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Living in the Tension: A Sermon on the Sacrifice of Isaac

“Don’t Mind Me While I Rip Out This Page”
Sermon by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church
Boise, ID
June 29th, 2014

Psalm 13
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”


So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

After this reading, do we say: thanks be to God?

Don’t mind me while I tear this text right out of my Bible (sound of tearing paper). Haven’t you wanted to do that before? Not just this text but lots of texts, haven’t you wanted to rip them right out and never read them again? The Bible is not a comfortable book to read. And don’t worry that was just last week’s bulletin I ripped so we’re okay.

One of the things that really scares me is that someone might preach this text nonchalantly. You know that somewhere out there at this very moment this text is being preached straight up and literally while being unassaulted by the horror of it all – as if God tests us this way, and that isn’t something we should question. That scares me. I don’t know what we do with texts like these that paint a less than stellar picture of God. A horrible picture of God. And us.

I do think that I am amazed this story, and those like it, are still in the Bible. I mean think about it, they have to be able to fix this one. The editing room floor is a good place to start. This story was passed on for centuries in oral tradition and written in scrapes and fragments and pieced together and translated and re-translated. Surely in all that re-scribing of the text we have had ample opportunity to smooth out the edges. As much as I dislike this text I have to say I am amazed by the forerunners in faith who continued to keep stories like these in the Bible, after which we do say: this is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. There has been plenty of time to alter scripture to be more palatable, more marketable, a better story to get people on board.

Several years back – probably about 6 years now – I was watching a Chicago Bears game. I am a Chicago sports fan and no matter where I live I always will be. I’m a diehard fan of the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears. So I was watching a game and Nate Vasher – who was a cornerback for the Bears and one of my favorite players at the time – intercepted a pass. I’m sure we were losing at the time; we have done that a lot. And he intercepted the pass and we all got excited and then he fumbled and lost the ball back to the other team and in my frustration I pounded my fist against the ground. What I would come to learn soon was in that moment I fractured my wrist. Now two things about such injuries when you are a preacher… first, shaking the hands of everyone after worship with a fractured wrist is really painful. It is particularly so when you have a lot of ex-Navy folk who want to make sure to give you a good firm handshake. Secondly, when you get that wristed casted you get asked A LOT what happened. And I would tell people – because I have this honest streak – that I was in this alleyway and saw a little old grandmother being mugged and I stepped in…. ok, I would tell them what really happened and – now I’m sure you’ve done this and so have I –they’d respond, “really???” And I’d want to say, “No, I just made that up because it makes me look so good.”

It occurred to me back then that I should make up a better story because people would like it better, and so would I. And I remember that every time I read a scripture story that is hard to understand, or particularly one that is violent and oppressive like this story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son at God’s command. I think of that because I realize that they could have written a better story, if this was just about what they had wanted to write. There is something deeply faithful about the sacredness with which we have held to stories of God and God’s people and in which we have been unwilling to make God or ourselves look better in the telling. As we go through Genesis this summer you will notice that the first families of faith aren’t really reputable people. Abraham’s winning and faithful characteristic is that he says yes to everything and questions nothing. In other times and places this would have made him complicit with evil (and one can and should argue that here in this particular story). Abraham, the yes-sir / yes-ma’am, is considered a hero of faith because he is on the side of God and we presume the side of God is good. Jacob lies, steals and cheats his way into the story – and does those to his own family. But we will tell his stories as our stories of faith and it is from his lineage that we get Israel and our own forerunners in faith. These aren’t lifetime movies or hallmark specials. The Bible is not a family friendly book. Do you remember last year when the History channel did the Bible miniseries? One of the early critiques I saw was that it wasn’t fit for children to watch. I remember thinking, “well duh!!” The bible has rape, murder, genocide, anger and petty jealous – this from God’s side of the story. One should not engage scripture unless you are ready to get real. Surely we are clever enough that we could have come up with a better story. But somewhere in these texts we have sensed a holy wrestling with God. Somewhere in these texts there is an unfolding story of who we are in relationship to God and who God is to us. And if we have learned nothing from these texts we ought to learn to cut ourselves a break when we get it wrong. Because the people have always gotten it wrong.

