Sunday, June 28, 2020
God loves us anyway
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
www.stpaulskaty.org Genesis 22: 1-19
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been the subject of many works of art and many pages of analysis. This is a compelling and in many ways one of the most troubling bible stories that we have. The image of a God who would require the sacrifice of a child, or that at least that someone would believe would require the sacrifice of a child should all give us pause for reflection. This image of God is one of those images that has caused great pain and misunderstanding. There are many ways to look at this passage however.
One may wonder why Abraham did not question God about this request. Abraham argues with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. There is that famous sequence of, will you spare the cities if I can find 50 righteous people and God says yes. Abraham then bargains God to just 10 righteous men.
Last week Abraham goes to God and says in effect do I have to send Ishmael away and God says it is ok. God provides. So why the strange silence this week? Go sacrifice your son, your only son. Abraham just gets up and goes, no discussion, no anger, no questions. Three days of travel and virtually no conversation is recorded.
Many of the commentaries raise questions about the characteristics of God in this passage. They spend time discussing what is the image of God portrayed in this passage. One who tests, one who provides, one who demands obedience, a large variety of images. I wonder what image the author of the story was trying to portray or was it their purpose to make us think about our image of God?
Our image of God should be a deeply personal image. One developed over time and hopefully one that matures as we grow in our knowledge and love of God. So what do we do when the image doesn’t seem to be very lovable?
Again I mention that the Hebrew Scriptures are the story of the people of Israel and their relationship with God. We see their collective understanding change and grow throughout the scriptures as our image of God can and should grow.
One of the first questions many spiritual directors ask a new directee is “what is your image of God.” The answer tells them much about the person’s private spiritual journey. By the way there is no correct answer to that question, there is just the answer that you have. Marcus Borg in his book “The God we never knew”, writes of his journey from an image of an angry finger shaking God to one of infinite love. He wrote that whenever he feels he has a firm and solid image of God, God shatters it and he starts again. I think he also found that the image is always bigger more expansive each time. That at least has been my experience.
So let me take a moment and try to stretch your image of God a little. Now you may like this image or you can say it’s nuts and you want no part of it, but think about it.
One of the more interesting interpretations comes from the author Madelyn L’Engle. Madelyn is probably best known as a children’s author with books that include A Wrinkle in Time. She however is a fascinating writer of meditations and reflections on scripture. Her best work is for adults and that was always her intended audience.
The background to this story is that Madeleine was teaching a writing workshop and each person was asked to write about the Binding of Isaac from either Abraham’s, Sarah’s or Isaac’s point of view. What follows is a reflection that contains many of the characteristics of a Jewish midrash. It is from her book A Stone for a Pillow, which is about Isaac
“Madeleine, I got Sarah and Abraham and Isaac, and you know I’ve written and written about them, and you’ve told me never to write from the point of view of God,” said one student.
I laughed. Indeed, it is not a good idea for a finite human being to try to write from the point of view of the infinite God. But I knew that this young woman was well grounded in Scripture, that she was a fine writer, and I trusted her ability to meet a challenge. “Go for it, Judith. Write from the point of view of God.”
The next day she came in with a dialogue between God and the archangel Raphael. Raphael is very pleased with Abraham’s response to God’s demand and begins extolling Abraham’s virtues to God. God is not enthusiastic.
The more Raphael praises Abraham, the less enthusiastic God gets. Finally Raphael says, “But God, you put Abraham to the test and he passed.”
God replies, “He did not pass. He failed. He chose law over love.”
And all kinds of lights flashed on for me.
The dialogue between Raphael and God continues until God tells Raphael to go, and Raphael says, “Yes, ma’am.”
This presents us with a totally different image of God. When Madelyn used this story in a sermon, there were some in the congregation who could not get past the last line. Yes, ma’am. They were scandalized that she put a feminine face on God. Yet, maybe we need to challenge our image of God in this passage. I believe it is always important to be open to interpretations that we have never considered. We can always choose to disagree, but our own understanding is enriched when we hear something different.
Many would say that the concept of following love over law is a very New Testament view of this story. However, if you really dig into the Hebrew scriptures you can find many images of a loving God. This point is certainly worth pondering as we try to do our discernment homework of making decisions while listening to God. Jesus did say several times I have come to fulfill the law not to overturn it. Jesus however looks at the law through the lens of love, a love that is firmly grounded however in Hebrew Scriptures. Remember he says the greatest commandment is “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and the second is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus is quoting the Torah, from both Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus.
Maybe the point is that no matter what Abraham did, God loves him, God provides for him. Over the last few weeks, we have seen multiple examples of Abraham’s failing. God promises to make him the father of a great nation, but just in case that does not happen, Abraham has a son with Hagar even though the promise was through Sarah. When he goes down to Egypt he pretends Sara is his sister, not his wife because he fears what will happen to him. His premise being the Sarah is so attractive that he will be killed so Pharaoh can marry Sarah. He does not trust God to protect him or Sarah, without whom the promise will not be fulfilled.
Yet in all of this, God is faithful and patient with Abraham. Fortunately, God is also faithful with us, even when we fail. Many of us are happy to follow God’s lead as long as it seems to make sense and agrees with where we want to go. Many of us like Abraham want to hedge our bets. We trust God, but when things seem to be going wrong we panic and substitute our will for God’s will. It is in these moments that we really need to trust God and maybe, just maybe look a little harder for the ram hidden in the bush. If we truly trust in God, we will trust that the ram is there in whatever form we need. The point is that we need to look up and pay attention if we are going to see the ram, see what God has put in our path.
You have begun by now to figure out that I am heavily influenced by both Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality. One of the overarching principles of Franciscan spirituality is God’s love of all creation. I hear much of that in our Presiding Bishop’s preaching and teaching. He says, “If it’s not about love it is not about God.” So if nothing else I hope I am beginning to get you to look at God as truly a God of love and to see everything God does as moving from love for us. In these dark and challenging days that is the rock upon which we can all stand.