Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
Our readings today are extreme and intense. High-
The fact that the law of Moses explicitly prohibited the offering of children as sacrifices is evidence that the practice was common. So, rather than provoke shock at the very idea, the story from Genesis 22 originally served as part of an explanation as to why Israel, unlike many of its neighbours, didn’t sacrifice children. As much as we recoil from the idea of ritual sacrifice, in our culture, just as in Abraham’s, people sacrifice their children all the time. People routinely decide that there are causes worth sacrificing their children for.
Perhaps the question was not, “Would Abraham be prepared to sacrifice his child?” but, “For what, for whom, would Abraham be prepared to sacrifice his child?” In the original text of the story, there are two names used for God. In the first part, the name is El, the oldest Hebrew name for God, also a generic name for the gods. But when God says, by way of the angel, “Do not raise your hand against the boy!” the name is YHWH, the sacred and personal name revealed to Moses. This small detail tells us to be alert for an unfolding understanding of God, for a move away from an understanding of God as “just another local god with the same sort of tastes as the rest” (Nathan Nettleton), to a very specific God, a God who is known by name and who relates to us in justice and compassion and calls us to do not the least harm to a child.
Abraham was faithful to the very God whose name he might have invoked to justify the killing of a child, and in whose name his neighbours would have accepted that he had done the right thing (John D. Caputo).
Is this where the story is drawing us? Are we able to be faithful to God and to our children by refraining from sacrificing them to the gods that everyone else is sacrificing their children to? When the gods of war, greed, anger and selfish ambition demand that we sacrifice our children to purchase their blessings, will we have the courage and integrity to resist them and obey instead the voice crying: “Do not do the least harm to the child”?
Christians are called to choose between a god of violence and a God who comes to us embodied in a child.
In the silence following the homily, let us reflect that we are called to have the courage and integrity to welcome and defend those whom others would sacrifice, for in welcoming and protecting them, we welcome and honour God. Let us offer prayers to Our God, to YHWH, by pouring glasses of water for those we choose to welcome, defend and protect.
That’s one way for us to engage today’s readings. I’ll come back to that shortly, but I have something else to share before sitting down. There is a sense in which Abraham is indeed called to sacrifice Isaac, and the children’s activity in the hall this morning may shed some light on that.
The children are focusing on the Gospel verse about giving cups of cold water to “lowly” friends of Jesus. Naomi and Anne are encouraging the children to think of simple gifts like cups of cold water, cut flowers, songs, smiles, and so on, but also, and importantly, to think about the needs and desires of those to whom we might give water, flowers, songs or smiles. What does the other person truly need or want? Is she thirsty? Is he open to the gift of a smile or joke? How does this concern for the other relate to loving God “more”?
In this regard we might say that Abraham is called to sacrifice his own ambitions as father of Isaac (and many generations) in deference to Isaac's own God-
Abraham is a “knight of faith” the father of faith says Søren Kierkegaard, not because he resigns himself to this kind of being (resignation is but a halfway house on the journey to genuine faith), but because he goes beyond resignation to joyful trust in a God whose love is promise and whose promise is love. One Jewish commentator refers to the “uncertainty” and the “anticipation” of Abraham (Howard Wettstein). When Abraham says to Isaac that God will provide the lamb, he means it even though he is yet to comprehend it. From a Christian point of view, God provides the lamb by way of incarnation. The notion of sacrifice is ever (after) undermined/redefined.
In the silence now, let us reflect that we are called to have the courage and integrity to welcome and defend those whom others would sacrifice, for in welcoming and protecting them, we welcome and honour God. Let us offer prayers to Our God, to YHWH, by pouring glasses of water for those we choose to welcome, defend and protect ... Let us also be mindful of what we might call “good or holy sacrifice”, that is, a letting go our own claims on others and their destinies in deference to the freedom of others as children of God a letting go that is uncertain yet full of joyful anticipation.