I've been thinking about Thomas Jefferson this week. Not because the 188th anniversary of his death is this Friday, although it is; not because we share a birthday, although we do; but because Jefferson began a project in 1805 to rewrite the Bible. He didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus, and he didn't like the parts of the Bible that emphasized the supernatural parts of the Gospel story, but he approved of the moral teachings of Jesus, so he took scissors and glue and he set out to create a Bible that had only the important stuff as he saw it, creating one harmonized story from all the Gospels that omitted the miracles, the angels, and the Resurrection.
Currently, a group calling themselves the Conservative Bible Project is embarking on a new English version of the Bible which will "enable a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias... and exclude later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story".
There have always been portions of the Bible that make us uncomfortable for one reason or another, and if we can't remove them completely we try to avoid them: even the daily office lectionary in the Prayer Book skips over the parts of the Psalms that call down curses on the Psalmist's enemies. There have always been people who thought they could improve on Scripture. And when we come across a horrifying story like Genesis 22, where God tells Abraham to kill his son, his only son, whom he loves, we may feel tempted to skip over that. But here it is. What are we to do with it?
When we start digging into the text, we unearth some surprising details. We know - remember last week's Genesis story? - that Isaac wasn't Abraham's only son. Ishmael was the older son and the one who could have claimed that "only" title for a few years. In fact, the Koran has a version of this story which doesn't name the son. Islamic scholars have suggested that the original version of the story was about Ishmael, not Isaac. That might make it slightly less repugnant, since Ishmael wasn't the focus of God's promise to Abraham about descendants. It would certainly fit in with the history of the peoples who surrounded the Israelites, and who had an unspeakable custom of sacrificing their first-born children to ensure the protection of their gods for their future family.
There are also clues in the text that at one time the story actually had Abraham going through with the murder. For example, neither Isaac nor Ishmael ever speaks to their father again. Sarah never speaks to Abraham again. God never speaks to Abraham again. The family disfunction seems complete, as well it might after this kind of trauma. And the end of today's story, which we didn't hear, goes like this: "Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-Sheba." No mention of the boy going home with them. What happened to the boy?
In the days of Scripture being passed from one voice to another, from one generation to another, it's quite possible that the story was changed to make it more palatable, and in the days before mass printing, who would know?
But we are still left with a story that, even with Isaac spared, gives us pause when we come to worship the God of Abraham. How are we to approach a God who asks a faithful servant to destroy what he loves best as proof of his devotion? Perhaps the cost of faithfulness is just too high. With the benefit of hindsight, we Christians understand that this same God, the God of Jesus, is a God who will sacrifice an only and beloved son for the greater good, for OUR greater good. Honestly, I'm not sure that that helps too much. Now we have a God who not only tortures the faithful but is also homicidal, an abusive parent in his own right.
Our horror and doubt drives us deeper into the text, seeking nuances that we miss almost entirely when we read Scripture in translation: there is in fact more than one name used for God in the OT. One name, Elohim, is used for to refer both to Israel's God and to the false gods of Israel's neighbors. It's a plural term meaning literally "the gods". It is Elohim who tests Abraham and sends him to the mountain with his son.
At the dramatic climax of the story, the angel of The Lord calls Abraham to stay his hand. This is the angel of Jahweh, Abraham's "I AM" God. The NRSV uses "The Lord" to indicate Jahweh. This is a huge clue: who has Abraham been listening to here? Who is it who calls him to do this terrible thing? Perhaps it isn't God at all but the voice of the child-murdering culture that surrounds him. Perhaps Abraham is seized by a compulsion to do what the neighbors do, just as earlier in Genesis he had sold Sarah away into harems so as to fit in with the peoples who surrounded him then. Perhaps at that moment of decision, he finally hears the true voice of the God of promise, the God of mercy and compassion, the God who will give up what God loves most of all rather than see humanity suffer exile and death.
If Abraham listens to the wrong voice, the voice of the false God who demands the sacrifice of his child, he is also able to hear the right voice when it carries a message of mercy. When we think we hear a call from God we do well to examine that call in the light of everything else we know about God. Is this the God I know and trust? For the professional who overcommits to business at the expense of her family life, is this the God who calls us to celebrate Sabbath, or the false god who lures us on with a mirage of success and universal adoration? For the church, when we spend our energies on preserving the institution at the expense of opportunities to serve the needy, the sick, and the underprivileged, are we listening to the God who calls us to serve or the false god who fills us with fear of scarcity and insecurity? When we create barriers by being less than welcoming, are we listening to the God who welcomes the little ones, the God whose name is love, or to the false gods who fool us into thinking we are the chosen few, who command us to reject those who make us uncomfortable?
