Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Binding

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 29, 2014

Year A, Proper 8: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42
The Binding
            Parents love their children.
            There are some very sad and troubling exceptions, but for the most part parents love their children with the most intense love that we can experience in this life.
            Most parents would do anything for their children - would, without a second thought, give up their own lives for their children. I see that kind of sacrifice around here all the time. So many of the parents here at St. Paul’s – so many of you - work so hard – work sometimes beyond exhaustion - to make sure your beloved kids have opportunities – have the best life possible in this often tough and dangerous city.
            Parents love their children. And that’s especially true – intensely true – for parents who had difficulty conceiving children.
            Maybe you’ve known people who endured fertility treatments or in-vitro fertilization to get pregnant. Some people employ a surrogate mother. And, of course, many wonderfully generous people adopt.
            Those parents – who desired a child so much – who kept trying despite the odds – who had children when they thought they couldn’t have children - those parents love their kids with an especially intense love.
            Abraham and Sarah were part of that group.
            The Book of Genesis tells the story of how God had called Abraham and Sarah to leave behind their old lives, to leave behind their home, to head out into an unknown land.
            God commanded Abraham to give up the past.
            And, in return, God promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.
            There was just one problem. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t conceive.
            You may remember last week we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Because she couldn’t conceive, Sarah had given the slave woman Hagar to Abraham and together they had a son, Ishmael.
            But then, in their very old age, God gave Abraham and Sarah a child of their own, Isaac. We can imagine – some of us don’t have to imagine – Abraham and Sarah’s intense love for Isaac, their miraculous gift from God.
            All of this makes the story we heard today – what’s called “The Binding” of Isaac - so powerful, poignant and, yes, disturbing.
            Once again God calls Abraham. And Abraham responds, “Here I am.”
            Abraham is paying attention, ready and willing to obey God.
            Once again God sends Abraham out – this time with his beloved, miraculous,  son and two servants – this time to a place called Moriah where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac.
            Earlier, Abraham had been commanded to give up the past.
            Now, Abraham is commanded to give up the future.
            They arrive at Moriah and Abraham tells the two servants to wait while he and Isaac worship and then return together – which sounds like a lie. Abraham may simply be lying to the servants and to Isaac – and maybe even lying to himself. Or, maybe it’s not a lie. Maybe Abraham hasn’t lost hope – maybe Abraham still trusts God’s mercy.
            Abraham places the wood on Isaac’s back.
            Isaac, no fool, realizes - wait a minute! - we have everything for a sacrifice… except the lamb.
            The Bible doesn’t describe how Isaac reacted when he realized that he was the lamb. But, it doesn’t seem like Isaac put up a fight. It seems that he submits to his elderly father. It seems that, like his father, Isaac also submits to God.
            Then they arrive and Abraham binds his son and takes the knife, prepared to obey God’s command, prepared to sacrifice his beloved son, prepared to sacrifice the future.
            And then at the last moment an angel orders Abraham to stop.
            Abraham passes the test.
            Abraham’s obedience, his total devotion, is rewarded.
            After the passage we heard today, God renews the original promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation, with descendants as numerous as the stars, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.
            The Binding of Isaac is a powerful, poignant and, yes, disturbing story.
            I bet a lot of us have trouble accepting what seems to us like God’s cruelty – testing Abraham by commanding him to kill his son.
            But, in ancient times, no one would have seen God’s command as cruel. Difficult and painful, yes, but not cruel. Throughout the ancient world, in every religion, the gods demanded sacrifice.
            And sacrifice means giving up something we value very much.
            It wouldn’t have been much of a sacrifice if Abraham didn’t value his son, if he didn’t love Isaac so much.
            The point of the story was and is Abraham’s total trust in God – Abraham’s total faithfulness and obedience to God.
            And God rewards that total trust, total faithfulness, total obedience with great blessing – blessing for Abraham and for the many generations that followed.
            So, what does any of this have to do with us here today?
            God certainly isn’t going to command us to sacrifice our children. And God isn’t even going to ask us to sacrifice a ram, or even a cat.
            But, God still calls us to sacrifice.
            God still calls us to total trust, faithfulness and obedience.
            In the story, Isaac was bound by his father for sacrifice.
            Well, today we’re going to have a different kind of binding.
            In a few moments, I’m going to have the great joy of baptizing Jasmine. Unlike Isaac long ago, Jasmine knows what she’s getting herself into. In the water of baptism, God is going to make an unbreakable bond with her – God and Jasmine will be bound together forever – linked by a bond that is indissoluble.
            And you and I are going to be reminded that we are also bound with God.
            In baptism, God has made an unbreakable bond with us – no matter what we do or don’t do – God will never dissolve the bond that holds us together.
            And just like God long ago commanded Abraham to sacrifice, so God commands us to sacrifice.
            God commands us to sacrifice what’s valuable to us – to sacrifice our precious time by coming here and praying together and breaking bread together – to sacrifice our pride by admitting when we mess up and promising to change our ways – to sacrifice our selfishness and self-interest by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by loving everyone even our enemies – to sacrifice our wealth by giving to those in need - to sacrifice ourselves by giving away our lives in loving service.
            God commands us to sacrifice – maybe not as difficult as sacrificing a beloved child – but pretty challenging nonetheless.
            And, like Abraham, when we sacrifice we are richly blessed.
            We are blessed with bonds of love – bonds of love between God and us – bonds of love among us all.
            Just look around.