God’s Call Is Better Understood in Community

Sermon for Sunday, June 26th, 2011||  2nd Sunday after Pentecost|| Genesis 22: 1-14||

by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer                                                                                                                

Good Morning, it is a pleasure to be with you this morning.  For anyone keeping track of my preaching history here, the last time I had the privilege to be in this pulpit the assigned texts of that week called for us to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if they cause us to sin.  Getting from there to God’s radical and universal call for us to love one another took some time! And I have found this morning’s Old Testament reading to be significantly more difficult.  Ever up for a challenge, I’ll invite us to go from human sacrifice to discerning God’s call for each of us.  Thanks for the theological workouts, Margot!

In case you missed the headlines from today’s Genesis reading, Abraham hears God tell him to sacrifice his son Isaac – which very nearly happens, until Abraham hears God again say the equivalent of “Never mind.”   The Twitter version of my preaching topics thus far would be – from dismemberment in my last attempt, to human sacrifice this morning.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most challenging in all of scripture, and it is significant for each of the three Abrahamic faiths.  In Islam there is an active debate about whether the son Abraham is to kill is actually Isaac or is in fact Ishmael – his first born son.  In Judaism – this passage is assigned to be read as part of the New Year’s celebration.

But we do our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters one better.  In our tradition, we grapple with Abraham and Isaac once and sometimes twice a year.  We visit this story at the beginning of the summer – not exactly relaxing beach reading, and then often it is read as part of the Easter vigil.  But at least as part of our Vigil it is natural to draw parallels between this Genesis passage and the passion.   We can make some direct correlations as both Isaac and Jesus are referred to as beloved sons, each carries the wood that will be part of their own destruction, and both are being given up as proof of ultimate sacrifice, devotion, and love.

However, the social context of the story of Abraham and Isaac is a call to end human sacrifice.  In the story Abraham may have been called to kill Isaac, but ultimately, God spares him, and instead provides a ram for the required ritual.  Theologians have written that the message of sparing Isaac was that child sacrifice, which was widely practiced at the time, would displease God.  Abraham summarizes this whole experience as being that God will provide.

In my preparation for this morning, I did not find any of the interpretations that I read fully satisfying. I think that this is a troubling passage, with graphic imagery that is not only off-putting, but truly gruesome.  Books have been written about this story.  Master works of art have been created.  Hit songs have been written – Bob Dylan, from his album Hiway 51 Revisited writes “Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’, Abe said ‘Man you must be putting me on’…”

So Bob Dylan and I have struggled with this passage, and this morning, I invite us to think about the portrait of God as understood by Abraham.  What kind of God would order someone to sacrifice his own son?  Isaac is the same beloved, miraculous son who had come to both Sarah and Abraham very late in their lives as the fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham’s descendents would outnumber the grains of sand in the sea or the stars in the sky.

We are told that God is testing Abraham, but why?  Surely God knows of Abraham’s devotion and his true and faithful heart.  And what about Abraham’s behavior in this passage?  In earlier texts he argued with God to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but when it comes to killing his son, Abraham says and does nothing in protest?

And what about the effect on Isaac?  He is clearly old enough to know what is going on.  There is some great biblical speculation about how old Isaac is at the time of this story.  Interpretations range from age 13 to age 37, and we really have no idea, but as a full grown adult one wonders whether Isaac went willingly and without a fight. And how did he and Abraham mend their nearly shattered relationship after Isaac is unbound and allowed to live?

For me, this passage raises profoundly troubling questions that, in my opinion, do not cast a great light on either God or Abraham.  I have had trouble reconciling my experience of God with the God described here who would call someone to commit murder.

So, I have been lead to wonder how Abraham knew that the voice he heard and obeyed, the voice that called to him to “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him as a burnt offering” was truly God’s voice.  And in contrast, how did he also know that the voice of the angel at the end of the story, who stopped him from taking Isaac’s life, was in fact also representing God and was to be obeyed?

How many headlines have we read where a disturbed parent has taken horrifying action against his or her children in response to what the person interpreted to be God’s call?  How do any of us know with certainty when we have experienced the voice or call of God, or when it is something else – our own desires or someone else’s, or most distressingly, when in fact what we are responding to is not at all God’s love and beckoning embrace but something that would lead us away from God?

In our faith, we take this kind of inquiry very seriously.  The Episcopal Church has an established process and tradition that is available to each of us, if we are trying to sort out God’s call or desire for us.  The process is available to each of us if we need it, and its hallmark is that we are invited to discern these questions in community.  We understand the discernment process to be part of our shared corporate responsibility.

Since February, I have been the grateful recipient of this community’s prayers for my own discernment process.  My remarkable Discernment Committee members:  Sandy Emler, Jim Graham, Nancy St. John, Kris Broe and Sam Pease, have worked hard with me to figure out whether in my pursuit of ordained priesthood I have heard and am responding to the authentic voice of God or to something else.

Together we untangled the signals, evaluated my experience, and they – representing this entire community– made a recommendation to the Vestry, and the Vestry endorsed the notion, that I should continue in this discernment process.  My candidacy will now be evaluated by the wider Diocesan community.

I can’t say enough about the faith-filled and deeply spiritual experience that working with this committee has been.  I recommend it, but also think that there is something to be learned for each of us.

In being able to talk about my experience of God’s call with the members of my committee, I have come to know more deeply and with more detail and certainty how I know and love God and what I think God is asking of me.  Being able to discuss my experience, my questions and my concerns about God’s call has enhanced my understanding, my reverence and the depth of my appreciation for God’s work and my opportunities to serve God’s people and church.

It was with this lens that I read of Abraham’s unquestioning obedience and apparent absolute conviction that he was doing God’s will.  Did Abraham talk with anyone in his community about what he heard?  We know he didn’t discuss his intended sacrifice of Isaac with his wife Sarah.  Did anyone help him discern God’s call or help him shoulder this test?

How did he manage all on his own – and is it possible that because he told no one, and processed and interpreted what he heard in isolation, Abraham got it wrong… that God’s test was not actually asking Abraham to kill Isaac, but that God was inviting Abraham to do or understand something altogether different?

This weekend I have had the pleasure of being in a group that has pointedly grappled with God’s intentions and work in their lives.  On Friday and Saturday a team representing the St. Stephen’s community participated in the Relay for Life, which celebrates cancer survivors and honors those who have died.  Our group’s theme was “Journey of Hope”, and the group of hearty souls who spent Friday and Saturday walking, talking, honoring, remembering and praying was remarkable.

Each brought stories of their own or a loved one’s struggles, and I was moved by how the memory, or story changed and took on new life and meaning as it was shared with new people, and taken in with new ears with different appreciation.  I know that I received several gifts of understanding and insight as I listened to others.

I thought of the support and deepening of relationships that were described, and was struck by one person who talked about her own journey that began with thoughts of her cancer diagnosis as being a divine punishment for poor decisions made in mid-life.  Eventually she described her profound gratitude for having been through the experience, and I imagined that this transformation and deeper understanding was probably a reflection of the relationships that she had around her, and that she had gained insight and a more mature and tested relationship with God that may not have come had she stayed in isolation.

I have heard members of the St. Stephens cancer support group talk about laughter and shared experience and understanding as being crucial elements to the life of the group.  They might not describe this in discernment terms, but if those conversations provide insight into God’s role and love for each of them, and an enhanced understanding of God in their lives and God’s availability and desire for their health and wholeness, then those critically important elements are absolutely part of discernment and clarity that comes in community.

Community is critical to help us understand God and ourselves better.  The near disaster of Abraham and Isaac suggests what might happen when one goes it alone on figuring out God’s will and call to us.

I often pray to be made more aware of God’s work in the world and my place in it.  I can tell you that it is one thing for me to have this awareness – of a gorgeous sunrise, or a grace-filled coincidence of running into someone, or a last minute change of plans that brings me in contact with someone who needed me.  It is a different – and this morning I would posit –more powerful experience, to share with another person and consider together whether what I have noticed is God or something else.

I invite each of us to be mindful this week — to see if we can catch God at something, some work in our lives, some gorgeous natural happening, some unexpected connection, and then let’s tell someone or ask what they think.  Perhaps in a reflective moment this morning you can recall a holy coincidence from the previous week.  What a lovely topic for conversation at coffee hour after church, or for a quiet moment at home.

I can only wish that Abraham had discussed his interpretation of God’s call before he trudged off to traumatize Isaac.

I can provide witness to the power of discerning a call to service within community, and I will pray for our success at finding – and remembering to discuss – our experience of God in the world over the next week.

I believe that it is a short walk from noticing, to appreciating.  With practice and conversation in community, I believe that we will have the opportunity to untangle and deepen our understanding of these experiences to see if they hold a hint of God’s call for each of us.  Amen.

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