A God Worth Following (Proper 8)Trinity, Guthrie
June 26, 2005
What do we do with the difficult passages in Scripture? What do we do with the stories and writings that don’t make sense to us? What are we to do with stories like the one we heard read in this morning’s lesson from Hebrew scriptures, the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, Abraham poised to sacrifice his son, his only son, the one whom he loves at the command of God? What do we do with this story, this story of a God, our God, who inflicts this unbelievably cruel moment on father and son?
When I was in my twenties, I approached my Rector after a service which contained a difficult Gospel reading and asked him about it. He replied, “well, Jesus didn’t really say that,” implying I didn’t have to worry about it. And I could tell you, this is just one of those ancient stories, a myth, it’s just a story out of the Old Testament, we don’t believe in that kind of God anymore, don’t worry about it.
And yet I don’t want to swing too far in the other direction and become a literal interpreter of the Bible. God said it, I believe it. No, I think the difficult passages, the ones where we wrestle with who our God is and what our relationship is to that God, require research into their history and their language, pulling them apart, sitting with them, praying with them, living with them. We can’t brush them off and we can’t say “it means what it says.”
Passages like this one from Genesis are crucial to our understanding of God because without them, we humans could fall too easily into the trap of making a religion that looked more like a Norman Rockwell painting than like actual life. If we start to wander too far in the direction of making our God too innocuous or cute, hang too many wide-eyed angels on our Christmas tree, religion becomes more about us than about God. We Americans especially can get a little caught up in a religion that looks a little too much like the American dream—obey the rules and you’ll have two new cars in the driveway, clean shiny well-behaved children and a personal relationship with Jesus.
In this morning’s reading we confront a God who will have nothing to do with that sort of religion. Yes, it’s an ancient story, reflecting an earlier human understanding of God. But perhaps, if we read it carefully, we will find truth there even for us.
By the time we reach this story in Genesis, God and Abraham have been together for a long time. God has seemed to fulfill some of his promises (Abraham has Isaac, the long hoped-for son) but he has yet to see the multitudes of descendants and the land that God keeps mentioning in their covenant moments. Abraham has been deeply faithful in many ways, but on a couple of occasions has failed to trust in God’s word—most significantly twice trying to pass Sarah off as his sister when encountering dangerous foreign rulers.
We’re uncomfortable with the idea that God might want to test Abraham, but don’t all relationships get put to the test? God is investing everything into this relationship—choosing Abraham as the ancestor of the people who will bring blessing to the whole world. Abraham’s faith is not just about Abraham; for God it is about the future of humanity.
God does want a personal relationship with the humans he chooses, but look carefully before you sign on . This God cannot be tamed. This God cannot be controlled. We might have a personal relationship with this God, but if it is real, it may take you places you never imagined you would go.
Abraham never imagined God would ask him to give back his son, the one on whom all the promises rest. Abraham has experienced the full range of this God, stepped out in faith and trust. Abraham has been judged and found wanting on occasion and yet God has still blessed him and Sarah with a son. Can you imagine what he is thinking and feeling? Alone. Abandoned. Disoriented. Even as he comforts his son, “God himself will provide the sacrifice,” he is surely reviewing his relationship with God. How did they come to this point? Did he hear it all correctly? Did he get the message wrong somewhere along the line?
When we say yes, here I am, as Abraham did, we can’t control where we end up. Sometimes God can take us down paths we don’t want to go, lead us to lonely places where we wonder if we got the message right, asking everything of us, even the good things God has already given us.
And yet could we follow any other God? What kind of God would only want a part of us?
I don’t always understand the journey God has me on. I have experienced blessings, but there have been moments of deep pain. But I’m not sure I would follow a God who asked any less of me. Because this God who asks us to give all of ourselves is the very same God who was willing to give all of God’s very being, poured into his only Son, to let it all come to pain and death on a cross. Why would we follow this God and not expect to find ourselves experiencing crucifixion along the way?
I don’t always understand it. I’m certainly not always happy about it. But I know, the cross was real, but it wasn’t the end. The pain and horror in this morning’s reading is real—but the story of Abraham’s family doesn’t end there. Jesus’ first followers experienced persecution and betrayal—but the story of the Church doesn’t end there. We as an Episcopal Church are experiencing pain and division and I’m going to predict with confidence that the story doesn’t end there, either.
The psalmist this morning said it best:
“how long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?”
But I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help.”
Like Abraham, we are called to follow God, even to the loneliest of places. But we are also called to trust in the mercy that provided a lamb for the sacrifice, for Abraham and for all of us, a lamb prepared for the saving of the whole world.