Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What God Learned -- a sermon on the binding of Isaac

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

What God Learned

Genesis 21.1-3, 22.1-14, Robert Alter

19 September 2021, NL4-2, Uncovered 2

After the creation story we heard last week, the story moves quickly along through the drama of the first sibling rivalry, between Cain and Abel, to the earth’s population booming and trying to come together to become like gods and build a tower to heaven, to the flood and Noah’s family and the animals floating in the ark, to the reality that violence can never stop violence, and so God commits to another path and offers the rainbow as a sign of that promise. And then we meet Abram, whom God calls to leave his family and familiar surroundings and go out into a new-to-him land. Abraham and Sarah pack up and go, trusting God to guide them and to provide what they most want: children. It’s a long journey through foreign lands, different tribes and towns and difficulties and adventures, but through it all two things are constant: God promises to make their descendants more numerous than the stars, and also Abraham and Sarah have no children. Today we hear about that promise finally being fulfilled, when Sarah and Abraham were in their 90s! 

A couple of years after their son Isaac is born, however, jealousy flared between Sarah and the slavegirl Hagar, who had previously borne a son to Abraham, named Ishmael. Sarah and Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, throwing them out of the house to fend for themselves in the desert. When their food and water ran out, Hagar left Ishmael alone and travelled on until she couldn’t see or hear him, so she would not have to see him die. Both of them cried out, and God heard them and opened Hagar’s eyes to see a well, providing just what they needed to go on, so that Ishmael too would carry his part of God’s promise to his father Abraham, to be a great nation. 

I am reading today from Robert Alter’s translation as we hear the first few verses of Genesis chapter 21, and then continue in chapter 22. 

The Lord singled out Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the set time that God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And he said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. And Abraham said to his lads, “Sit you here with the donkey and let me and the lad walk ahead and let us worship and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood for the offering and put it on Isaac his son and he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together. And Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.” And the two of them went together. And they came to the place that God had said to him, and Abraham built there an altar and laid out the wood and bound Isaach his son and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver to slaughter his son. And the Lord’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from me.” And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place “He sees”, as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord there is sight.”

This is a pretty terrible story.

Actually not just pretty terrible, it’s very terrible. 

Abraham had just sent Ishmael and Hagar away, casting them out into the desert with only a couple days of supplies, and hoping that he could indeed trust God to provide for them — sacrificing one son to his wife’s jealousy. And now he’s being asked to sacrifice the other, this time with his own knife. And again he says nothing, just does it.

This is a man who argued with God, negotiating to ensure that no innocents were collateral damage at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham convinced God to spare the entire city if only ten people could be found doing the right thing, and when they couldn’t, God rescued the one faithful family first. Abraham laughed in God’s face at the idea he would become a father in his old age, and he talked with God about other options for his inheritance. And yet when finally the promise comes true, the one child who would carry on his name and the covenant to be a blessing to the world, Abraham was willing to let it all go without a single question. God did ask politely, saying please — which is unusual! — but still.

Though it does say he was up very early in the morning…perhaps he was having trouble sleeping. I know I would. I would be lying in my bed thinking about that phrase “Here I am”…the Hebrew word is “hineni” and it’s not just like “I’m over here” but like “I’m all in, fully committed” — it’s the word Abraham used when he heard the voice call his name. Before he actually knew what God was going to ask, he had proclaimed his commitment. I would be lying there wishing I’d used another word…and then wondering if I’m allowed to regret answering God’s call? 

But we don’t know why Abraham was up so early. We don’t hear anything of his thought process or his feelings or his interior life. Since he doesn’t reply to God at all, doesn’t engage in his usual back-and-forth as he has in every previous conversation, we’re left to wonder what on earth was going on in his head. Or maybe whether he was so caught up in his own thoughts that he just went on auto-pilot. 

