To recap what we’ve heard so far: in the beginning God made the world and everything in it and called it good. We heard this message loud and clear two weeks ago when our sister Judith from South Africa leaned over the edge of this pulpit and reminded us that, unlike the violent creation stories of the conquering nations that surrounded it, Israel’s creation story rooted the world’s origins in an act of divine creativity and love. God spoke the world into being with a word, God breathed life into clay and humanity was formed from the earth. God looked at everything God had made and called it good.
In the 9am Adult Forum we’ve been digging a little deeper into the book of Genesis than we’re able to during worship, so we’ve also read through and discussed the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and humanity’s departure from Eden. This morning we looked at the story of the flood, how God used water as a sign of dying to ways of life marked by sin, but saved a remnant of what God had created in love as a sign that we are always being made new. That story ends with God saying to Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen. 9:16).
As I heard those words again this year, I immediately thought of the beautiful rainbow banners hanging here in the sanctuary and it struck me how appropriate it might be for us to leave them up throughout the summer as we read through the book of Genesis so that we have a visible reminder of God’s promise to save God’s children because, as we immediately see this morning, the rest of the book of Genesis puts that hope to the test.
The 22nd chapter of Genesis begins, “After these things God tested Abraham.” These opening words aren’t a casual statement. “After these things” is a reminder to the reader and to us that Abraham and Sarah have already been on a long, difficult journey. God called them to leave their family, to leave their country, promising to make of them a great nation.
Already they have faced great difficulties that threatened to rip their marriage and their family apart. They stay a short while in Egypt to escape a famine, where they pose as brother and sister so that Abraham will not be killed by a jealous Pharaoh when he sees Sarah’s beauty. Though they go on to become quite wealthy and build a strong following, they remain childless and struggle to hold on to hope that God will keep God’s promises to them. So they propose to make one of their slaves their heir, so that the family line will be carried on, but God rejects that proposal. Worried that she has become too old to bear children, Sarah encourages Abraham to use another of their slaves, Hagar, as a surrogate. She gives birth to a son, Ishmael.
For a while it seems that God’s promise will be fulfilled through him, through Ishmael. As he grows older, God appears again to Abraham and Sarah to reaffirm God’s promise to them, giving them new names and declaring that Sarah herself will give birth to a son, causing her to laugh in disbelief. But when her first son is born they do believe and they name him Isaac, which means “laughter,” because as Sarah says, “God has brought laughter to me” or “God has brought joy to me” (Gen. 21:1-7).
But joy turns to jealousy and, as we heard from Dan last week, when Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac her heart is hardened against him and she demands that Abraham send them away. God reassures Abraham that Hagar and her child will be cared for, that the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah would extend to Ishmael as well because he, too, is part of their family. As Hagar and Ishmael wander in the wilderness, parched for lack of water, the mother sets him under a bush and waits for him to die. The scripture says, “then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot” (Gen. 21:16). Again, that reference to a bow, and I wondered if Hagar searched the sky for a sign that God intended to save her child as well. If she looked for a rainbow as she sat on cracked, dry land.
All that backstory is summed up in the opening words of this morning’s passage, “after these things,” three words meant to remind us of what has already been an epic story filled with danger and disappointments and dreams deferred. I can’t read those words, “after these things” on the morning that we’ve just baptized Isaiah Erich Swanson, without thinking of all the things that preceded this day for him and for his family, or for me and my family, or for you and your families, or for the family that is all of us together. “After these things…”
If I were to ask you to turn to your neighbor — which I’m not, but just imagine if I did —- and tell that person what “after these things” refers to in your life, the life of your family, what stories would you tell? Through what dangers, toils and snares have you already come? How have those experiences shaped you? Have they brought you closer to God? Have they strained your ability to trust the promises of God?
Look at those rainbow banners hanging on the wall. Remember all the rainbows that have filled your lives. Hanging in the sky. Marching in the street. A sign that God does not abandon God’s children, but brings them through the flood. Now take a deep breath and hold on to your rainbow as we climb the mountain with Abraham and Isaac.
After these things, God says to Abraham “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) It’s horrible. It’s such a horrible story. What God would ever command such a thing, and what parent would ever follow such a command?
Though, even as I ask the question, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Melissa Lorraine, the Artistic Director of our Artist-in-Residence, Theatre Y, which recently finished its production of the Greek tragedy, Medea, a story about a mother who sacrifices her children as an act of revenge against the husband who has abandoned her. As we talked about what it would mean for the company to stage that play in this neighborhood, at a time in which one of our middle schools is being converted into a military academy, we acknowledged that, in fact, there are many little gods at work in our world, always asking us to sacrifice our children on their altars. The altars of war. The altars of achievement. The altars of jealousy.
Abraham doesn’t even put up a fight. At least with Ishmael the scripture says he was distressed, but in this instance he rises early, saddles his donkey, and packs for the worst day of his life. I know we’re intended to read this as obedience, faithfulness, but for the life of me it just feels like learned helplessness. Which, after these things we have all been through, we can relate to. We see the sacrifices coming. They look terribly unfair. But that’s just the way things are. Everyone goes through it at one point or another. I guess my time has come.
There is a school of thought concerning this story of the binding of Isaac that interprets it very differently. Instead of seeing this story as a test of Abraham’s willingness to murder his son, as if that was such an extraordinary thing, it sees this story as one of God interrupting an unnecessary sacrifice, which sadly had become too ordinary.
In order for this other explanation to make sense we would need to know that in the ancient world, child sacrifice was not uncommon but instead an accepted form of sacrifice to the gods. Archaeologists have found remains of children that seem to have been sacrificed in a ritualistic manner in Central America, Europe, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Many different scriptural traditions, including our own, reference the practice of child sacrifice as though it would be familiar to those reading them. But we struggle to understand how any religion could demand this of a parent, of a family.
Is it really that hard to understand?
I’ve read so many commentaries that focus on the horror of asking a parent to sacrifice their child, as if no parent would ever do such a thing. But I think, and I don’t mean this to sound cruel, but I think the thing that makes this story truly horrifying is that we know we are already doing it. We are already offering our children up to a system, to so many interlocking systems, laying them on so many different, lesser, altars in the world on which they are dying. The streets. The prisons. More and more, the classrooms filled with guns, little gods that promise to keep us safe as they steal what we love most. Even our churches have sometimes, tragically, called families to sacrifice their children and have called it love, tough and terrible. We are marching today, draped in rainbows, in remembrance that we are God’s children too.
As adults, when we read this story I think we almost automatically identify with Abraham and Sarah. How could he march his son up the mountain? How could she let him take her only beloved son? But I can actually still remember hearing this story as a child, and identifying not with Abraham or Sarah, but with Isaac. I imagined what it would feel like to be carrying the wood of my own sacrifice up to the altar. I remember wondering if my parents could ever do something so terrifying to me, wondering if they were forced to choose between God and me what choice they would make. With the vivid imagination of childhood I could imagine the cords tying me to the altar. I could smell the dry wood stacked around me. I could picture the field of blue above me, as I searched the sky for a sign, any sign, that my life was worth saving. Was there a rainbow in the heavens for me?
That is God’s entry into the story. Breaking into a world that binds children on so many violent altars, that binds parents with so many violent expectations, the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son, Isaac, is not a horror story but the account of one more time in our long history with God when God woke us from the nightmare that had captured us and called us back to consciousness. The God of Abraham, this story says, does not require child sacrifice. Our God does not demand that of us, any of us. Instead, as we hear Jesus telling the disciples this morning, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me … 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.” (Matt. 10:40,42).
Jesus names children right alongside prophets and the righteous as the ones we are called to welcome into our homes and communities, into our lives, because they vulnerable and because they can change the world. Prophets, who speak the truth, and the righteous who live the truth, are vulnerable because with their words and their actions they challenge the way things are. Children, because they are vulnerable, show us the truth of the ways things are. We are called to welcome them — those who challenge the present order and those who suffer because of it — into our community with something as small as a cup of cold water, or as large as the baptismal flood of that reveals the reality under the ritual, that we are all God’s children. Whether we were claimed or cast away. Whether we were taken to the altar or carried back down the mountain, there is a rainbow over each one of us, and a God who does not call us to drown or die, but to live and see the world made new, today and every day for the rest of our lives.