Saturday, June 25, 2011

Where is the lamb?

These thoughts are offered as an initial reflection on the story of the binding of Isaac and its place in Christian spirituality.  It was prepared for the people of Saint Faith's Anglican Parish as we continue our exploration of our future.

Focus Text:  Genesis 22.1-14

            For Paula and me the late eighties and nineties were punctuated by repeated visits to BC Children’s’ Hospital as David underwent the numerous medical and dental procedures required to repair his cleft lip and palate.  One of the ways we dealt with this was to enroll David in Berwick Preschool on the UBC campus where he, as a so-called ‘typical’ child, shared life with so-called ‘non-typical’ children with special needs.  We were not the only cleft lip and palate family at Berwick.  One of the families we befriended was a single mother who had adopted a child from Latin America with a cleft lip and palate.

            When David was three, perhaps four, this little girl went into BC Children’s’ for a procedure that David was scheduled to undergo later that year.  The surgery was successful, but the little girl died in the recovery room.  Her death triggered an internal investigation and a change in procedures at the Hospital, but you can imagine our fears when we took David to the hospital for his surgery.  His was also successful and the revised recovery room procedures meant that he was more closely monitored.  But every subsequent surgery renewed the anxiety that we had experienced after David’s friend’s death.

            In my thirty years of ordained ministry I have had other experiences of the death of children.  Paula’s first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, but only after we had heard the heartbeat and seen an ultrasound image of the child.  Shortly after our arrival in Vancouver, a teenager I had prepared for confirmation committed suicide back in Denver.  All such deaths evoke a range of emotions including rage, despair and doubt.  No adult, whether parent, relative or friend, can imagine the pain that a child’s death causes and anyone who has experienced such a death never comes away without lifelong scars.

            Yet here we are on a Sunday when we read a portion of Genesis in which Abraham is commanded by God to kill Isaac, his only child born of Sarah.  No one with any human sensibilities can imagine why God would issue such a command.  It flies in the face of every parental instinct found in the overwhelming majority of adults whether parents or not.  There are biblical commentators who describe this as one of the ‘texts of terror’, biblical texts that are not only incomprehensible to us but morally repugnant.  As we here in Vancouver welcome the first signs of summer, the story of Abraham and Isaac must seem a little bizarre.  No doubt there are Anglicans throughout Canada who are wondering why we even read this text.

            One reason why we read this text is precisely because it is a very difficult text to understand.  Anyone who wants to come to grips with religious faith cannot avoid wrestling with scriptural texts that challenge us, perhaps even offend us.  If we avoid these hard texts, these profoundly disturbing texts, we risk rendering God bland and religious faith banal.  Even C. S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia reminds the children that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the stories, is not a tame lion and depicts Aslan entering into battle and killing enemies left and right.

            Another reason why we read this text is its role in the religious imagination of Jews and Christians.  For Jews the ‘binding of Isaac’ represents God’s final test of Abraham whom the Jewish tradition sees as the first Jew.  This story comes to be incorporated in the daily liturgy of the Jewish tradition.  For many generations of Christians the story of Abraham and Isaac has been understood as a prefiguring of the death of Jesus who, as the only son of God, is sacrificed to achieve God’s desire to reconcile the world.  As the Easter Vigil took shape in the early history of the church, the story of Abraham and Isaac came to be one of the readings.  It is only in recent years that the option to omit this reading has been provided.

            But I would give you a third reason why this difficult text is read in our liturgy today and every three years on or about this date.

            Throughout Jewish and Christian history Abraham has been understood as our ancestor in faith.  Our shared faith is that God of Abraham intends to create a people whose primary vocation is to witness to this God and to work with God to fulfill the divine purposes for the whole creation.  To be called by God into this relationship has its benefits, but it also comes with a cost.

            In the chapter that precedes today’s reading Abraham has already sent his first-born son, Ishmael, out into the desert, accompanied only by the boy’s mother, Hagar.  Sarah’s jealousy cannot tolerate their presence in Abraham’s entourage and so out they go, but not before God promises Abraham that the child will survive and become, like Abraham, the father of many nations.  Bereft of his older son, Abraham now receives a command that must have cut him to his soul:  Take Isaac and offer him in sacrifice.  One son gone, now the other destined for the dust.

            We know how the story ends.  Even though it was a terrible thing to ask, we feel a slight breath of relief when God intervenes and the boy is saved.  Perhaps Abraham couldn’t believe God would let this happen and hesitated on the down stroke, but some commentators have suggested that God only intervened as the knife was descending, proof of Abraham’s commitment.  I have often wondered how Isaac felt after he and his father returned home.  I can imagine him flinching anytime the old man came near him with a knife.

            We read this story because we are a people called to participate in God’s mission.  We cannot permit our naïveté to blind us to the reality that participating in God’s mission has a cost.

            The first cost is a simple one:  We are no longer free to act as if there is no God and as if this God were not active in transforming the world.  While there are many human beings who enjoy acting as if they own the planet and its resource, our faith tells us that we are stewards not free-holders and that we are accountable not only to future generations but to the Creator of all things.

            The second cost is a bit more complex:  We are no longer free to act as though we have no responsibility for other human beings and as though we are not accountable to our brothers and sisters, whether of our faith or not.  While it is very tempting to focus solely on tending our own affairs, our faith tells us, like Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge, that all of humanity is our business and, in the words of the great Anglican poet, John Donne, no one is an island entire to oneself.

            But there is yet a more significant cost:  We are called upon to embrace being people on a journey rather than to yield to our desire for permanence.  As precious as our buildings and structures may be to us, God may call us, like Abraham, to bind them and place them on an altar of sacrifice so that God’s purposes might be achieved.

            You know that we have decided to sell the rectory in order to provide additional resources for our ministry in our neighbourhood and beyond.  For some of us this was a difficult decision.  As a consequence of this decision, we may soon find ourselves moving the playground to the only location that meets the requirements of the preschool licensing authority and the City of Vancouver:  the southwest corner of our property --- right in our own front yard.  For some of us this may represent yet one more sacrifice, to others a positive sign to our neighbours that this is a community that welcomes children.  Who knows what may come of these developments in our life together?

            What I do know is what Abraham knew:  the God who has called us has a compelling voice that continues to beckon us.  In recent years I have enjoyed a prayer found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the worship book of our Lutheran sisters and brothers: 

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 317)

When Abraham set out with Isaac, he could not know the ending, yet he went.  When the founders of this parish established this community, they could not foresee the paths we would tread.  When you and I set out on our baptismal pilgrimage, we could know the perils we would face.  But all of us, from Abraham to those of us sitting in the pews today, have felt the touch of God’s hand leading us and the warmth of God’s love supporting us.

            May that touch and that warmth strengthen us in the ministry God has entrusted to us in this place.  May we face the challenges of the faithful life with confidence the cost of our discipleship will not be in vain.  Amen.

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