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Lent 2 B ~"The Mt. Moriah Son Test"~ Susan McGurgan, D.Min.


Given any other choice,

preachers don’t often choose to preach on this passage from Genesis.  

At least,

I don’t remember many sermons that focus on the story of Abraham

taking his son, Isaac,

to the top of Mt. Moriah

to kill,

and then burn his body upon an altar.  

 

Those I do remember

tend to explain away,

gloss over,

spiritualize,

minimize,

or ignore altogether

the violent images and traumatic subtexts

that rise from this story like swamp gas.

 

Sermons on this passage usually take their cue

from the “Title” of the text—

a title assigned by later scribes—

The Testing of Abraham,

And most of these sermons

state emphatically,

even enthusiastically,

“It was a test!

It was a God Test, and Abraham passed!”

Yea, Abraham!

After all, the opening line of the passage states,

“God put Abraham to the test.”

 

The homilies usually end by urging,

“Therefore,

let us BE like Abraham

and trust God completely,

without hesitation

without question,

without fail.

Amen.”

 

But I find this message,

this interpretation,

this approach,

Unsatisfying.

Unconvincing.

At odds with the God

I have come to love.

 

And it leaves me wondering

whether I am a person of faith…

Or not.  

A person who trusts…

Or not.

Because I don’t want to be Abraham.

Not even a little.

 

Maybe it’s because in my tradition,

these sermons are preached by celibate males

who never had sons to sacrifice.

 

Maybe it’s because a God who toys with people—

A God who plays cat and mouse with people’s minds

using what they hold dearest

as cheese in a trap—

is not an appealing subject of worship.

 

Maybe it’s because

these sermons almost universally

ignore

Abraham’s checkered and ugly history with sons,

conveniently overlooking his oldest son—

     the son and his slave mother

     who were banished into the desert to die,

          or disappear,

               or, whatever…

               as long as they weren’t Abraham’s problem anymore,

but rather, God’s.   

That time, it was Sarah’s voice goading Abraham

into a cruel and horrifying action,

and God’s voice telling him to obey her,

that all would be well.

 

God’s reassurance to Hagar

doesn’t sanitize the picture

of a man who abused a slave woman,

created a son,

and when they become inconvenient,

sent them into the desolate wilderness

with nothing but a skin of water

and a hunk bread.

Thank you for your service,

and don’t let the tent flap hit you on your way out.    

 

But mostly,

the Abraham Passed the Test homilies

miss the mark for me

because as the mother of three sons,

the moment I become convinced that God is

commanding me to kill one of them

as a test of faith,

well, that will probably be the moment

God and I part company.

 

This is one of the most disturbing passages

in the Old Testament

and it’s easy to see why most preachers,

given the choice,

will preach on the glory of the Transfiguration, today.

 

God’s voice,

commanding violence in his name.

God’s voice,

demanding –let’s call it what it is—

the murder of a beloved child

as proof of love.

God’s voice inviting blood

spilled upon an altar—

for a test.  

 

We speak of blind

mechanical

unquestioning faith

as if it is something to be celebrated,

something to be sought after,

something to be upheld and prized.   

And maybe it is.

Probably it is.

Perhaps the state of my soul depends on saying,

“Yes, it is!”

 

But somehow

those words of affirmation

lodge deep in the back of my throat,

unwilling to emerge.  

Is there a line to be drawn

somewhere?

Anywhere?

What about terrorists who strap explosives to their bodies

and plunge into a crowd

in the name of God?

 

What about shooters emptying round after round

into the bodies of innocents

in the name of God?

 

What about bombers

exploding abortion clinics

and murdering doctors

in the name of God?

 

What about armies,

maiming and destroying “the other”

in the name of God?

 

What about a mother,

drowning her children

because she believed this is what

God commands?

 

How do we discern God’s voice?

How do we listen for what is real and true?

What makes Abraham,

     a man who offered his wife Sarah to other men

     out of his own cowardice,  

     a man who drove one mother and son

     into the wilderness

     and hauled another son up a mountain

     to gut and burn him,

what makes Abraham a holy man

and the anarchist,

who believes God also speaks to him,

evil?

 

Do we ask these questions

and expose our terror at these texts of terror--

reveal our doubts and uncertainties—

or do we stammer out glib and easy answers

about faith

and tests

and trust in the Lord

and slam the lectionary shut with shaking hands

vowing to preach on the Gospel next year?

  

We don’t willingly raise these questions in Church

because they are dangerous.

