Preached on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 6/29/14, at St. Barnabas, Richland Center, and the UW Episcopal Student Center, St. Francis House.
There is this game, Cards Against Humanity, that I really can’t recommend to anyone. It’s vulgar, crude, and displays an alarming irreverence for goodness and life. It’s disgusting, really. And a whole lot of fun, eliciting embarrassingly vile answers out of otherwise mostly good and decent people like you and me. The worst part is, there’s a Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition - every bit as offensive as the original. One night, after an evening of playing Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition, with some good friends who had just that night introduced me to the game, we talked about friends in common with whom we’d also be willing to play the game. It was a short list. Just like there are certain movies you would never watch with your mother, there are certain friends with whom I would never, ever play Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition. As we talked and reflected, it occurred to me that not being willing to play Cards Against Humanity, Bible Edition, with a particular friend might be one of the higher moral compliments I could ever pay a friend. Indeed, after that night, I found myself wondering just what my friends thought of me, that they counted me worthy of playing the game with them.
I suspect many of us think about the Binding of Isaac in a similar way. God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. We do not think less of the friends who would not have played this disturbing game with God. Indeed, we wonder what is wrong with Abraham that he played the game for as long as he did. Even to the point of raising the knife.
Child sacrifice is abhorrent to us. And, in other passages of Scripture, child sacrifice is clearly abhorrent to God. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? After all, there are some things you can’t undo, even if they’re not done. Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but Abraham did sacrifice Isaac. The knife was in the air.
Some of you might remember the famous experiment of Stanley Milgram, who was trying to figure out why, in the course of WW II, Nazi citizens and soldiers carried out atrocities seemingly born of blind obedience. In Milgram’s experiment, subjects were instructed to apply shocks, with increasing amounts of electric voltage, to unseen participants. These participants, hidden behind a wall, were clearly audible to the subjects applying the voltage. As the shocks were administered, the hidden participants first expressed pain, then objection to participation in the study, next screams, then louder screams, finally nothing. Even when the participants no longer showed signs of responsiveness or life, sixty-five percent of the subjects continued to administer the shocks, as they were instructed.
Because the subjects didn’t know that the participants vocalizing their distress from behind the wall weren’t real, the subjects also didn’t know that, by the end, they had not actually killed the participants they didn’t know they weren’t shocking. That the subjects did not actually kill the participants was little solace to the subjects, who later realized they had been willing to shock strangers, even to death. You don’t see psychology experiments like these anymore, because the ethics of dismantling a person’s psyche like that have been rightly condemned as unconscionable. There are some things you can’t undo, even if they’re not done.
Still, in considering this wretched request God makes of Abraham, we must be honest. That Abraham is asked to make a sacrifice we would not make obscures the reality that we also, in our lives, make questionable sacrifices. The Old Testament may be appalling sometimes, but it is not more appalling than our own lives can be. For example, one could look at my life and make the case that my spending habits and material consumption, alongside the habits and consumption of others in wealthy nations, place a stress on the ecology of this planet in a way that could rightly be described as sacrificing future generations. Similarly, while well-meaning people disagree about the necessity of the sacrifices demanded by war, we do not question that the lives of somebody’s children have made our own freedoms possible. What is interesting to me, therefore, is not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice a child, but that we would act like we’ve never done it before. Indeed, even Abraham, in the chapter immediately preceding this episode, sacrifices his first son Ishmael - conceived by Sarah’s maid, Hagar - abandoning him and his mother in the wilderness, where the boy has little hope of survival, save for Hagar’s prayer and God’s intervention to deliver both mother and child. Truth be told, Abraham has sacrificed a child before, just not Isaac, and just not to God.
If the unspoken measure of a respectable religion is that it doesn’t ask unreasonable sacrifices of its adherents, it is fair to wonder if this measure comes from our fundamental opposition to unreasonable sacrifices or if it is the case that by the time God finds us we, like Abraham, are already in the process of making those sacrifices to something other than God. Maybe we are always playing some version of the game, Cards Against Humanity.
From the beginning, the biblical story has been one of sacrifices made to things other than God. Adam and Eve sacrifice their obedience to the serpent, at the same time sacrificing the relationship God had imagined with them, walking together in the cool of the day. Shortly after, the sacrifices of Eve’s children to God become a point of contention, and what started as broken relationship with God finds social consequences: Cain murders Abel. Not long after, Cain’s descendants have so mastered the example of their forbearer that violence utterly defines the world. The same world God once called “very good” God is now sorry God has made.
But also from the beginning, God’s deep desire has been to bless the whole world: “be fruitful and multiply,” God said. Coordinating this project has proven a challenge. Now, in Abraham, God imagines a people born of a man through whom the whole world will finally be blessed. God imagines a world blessed through God’s covenant friendship with Abraham. The camera zoom tight in on Abraham. No pressure. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis (1) calls Abraham the “single human thread upon which [God’s] blessing hangs” (Davis 61). And, in today's story, we see God wondering, if not worrying: over against humanity’s history of unfaithfulness, can God trust Abraham with God’s dream for the world? The dream of children of Abraham and so also children of God made like the stars in the sky. What if, like nearly everyone else before him, Abraham is just in it for the milk and honey and lots of grandkids? What if Abraham isn’t as compelled by the part of the dream that says, “They will be my people, and I will be their God”?
In the end, then, the most disturbing aspect of this story, buried under the horror of child sacrifice, may be God’s alarming vulnerability. God loves Abraham, but/and God doesn’t seem to know how Abraham will respond to God's love. The love that will constitute the covenant relationship between God and God’s People leaves God vulnerable to the unfaithfulness of those whom God has chosen to love. This is surprising. Alarming. Did you know that the love with which God has chosen to love God’s People - to love you - is not a cubic zirconium imitation of love - a love that looks a lot like the real thing but keep two fingers crossed behind its back and holds back the fragile parts? But God’s love for God’s People - God’s love for us - is here revealed to be the honest-to-goodness, heart-laid-bare love of vulnerable self-offering, even uncertainty. God loves Abraham, so God is not sure how Abraham will act. Thus, by the end of the episode, there is something God did not know before the story that God now knows. In Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, the weight of the world lifts from the divine shoulders, and God's relief streams from the page to us. “Now I know…” God says. “Now I know.”
We know that this will not be the last time a Father is asked to sacrifice a Son in the beautiful, difficult, sometimes dark story of Scripture. The Father’s sacrificed Son will also be one of Abraham’s sons, and the sequel will be every bit as offensive as the original. But the faithfulness God longs for in Abraham and the faithfulness of God will finally meet there, on the cross, in Jesus, just as God imagined. In self-emptying love poured out for the world that God has, from the very beginning, longed with a vulnerable, covenant love, to bless.
Today, just now, recalling this sacrifice, with outstretched arms and open hands, we come to touch this most unlikely blessing. The Body of Christ on our palms, on the very same hands that will touch and work and study and labor in the week that will come. The Blood of Christ on our lips, on the very same lips that will speak and kiss and bless and curse and sing and ask and wonder in days after this day. So we pray with our lips and our lives to be joined to the blessing we discover in Abraham, even the unprotected, vulnerable, against-all-odds love of our generous God for the life of this world; this world with whom God has sacrificed everything God has to be.
(1) I am deeply grateful in this and the following paragrah for Ellen Davis' courageous and refreshingly honest account of The Binding of Isaac in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, MA: Cowley, 2001, pp 50-64. I say courageous because it takes courage in this instance to suggest that God may be up to exactly what the text says God is up to, namely needing to know that Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac.