Monday, July 3, 2023

A Sermon - Given at Renton United Church of Christ

 Genesis 22:1-14 – Abraham Sacrificing Isaac


Gifts Back To God

 This is a story that kind of makes your modern parent voice rebel. So first, let’s take the context into account. The religions of the day were heavily influenced by superstition.  Most people in the region had household gods and a god for every purpose under heaven.  In the indigenous Canaanite religious culture where Abraham moved to, the most faithful ones sacrificed their children. This fulfilled several supposed purposes – to win their gods’ favor, to protect them from natural disasters, and to receive blessings on their crops.

So it is hard to know what was spinning through Abraham’s mind.  He is the biblical character I would most want to take to lunch and pick his brain.   Was he keeping up with the Joneses?  Did some Canaanite guru guilt or embarrass him into it? We don’t know. Often we will just shrug and move on and try to forget about that craziness…. AND YET, the shadow of it invariably arises again each Holy Week when some framers of Christianity claim that God “sacrifices” his son. If God interrupts Abraham’s sacrifice, why would God go through with it with Jesus?  Perhaps we should wrestle with Abraham a bit more.

So let’s take it from a different direction. When I was a boy growing up, my immediate family would hook up with my aunt’s family, and we would go camping at Kootenai Lake in British Columbia.  The cousins, my sister, and I would play a game of cards we called Put and Take.  We would go out and each get 25 rocks – these were our pots of gold.  Then we would take turns being the dealer who would deal out 5 cards to each player. Then the dealer would pull out 1 card at a time and say, “If you’re holding a 5 put in 1 rock.” Then another card, if you have any 3s put in 2… until 6 cards and been drawn. Then the dealer would repeat the process only having people take out rocks.  The dealer could then keep what was left in the pot, or if it ran out, the dealer had to make up the difference. Fun game.  Played for HOURS.  Parents would have to call a halt for us to eat or send us to bed.  Because we played the radical socialized version of Put and Take.  If anyone ran out of rocks, well, you could try to convince someone else to share their bounty, or there were always more rocks to be found in the campground.

Put and take has always been, for me, a simple child’s definition of how Christianity should work. All the players, even God, put in what they have. And we take out what we’re needing – yes, even God. What does God need, you might ask?  It’s clear in scripture – especially the Psalms -- that what God craves from us is gratitude, praise, and devotion.  Remember, God is love.  But what happens to love in a family when one member feels like they’re doing all the work while everyone else just sits?  The entire enterprise that humans label religion or spirituality is entirely about relationships.  Religion takes spirituality off the rails when it gets sucked into power and control games, just as some marriages and families get sucked into that.  But we know that healthy two-way relationships is how the universe is built – and that applies in human circles, human-nature circles, and we see it in biology, chemistry, and physics – put & take. That’s how God set up the entire universe.

But what’s happening in our human realm?  What I see happening is humans pushing love away in exchange for money & power.  How would the world be transformed if we operated out of shared mutual trust, where we just practiced put and take? We could demand it. Sure, duty and obligation form social guardrails, but we’ve witnessed in scripture & elsewhere how guardrails can end up constraining God’s love – twisting it & molding it into some grotesque shapes such as we see here with Abraham – striving to pursue some crazy social-religious practice of devotion to prove to God that he is worthy/he is enough.  Nobody has to prove to God that they’re enough!  God declared creation good at the end of the 6th day. You are enough. That stamp of approval was your birth. But the human ego craves a pat on the head, having control, having certainty that we are better than whatever the idol of the day is.

So let’s bring this back to love – can Love win over the human ego?  God’s love is infinite. On that, we can probably easily agree. (I would also say God’s love is unconditional, but a bit more controversial so I’ll leave that with you to wrestle with and maybe we’ll take it up another time.)  God’s love is infinite. But, as the old Sunday School song goes: “love isn’t love unless you give it away.” How does God give love away? God’s love is going to be the most tangibly obvious if we are demonstrating it.  With a few exceptions, I think that is how God intended it.  That’s how Jesus operated.  But golly dang, if human egos and our out-of-control need to control don’t slip in here. And the next thing we’re doing is hoarding love for “MY PEOPLE”, trying to steer it to whom it will go. Making rules about how it can or can’t be expressed. Then we all get grumpy and fight and throw things and hurt each other. I’m sure that “Dad” probably feels like pulling the car over to the side of the road to say, “If you kids don’t stop it right now, you’re all going to walk home.”

So imagine if you’re able.  A world governed by love and a rule that said, “When doubts arise, just give.”  “Give til it hurts.”  That was Jesus’ example. (Right?)  He never asked, “What’s in this for me?”  He was always about what can I give.  What can I give/how can I give it?  Like him, can I give til it hurts?  Immediately, my ego jumps in and asks, “What if I run out?” “What if I don’t have enough?”  The human ego is sly.  It tries to be rational, but it’s really craving control.  It worries about what-ifs.  Our shadow side is always trying to figure out what must be paid to buy not just God’s love but others’ love as well.  The human ego is always worried about “what’s enough? Don’t get cheated. Don’t get taken.”  We have billionaires (That’s a B – as in Boy is that Bonkers!) STILL insecure, still craving more.  For perspective on a billion: 1 million seconds is 11 days.  1 billion seconds is just over 31 years.  As of last week, Elon Musk’s net worth was estimated at $234 Billion.  This means if he spent $86,000 a day, he would not run out of money for 7,250 years. That’s how insecure and craven the human ego is.  And God says, “No little one.  I AM enough.”   OMG.  I can almost hear the whisper in Isaac’s ear through ALL the centuries– listen!  Can’t you hear God?  “I am enough.  You are enough.  We are enough.”  Just us – ourselves – alone or together -enough!

Returning to Abraham, why was the miracle of Isaac not enough for the old man?  Was he still striving to get God’s blessing or attention, like the cultists he was living beside?  Maybe.  Maybe to get their respect?  Or maybe he wasn’t doing that at all.  Maybe he was, in his own misunderstanding way, just trying to express to God how much devotion and love he had for God and his words didn’t feel like enough. Which makes it still twisted, yes!  But also kind of sweet. How great is our love for God?  Or for this institution, we call the Church?  What would we give to express it?

The thing we forget in our strivings is nobody outgives God.  And God doesn’t even expect you to try.  The Biblical tithe seems to put a limit on what one must give – that 10% of your income guideline that gets bandied about in many a church pledge drive.  But let’s toss that.  It’s a fine enough guideline and all, but what if our guideline was “give in proportion to my gratitude to God for all God has loved me with?”  Then where do you find yourself? And please don’t limit it to thinking only in monetary terms. Maybe just as hard as giving in proportion monetarily is giving up our own attitudes, opinions, and beliefs to find reconciliation or restoration of a relationship or remediation for long-standing wrongs that have fractured and held back equality and justice.  How much love does it require to just accept people for who they are and who aren’t exactly like me? Because no matter what we feel about “the other” – God, in God’s omni-loving way, put them or that thing in our world/life. That includes everything and everyone from the ridiculous: What is a mosquito for? But also to the opposite extreme: a precious, even sacred, Promised child. The stamp of approval Abraham may have been looking for seems to have been provided by the abundance of an Infinitely Loving God. Who is still in that business today – handing out stamps -- even for you.