A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church, Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, July 2, 2017.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In my younger, more radical days, I had a bumper sticker on my car that said, “you measure a society by the way it treats its weakest members, not by the way it treats its friends.” And that’s exactly why the binding of Isaac in our first reading today is an essential text for Jewish faith and identity: because in this text, Abraham does not sacrifice his son.
We forget, because it is hardly ever mentioned in scripture, that child sacrifice was common in the Ancient Near East. And it’s hardly ever mentioned in scripture because the practice was so abhorrent to God, and became so abhorrent to his faithful people that it was wiped out, and never spoken about; a shame in their past that everyone knew about and so they never needed to mention it, since everyone could hear those references and resonances behind so many of the stories they told.
Now we, all these millennia later, don’t hear what they heard when Moses laid out the list of what sacrifices were appropriate for what circumstances: for we don’t notice that “children” are missing from the list. We don’t notice that God “chooses” children, but chooses them for life, not sacrifice. We don’t hear how remarkable it is that God asks for children to be dedicated in the Temple – dedicated, and returned to the parents; not offered on the pyre. We don’t read scripture and notice that at times of greatest hardship and greatest struggle, when they were under the greatest pressure, the possibility of child sacrifice started to look like an option: “maybe we could get results from Molech, if the God of our ancestors can’t end this famine?”
For centuries, the faithful people of Yahweh fought against the lure of this practice, and became, through hard work and many challenges, a people who were marked out from their neighbours by their care of the most vulnerable: children, widows and orphans, strangers in the land.
God was revealed, not as yet another god who welcomed the sacrifice of the weak in order to protect the strong, but rather as the One who cares for the weak and the vulnerable and the oppressed, and dreams of a world in which all will be made free.
This became the vision against which Yahweh judged his people’s hearts: the strong, are they strong for themselves only, at the expense of the weak, or are they strong so that everyone may be raised up? Down through the generations, Yahweh has judged his people’s hearts according to this standard, and called us to improve. He calls us to keep looking for ways to take our next step into that vision he holds out to us, for the good of all.
Well, this weekend, there’s a lot being said and written about Canada: what we are as a nation; what we’ve accomplished. There’s a lot of pride and celebration, of course, as we turn 150 years old – and there’s lots to be proud of. We have a strong, shared ethos that everyone should have their chance to survive, and thrive, and succeed. And we work hard on our multiculturalism. It is not always easy, but we persevere to keep our minds and our hearts and our country open.
But just like in Israel’s past, there are things in our past that we shudder away from; things we don’t really want to talk about, and don’t want to be known for. We have a strong history of racism, well up into the 20th century, and continuing, many people would say, well up into the 21st. And we have relationships with indigenous peoples and first nations which challenge our nice, proud national identity, to put it mildly. And we have a history of how we treat developmentally delayed and disabled people, people like Patricia and Nancy, which should not make us proud – especially here in Alberta.
But there is still a place for pride. It is not the pride achieved by sweeping those dark pieces of our history under the carpet and pretending they didn’t happen. It is not the pride achieved by pretending that our good outweighs our bad. It is the pride that the Israelites came to feel: the pride that comes when we say, “we will do those things no longer, and we will dedicate ourselves, as a people, to making sure we never accidentally do those kinds of things again.”
It is the pride that comes when we dedicate ourselves to learning from our terrible mistakes – mistakes we can never un-make, mistakes of which we should be ashamed. There is a pride to be found in believing that we can be better than that; and a pride to be found in making amends, and dedicating ourselves to persevering in improving. There is a pride to be found when we look back and say, “we overcame. We are no longer like that.”
Just like the ancient Israelites, we too need to learn that we must not sacrifice the weakest members of our society, those over whom we have power, in order to meet our own needs, our own goals and dreams and desires.
But just like the ancient Israelites, we will always be tempted, in times of greatest hardship and greatest struggle, when we are under the greatest pressure, to sacrifice others for our own needs. Who we sacrifice will be a matter of the moment: those who stand in the way of progress and growth and wealth and success? Those were the indigenous people who were inconvenient to the Europeans who were trying to make good on the power and wealth offered by a new continent, just waiting to be capitalized. Floods of immigrants who are different from us and who are looking for the same opportunities as others before them have found? Those were the Chinese, the Japanese and the Jews who came looking for an open country in the 19th and 20th centuries and found instead closed hearts and racist policies. Those who don’t meet our standards of ability, who can’t succeed, who don’t fit into our economic system? Those were the disabled men and women who were sterilized without their consent or knowledge right up into the 1970s, right here in Alberta.
When we recognize that pattern, that we sacrifice others in service of our own needs; when we look honestly and deeply into our own past, and admit our failings, then we can say, “we will no longer be like that. We will overcome.”
It took the Israelites hundreds of years, but they overcame. They listened to God’s ceaseless call in their lives to take that next step, and the next one, and the next one; to learn other ways of dealing with their challenges so that they could look upon themselves, and be proud of what they’d done; just as God was proud of what they’d overcome.
God stands ready to be proud of us too, for overcoming the dark lure of our past. God calls to us always to take that next step of caring for others and using our power in service of the weak; not using the weak in order to serve our own needs. God stands ready to be proud of each and every one of us, as we take our own next step along that journey; and if we persevere, as a community, as a nation, God stands ready to be proud of Canada too. And then we could be rightly proud as well, as we look back and say, “yes, we did that; but we do it no longer. We have overcome.”
May God give us the grace to persevere, in our own lives and in our common life, that the next 150 years of our history may be a source of pride and glory to God.