Nathan Nuchi, The Binding of Isaac
On this Feast of the Lord, as we do every Feast Day, the community of St. Thomas's (and indeed nearly all Christians) gather to engage with God in the Word Written and the Word Incarnate. My sermon for today sez it all (I hope!):
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 8A RCL 2008
Genesis 22:1-14; /Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:38-42
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar
May these words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
You know what my favorite day of the week is? You might guess Sundays, and you’d be right. It is. And it’s my favorite day of the week for all the reasons you might expect, too. It’s the day we the community of St. Thomas’s come together to worship and pray and encounter God in both Word and Sacrament. It’s also the day I get to see most of you, and catch up a bit with what’s going on in your lives and in your hearts. I believe strongly that Coffee Hour is the Eighth Sacrament, and I think it’s important that a healthy Christian community not only worship well together and serve the community well together, but also and just as important, play well together. And so Sundays are the way in when all of that happens – our worship, our service, and our community. On this one day of the week we are a unified community.
You know, Sunday actually starts on Saturday evening. We Christians borrowed from our Jewish spiritual ancestors the idea that the day actually begins at sunset the day before. That’s why we have Christmas Eve services and of course the Great Vigil of Easter. As long as the sun has gone done it’s actually tomorrow, at least in terms of our liturgies. And so Evening Prayer on Saturday evening is actually the first worship service of Sunday. It’s traditionally called First Evensong, from when the monks sang most of their services, and the title completely captures what it’s about: the First worship service of Sunday. We then celebrate completely at our Eucharist on Sunday morning, and then follows the Second Evensong on Sunday night. Sundays are the only days of the week that have both a First and a Second Evensong, and it’s because the day itself is so special that we feel reluctant to give it up and go on to Monday yet. Sundays have always been very important in the lives of Christian communities. Before we had Easter or Christmas or any of the other great celebrations of the Church’s year, we Christians celebrated the Resurrection on the first day of the week, the day of the week it actually happened. So I really look forward to and enjoy Sundays.
It’s on Sundays, too, that we, all of us, get to dive deeply into the appointed Scriptures for the day. Our cycle of prayers, excerpts from the Bible, and psalms is called a lectionary, and we follow the one that our General Convention has approved for all Episcopal Churches to use. It’s very similar to the lectionary that the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other mainline Christian denominations use. If you go into any one of our sister communities on a Sunday, you’ll hear pretty much the same lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from the new Testament, and of course a reading from one of the Gospels. There may be minor differences, but for the most part, we Christians who come from different traditions and backgrounds are unified by the Scriptures we hear each week.
Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is a case in point. We’ve been reading the stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Hagar and Ishmael for a few weeks now. We know that God promised to make Abraham and Sarah, who were already old, the parents of a great many descendants. And it turned out that in time Abraham had two sons, each by a different wife. That wasn’t uncommon in those days. Last week we heard about how Abraham sent away his son Ishmael and his mother Hagar to placate his wife Sarah, all with God’s direct approval. And today we encounter this dramatic incident of how Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac as a burnt offering to God, again at God’s direct command.
The reading opens with the stark “God tested Abraham.” God tells Abraham to take Isaac, his beloved son – because he only had one now – to a certain place and offer him as a burnt offering. Now you have to know what a burnt offering is. Maybe you’ve seen pictures, or maybe not. But a burnt offering – also called a holocaust, from where we get the name – is where the offeror places the offering - most often an animal of some kind - on an altar and burns it whole until there is nothing left. It’s a complete sacrifice because there is nothing left over. So that’s what God commands Abraham to do. And Abraham goes and does it, or at least starts to. It can’t have been easy for him, and the passage hints at that. We heard how he got up up, saddled the donkey, got the slaves together, and then cut the wood. Perhaps he was distraught – why saddle the donkey and then gather the wood for the sacrifice? But off they went. And they got to the mountain, and then Isaac and his father went on up the mountain alone. There’s the extraordinarily poignant conversation. Father! Here I am, my son. Where’s the animal for the sacrifice? God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. Oh. And then they get to wherever it was, and the awful truth becomes clear. Isaac is the sacrifice! It’s Isaac, Abraham’s son, his own son, whom he loves, who is to be burnt whole on the altar!
Now thank God – and I mean that completely literally – that God calls it off at the last moment. Because I have to tell you that this, for me, is perhaps the single hardest Bible story I ever have dealt with. I don’t like the portrayal of God in this story. I’m having a tremendously difficult time with the idea that God tested Abraham, to the point that he demanded that Abraham give up the very thing God promised him in the first place! Remember a few weeks ago when God promised that it was through Isaac that Abraham would be the ancestor of many nations? And now this. It’s really difficult for me to reconcile the idea that I know from our Lord Jesus who calls God Our Father – the one who, as we heard in the Gospel last week, counts all of the hairs on our head – that God is omni-loving and wants only the best for us, with the idea of a capricious God who casts out second sons into the desert and, worse than that, tests a father with the absolute hardest test that any parent can undergo. Frankly, this concept, the idea that God would desire a human sacrifice because of some heavenly whim, because he wants to check out if someone is worthy enough, is completely repugnant to me. I have a hard time listening to or reading this story without getting really anxious about it.
