Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, August 10, 2003, Pentecost 9, dedicated the memory of Brian and Tracy Cloud-Thomas' baby whom they lost through miscarriage and always to the glory of God!
(II of V in the Sermon Series:"Abraham: Father of Three Faiths")
Genesis 22:1-18; John 6: 35,41-51
In my first sermon on Abraham last Sunday, I introduced Abraham. I offered the biblical record of his story, archeological insights and Abraham's survival of such, and I reflected upon that which made Abraham unique: He was the first monotheist, the first person to believe that God is One. His absolute humanness is that which sets him apart. His longing for the divine makes him attractive to God and his followers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I noted that between last Sunday and today, half the world's population would invoke the name of Abraham in worship and prayer.
Last Sunday's sermon is available on line and in the information rack. All of these sermons, as well as all sermons here at First Church are published on-line. Let us look at the Abraham of Judaism.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our salvation. Amen.
To explain Abraham - his power and presence in Judaism - is not merely to tell you the biblical story of Genesis all over again. Abraham can be found there. But, Abraham is not contained there. Abraham belongs to the ages, to the sages, and to the reinterpreters of scripture and story. The story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah is a fine example of Abraham's changing and challenging face.
Listen to the elements of this story which the Jews call the "Akeda" - the binding of Isaac. As you listen, imagine that the ancient stories of scripture are like an old oil painting in which you can see variations of the final version recorded there. Things change. "Pentimento," it is called by artists from the word "repent" for the artist is constantly changing his mind. So it is with our texts of scripture and story.
Sometime after God grants Abraham and Sarah a son, their beloved Isaac, God tells Abraham to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering "on one of the mountains that I shall show you." Carrying the wood for the sacrifice, Isaac and Abraham set off with two young men for the place which God has named. On the third day, they look up and see the place in the distance. Abraham tells the travelers, "Stay here, `the boy' and I will go over there. We will worship and we will come back to you." Isaac asks his father where the sacrifice for the offering is to be found. "God will provide the lamb answers Abraham." Once all is set up on the mountain for sacrifice, Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on top of the wood. With knife in hand, Abraham approaches Isaac. An angel of the Lord stops him, provides the lamb for sacrifice. A second time the angel calls from Heaven and tells Abraham of blessings he will receive for having shown faithfulness. The story ends with "Abraham returning" (Isaac is not mentioned) to his young men and together they set off for Beer-sheba . . .
As I said, this story has changed over time and taken on different meanings for different ages and religious traditions of people. As Bruce Feiler tells us in Abraham: "All three religions hail this story as the ultimate expression of Abraham's relationship with God. But what the incident actually says, where it took place, even which son is involved are matters of centuries-old dispute. All of this makes the binding the most debated, the most misunderstood, and the most combustible event in the entire Abraham story" (Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, William Morrow, New York, 2002, p. 84).
For me, so many questions arise about and within this story - questions that are at the top of my list to ask God when we meet face to face. Lord God, Almighty, Creator of the Universe: "Why would you ask Abraham to sacrifice his son and cause such terrifying, silent suffering for Sarah, Isaac and Abe only deliver the boy in the end? Is the message worth the harrowing journey? Was their relationship not forever scarred by this late act of mercy? What were you feeling and thinking Lord?"
"Although this story is clearly a test of Abraham's faith in God, God never tells Abraham it is a test. Furthermore, he never asks Abraham to kill his son. God demands that Abraham take his son to the mountain and offer him as a burnt offering. Abraham is never explicitly given the order to kill his boy. Early Jews, mindful of this nuance, referred to this event as an offering, not a binding, and not a sacrifice. Death was not considered part of the story" (Ibid, pp.87-88).
Others suggest that it is Abraham who does the testing of God. Given that God had pressured Abraham to expel his first born Ishmael, Abraham surely would have been doubting God's loyalty. His attempt to kill Isaac is a testing of God to see if God is a figure of mercy and compassion, which is deeply in question at the point of this story. Faced with his moment of decision, God acts (Feiler, p. 88). If this is the case, the rolls have changed. Abraham now seems much more in control of the relationship between himself and God. Whatever, the meaning, the story ends with no mention of Isaac. But, we do know that Abraham has gained strength through the experience. Why no Isaac? One biblical scholar, Susan Sitler, my wife and the mother of my children, suggests that Isaac was so angry and hurt by what his father had done that he left the mountain by another way! A mother's wisdom, a wife's insight. And, I agree!
