July 2, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8):
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
The story in Genesis 22 is known in Judaism as “The Binding of Isaac,” Akedah, rather than the “sacrifice” of Isaac.
Think about some of your relationships…the minor relationships that you engage every day…you walk into a store to pick up something…and you’re in a very brief relationship with the salesperson that lasts for as long as the transaction takes place. It would be rare if you kept that relationship going after that transaction happened…might even be a little creepy.
How many of your relationships are transactional like this? I have something you want…you have something I need….we’re in a relationship in order to facilitate the transaction. How many of your relationships are structured this way…Probably more than we’d like to imagine…think about your job…would you actually be in relationship with the people at work if they weren’t paying you? Maybe your would. Work, school, family might be transactional as well… some families do behave that way… “as long as I get what I want…I’ll put up with them.”
Now, for some family is something that no matter how crazy and dysfunctional they are, they’re still your family and when they need you…you come running…but for others, family is simply the people you grew up with and your real family are the people you’ve chosen to be with as adults…the ones you share experiences with…the ones you trust…deeply.
For many people their relationship with God is very transactional… “God, I need something…so I will do this for you, if you do that for me”…We all fall into this occasionally. “If you get me out of this situation I’ll go to church every Sunday” or whatever.
Do you have relationships that are not based on any kind of transaction…no quid pro quo…Relationships that are based solely on trust? That no matter what happens you still want…or need to be in that relationship?
Abraham and God have been in a relationship for a very long time…it’s been a relationship based on both transaction and trust. It’s a relationship that has had its ups and downs. God has promised offspring as numerous as the stars…and Abraham has mostly gone along…
Sarah finally had a child, and last week Abrahams first son…born to Hagar was sent off into the desert, which means the totality of the entire promise of this relationship between God and Abraham is now focused on Isaac…And just to amp the stakes up even higher…Isaac has probably reached puberty…it’s hard to know how old he is in this story, and commentators offer ranges from 13 to 37 but certainly he’s old enough to know what’s going on…and to comply or resist.
So the promise has all but been fulfilled. Isaac is of an age where he can have children. Abraham will have a son who will give him heirs…the transaction (if that’s what it is) between God and Abraham is all but completed. But, there’s still a question…There is no guarantee that Isaac will follow God in the same way that Abraham has. There’s no guarantee that Abraham having received all that has been promised will continue to follow God. If this were a relationship based purely on transaction…Abraham could say…I got what I came for…thanks. Go find some one else to lead. But thats not what happens.
Because God is not really interested in transactional relationships…God wants real deep trusting relationships. God wants to be in deep, trusting, loving relationship with all of us generation after generation after generation. But there’s never guarantee that the next generation will continue that relationship. There’s always a temptation to give up the depth and revert back to the transactional.
There are centuries and centuries of commentary on this text exploring every conceivable aspect of it. Every word and syllable. Every nuance has been explored and continues to be explored. So I’m not offering anything new, but what caught me this time is God’s desire for non-transactional…trusting relationships…and the amazing risk God takes to have them.
On the surface this seems like a completely insane test…Here’s the promised son…now get rid of him. But think about at what God is doing…God knows that God will provide a ram to substitute for Isaac…Abraham doesn’t know this, but God does. What God doesn’t know and what apparently God can’t know, is how Abraham and Isaac will respond to the relationship now that the transaction has been effectively completed. God has no idea what the two of them will do…will they continue with this relationship…or abandon it now that they got what they wanted? That’s the real question..and here’s the amazing, risky thing God does.
God places the entire promise…the entire future of the covenant completely into their hands. God places all of God’s own hopes and dreams and plans in the hands of Abraham and Isaac and says: “you decide…are we going through with this, or not?” And God makes it really, really easy, and tempting, to say, “no.”
God could just “make it so.” But God doesn’t…God let’s them decide the fate of the promise…That a huge risk. A few clues that helped me think about this…
First: It’s not in our text but in the original Hebrew, God says something like “please,” “Take, pray, your son…your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up” (Alter, p. 108) It’s not a command, so much as it is a request…”Will you do this for me?”
Second: There’s no suggestion that Isaac puts up a fight, or struggles…There’s a repeated phrase in the text…”and the two of them went together,” which can mean that the two of them were united in one purpose…being bound to the promise of God…bound to trusting God regardless of any transactional promise.
And finally, at the conclusion the messenger says, “now I know, that you fear God…” that you trust me with out conditions. Before this, God didn’t know that this would be the outcome. But God took a risk.
God takes this amazing risk…and puts the entire future of the promise into Abrahams and Isaac’s hands. Now, we have no idea what would have happened if Abraham or Isaac would have refused, or had said, “no.” Presumably, God would have had to find someone else…someone who was worthy of that kind of trust.
Abraham and Isaac is an extreme example, and none of us would want to have this kind of extreme test laid on us…But the fact is, God exhibits this kind of radical trust in us all the time. God is always placing the future of God’s own promise into our hands…never knowing how we are going to respond, but trusting that we can respond, and hoping that we will respond, in the right way.
And if we don’t uphold that trust? We don’t know what would have happened if Abraham had balked. We don’t know what would have happened if Isaac had resisted. We don’t know what would happen if we turn away from that trust…except we do. The entire history of the world is the history of God trusting us with the future of the promise…putting it lovingly into our hands…and watching what we do with it.
For Christians, every week as we come to the altar to receive Communion, that trust…that precious promise that the world is and will be God’s realm of peace, and justice, and shalom is given to us…the divine, and eternal hope of that promise being fulfilled now and forever into the future, is placed into our hands…flows into our bodies…to use as we will…May we be worthy of that trust, and good stewards of that divine promise, today and every day.