I ask one more thing of you Abraham, who I have drug all over the ancient near east. Who I have kept waiting for my promises to come true, who I have watched have his family split in two at odds with each other, who has done everything I have asked. Now I ask you to take this child, whom you love and you longed for, this child who you went through so much for, take this child and kill him as an offering to me.

I want nothing to do with that God.

I will not stand up here and tell you to believe in that kind of God. I will not stand up here and play mental gymnastics to explain how this story is okay, because it’s not. What I will do is ask a hard question of us: Is there good news in this kind of story? Is there any redeeming quality to this story?

After seminary and before I pastored my first church I felt a calling – an Abrahamic kind of journey calling – to spend an extra year as a hospital chaplain doing a chaplain residency in downtown Atlanta in a program that could have you working as many as 100 hours a week when you were the weekend chaplain. 1,000 bed hospital with 2 level one trauma centers and a children’s hospital across the street as the only chaplain on overnight shifts. It was a hard year – an emotionally difficult year. There were nights where all you did was death. I recall one weekend shift that from start to finish I walked with nine different families through the death of a loved one. Nine deaths without sleep… when you do that you begin to feel more than a little ashy.
In the midst of that journey you are doing residency work to look at yourself and your interpersonal baggage and how you work with your 6 colleagues and their baggage and that is draining as well. And in the midst of that my wife and I were in year three of trying to have our first child. Now it’s hard to feel the sting of that now because… well now we have four kids. But at that time we were doing the 28 day rollercoaster of did it happen, did it happen, no it did not. And we were in year three of this rollercoaster and like so many who have fertility challenges we had to watch other people be excited about new kids and then news stories about people who had so many kids they didn’t want and on and on and in the midst of that you wonder, “why on God’s green earth can we not have a child?” This journeying took us to doctors and eventually me to what became radically successful reproductive surgery. But I wasn’t there yet…

All three of these streams came together in Holy Week – itself an emotional time. And I remember being in the conference room with the other resident chaplains and our supervisor and we are talking about stuff and it all just broke inside me.
I started sobbing. I was experience the very real death of God for me. And I was experiencing the dilemma of what it means to be the spiritual care for people when God was dead to me. What, and how, can you mediate death with people when you yourself are feeling that God is dead? How can you provide spiritual care when you have no spirit and feel dried up inside?

And all this comes pouring out and these wonderful people who I work with who were friends and comrades in a hard journey began to utter – sorry I can’t sugar coat it – all kinds of crap. Theological platitudes. Nice sounding hallmark cards. How it was going to be okay, how it would all work out according to God’s plan… all the stuff we had been trained to never say, because there is nothing you can say in that kind of moment. And as my colleagues – who I love to this day because we went through a kind of formative hell together – because my colleagues were saying all this I was now feeling worse… its like heaping up ash on someone who is already burned up inside. And then they left…

And I said to my supervisor who was still there – and I’ll never forget this part – “Robin, they’re so unhelpful. And I’m learning how to be a better chaplain right now. And I don’t want to learn from this. I don’t want to learn like this…”
And she didn’t say a word.

I could imagine. (If I’m doing any theological gymnastics I’m warning you it’s about to happen.) I could imagine a well-meaning writer trying to get someone into the angst of that moment saying I was being tested by God.

I could imagine, because I heard and watched and participated in my colleagues who are good and faithful and caring people heap all kinds of theology onto the hell I was living on my Mt. Moriah moment, so I could imagine afterwards saying something like this is the word of the Lord… thanks be to God… and attributing all kinds of motives and causes and results from this story. I could imagine trying to tell it faithfully and mucking it all up. Because there isn’t a good way to tell those kind of stories. It is so easy to try to domesticate those kinds of stories. But we all have these kinds of stories. That’s my point here.. the point is not my story. But our stories. Because if we learn nothing from Abraham we have learned that on the 10th time and the 11th time, and I’m sure on the 12th time when it seems like we have it all together (finally) something else happens that we find ourselves tested and tried and strung out as we stumble into a Mt. Moriah hellish kind of moment. And I look back on it – on my version – and I ask, “Did God put me (do that to me) there to learn something?” And the answer, I believe, is no and the answer is yes.