The Akeda is a text with deep meaning in the interpretations of all three faiths down through the ages. In Islam, Ishmael, who Muhammad presents as the connecting line to Abraham, is the son whom Abraham attempts to sacrifice on the mountain. In Christianity, this story is integrally tied to God's sacrifice on the cross of God's "only begotten son," Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, while facing severe persecution in the pogroms in the middle ages, Jewish rabbis wrote that Isaac was actually sacrificed and died on the mountain and that is why the angels spoke twice to Abraham - for Isaac was dead. It is also the reason he did not come down with Abraham. Rather, the writings say, he was resurrected three days later and returned to his parents at Beer-sheba. In telling this story in a new way, the Jews assimilated the Christ-event into their faith story. Their telling of the Akeda mirrored God's promise in Christ.
With a bit of improvising here and there, the artistic hand of scriptural interpreters changed the look of the portrait's colors and meaning. But, we must realize, that rather than an anomaly, this is the essence and nature of reinterpretation in the Abrahamic story and throughout time with other texts of holy writings.
The Jews call this process Midrash from the biblical meaning, "to search, inquire, or interpret." Although the Jews invented this causeway to the past, Christians and Muslims picked it up and used it too. The Jews use Midrash in two forms. The first is halakah (Ha-lack'-a) which involves interpreting the texts which legislate conduct. For example, scripture mentions lighting the candles on the Sabbath, but what time should they light the candles? They use matzoh, but how do you make matzoh? Midrash answers these kinds of questions. The second form is hagadah (Ha-ga'-da) which involves the reinterpretation of biblical narratives from which to draw life lessons.
Just as Abraham welcomes the messengers of God on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah, so all Jews should welcome visitors to their homes. If we are to live the Abrahamic life of faithfulness, it is thought, midrash helps us revise and update our understandings of the story. So Abraham is offered in the late-model addition, through Midrash.
What I find fascinating about Midrash is that it allows an entire religion to play with laws, with texts, with words, with story. While we Christians get all bound up, and in need of a literary laxative in our literalism around texts of scripture, our Jewish sisters and brothers are playing! They are delighting in the story and its thousands of year-old reinterpretation!
We need to bless Midrash in our tradition as well! Midrash is a gift. It is a grace. It is continual reformation and joy with texts and tradition! Probably, we in the reformed tradition come the closest to playfulness and joy in relation to the texts. We have two sayings in our tradition. First, we are "Reforming and reforming" which means always open to the movement of God's Holy Spirit in relation to the texts. Second, "We believe there is more light and truth to break forth on God's Holy Word." If this doesn't release us from the ball and chain of literalism, I don't know what will! Anyway, back to Judaism and Abraham . . .
Although Abraham was lost to Judaism for about 1000 years, (Which is a long story!) around the time of exile to Babylon, Abraham emerges once again in the life of Jewish faith. The oral covenant between God and Abraham precedes the covenant with David. It precedes the writing of Mosaic law. It is about faith and faithfulness. It is about exile and hope. It is about overcoming pain and separation and returning to the land. It is about patience in the face of suffering. By the middle ages, Abraham is linked in Judaism from everything from the Passover in Egypt, to the pricing of cows for sale at market, to ensuring kosher wine is cheaper, and saving lost ships at sea. Abraham becomes a celestial being, a saint, a savior in Judaism. While Christians are busy linking Abraham to Christ, rabbis are offering Midrashic writings which make Abraham the exclusive protector of Jews and the property of their faith only. There are more midrashic references to Abraham than any other character coming out of Jewish texts during this period. Abraham returns to the fullness of glory.
But, in my mind, the power of Abraham comes not in triumphal proclamations about his connection to certain tribes and certain people, but in the humility of Abraham - his modesty - if you will. As is true up until our own times, those who proclaim triumphalism and glory are often the most frightening among us. In the name of God, whom they are absolutely sure they represent, they can grab land, they can kill, they can separate families, they judge, they can destroy relationships, they can humiliate and hurt people. Although they hold different versions of holy texts high in their hands when they speak, their fabric is cut from the same texture of triumphal proclamation.
But, Abraham and those with whom he shares the pages of holy scripture is humble and modest. He leaves his family. He leaves what he knows. When Ishmael is sent out, he is brokenhearted. He does not have the answers. He does not tell others what the angels said on Mt. Moriah. He fails more than he succeeds in this life. In the end, even though he splits his sons off, it is both sons who come together to bury him. While others make brilliant and powerful and triumphal proclamations about him, in the end, only his boys are there to lay him in the earth - two old men themselves with shovels, whose sight is growing dim, and silently wondering "what if?," and "what now?," and "What next?" Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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