When All You Can Do Is Not Enough.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 2, 2017.
I don’t know how you’re spending your summer
But our kids spend the summer at various camps.
This year its Theatre Camps,
But over the years they’ve tried all sorts:
A wonderful group camp at the Jewish Community Center.
A couple of times they’ve gone up to Heartland Presbyterian Center
or participated in travelling day camp at the kirk.
When I was a Kid I went to church camp too.
It was great:
I’d come home with tales from the swimming pool
Showing off silly moves from group games we learned
Singing church camp songs in the car:
You’re a peach of a Savior, you’re the apple of my eye…
That’s why I’m bananas for the Lord, yee-haw.
They’re having a great time at all of these camps.
I was thinking this week, as I dropped them off at camp
About an experience I had a few years ago that these camps brought up.
Their time at the Jewish Community Center and church camp
Helped them experience in new ways some of these stories of the bible
Helped them think and explore and talk about
what it means to grow up
as people of faith in a world where one week you’re at church camp
and another week you’re at the Jewish Community Center.
It opened up all sorts of good, meaningful things for us.
One day, they might have been 6 or 7,
there was a jolt in the conversation,
as there often is with kids who cut to the chase,
when one of them was noting how their daddy worked at a church
and talked about God…all the time, as they put it.
Daddy, the question came,
Do you love God more than you love me?
I always think of that question now, when I read this story of the Binding of Isaac.
I can’t help it. Its always there with me.
I don’t really believe that we can be neutral when we read these texts.
There’s a lot of talk out there about finding a so-called objective reading of the bible
Sometimes people call that the “literal” way of reading it
As if you open a page and read it out loud
And magically its all cut and dry.
The Bible doesn’t work that way. It never works that way.
There are a couple of reasons for that:
One of which is that these texts are confusing and complicated and multilayered.
I mean by that there’s a lot going on.
And who’s to say whether this thing, or that thing, or all of the things, together,
That decides what you’re supposed to get out of it?
Understanding means getting involved, making choices, praying and thinking about it.
It’s the art of interpretation: making sense of complicated stories
In light of a larger whole
A bigger narrative.
So that’s one reason.
Another reason is that we, ourselves,
are confusing and complicated and multilayered.
WE have a lot going on.
Schedules and obligations and worries and passions and dreams.
And I can’t read and pray and think about something
Without all of that being brought to this effort.
If that’s true for me, its true for you too.
And so we have, in this room, hundreds of different personalities
Brought to bear on a very important set of stories
All of us trying our very best to listen for what God is trying to say
Through these ancient words that are at the heart of our worship.
Sometimes we do that well, and sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes we hear well what God is speaking to us, and sometimes we don’t.
But its all we can do, honestly:
We open our minds and our hearts
and we pray and we listen and sometimes we struggle
particularly when the best we can do is not enough.
But lets see what we can do with this text, this morning:
A few years ago, an article appeared in Newsweek[i]
describing a new style of backpacking.
The article, titled “Great View, Less Sweat”
described how, for a price, you can hire an outfitting company
to carry the equipment (including the backpacks),
set up camp,
and do all the cooking.
This service ELIMINATES the inconveniences and hazards of backpacking
so that you can just enjoy the outdoors WITHOUT any of the toil.[ii]
There are times—when we can let ourselves believe
that our life can be lived on the easy path,
where its all a gentle slope.
There are seasons in our life—where we can fashion our belief in God
to embrace the loving, comforting,
forgiving, graceful God…
…and put aside ANY demands our loving God
chooses to make on our life,
on our values,
on our choices.
And then a moment comes…one way or another—the day arrives
when through circumstance,
or the intersection of pain and hope—
–the moment comes when we encounter a face of God
that we would rather keep out of sight:
a demanding God who will NOT be reduced
to a warm, fuzzy thing,
filled with sentimentality.
At some point in our lives, we become aware that:
we belong to God,
but God does NOT belong to us.[iii]
…Where do we begin…
in trying to come to grips with the incendiary challenges
of this painful story of the 22nd Chapter of Genesis?
Just to start in the shallow end—what ages are Abraham and Isaac here?
There is some difference in how we might look at this,
if this interaction is
between an 8 year old child Isaac and an aging Abraham, say,
OR between a strapping 17 year old Isaac,
and an elderly, frail Abraham.
We don’t know—because the narrator withholds that and many OTHER details.
Regardless…what about the HORROR of child sacrifice?