Because God IS a god who unsettles us, God is a god who tries to break us out of unhealthy patterns and idolatrous myths and practices and God puts us in places to try to understand the deep resources of life in a world that has a lot of death, a lot of hurt, and a lot of harm. And sometimes that feels cruel… is cruel. And sometimes we aren’t really sure how much God is involved in all of that but we do know – on some visceral level – that God is in it all somewhere. And in this midst of that hard challenging news… I also think there is a thread of good news to this story.

The thread of good news is that when we end up in those moments – God is right there with us. You hear that in the end… and then Abraham saw a ram. The Hebrew words for saw and provide have the same root. God/Abraham saw a ram, and God has provided it. God provides a way of life. “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

We will end up in Mt. Moriah moments. We will end up in hellish places that it feels to us that God has led us to dead ends. We will end up in moments where we aren’t sure if God is worthy of our belief, and we will end up in moments where our life or the life of one that means more to us than our life is at risk, and in those moments you cannot get rid of the existential angst, the anguish, and the feeling of death. But you can hear a word that you are not alone. That God is with you working in that hell to provide a way out… a way to life.

On the mountain of the Lord, in the midst of hell, in the challenge that will come in each and every one of our lives – the Lord will provide. Amen.

–Charge and Benediction (call it addendum 1)
The Supervisor of my chaplaincy, her name was Robin, is a beautiful soul. And she would always say we have to live in the tension. Life pulls us into difficult places; we get caught between different truths, between challenge and adversity, a rock and hard place. And as chaplains, as Christians, we are called to live in the tension of those moments. We are not called to resolves the tension but in the midst of that tension to be a presence of love and care. I cannot resolve Abraham’s story. I am not called to. But we are called to enter these stories free of our go-to theological platitudes and full of love to remind ourselves, our neighbors, and the world that even in the midst of hell God is with us and that you are – we all are – the object of the greatest love that ever was, is, and ever will be. So go into the world with whatever peace you can muster. Amen.

Who is Jesus… on the cross?

That’s right, who do we say Jesus is, when Jesus is on the cross?

Going back awhile (oh about 13 years or so) I have been very intrigued by the above question.  But let’s take a step back first.  It is one thing to answer the question of who Jesus is upon birth, in his ministry of calling his first disciples, and in his healing and teaching.  We say “God with us,” we might quote scripture with him being the “Son of God” or “Son of Man” or maybe just “the Messiah.” Of course it is very hard to pin Jesus down to saying more than “that’s who you say I am,” or “okay but don’t tell anyone.”  Jesus makes “I am” statements but they aren’t so clear as all that… and of course in John’s Gospel he does ramble for a good while about being “one with the Father” but then in John 17:20-23 he makes clear that he is praying that we are as “one” together as Jesus is with the Father, and that their oneness would be extended to include us in the same oneness together (sorry if that’s not clear… but he really is rambling – or John is, or the Spirit is… whoever – rambling is the “order” of the day).  Jesus, it seems to me, imagines that Jesus is no more one with the Father than we might be one with each other and even with God.  So it hardly makes a great case for Jesus as God, or a strong case for his being unique in his oneness with God.

So who is Jesus?  If this isn’t answered by the Bible with clear authority (and I would argue that it is not, though it certainly provides fertile ground for faithful imagination) the early traditions claimed Jesus not simply as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God… but as God.  (There is quite a bit written by smarter and more informed people than myself on the subject so I’m not going to tarry here.)  Perhaps this comes from asking, who was the risen Christ, and who is Jesus today?

The Church began to pray to Jesus, we come to understand God through Jesus, we imagined the great act of God on behalf of the fulfillment of creation as coming again through Jesus in his “second” coming.  (One might ask why Jesus has “gone away” necessitating his “coming again” but again I won’t take that rabbit trail, and I’ll try to get to my point.)  When we ask of this Jesus, who are you – we imagine no other answer than ‘God.’

But now I want to back up again… I want to return to this week in our liturgical year.  I want to inquire – in a Pilate kind of way, I think – of the Jesus of triumphant entry, of eye’s wide open betrayal, of doubt ridden abandonment from his friends, his followers, even from his God, and of the crucifixion and death… I want to inquire of this Jesus, who are you?

I imagine what he will say.  He will say, “well who do you say that I am?”