In an ironic twist, the misguided faithfulness of Abraham has actually given comfort to people of faith. Over the centuries, many of Abraham's descendants have seen their children killed: they have taken great comfort from this story because they could see themselves as following in Abraham's footsteps, and they believed that if they could submit as obediently as Abraham submitted, their loss and tragedy could somehow be redeemed. An agonizing detail of Christian history relates that during the Middle Ages, when Jews were brutally persecuted and forcibly converted to Christianity, some Jewish parents chose to kill their own children and then commit suicide rather than endure captivity and torture. Those parents undoubtedly looked to Abraham as a role model of faithfulness.
How are we to respond to this story today? We can take the face value, the traditional interpretation of the story: Abraham was willing to sacrifice all that he held most dear because God commanded it. What do we hold most dear? What are you willing to sacrifice? What comes between you and God? That is a question worth examining in the silence of your own heart.
And then there is the Gospel, and the light which it might shed on this difficult Scripture. Jesus calls us to be open to welcome: to present ourselves as vulnerable strangers so that others may treat us with compassion and hospitality. And he makes very clear how we are to treat "these little ones", however we interpret that phrase. We are to value the little ones: the ones without voice, the Isaacs and Ishmaels of the world.
How shall we care for the little ones? We learned in a forum last month that the second largest global industry, coming second only to the weapons trade, is the international trade in human beings. Children and adults are bought and sold every day. This week the FBI conducted a nationwide crackdown operation on human trafficking. Here in San Diego, six arrests were made and two children were rescued, a tiny fragment of a worldwide scandal. I learned too about the huge international trade in shrimp, which is based largely on slave labor on shrimping boats that operate out of Thailand. Thousands of people are forced to work the boats without pay, rest, human rights, or any freedom. Do we hear the voice of Jahweh, the one who promises life abundant, calling us to get involved in providing a new life for those who have been bought and sold like animals?
How shall we care for the little ones? What can we do about the 52,000 children, age six and up, who have crossed the US/Mexico border unaccompanied by adults since last October? The news from Escondido this week is deeply troubling: the community's leaders yielded to the NIMBY voices and rejected the federal government's proposal to convert a former nursing home into a refuge for some of those children.
Was the Escondido planning commission listening to the voice of Jesus, the voice of the God who loves and values the little ones? Where is the cup of cold water? The God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, the God who cares deeply for the sparrow, calls us to reach out to the little ones, to offer that cup of cold water, that blanket, that safe place to those who are vulnerable, and to the sojourner or stranger in the land.
Today, as I mentioned, is Social Media Sunday. I am aware of the irony of speaking about human trafficking on this day, as the unmonitored use of social media is one way that traffickers make contact with their victims. But today we have an unprecedented opportunity to be part of a national effort to share our faith with friends far and near, in both words and pictures that convey this community that means so much to us, this community where we wrestle with difficult Scriptures and discover new insights into the ways God cares for us and calls us to care for others.
When you all took that minute to share with each other before the sermon, I suspect there were about 150 different conversations, because God speaks to us in unique ways. Abraham believed that he heard God speak: take your son, your only son whom you love, go to the mountain and give him up for me. Then he believed he heard God speak: do not raise your hand to the boy. I will bless you because of your faithfulness. We may believe that God speaks through the hospitality we offer and receive, through the cups of cold water we can share, through the TV news that tells us of the plight of abandoned children and trafficked victims. We may believe that God speaks through the voices of people we know and love, or through music or beauty or the comfort of a familiar space. We may even believe that God speaks through a sermon. I am certain that each of you has a unique thought right now about this sermon, about whether you feel comforted, troubled, challenged or informed maybe even bored or angry!
Whatever your response, please take the next three minutes to sit quietly and reflect on what you've heard. If you have a smart phone or tablet and can post a thought to Twitter or Facebook, go ahead and do so. Remember to add hashtags #episcopal, #stpaulcathedral, and #sandiego. If you have a friend you can text, do that. If you don't have the technology, just scribble down a thought on your bulletin and save it to share later But don't let this moment pass without articulating some short message that you can share with others. This is your chance to let others know what St. Paul's means to you.
June 29 2014: the third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8