Scripture: Genesis 21:1–3, 22: 1–14
Twenty years ago yesterday, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the single most deadly and destructive terrorist attack on American soil. Not only did 9-11 change the way we look at the world, but it changed the way that we look at religion. In the days following the attacks in New York and Washington, many Americans began to believe that Islam was the problem, that all Muslims were terrorists, and all terrorists were Muslim.
Seven years later, Charles Kimball tried to get us to rethink those assumptions. Kimball is a comparative religions scholar, and in a book titled When Religion Becomes Evil, he suggested that which religion we are talking about is not as important as how proponents of that religion act. How people practice religion matters, and there is a segment of every faith that tends toward violent fundamentalism. In every religion, there are those who are motivated by fear and anger, and in his words, become evil. He offers five warning signs that this is happening: “Absolute Truth Claims, Blind Obedience, Establishing the ‘Ideal’ Time, The End Justifies Any Means, and Declaring Holy War.” The events of 9-11 are Exhibit A for what these warning signs looked like, but it would be a mistake, Kimball writes, to assume that only Muslims trained in the Middle East are capable of such evil. These signs are definitely representative of radicalized Islam, but not only that faith. There are plenty of other examples, of other faiths that have become just as unhealthy, diseased, and evil.
His words published in 2008 would become prophetic, as over the last thirteen years have seen an increase of terrorism perpetrated by those who claim that they are Christian. Violent attacks on abortion clinics and providers. Racially-motivated violence like what was seen in Charlottesville a few years ago. The loose network of conspiracy theorists known as Q-Anon has religious ties. Christian preachers and churches of what has been called the “New Apostolic Reformation” call for a Christian caliphate parallel to what radicalized Muslims have called for. Religious historians and counter-terrorism experts alike talk about Christian “dominionism” as a radicalized form of the Christian faith.
And nearly twenty years since the violence of 9-11, we saw an attack this past January on the Capitol building in Washington that also exhibited Kimball’s warning signs: “Absolute Truth Claims, Blind Obedience, Establishing the ‘Ideal’ Time, The End Justifies Any Means, Declaring Holy War.” As those carrying signs proclaiming allegiance to Jesus, the man who preached “love your enemy” stormed the Capitol building and built a gallows on which to hang the sitting vice president of the United States, and we have to wonder what went wrong. How could our faith become twisted in this way? And more importantly, what do we do now?
This week, we begin a nine-month journey through the story of Scripture, just like we did last year. The narrative lectionary begins at the beginning, with the Old Testament stories, then moves into the Gospels right before Christmas, stays there through Easter, and then moves into the rest of the New Testament until May. And this week, we begin this journey with a covenant relationship that will comes to define the rest of the story. A few chapters before today’s reading, Genesis 12 sets the stage with a conversation between Abraham and God. God tells Abraham to “go to a land that I will show you,” to leave his home and take his family to a new place that will be revealed in time. Actually, the Hebrew phrase here is “lek-leka,” best translated “get yourself going.” And he does! With amazing faith and trust in God, he goes.
But Abraham, this man of faith and trust, also has his messy moments. God has promised him not only a land, but also a son and a family and a dynasty as numerous as the stars. But for Abraham, who is old and whose wife Sarah is old, this seems like the kind of thing that is hard to trust. So, he tries every which way to take matters into his own hands—fathering a child through his maidservant Hagar, negotiating through his nephew Lot, lying—not once but twice—to the neighboring king, passing his wife off as his sister so that the king will not kill him and end this dynasty before it begins. It is a story of the messy and realistic work of trust. Today’s reading continues that messiness. Chapter 21 tells the story of a promise fulfilled: a son Isaac is born to Sarah, just like God said would happen! And I don’t know about you, but I would be fine if the story just ended right there, and finished up all nice and tidy. A little messy there at the beginning, but now everything is fine and dandy and everyone is happy and the rest of the Bible will just be smooth sailing!
But, alas, then Chapter 22 happens, which is easily one of the most difficult and morally ambiguous stories to read in our Scriptures. Perhaps it is not an accident that the narrative lectionary begins here this year, because it really does remind us that the story of faith is a messy one. For the next 66 books, we will read of this messy work of trust. We might as well acknowledge it at the beginning! As the chapter opens, God once again commands Abraham to “lek-leka.” God commands him “get yourself going,” to take his son Isaac and travel with him to Moriah, where he must sacrifice his son Isaac as a testimony to his faith and trust in God. So, to review…in Chapter 12, God commands Abraham to “lek-leka,” to sacrifice what is meaningful and safe and important to him, leave his home, and travel to a new place, with no idea how things will turn out. And now, in Chapter 22, God commands Abraham to “lek-leka,” to sacrifice his beloved son, perhaps the most meaningful and important thing in the world to him, again with no idea how things will turn out. And we are left trying to make sense of a God who pretty clearly demands the violent death of a beloved child. It is not hard to see why some people read God in this text as arbitrary, selfish, demanding, uncaring, and violent. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, the question we must ask of these stories is whether we serve a God who arbitrarily tests us in ways that cause violence and trauma to our bodies and minds and souls?
