Sermon 2 July 2017: Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

This story bothers me.  Maybe it bothers you too.

This story, known as the “near sacrifice of Isaac” is troubling.  It raises so many questions: Why would God demand Abraham offer his only son Isaac to be sacrificed?  What kind of God tests people’s faith in that way?  Why would Abraham just go along with the plan blindly, without questioning God?  Or was Abraham simply delusional…was the voice not God’s but just in his head?  And why would God allow the test to go as far as it did?  How traumatic must that have been to Isaac, to be bound and tied, seeing the blade of a knife so close, and on the other end of it his father ready to plunge it into his flesh?

Considering all these questions, I’m not so sure reducing the story to a lesson of exemplary obedience to God or connecting it as some pre-story to Jesus as a sacrifice on the cross makes the story any less troubling.  But perhaps this morning, and like most days, we’d prefer a simple explanation…..we can avoid being uncomfortable, sing the closing hymn and go merrily on our way.

Pastor Aaron asked me to preach on mental and physical disabilities this morning, and to be honest, I’d love to give you a nice answer about how God wants us to embrace those who bear marks on the inside and outside that don’t resemble what most of us consider as bearing the image of God.  I’d love to simply tell you that faithfulness is simply embracing these people, enduring their imperfections, and that we’ll find immeasurable joy in doing so…..one big happy ending to the story of being church to those less fortunate than us.

Yet that sermon wouldn’t take away the nagging, troubling questions that I think persist with us when we see those who bear mental and physical scars – whether born with or caused by living in this world.  You know, the questions that live in the back of our minds, and cover up with statements like “they’re God’s little angels” or “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

Such a sermon wouldn’t help me make sense of my week:

A couple sailors returning from year-long deployments in combat zones this week, finding their way to my office because a wave of irrational anger swept over them to the point they were about to grow a chair at the nice lady giving the insurance benefits brief. They’re not sure why, but they then tell me stories of what happened on their deployments, and I know why. 

Walking into a store and watching a weary mom try to calm their mentally handicapped child, because they simply do not have the ability to comprehend why they can’t have a certain box of cereal that caught their eye.

A man, head bent, half-burnt swisher sweet in hand, slowly walking through the cross-walk where I was stopped, oblivious to the rapid countdown of the crosswalk timer and chaos of traffic impatiently waiting for the signal to turn green.

Mid-way through seminary, ELCA wannabe pastors have to go through something called Clinical Pastoral Experience, or CPE.  For most of us, this is done in a hospital setting, and the goal is to teach us practical things like bedside manner and to hone pastoral care skills.  The hospital I did my CPE at asked us at the beginning what units we wanted to be assigned to.  Me, not really knowing but being open to anything said, “I’d like to be challenged.”

So they placed me in the two inpatient mental health units for the summer.

I can tell you as hard as that summer was, it was also rewarding, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect.  In caring for those suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and a whole host of other things, I found out this rather troubling truth: the line that defined why they were there and why I wasn’t was much thinner, and not as clear as I assumed.  A few life circumstances, a few poor decisions, the random chance associated with what qualities we’re given at birth…and I just as easily could have been locked up on the units.

Here’s the thing: as much as we might want to convince ourselves that we can distance ourselves from the troubling and disturbing things of this life, the truth is that our lives are bound much more closely to them…perhaps too close for comfort.  But in that discovery, that my story was somehow closely bound to their troubling story, I learned something about my own humanity as well as theirs.

In the Jewish tradition, this story from Genesis is known as the “binding of Isaac.”  To bind here means in the sense of binding up a sacrifice, an offering.  Yet I wonder if we can’t also think of binding in the way that no matter how we slice this story, the characters – Abraham and Isaac – can’t seem to escape the troubling events of it.  Escaping what is troubling, disturbing, what makes us uncomfortable is an unescapable part of life.  

Yet God is also one of the characters right alongside Abraham and Isaac.  God is just as bound up in the troubling and disturbing story as Abraham and Isaac are.

Such troubling stories, such disturbing things…..they are caught up in the life of God.  God doesn’t avoid them.  God is an active part in them.  We don’t face them alone.  God speaks, protects, and provides.

But to be caught up in the life of God isn’t just to have faith that God delivers and wipes such things from our lives, but to trust that God sees such things.  God doesn’t avoid them.  We don’t have to avoid such things, we don’t have to look away in discomfort or even shame because we know that God is right there with us looking at them because God binds God’s life to ours – even the most troubling parts of it.

Perhaps what we learn – as I learned during my summer of CPE – that binding ourselves closer to people who so publicly bear the disturbing things in life actually draws us into a deeper understanding of ourselves….and into a deeper relationship with God.

And perhaps this little, inescapable truth makes our prayers, our singing, our eating and drinking  around the Table this morning mean just a little bit more.

And it makes us a bit more hopeful in the inescapable things we see, the inescapable things we must face each and every day….because God has bound godself to our story, to our lives, to us.  Amen.

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