When Isaac was finally able to break in to his father’s silent thoughts, Abraham again answered with “hineni” — he was all in, fully committed to his son, at least while they walked together. The whole story is full of notes about how they traveled as one, united in purpose — or so Isaac thought, anyway. 

At the top of the mountain, it feels to me like those movie scenes where everything goes into a weird sort of slow-motion, with the edges of the screen blurred, almost like a dream sequence. Basically without looking, Abraham builds an altar, and he stacks up the wood, and he ties up Isaac, and lifts him onto this pyre, and he reaches for the cleaver…it’s all like moving through molasses, like the air is thick, and Abraham is going through the motions without really seeing anything, just moving his hands until it's all in order. Then again, the voice calls—twice, this time, urgent, desperate to get his attention, to break through the thrall he’s caught in. And Abraham again says “hineni” — he’s all in, whatever the voice is going to ask. And finally he looks up, almost like that moment when you shake your head and see what you were doing like for the first time, and there’s a sheep standing right there. Just as God promised to provide of Ishmael in the desert and God did, though Abraham didn’t know it…just as Abraham had told Isaac that God would see to the sheep, God did, though Abraham very nearly didn’t know it, because he wasn’t looking.

The next words God says are, I think, the most disturbing in the story. God says “now I know…” — implying that God really didn’t know what Abraham would do. The story is set up as a test — not necessarily a pass-fail final exam, but a progress test that reveals how much we’ve learned and where we still need to do a bit more work. We can talk another time about the idea of God setting a test, but what I want to wonder today is just what this test revealed that God didn't already know. What did God uncover in Abraham that maybe neither of them actually knew he had in him?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice the person most precious to him — his only legitimate son, and also all that he represented, the fulfilment of the promise that God made to him all those years ago. Remember by this point Sarah would be well into her 90s and Abraham past 100 years old. This one child is the one who will carry the covenant, because God promised that through him Abraham would become the father of many nations, with more descendants than the grains of sand or stars in the sky. And beyond even all those decades of waiting and longing for him, Abraham loved him, it says. 

And he was willing to put a knife to his throat, if he thought that God was asking for that.

Here’s what I think God learned that day:

If Abraham was willing to sacrifice even his most precious beloved, and the covenant promises God had made, without even asking a single question…how much more easily would he sacrifice someone he didn’t love so closely? Someone he didn’t like at all? Someone he didn’t know? God learned that humans, even those in close relationship with God, are far more willing to sacrifice each other than we would like to admit.

I suspect that if any of us heard a calling to sacrifice a member of our family for God, we’d at least pray about it again first before deciding to reject the voice that did not align with the call to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves

But would we do the same when asked to sacrifice someone who isn’t close to us?

What about if we don’t have to personally hold the knife…but simply put an x on a ballot paper for a person or party who believe in turning refugee boats away and sending them back to sea? Or simply to demand cheap clothes and food, even knowing that people must work for pennies in order to provide that for us? Or simply to insist on the convenience of our own private cars while the sea rises and swallows people’s homes and livelihoods? What about if all we have to do is continue to believe our economy and power and standard of living must grow indefinitely because that’s what politicians say…while in other parts of the world water sources are drying up and healthcare is a distant dream and the fires and floods and famines get worse every year? What if all we have to do is look away from the person we’re walking past on the street, or turn off the television…sacrificing our literal neighbours to poverty or drugs or mental illness for our comfort or worse, our self-righteous judgment. Or what if all we need to do is hold to one narrow understanding of God’s love, leaving everyone different than us outside it?

How easily we sacrifice each other.

That’s a reality that I think we would prefer stay hidden deep within us, but God uncovers in this terrible story — how easily we are willing to sacrifice those who are not so precious to us, despite the fact they are precious to God. Despite the fact they are made in God’s image, and carry God’s promise.