There was child sacrifice to other gods in the region in Abraham’s time,
but Yahweh had forbidden it,
even if most scholars assert that it was still creeping in
here and there among the followers of God.
Does it really help our hearing to know that one way to look at this text
is that it was God pulling God’s people back from the brink—
–and showing them that human sacrifice was wrong?
That just leaves us with the question:
WHO IS IT that behaves WORST here—
–God who TESTS Abraham in such a horrific way
or Abraham who goes along with it?
That’s sort of a modern question being placed on an ancient text,
I’ve spent the last three weeks reading everything
I could get my hands on regarding Genesis 22.
Most of them were INTERESTING
…just as MOST did NOT explain anything
to match the DEPTH or the CHALLENGE of this text.
There is commentary from Kant to Kierkegaard to Mark Twain.
There is all sorts of Jewish midrash—imaginative wrestling and interpretation
of this story, going back centuries
and all the way to this day,
where Elie Wiesel mentions it
in his own moment of wrestling with God.
Benjamin Britten wrote an opera;
Joan Baez wrote a song about Abraham and Isaac
Cold steel, cold steel in the father’s hand
Tears falling from the sky
The angels, the angels did not understand
Why the righteous, the righteous boy should die.
Leonard Cohen did too,
and heard in this story an anti-war anthem during the Vietnam era
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
Bob Dylan opened up his song “Highway 61” with the lines:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Biblically, theologically, psychologically, or artistically…
…ALL these interpretations are interesting,
some are poignant,
many are moving—and ALL fall short.
…NOT because of any of them…but because of us:
Just as we really can’t call it camping
if WE pay someone else to lug the backpacks
set up the camp…
…so, too, NO ONE interpretation or reading or art work
can be a substitute for what we face in this text.
NOTHING works if it REDUCES the text,
or EXPLAINS this text,
or SOFTENS its blow,
or helps us RATIONALIZE it,
or make it into some METAPHOR.
Finally, whether it’s the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice at the hands
of his father Abraham,
OR whether it’s the deep, dark, hard, vexing, painful
places in your soul—
–NOBODY can carry your burden, apart from you.
–NO ONE can substitute you for you
in your own journey with God
on the rocky face of your life’s mountain.
So, in that spirit, there are some fragments here…to put in your own backpack:
–Abraham had been called to leave his homeland
and follow this God…and he is STILL on the way
when this scene happens—
–he has NOT YET arrived.
There are still moving pieces, and we don’t want to deal with major issues at times like that.
We always want things SETTLED before we embark on anything new.
We like order,
we want predictability,
we yearn for stability.
…We are always FORGETTING that we NEVER get things under control…
…and it hardly matters less to God.
When God says move – our best choice is to MOVE…
Amazing things happen if we GO when sent,
even through our pain.
Enormous opportunities are missed
when we stop to get things “settled” or “just right” first!
—Also, did you notice: EVERYONE is VULNERABLE here.
Abraham is vulnerable.
Isaac is vulnerable.
But also: GOD…is vulnerable.
If you’re looking for the “Omni God”—
(that is, the all knowing, all powerful, all present one)
–you won’t encounter that God here.
God has put God’s own future with God’s people AT RISK here.
Sometimes, we desperately need the God who will be our anchor—our fixed point.
But there are other times in our life,
when we need to know that GOD VENTURES
beyond “safe harbor” to be with us.
There is a spiritual NAKEDNESS here
that we would do well to pay attention to.[iv]
In the 1960s, the “Second Vatican Council” brought SWEEPING changes
to nearly every part of the Roman Catholic Church.
These changes were the most RADICAL in centuries,
so radical in fact that Rome KNEW that churches
–and especially priests—would be UPSET.
So, teams of people were sent to gatherings of churches and priests—
–to talk to them about the changes
and help them to understand.
The reactions were like a fire-storm,
and the teams of presenters felt completely
besieged, and beaten down.
On one of the teams was a Jesuit priest named Father Gene Monahan.
He was by all accounts a faithful priest,
and a marvelous person—full of grace and good cheer.
But the reactions he was getting were SO BAD…he wondered
how long he could persist.
After several weeks of this, Father Monahan entered an auditorium
to begin a meeting with some fellow priests.
As he walked to the podium,
people began to notice that he was barefooted.
[more than that]…he had on a pair of little white-washed shorts,
and an undershirt—that’s ALL!
He looked out at the priests and said:
“I am 58 years old.
