- Parish House
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Genesis 22:1-14
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
If you were here last week, remember when Scott mentioned preparing for his last sermon at Christ Church. And he said how relieved he was to realize that he was looking at the wrong lessons. And that he wouldn’t have to use the story of the sacrifice of Isaac? Yeah, that was funny. Right up until it dawned on me that we’d have the story this week.
The binding and near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most emotionally terrifying stories in scripture. First, we put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes as he silently obeys his awful command. We can’t imagine that God would really tell him to sacrifice the only son he and Sarah had in their old age. Especially since God once asked Abraham to look up at the stars and promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the night sky. Could God be so fickle about a promise? And what kind of God would ask for child sacrifice, for murder? Our heads spin. And then we put ourselves in Isaac’s shoes, as the reality gradually dawns on him that he is the sacrifice. And that his father has bound him and taken up the knife to go through with it. It’s not surprising that the two of them will not speak again after this incident.
When the angel stops the deed and a ram appears in the thicket, we can acknowledge that this story is also about how the Lord provides in dire circumstances and in unexpected ways. But this rescue at the end is hardly a clean, happy ending. And I don’t think it’s meant to be. The real treasure in the story is precisely in its dark ambiguity.
Søren Kierkegaard wrestled with the story in his famous book, Fear and Trembling, which really is the master work on this passage. He was a bit of a mad genius with a brooding side, which is probably why he was attracted to this particular story. In case you’ve forgotten your nineteenth century gossip, he was the one who fell in love with a young woman named Regine. They got engaged. And then, even though he loved her deeply, he broke off the engagement. He said that his love for Regine was “beautiful and healthy, but not perfect.” He believed he had to let go of earthly love in order to serve God and reach a higher love. This higher calling was more pressing than the ethical dilemma of casting off a fiancée. And in a way only he could figure, he believed that in letting go of Regine, his love for her would be made more perfect and return to him in a pure state, by virtue of what he called the absurd. I think you can start to see why the story of Abraham and Isaac appealed to him.
Kierkegaard had also picked a theological fight. He thought that religion had become far too rational. Religion, he thought, had gone off track with its singular focus on ethics and universal principles. Look to Abraham, he said, the father of faith who was asked to suspend right and wrong and kill his son in order to be obedient to God. Kierkegaard thumbed his nose at his colleagues and said, try to fit that into your neat, ethical systems. The story must show us something else about the religious life, he said, something that can’t be rationalized.
And here’s where the genius comes in. Kierkegaard called Abraham the “knight of faith,” the one took the leap of faith. That leap took him out of the ethical realm and into the religious one. The two realms are not the same. He took a leap of faith to follow God, that divine reality that can’t be rationalized or even contained in our ideas and our ethics. Since we have a tendency to make God in our own image, and to think that God agrees with our side of any debate, the story of Abraham’s leap reminds us that God cannot so easily be put in a box.
Abraham’s journey into the religious realm took him far beyond any idea of God he could come up with on his own. He followed God far beyond the love he had for his own son. He followed God beyond his love of the promise God made to him about his descendants. In this strange holy realm, he oriented himself to the divine source, the true object of religious devotion. And his story invites us into that same holy realm. Our lives, our loves, our actions, are meant to flow from there.
It’s fair to ask if this terrifying old story and some dusty 19th century commentary about religion and rationality have very much to say to us today. These characters were on my mind as I heard about the nightclub shooting just blocks from here. They were on my mind as the Ten Commandments monument went up at the state capitol and when it was toppled. Sometimes, it seems, rationality just isn’t enough to make this world a better place. Such violence and division, I fear, are the fruits of what happens when we forsake aligning our hearts and our lives with a divine reality that is bigger than our own ideas. It’s what happens when we are only self-referential. It’s what happens when we interpret the world through our brokenness instead of through our source. As crazy as the story of Abraham and Isaac may seem, it shows us that it is possible to have our lives flow not just from ourselves but from our ultimate source.
Which, it should be said, is the same source that ultimately spared Abraham’s son. It is the same source that sent God’s only son into the world out of love for the world. It is the same source that would not retaliate with violence when that son was arrested and crucified. And it is the same source that triumphed over evil and death and rose from the grave. The source of our lives is pure grace, and love, and truth. Our lives are meant to flow from that, for our own sake and for the sake of this beautiful but broken world.
We start right here. Madeleine L’Engle once said that we do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are. In other words, by winning a rational argument. We draw people to Christ by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it. That lovely light has drawn new people in our midst to Christ, and we welcome them through the sacrament of baptism today. We will promise to support them as they come to know the source of that lovely light more deeply. We will promise to strive with them to show forth more and more of that light in our lives. And we will continue to gather in this place to hear some dusty old stories. They still have the power to move us more powerfully than any rational argument, and to remind us just how lovely the source of that light truly is.