They are landmines

hovering over quicksand

surrounded by barbwire

tied with a lit fuse

leading to a pile of dynamite.   

 

But,

if we did open up these conversations in Church,

I suspect I would not be the only mother

who would fail the “Mt. Moriah Son Test”

 

I just don’t know how to approach this story.

And I think it’s ok for us to say, 

I struggle with this.  

I struggle with this vision of a God

who would bait a trap for us with our children.  

Sure, Abraham passed the test,

but to be honest,

he was a sketchy father and husband to begin with.

What does this story say about me?

I wouldn’t even begin that walk up Mt. Moriah,

much less

strap a load of wood

to the back of one of my boys.   

 

Can we talk about this?

Or are these conversations just too hard?

Too risky?

Do they leave us too vulnerable?

 

The truth is,

our holy book is filled with unholy things

that can challenge

even overturn our comfortable vision of God.

True, the Bible contains texts of great beauty and joy--

passages that proclaim Good New of salvation and hope.    

But these passages share uneasy real estate

with texts of terror—

texts that –if we’re honest—make our hackles rise

and our palms sweat.  

 

So immune have we become to the bitter pain  

of some familiar Bible stories

that we scarcely blink at their violence

or weep at their pathos.

We proclaim them

as cheerfully as if we are announcing

the holiday cookie exchange at the Ladies Sodality.  

Abraham strapped the branches he would use

to build the fire of sacrifice

to the back of the son he would burn.

The Word of the Lord.

 

I believe we should ask hard questions

and begin dangerous conversations.

We should look unflinchingly

at the passages of unholy chaos

and not turn away.

We should admit that sometimes,

we don’t understand the stories we proclaim.

That sometimes,

despite the emphasis we place

on the nearness and accessibility of God,

sometimes the God we encounter

in the world of scripture is entirely

Other,

and beyond our ability to comprehend.

 

One thing is certain.

Our holy book is filled with stories of human suffering,

dark sorrow,

twisted sin,

structures of power that demean and belittle.

In this book there are men and women

whose lives seem forever poised

on the brink of disaster.

 

And in the end, that is Good News for us!   

If it were not,

how could the Bible speak to us on our darkest days?

If it were not,

how could we trust that the promises it contains

are meant for us,

when we are caught in the snares of sin

or wandering along the edges of disaster?  

 

These complex stories that are hard to look at,

hard to hear,

hard to understand,

teach us that there is no human sin,

no violent urge,

no action of terror,

no ugliness,

no fear--  

Nothing

that places us outside of God’s care and promise.

 

There is no place so foul or lonely   

that God has not travelled there before us

and is waiting there now,

to lead us out.

 

But what about Abraham

and the voice in his head

telling him to sacrifice his son?  

 

I just don’t know.

 

I don’t know what God’s first words to Abraham

meant,

the voice that led him up Mt. Moriah

with a bundle of wood for a human holocaust,

but God’s next words are unmistakable. 

After a terrible silence

that must have stretched into eternity,

God spoke and said,

“Do not lay a hand on the boy.”

 

Do not lay a hand on the boy!

 

Do not sacrifice your child on the altar.

The gods of the Canaanites and Philistines

demanded all types of offerings 

including blood sacrifice,

both animal and human.

And in this moment,

The God of Abraham spoke decisively and irrevocably--

saying, “NO MORE!

No more children should die!”

 

Do not sacrifice your child on the altar.  

 

There is a message here for us,

as well as for Abraham.

Our altars may look different,

our sacrifices less graphic,

but our children are no less at risk.

 

Do not sacrifice your child.

 

Do not sacrifice your child

upon the altar of convenience.

No child,

born or unborn,

should die on the altar of greed,

or expediency,

or success,

or ambition.

 

No child should be bound tightly

to the altar of ignorance,

Violence,

Prejudice,

or Want.   

No child.

No more.

 

Not ever.

 

I may never understand this story fully,

but right now,

it’s enough to know

that God saw the body of Isaac

bound upon the altar of sacrifice

and proclaimed for all eternity,

NO!   

This is not the sacrifice I want.

Honor me with your lives.          




**About a month ago, a dear friend and conversation partner, Fr. Joseph Cardone, and I had coffee and for some reason, our talk turned to this passage on Abraham and Isaac. Our lively conversation was cut far too short, but I continued to think about our discussion and wrestle with this challenging story. I still have no answers, but thanks to Fr. Joe, my questions got deeper.

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