Now I’ve never been a parent. But I’m a son and a cousin and a grandson. And I can’t ever recall my parents or my aunts or uncles or other blood relatives who truly loved me ever testing me to see if I loved them. I’ve been tested lots by other people, tested in various ways. We all have. All of us have taken tests in school. We had to take a driving test in order to get behind the wheel of a car. We may need to maintain various professional certifications, which may include tests or exams. I had to have a whole slew of psychological and physical tests done before I was ordained. But in all these cases, it’s a question of making sure you know what you need to for some greater purpose. It has nothing to do with someone saying, Let’s find out how much you really love me. Ready? Here we go.
My friends, the story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac is one that I deeply struggle with. Now there are lots of ways I might be able to resolve my discomfort. The story is so deep and so important in both Jewish and Christian tradition that there are all sorts of meanings one might discern in the story. It’s one of the lessons appointed for Good Friday, as a matter of fact. But I’m still hung up on the idea of a loving God – Abba, Father, Mother, even – who would test her beloved child like God tested Abraham. Even if God had no intention of actually accepting the sacrifice of Isaac, it’s still bizarre to me that God even asked. The all-loving God I trust and love, loves me first so much that I can’t do anything to earn more love. That means no testing, not like this. And so I wrestle with this story. Testing in this way seems counter-intuitive to the love of God for us. Now I know that every portion of Scripture has something of value for us. But I confess I’m not finding what it is at this time in my life and in our life as a community. It’s appointed to be read, and so we did. And it’s so disturbing for me that I wanted to work with it directly. Sometimes when that happens the encounter with God in Scriptures is illuminating. This time, for me at least, it’s not. I can’t find any conclusions that really cohere with what I understand the Undivided Trinity to be. So I’m at more than a bit of a loss at the moment.
And that brings me back to Sundays, and community, and how we encounter God in Scripture and in Sacrament. Maybe the story of Isaac on the mountain is one that you find particular meaning in. Or perhaps or find yourself in the same position I do, one of confusion and real anxiety over this story. For me, more than my own personal angst over this or any particular piece of Scripture, the opportunity for all of us to come together to engage Scripture in the way we’re doing right now is part of what makes Sunday so special. Now I know I kind of get the privileged position, because I’m standing up here. But all of us are engaged in listening to and responding to the Word of the Lord we hear each Sunday, not just in church but throughout our time together. So when I or any one of us is having difficulty, we have the whole community to turn to, who can help us out. That’s the power of the unity we share in the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s part of what our prayer of the day means when we prayed just now “to be joined together in unity of spirit.” We are one because we come together as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, who makes us a unity by baptism. And so we are indeed one body, and when one of us rejoices, we all do. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. It’s this unity in Christ that is also part of what makes Sunday special. We all have different lives during the course of the week. On Sunday we come together to share our common life in Jesus, to encounter our Lord in Word and Sacrament, to enjoy our own company, and to practice being the community of faithful disciples in Vernon that God calls to be.
And it’s that unity that we already share that is vitally important to continue and even to strengthen if we can. Several members of the congregation have suggested the idea of a summer schedule for us here at St. Thomas’s, a single service during July and August. Your executive committee, of which as Vicar I serve as chair, have extensively considered this idea and agreed that it has merit. And so, beginning on Sunday, July 13 through Sunday August 31, we here at St. Thomas’ will offer a single service of the Eucharist at 9 AM, with coffee hour following and with Sunday School and babysitting available.
There are several reasons why the leadership team decided to try this as an experiment. Primarily, we see it as a way to live out the visible unity we have in Sacrament and Scripture in a new way. During the regular program year we offer two different services at two different times, and much of the time those of you who regularly attend one service or the other have little opportunity to see and get to know those who attend the other service. We recognize there are really good reasons why members of St. Thomas’s want to attend one service or the other. At the same time, we recognize that we are indeed one community and we worship at one Altar. We feel it’s important to live out that unity at various times, to physically remind ourselves that we are indeed one body, one community. So we’re asking all of us to try this. We know that members will have to make compromises for the other, and we hope and pray that you will consider prayerfully whether you can do it. 8 o’clockers will need to arrive a little later, 10 o’clockers a little earlier. We will have a little music but not as much as we normally would at ten. Everyone will have to compromise on the time. But our earnest desire is that the opportunity to truly come together as one community in reality, not just something we say, will be more significant and desirable than the small compromises that we know we are asking every member to make over the next few weeks.
My brothers and sisters, Sundays are important. We Christians believe that the most significant act of Christian worship we undertake is what we do on Sundays. We thank God for what God has done for us in Christ Jesus in reconnecting us to God and ourselves. We come together to hear the Word and share in the Bread and the Wine. I hope this summer schedule will be a time when we can live out our reconnection in a new and obvious way, that we can connect or reconnect with those who are our brothers and sisters in St. Thomas’s whom we haven’t seen in a while. Think of it as an extended family reunion, if you will. If you think about it, I’m really the only member of the parish who has the chance to see every member every week. We all should have that chance! We all should have the opportunity to support each other as we engage in the often-challenging study of God’s written word and to encounter God in the Word Incarnate. That’s really why we’re going to try this experiment. We’re committed to returning to our regular schedule on Sunday, September 7. I know that sounds like a long time from now, but it’s really only about two months.
My friends, the story of Abraham and Isaac may be a simple one for some. For others it raises more questions than it answers. It’s in the community of the gathered faithful – you and me, all of us together – that we best hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us, not only in Scripture, but in the hearts and lives of each other. I look forward to these upcoming weeks together. I know they will be a challenge for many. I hope all of us will find the joys of true community to far far outweigh the possible challenges, so that, as we prayed already, “we may be so joined together in unity of spirit, that we may be made an holy temple acceptable to God in Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.