This test reveals where Abraham still has work to do…and where we still have work to do. The truth is that we can only transform what we can name — so even though it is painful and awful, bringing this story out into the open means that now we are capable of doing that work. We are capable of seeing our choices and their impact on others, and making a different choice. We are capable of seeing the pain we cause, and changing direction to be healers instead. We are capable of keeping our eyes and hearts open, of saying “hineni” and being all in and fully committed to not only those most precious to us, but those precious to God. In fact, more than being capable of this, it is our HOLY CALLING to do this. God uncovered our tendency to sacrifice each other so that we could stop doing it and learn a different way. If only we will open our eyes and look and see what God has provided — abundant life for all. On the mount of the Lord, there is vision.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Boundaries -- a sermon on Genesis 1

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s


Genesis 1.1-2.4a (Robert Alter)

12 September 2021, NL4-1

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. 

And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.” And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was. And God called the vault Heavens, 

and it was evening and it was morning, second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters he called Seas, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth grow grass, plants yielding seed of each kind and trees bearing fruit of each kind, that has its seed within it upon the earth.” And so it was. And the earth put forth grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, and God saw that it was good. 

And it was evening and it was morning, third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the heavens to divide the day from the night, and they shall be signs for the fixed times and for days and years, and they shall be lights in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth.” And so it was. And God made the two great lights, the great light for dominion of day and the small light for the dominion of night, and the stars. And God placed them in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth and to have dominion over day and night and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 

And it was evening and it was morning, fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with the swarm of living creatures and let fowl fly over the earth across the vault of the heavens.” And God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that crawls, which the water had swarmed forth of each kind, and the winged fowl of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas and let the fowl multiply in the earth.”

And it was evening and it was morning, fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind. And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of every kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.” 

And God created the human in his image, 

in the image of God he created him, 

male and female he created them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit-bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food.” And so it was. And God saw all that he had done, and, look, it was very good. 

And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.

Then the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their array. And God completed on the seventh day the task he had done, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the task he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for on it he had ceased from all his task that he had created to do. 

This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

We are so used to the opening line of the Bible being “in the beginning”…but I have to admit I really love this new translation that Hebrew scholar Robert Alter worked on over the past decade. “When God began to create” — it’s a reminder that God’s creativity is not confined to this one story, but goes on throughout history even to today. 

I also love the sense that there’s no beginning separate from God’s activity. It’s God’s creative energy that is, itself, the beginning. So it isn’t as if we could point to a calendar and say “this is the beginning” like we can with the school term or the new year, but rather that in the midst of chaos, God started something…and that was the beginning. When God began to create, everything was chaos and darkness, and God started something new by pulling that chaos and darkness back, revealing light and airspace and earth, which were full of potential. Particularly this year, I just find that the idea of God uncovering the potential of the earth from underneath the chaos — the welter and waste — to be really provocative and interesting.

There’s certainly plenty of welter and waste to go around, and I don’t know if it’s because of social media or having spent so much time home alone or what, but somehow the world feels more chaotic than ever, as we try to figure out what “new normal” looks like. There’s still a pandemic raging around the earth, of course. The climate change situation is dire and the consequences become more visible and more tragic with each passing day. We still live with the fallout of war-making decisions made decades ago. All of these things mean people are moving around the globe in huge numbers, seeking peace and safety, seeking clean water or refuge from drought, seeking higher ground, seeking healthcare. And many who aren’t yet desperate for those things are unwilling to accommodate those who are, so conflict intensifies. 

I think there’s something instructive, then, about how God goes about creating order from chaos. Because it turns out that God could see the abundant life of creation already, in the midst of all that welter and waste…it just needed uncovering. It needed space to flourish and grow into its potential…potential that only God could see. The breath of God hovered over the dark depths — hovered like a mother bird hovers over the nest, caring for eggs and then chicks, going back and forth, one eye always on what’s happening in the nest and one eye on what else is moving in the background. And the breath of God hovered…and then God drew in that breath and sent it out in a word that literally moved heaven and earth.