Biblical scholar Katherine Schifferdecker acknowledges the moral ambiguity and hard theology of such a passage. She suggests that there are no easy answers in this text. But she also points to the context. In the time in which Abraham and Isaac would have made this fateful journey, this practice would have been commonplace. Fathers sacrificed their sons to arbitrary and uncaring gods all the time. These deities demanded violence and blood on a regular basis, including the blood of human sacrifice, including their own children. We see this context play out throughout the Scriptures, with the people of God often asking “will we live like these violent kingdoms? Is our God like theirs?” Schifferdecker and others point to the fact that Abraham hearing this command from his God would not really have surprised him, nor would it have seemed out of place.
The difference, then, is what happens at that altar. Instead of allowing absolutism and arbitrary violence to rule the day, this covenant will be different. This God is different. God steps in and stops the violence, and does not allow Abraham to sacrifice his son. The good news in the story is not that God is absolute and sovereign and can tell Abraham what to do. It is not even that Abraham is a good listener and trusts God even when God asks for seemingly arbitrary things. The good news is that God provides a better way. Not the way of violence of their neighbors, nor the cult of death of this world. God provides a son, not once, but twice: in birth to Sarah and then in redemption on Mt. Moriah.
Which is exactly the conclusion that Kimball reaches, as well. He does not suggest that religion itself is the problem, but invites us to practice religion in a different way. Kimball writes of the need for inclusivity instead of exclusive absolutism. He writes of the need to celebrate those who are different, instead of suspect and hate them for those differences. He writes about grace, and of love. Instead of the fear of our neighbors, and the anger of fundamentalism, there is a better way…the better way that God had in store for us from the beginning! We must not turn our heads and follow the violence of the kings and princes of this world. Even as social media turns up that anger. Even as cable news turns up that fear. We don’t have to be beholden to their power, because we know that there is a better way. And let me be clear that this is not a Republican or Democratic thing. Twenty years have passed since 9-11, and in those 20 years, the kings and princes of both Republican and Democratic parties have called us to the fear and anger and violence of Empire. Our call is not to a political platform, but to the ways of Jesus.
Let me talk about Jesus for a minute. I know that our passage today is from Genesis, but early Christian theologians had a field day with this passage, connecting the story of Isaac with the story of Jesus. The surrounding kings of Abraham’s day exacted violence, in much the same way that the Roman Empire did during Jesus’ lifetime. Mt. Moriah, where Abraham and Isaac traveled for the sacrifice, is traditionally the same location as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where Jesus preached and taught and eventually was killed by that Empire. The young man Isaac took the wood for the sacrifice and carried it on his own back, like Jesus did with the cross. And, of course, just like the story of Isaac, once again God provides a son, not once, but twice: in birth to Mary, and again in the Resurrection. I have said this before, but one of the reasons I love the narrative lectionary is that it reminds us of these themes that run throughout Scripture. It reminds us that there is Gospel in both the Old and the New Testaments. The story of God’s love and grace is there from the beginning. God is always a God of provision. God always provides a better way.
It is up to us whether or not to choose that better way. The ways of fear and anger are still with us. Empire still wants us to choose its violence. Those who would marry religion and Empire would still call us down the road to evil. But we must stay true to the ways of Christ found in both New and Old Testaments.
Kimball ends his book with a suggestion. We aren’t going to know what the journey ahead will look like. But Kimball, who is not only a scholar in comparative religion, but also an ordained Baptist pastor, suggests that even without a clear and predictable map, we are not lost. Instead, he suggests that what we need is a compass. A set of principles and directions that will guide us through the hard days ahead.
I would suggest that we have these principles already. “Love your enemy.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Peace be with you.” “Here I am.” So this morning, I invite you to take your compass, and to lek-leka, to get yourself going. For we too can have the trust and faith to go into a land that is more than a little terrifying, and filled with all manner of evil. And we don’t have to be afraid or angry, because we carry a compass into that land. The principles of Jesus. The companion of the Holy Spirit. The God of the better way is our guide through these hard days.
God has provided a Son. And that Son has shown us the way to peace.