Sermon written for July 2, 2017; Church of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Shoreham NY
Preached sermon streamlined!
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.”
“O my father, am I really to go with you?
And help you with the sacrifice to the Lord?
You’ve never taken me before, and I’ve always wanted to go.
Why do you weep, Mother? We won’t be long.
I’m growing up, now, and it is right that I go with Father.
Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
Father, what are you doing? Father —
Father, how can the Lord want me? I am only a child.
How can you worship a Lord who wants your child?
Father, there is terrible laughter in the air like thunder.
You are not my father. I am afraid of you.
I will close my eyes. This rock is hard and cold against my bones.
This rock is. . .
Father. I heard thunder again.
You are untying the ropes which cut my skin.
You are laughing and crying, and the ram in the bush
is waiting with frightened eyes.
He does not understand, either.”
(Madeleine L’Engle, Sacrifice of Isaac)
Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, Sacrifice of Isaac, painful to read, painful to hear, bears witness to the struggle of almost numberless generations to take in and bear with, if not to comprehend, the story we hear today from the 22nd chapter of the book of Genesis.
What is this? God’s chosen, Abraham, bidden by the God who has called him and given him the promised son in Isaac, to take that son to a remote mountain and there to end his son’s life with his own hands, by violence. Sarah, the unlikely mother of Isaac, left back at home, old and approaching death; left to mourn the unthinkable loss she is about to sustain. The loss of her son. The loss of relationship with her husband. And God’s chosen, Isaac, the son of laughter, surrounded now only by tears. The tears of his brokenhearted mother. The tears of his father, torn in two by this test. And Isaac’s own tears. How could the boy, as L’Engle’s poem brings forward, possibly understand what was happening there on Mount Moriah?
And for that matter, how can we understand?
Rabbi Steven Nathan wrote a five-poem set on this terrible text; one poem each in the voice of Isaac, of Sarah, of Abraham, of God, and of the Rabbi himself, standing in our place. They are powerful and heart-rending and do not spare us a moment of the fullness of the truth, and I commend them all to your reading. But we, here, on this Independence weekend, are called painfully to realize that in the end, for the people God created, there is no absolute independence. There is ultimately only relationship. There is only ultimately relying on one another. In the end there is only trust, no matter what the cost. And this is nothing less than frightening.
I have to cry out to you the Rabbi’s poem, the fifth and last one on the Binding of Isaac, written in his own voice, and so in ours:
V. What About Me
Why Who What
I do not Understand
Why I should Care to
I pity them
Sacrificing son and self
Sitting in silence
Enabling the plot
Needing to know
Leave me alone
I do not want
To know you
For you are all
I am all
I refuse to believe
I would not
For any God
I would not abandon
The miracle child
I never thought
I would not
Risk my life
I would not
Don’t we all
With complete faith
With complete faith
How could it not
Part of life
Our image source
Do not want
we still do
Do not want
We still do
Do not want
To give up
We still do
Do not want
Before our eyes
Within our heart
We still do
Must this be
Can it not
We would be
Never able to leave
Staying at his tent
Her precious possession
Never letting him
Each of us
Each of us
I do not like them
I love them
For I know
A part of
A part of
With all this
Of the plan
As we realize
Of something greater
By Our Selves
We may experience
Are trying to teach
I watch it
Within and around
Their traits in me
There is something
God, God’s Word, do not always make it easy on us. As one of our eucharistic prayers says it so well, we do not come here for solace only, but also for strength. And how we need it. How we need it when we touch upon the mystery, the third rail of faith. I would like, as I think you would, to remain nearer the surface. Let me concentrate on the painting of the building behind me, on the questions of dollars and cents that face us, on the practical stuff. No matter how hard that might get, that stuff does not insist on diving deep inside us and tearing us up like this word of God from the very first book of the Bible. This is the Scripture that moves us to put our hands gently over the childrens’ ears.
Who is this God who says, “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.” And who is this Abraham who “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.” And who is this Isaac, this boy who says in trust of the father he loves, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” as he carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own shoulders.