And that’s the rub of it all – Jesus just doesn’t want to be pinned down into any easy to understand identity.  But let me tell you from experience.  (Having done this on more than one occasion.)  If you gather a group of passionate Christians together and tell them that on the cross God dies… they will not respond in the affirmative to the thought (but from experience I can say you will also have a really good conversation ensue).  We can imagine Jesus as God in just about any place or time – even the manger of a stable as a babbling infant – better than we can wrap our minds around the idea that God dies on the cross. We imagine that somehow Jesus can be God in all other times but that God pulls some divine magic to make sure God doesn’t die when Jesus does.  And… I don’t know.  God hasn’t let me in on the secret.  It’s a mystery to me.  But I’ll admit the philosopher’s training in me struggles with the inconsistency of claiming Jesus is God and yet trying to claim that God doesn’t die.  I’m not content with some spiritualized attempt to imagine that just the incarnation of God dies, but not the God behind ‘the Jesus.’   I don’t know what really happens – my faith is mixed in with lots of doubts, and nothing about my journey as a follower of Jesus is predicated on the absolute truth of my interpretation or understanding of how all this works.  If Jesus was actually married, if Mary wasn’t a virgin, if God admitted to not being perfect in some kind of cosmic confession booth… none of these thing would come to me as a shock.  They would not rock my faith or cause me to doubt any more than I already do.  But I still question.  I still seek to know with a very lower case “k.” Not because I want to pin God down… but because I really think there are powerful takeaways for my life in this story at the heart of the story of Jesus.

If the whole of God was on that cross.  Not just a sliver, not just a fleshy sub-part, not just a prophet, not just a sacrificial lamb or substitute person to represent the idea or corporation of all people, not just a sent out image like some billboard evangelist, not just a child of promise… but THE promise AND the PROMISEER wholly, complete, and total ?  That’s really scary.  How can the world survive that loss?  Why would God risk that?  We aren’t really worth all that, are we?

It’s okay for God to give up a son for us… but for God to risk God’s own eternal annihilation for us?  What if the resurrection didn’t happen?  What if that was the end?  What if…

I sure hope God knew what God was doing.  Jesus doesn’t seem all that sure in the garden.  Was that just an act?  What if God didn’t know… what if God surmised but wasn’t certain? Or forget that… what if God was certain… to a point.  What if God knew that it should work… has no reason not to work…  Is it responsible for God to put it all at risk on the gamble that it would work?  And what did working even look like?  How do we even know?

I want to know… but it seems I do not need to know.

But here is what I look and imagine and feel and wonder about this week… this week that God dies.

  • God really does know what it means to suffer, not from hearing cries, not from an emotional substitute.  God suffers in God’s self.
  • God knows what it means to stare death in the face wishing it could have gone a bit differently.  God has regrets… regrets about friends’ actions, communal activities, even regrets about God’s own chosen course of action.  God agrees – this is not the way it’s supposed to be, but God rolls with it anyway.
  • God is willing and able to risk the death of beloved reality for the hope of greater life on the other side.  God even imagines that proper engagement of death is a fertile ground for new emerging hope (Yellowstone fires anyone?)… that death is a servant to life though we have to think beyond ourselves to see it sometimes.
  • God really does think we are worth it.  God has gambled on us – does gamble on us – and there is nothing, not logic or fear or stubborn waywardness or orthodoxy or hate or hesitancy or… well there just ain’t anything that will prevent God from giving up everything for us.

God. Everything. For Us.

It is all on the line.

That’s why all the right answers, or good theology, or learned scriptural analysis, or long-held tradition aside… that’s why when I look up on the cross this Friday I will won’t just say, “Jesus died for me.” I won’t join the centurion in Matthew saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” I will say God is dead… dead… dead.  I will sit there in awe (both awe as awful, and awe as uncomprehending overwhelmedness).  Because it’s a pretty amazing thing to put the shoe on the other foot and imagine that we worship a God who would let us put God to death – rather than the other way around.  I will sit in that space and imagine how anyone goes on after that.  And on Sunday?  Well… we’ll see when we get there.

But when we get there, whatever we see, I hope I hold on to the knowledge that death isn’t so scary.  That we are worth the risk.  And that allowing us to burn ourselves down to see what rises is about the biggest affirmation of abundant life I can imagine.

Thanks be to God.