in their death. Is that not divine also -- to love one’s brother or sister, son or daughter, at all cost?
I suspect that in these moments of trial and testing, in these terrible places of ordeal and offering, on these surreal thresholds of suffering and sacrifice we have crossed into a ‘fierce landscape’ of the soul. Such a landscape and such a calling is irrational, but then, so is faith itself. In essence we are stripped bare, removed of all pretense, all materialism, all wealth and presumption, all status and society, and we are called to stand before the very chasm of faith itself. We are called, in ways which disturb and examine us, to relinquish all control of our own lives so that, in the end, we may receive new and eternal life through death itself. We are called to self-denial for the purpose of a greater good yet to come which we can neither see nor grasp. Somehow, we are called to abandon fear and therefore to discover a voice of proclamation and witness. We are called to claim as our own a transcendent and enduring identity as Christians and disciples which will find no profit in gaining any part of the fallen and broken world which lies outside these or any other doors. Or so the story goes.
But this remains a long pilgrimage. You and I are not there yet. In fact, as I stand mute and trembling on this and many other Mount Moriahs, I am far from even marginally understanding or accepting a summons such as this from the God I love. Many lifetimes would be required for even the most elemental confidence and concession. For me, on this summer morning, the truth remains: the spiritual virtue of sacrificing one’s dear child is a terribly dark night of the soul through which I remain ill equipped and spiritually unprepared to pass. I need not merely 40 days, I probably need 40 years or even 40 lifetimes, before the greatness of God’s plan in an instance like this is made clear and whole to me. Would you or I sacrifice our beloved on a fiery pillar? I doubt it. But would you and I journey toward another death, through a long wilderness and parched earth, so that hope and promise and light and life might triumph? We would, and we do, else we would not be in this very place, on this very day, at this very hour. I still don’t get it, but maybe that’s precisely the point.
 Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited", c1965.