This is so far beyond paint and dollars, beyond the everyday (thank God!) that we want to run. But if we are going to be here at all, the starting place necessarily is to let this story cause us to shudder and to shake. As have these two poets and their two poems.
In the extraordinary 6th chapter of his letter to the Church at Rome today, Paul the Apostle insists on something that doesn’t ring well in our 21st century ears. He insists: you have to be servant to something or someone in life. He even says ‘slave’ instead of servant; even harder to hear. You can be slave to sin, Paul writes, and follow it to lasting death. Or you can be slave to God, and follow God to lasting life. Early in today’s reading from Romans there are words that might shed light into the darkness of Mount Moriah, where Abraham went as the slave of God to offer up his son, and where at last the voice of God cried out, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him . . . .” Paul’s words are these: “. . . present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life . . . .” (Romans 6:13)
Present yourselves to God as God’s servants, trusting beyond all rationality that God, by whatever horrific twists and turns on the way, will only lead those who follow along the way to life. The road to life, as Jesus knew and Paul preached, goes through the country of death along the way. So present yourselves to God as those brought, carried, moved, taken from death to life.
But how? How do I ‘present’ myself to God? How do you? How, in the midst of full lives, do we find God, or better, allow God to find us? How, when we might rather not get into the deep ‘heart’ stuff where God deals, bring ourselves around to stop and allow the encounter with God, which is more real than anything else, to happen?
Look in the three verses of Matthew’s Gospel that we hear today. Six times in those few lines rings one word: Welcome. Welcome welcome welcome welcome welcome. Welcome.
We present ourselves to God by welcoming God into our everyday lives, with both reverence and fear, as well as faith and love. And we welcome God in the way Abraham welcomed all those whom he loved. Three times in the story of the binding of Isaac, someone calls Abraham’s name. The first and third times it is God who calls. The central time it is Abraham’s son Isaac who calls. And each of the three times, Abraham readily responds with one word in his own tongue, Hineni.
“Here I am.” “I am right here.”
There is depth in this single word. To his God and to his son, each crying out to him, Abraham replies as their servant: “I am here. I am here with you. I am here for you. I am for you.” In this way, Abraham presents himself to God and his son Isaac. In this way, Abraham welcomes them into his life, even in this moment of pain and drama. Learn the word and use it: Hineni.
There are echoes of Abraham’s ‘hineni’ in the traditional greeting offered by the Natal people of Africa to one another when they meet one another along the way. When they meet, one says, Sawa Bona, “I see you.” And the other responds, Sikhona, “I am here.” Between those greetings they pause, and for a long period, look into one another’s eyes in silence. Then they speak the words again, now trading places, “I see you.” “I am here.”
There along African byways the Natal are presenting themselves to one another. They are welcoming one another. And not in shallow fashion. In those words, sawa bona and sikhona, they are deeply acknowledging one another’s existence, humanity, uniqueness, and importance. They are doing what Abraham did on that continent generations and generations earlier, “Hineni dear God! Hineni my son! I am here with you. I am here for you.”
Those tribesmen and Paul the Apostle are pointing us in the direction of who we are called to be and what we are called to do in relationship to God and to each other. Through every ordinary day, and in moments as horribly extraordinary as the binding of Isaac, we are called to be people who welcome the full reality of God and one another into our lives. We are called to be people who trust in God and in the people of God no matter what is asked of us or how difficult it is to understand. We are called to be women and men who rise each day to say in our words and by our deeds to God and to all our brothers and sisters, “Whatever this day asks of me and whatever you may need of me, I present myself to you. I welcome you. I see you. I am here for you. I am here.”
This Independence Day weekend, as we give thanks for all that we have been given in this land and in its history, God’s unrelenting word powerfully declares that we are free for the sake of one another. We are free to be blessing to one another. We are free to encourage one another through life’s painful visits to Mount Moriah, to support one another when God asks a lot of us. We are free to remind one another that we are servants of God and to unite with one another as the presence of the living Christ in our time and place.
“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.” (Matthew 10:42)
John P. McGinty