The light shone, and the waters were pulled back, and earth and air and sea had space to breathe too. Another word and they were commanded to bring forth life — and the earth and sky and sea were obedient to God’s voice asking them to join in the creation. Notice it doesn’t say in this story that God created plants, it says that God told the earth to put forth grass and plants and trees. The potential was there, and God called it out of the ground. And into that environment, which God saw could continue being endlessly sustainable in re-creating itself, God called forth animals and birds and humanity. God saw what was possible, and made enough space in the chaos and darkness that possibility could become reality. God uncovered life where it looked like there was only welter and waste.

And then God asked humankind to continue the work. The word sometimes translated as “have dominion” or what Robert Alter translates as “hold sway” is a royal word, about being the royal representative…humanity is meant to be God’s image, God’s representative, amidst the creation, to take the kind of responsibility for it that God has done. And what has God done? Made space in the midst of chaos for flourishing life, uncovered potential and allowed it to do what it does best, set in motion a system that continues to create and re-create. God both creates things and enables creativity by setting boundaries — boundaries for water and sky and chaos and time — and by calling out the goodness buried beneath the depths.

How do we do that, as the people made in God’s image? How are we making space for creation to flourish, allowing it to continue its God-given creative work, and uncovering goodness?

If we’re honest, the answer is that we don’t. Instead we fill up the space with our stuff, snuffing out the creativity of the earth and sea and sky with our rubbish. We disrupt the cycles of creation so that it will serve our greed, even though it depletes the earth. We take what it produces and keep it for ourselves, believing we are somehow outside the system rather than a part of it. Rather than acting like God’s representatives in the midst of creation, we have acted like the idols we believe ourselves to be, agents of chaos rather than creativity. Rather than uncovering the goodness at the heart of God’s creation, we have laid waste to it.

But planted more deeply than all that is wrong, God’s word of goodness is still true. God can still see the potential and possibility in the midst of the welter and waste. It’s still there, and the creation is still partnering with god in creativity and flourishing. When God began creating, God didn’t then quit. But where previously it was the dark depths and the waters that needed boundaries set in order to reveal the fertile ground, now it is human greed and idolatry that needs boundaries. If we are restrained, as the seas were, as the darkness was, then there will be space for new life. God is, even now, calling forth and empowering the creative capacity of all things…and that includes us. It will take all our creative capacity as human beings if we are to find ways to restrain ourselves in order that all life might thrive. 

We could begin by taking the seventh day seriously. It’s a built in time when God allows creation to do its thing without interference, as God rests…and if we were to take time out from shaping and re-shaping and micromanaging and using and abusing the environment around us, we may find that our relationship to the creation is re-set to be more like the image of God…but at this point, we can’t stop there. That is just one small boundary restraining our insatiable desire for more and the truth is that because we ignored it for so long, now we need much deeper cuts if we are to be good stewards of this gift for future generations. 

In about half an hour our boys brigade will be doing a litter clean up, and that’s a good start. Of course if we restrained ourselves from littering in the first place that would be better. Restraining our use of private transport, and fossil fuels, and single use plastic, and intensive agriculture, especially animal agriculture, is also all crucial. But we are beyond the point of individual actions being enough. We need them, don’t get me wrong. We must act as individuals. But we need the whole human family, all of us who are made in God’s image and called to act in God’s likeness, to come together to set some boundaries on the relationship we have with the rest of creation. We cannot abuse it and expect it to continue to nourish us, any more than we can expect that in any other relationship. We cannot simply overrun it and expect it to live up to its potential. And we cannot uncover the good news God planted within creation if we are constantly burying it under mountains of landfill. In other words, we cannot be agents of chaos and expect creation to treat us like agents of grace. 

We need to restrain ourselves, individually and corporately and politically, and we need to do it now. To live into the image of God is to create space for life to flourish, and to nurture that potential and possibility together, letting the world do what God made it to do: thrive.

May it be so. Amen.