I have spent most of my adult life with my back turned
to the congregation as I ministered to the altar.
NOW…my church says
‘Turn around and face the people.’
“I have spent most of my adult life hiding among
the incense pots and the candles,
doing my work as a priest—
–and NOW my church says:
‘Come out and be with the people.’
“I have spent most of my adult life saying mass in Latin,
and NOW my church says:
‘Speak English—speak so the people can understand.’
…and on and on he went—describing the changes.
When he got to the end, he looked at the priests and said:
“I have NOTHING left—all my props,
–all the ways I have arranged MY little controlled life—
it is all NOTHING NOW.
“Here, you can see…I have been STRIPPED
of everything I have ever known,
of everything I knew how to do,
of all that was MINE.
ALL I have left now…..is God.”
Time is too short today, alas,
to keep going: to talk about our vulnerability before God
when struck by illness
or the death of a loved one
or the loss of a job
or sudden changes in church and culture.
We could go on for hours. So much we do not control.
So much we cannot pay someone else to take care of for us.
But, back to the story: Abraham, and Isaac.
These ANCIENT stories need to be read for what they are,
and noted for what they aren’t.
They are from a foreign world to us, to be sure,
but we can affirm the God that from the very beginning engaged, wrestled,
challenged God’s people.
That God, IN THESE STORIES, wrestles with our humanity along with us,
and, in the END, asks for our best selves, our highest selves,
NOT sugar coated, not saccharine displays
but how we can be GOD’S people
and GOD can be our GOD
at our WORST moments too.
And not just our WORST moments,
but our HARDEST moments,
our most PAINFUL moments,
our most FRAGILE moments,
our weak moments.
I don’t know what to make of a story that claims God TESTS Abraham like this,
to be honest.
I know that’s an ancient narrative,
that its about the DEVELOPMENT of a people,
and that maybe we’ve surpassed such times.
I’d prefer for it to stay that way,
even as I know I’m also tested by where I put my trust and my faith.
I know that sometimes I put my heart and my trust on things that are EASY
that are the quick fix.
If I could pay someone to endure the hard things in life, I would easily do so,
thank you very much,
and I’m constantly reminded about how we, in our first-world land
actually can do this so much more so than
most of our human brothers and sisters
across God’s good earth.
But as a story, what strikes me is that God stays the hand.
God ALWAYS stays the hand.
That blind trust or rabid devotion or illogical, irrational, heartbreaking actions
are always met by a word of ‘NO, STOP, DON’T’
I am struck by this answer to
the difference between fanaticism or fundamentalism, on the one hand,
and deep, authentic, helpful, life giving faith, on the other.
Too many people get this wrong.
Too many people LAUD Abraham for his so-called blind faith,
his willingness to take it to the end.
I think Abraham gets it, after this encounter,
that God NEVER wants him to take it to the end.
That, instead, God ventures to be with us and whispering to us
to choose the way of life,
even if culture or tradition or even what we think we hear,
is telling us otherwise.
That God is ALWAYS asking us NOT to take it that far
to give a cool glass of water to the thirsty
or rest to the weary
or patience to the argumentative
or calm in the storm…
That its NOT about an EITHER/OR kind of faith
–where you either love God OR you love your family
–where you either love God OR you love your neighbor
–where you either love God OR you love your self.
But you love God AS you love your neighbor, AS you love yourself.
That God, even when we push it to the brink, push ourselves to the brink,
that God stays our hand and shows us the right way forward.
Even if it took the life and stories of Jesus for many of us to eventually see that.
A hard story.
So, a daughter asks: Daddy, do you love God more than you love me?
And I answer: sweetheart: my love for God helps me love you so much more
just as my love for you helps me love God so much more.
I’m glad that our love for each other works this way.
And I am so glad that we’ve learned this lesson
and that I’m not being asked to display my faith
by choosing one or the other.
Thanks be to God
[i]. “Great view, Less Sweat,” Newsweek, June 28, 2004, From http://www.newsweek.com/travel-great-view-less-sweat-128697 (accessed July 1, 2017)
[ii]David Bland, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Additional Essays, (Westminster John Knox. 2011) Proper 8, Homiletical Perspective
[iii]Nibs Stroupe, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Additional Essays, (Westminster John Knox. 2011) Proper 8, Pastoral Perspective
[iv]This story is recounted by the Rev. Mark Ramsey in his sermon “Unimaginable.” This center section of this sermon is indebted to Ramsey’s work.
Cover Image Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac.