Preaching on Isaac, Abraham and the climate crisis
Sermon preached at University Lutheran Church of Hope-Minneapolis MN
I’d like to focus on the first lesson from Genesis. It is a difficult story, somehow primal and ancient. It’s long bothered me. I’ve long wondered how we might speak of it as ‘good news’ that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac? Truth be told, the traditional interpretation--that God merely was testing Abraham’s faith, and because of his actions Abraham becomes for us a model of faith in God--leaves me with major questions. Are you ready, God?
First, God, why did you need to test Abraham? Didn’t he leave Ur with his whole family to follow your call? Didn’t he wait through years of barrenness with Sarah for your promised child? Yes, yes, I know Sarah laughed when you suggested that she might have the pleasure of a child in old age. But do you blame her? Weren’t those tests enough?
Second, God, what a sick thing to do in order to test faithfulness! Sacrifice an only son? Do you really think we should worship a god who asks of us child sacrifice in order to assure our total allegiance? Do you really want blind obedience as the highest good? Do you really desire that on account of faith we are willing to entertain illegal and immoral acts? That might be a deal-breaker for me, God. We’ve got enough blind faith inspiring violence in the world today.
It won’t surprise those of you who know me to hear I’ve been helped in my biblical interpretation by Leonard Cohen. Against much pious Christian reading of this text as a test of Abraham’s faith, Cohen draws on a deep rabbinical tradition interpreting the text as a story rejecting child sacrifice. Cohen, in “The Story of Isaac,” spends two verses poetically retelling the Abraham and Isaac story before shifting to today in the third verse. “You who build these altars now, to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more.” In his context of the anti-war movement of the late 1960s, Cohen was connecting this powerful interpretation to the US war in Vietnam.
This other line of interpretation, one in fundamental congruence with the deeply moral character of Yahweh throughout the bible--seeks to end violence. Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is a god of love, freedom, and justice, all words implied by the biblical term shalom. To find our way to this interpretation, we need to think of the wider context of near-eastern religious practice and the demands of other gods.
Take Deuteronomy 12, Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about how they shall worship once they reach the promised land. “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring after their gods, saying ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’ You must not worship the LORD our God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their Gods.”
Or take Micah 6, a prophetic critique of the people’s tendency to simply copy the pattern of sacrifice to the gods prevalent in the land while ignoring acts of mercy and justice: “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before the LORD with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
In the wake of such testimony, it is clear that Yahweh is a god who does not require child sacrifice. If we go back to the story we have from Genesis, we can bring this anti-sacrificial meaning to The Angel of the LORD who says to Abraham, “do not lay your hand on the boy.” Those animal lovers amongst us may not appreciate that God gives a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac, yet the deeper issue is the promise that God provides another way.
We just got back from a week in the bay area. I was teaching in the mornings at our Lutheran seminary in Berkeley, and our family was running around exploring the sights in afternoons and evenings. A week ago on Sunday, we drove out to Marin County to see Point Reyes National Seashore and the majestic redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument. The Kent family, who owned that final stand of giant redwood trees in Northern California created the park in honor of John Muir. Muir was the son of a Scot Presbyterian pastor who followed his father in a way, becoming an evangelist for God’s great work in creation. A sign there quoted John Muir saying (in 1897), “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools--only Uncle Sam can do that.” Muir understood the power of law to establish and protect a common good that our urge for ‘life, liberty and happiness’ is only too ready to lay on the sacrificial altar. Joni Mitchell was right, paradise is paved and the trees have been put in a tree museum. Only now, they charge more than a dollar and a half just to see ‘em!
We’re in a different place 115 years after Muir’s lament about God and fools. I was left with the feeling that we can hardly congratulate ourselves for saving the redwoods so thousands of tourists can stand craning their necks to see hundreds of feet up to their majestic canopy. What is at stake now is not merely magical 1000-year-old trees, but a billions-of-years-old planet. Strolling among those trees now, I hear them singing with Leonard Cohen, “You who build these altars now, to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.”
On the flight home, I picked up the latest Rolling Stone magazine. In it, Al Gore has written a major article titled “Climate of Denial.” He argues that while the science is absolutely clear and the dramatic weather-drought, floods, fire, polar ice melting, etc. are absolutely real, media and merchants of pollution continue to peddle the idea that climate change is just a theory, that it might not be true and certainly doesn’t require dramatic change. Gore says in response that “what we are doing is functionally insane. If we do not change this pattern, we will condemn our children . . . Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now.”
So we lift up stewardship today. We dedicate a patio/rain garden, part of an urban ecology initiative this congregation has committed to. We dedicate financial pledges to the capital campaign to support the renovation of the Christian Education wing at Hope. As we celebrate this communal commitment to giving to a greater good, we are called to fit these into the pattern of living that calls us deeper, that calls us to face the question of how we live in response to the stewardship question of our age. Our very lives and the patterns of privilege that give them particular form are intertwined with sacrificing our children. America has built an altar believing deep down that we deserve the good life we enjoy, that it is indeed our God-given right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In ancient times, Yahweh provided an alternative to the sacrifice of Isaac. So God has provided alternatives for us today. Our personal and communal actions matter in being good environmental stewards. We who have built these altars, to sacrifice our children, we need not do it anymore. The celebration today at Hope is a living witness that God has provided alternative paths for us to walk humbly, with justice and mercy. May this path of stewardship become a well-worn path personally, as Christian community, and I dare say, as Christian citizens.