Sermon June 28, 2020 Mercy not Sacrifice (Gen 22) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Remember that report about murder hornets? A few months ago? Huge palm-sized hornets, spotted in Canada, on their way, be on your guard, because here they come.
I don't actually know if they're here, or what sort of peril they reasonably represent... But what I DO know is that when -- into the one-thing-after-another tumbling series of "enough already" that this past six months has unleashed upon us – suddenly there was a thing we had to contend with called murder hornets?
That seemed to be the point at which collectively, at least in pop culture, we just decided to cede the field. Like, 2020? You win. We kept imagining that there couldn't possibly be anything else, anything worse, anything more difficult – more upending, more lunatic! – that we'd have to figure out how to navigate... and then, 2020, you brought us murder hornets. So, message received.
It's kind of how I also felt, I don't mind telling you, when I turned to the lectionary readings for this Sunday.
Because, seriously, Older Testament? Last week's story was dreadful. It was utterly dreadful. Sarah and Abraham, literally presented for us in these Bible stories as sort of the mother and father of Judeo-Christian faithfulness – and what they did in last week's reading was forcibly impregnate Sarah's slave Hagar to produce an 'heir' for Abraham, and then when they no longer 'needed' her, because Sarah herself produced an 'heir', they threw her and her baby out into the wilderness to die.
It could hardly be worse. Or so we might imagine. Until we turn to THIS week's story. Which is pretty much the murder hornets of the Older Testament.
Abraham, apparently commanded by God as some kind of twisted horrific test of loyalty to murder his own child Isaac as a 'burnt offering". A worship sacrifice on an altar. Like, usually in ancient times it would be a goat or a pigeon, killed in a ritual sort of way to placate or ask a favour from the gods or goddesses of harvest or fertility or war or whatever –
And here it is: God. Commanding Abraham to offer this kind of worship sacrifice of his own child. As nothing more compelling than a test of his faith. Which, phew. Abraham passes. Without having to do the actual killing. And that's supposed to be good news.
There are a lot of layers in this story. And a lot to be repelled by. When my son asked me what I was preaching this week and I told him the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, he said "I don't know what that is." And I was glad. Because it's really not a story that we maybe need to learn in Sunday School.
I wouldn't want him to think, for example, that my faith could make him offer-uppable. That his life would lose in that equation. More to the point, I wouldn't want him to think that my trust is in a God who'd demand that. Or in some ways even worse – who'd demand it, but only as a test.
It's not just that it speaks to a degree of intentional cruelty in God that I find abhorrent. It's also that it speaks to a degree of distance, of otherness, of complete separateness of God from the essential heart of human life – there's this kind of willful disconnection from the basic nature of what it means to be human – that in this story makes God seem almost like an emotionless void.
Literally in last week's passage, God rescues Hagar and Ishmael because God can't bear to hear Ishmael's cries and Hagar's anguish when they're expelled by Sarah and Abraham.
So what happened to THAT, when in this week's passage Isaac's literally bracing for the blade his father is holding to fall, his FATHER – and it was just a test.
No surprise, there's a lot of scholarship about this passage. And I'm not talking about scholarship that's attempting to sort of explain it away or mitigate its horror. That exists too, but I find I'm not particularly comforted by suggestions that it's all metaphorical and God just really wants our love to be unconditional. And still less by entire sermons exhorting me into gratitude because God didn't actually make Abraham go through with it.
But there's good scholarship. Enlightening scholarship that locates real meaning in this story as a story.
The book of Genesis is a blending together of three different pieces of ancient storytelling about the earliest days of humanity and of God's relationship with God's people. This was oral storytelling, not written down, stories told around campfires, passed from generation to generation.
Some of the stories come from the southern part of what we now call Israel. Some came from the northern part. And some were stories that specifically developed in priestly circles, as faithfulness and worship practices became more codified into what we'd now probably call "religion".
And each of these three pieces of storytelling, unsurprisingly, kind of came to reflect the themes and traditions of where they came from. A particular story might even get especially remembered and passed on, in a particular place, if there was something in it that reflected in a particularly resonant or powerful way, the themes or traditions that were most embedded in that place. Because that's how oral storytelling works.
We remember and retell the stories that click with us most. And over time, generation after generation, we also retell and reshape stories to click with us more.
So the story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, it's a story that comes from the northern part of Israel. Scholars have been able to identify the sources of various pieces of the book of Genesis based not only on themes but also on language and the names used for God – and this story is from the northern part of Israel.
That means it arises and takes the shape we have it in now, in our Bible, at the same time and in the same place as Hosea the Prophet was also prophesying in the northern part of Israel.
And that's crucial. Because the message at the heart of Hosea's proclamation – a message SO MUCH at the heart of Hosea's proclamation that Jesus quotes it directly and passionately to his disciples in Matthew's gospel – is this.
God saying "Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice."
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. It's easy to hear that metaphorically, and to find it confusing. Because we think of sacrifice in a metaphorical sense – it's like a going above-and-beyond sort of generosity. It's giving up something we might want ourselves in order that someone else can have it. It's selfless, it's explicitly loving, it sounds like exactly the sort of thing we'd imagine is part of the better angels of our nature that usually God's all about calling out of us –
And yet. I desire MERCY, God says, not sacrifice.
It's not metaphorical. Not for Hosea, not when Jesus quotes him, and not in our story from Genesis. The scholarship about this passage locates its meaning in the full sweep of the story as being the moment when God makes clear – not just for Abraham but for all of us –
That God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Like, actual ancient religious tradition sacrifice. Where the way you placate your god, or ask for favours, or just keep that relationship strong, is by periodically tossing God a bone, as it were. Literally.
Because ... no! is what God is saying through this story. No! That's not the rules of THIS relationship. This is NOT same old same old, you slaughter me a goat periodically and I'll treat you great. It's not that derivative but it's also not that EASY.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. It's not just a list of burnt offerings you can just check off, and you're all good.
In the context of the prophecies of the northern kingdom from which the story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac arises, God stopping Abraham's hand is literally the moment when that message is embodied. I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
It's a massive change of religious paradigm. A huge step away from prior "contracts", in a manner of speaking, that people have understood exist between themselves and their gods. Here's what the gods require, you do the thing, you follow the rules, it's all good.
But what's embodied in this story is a whole new paradigm. A relationship with God that depends not on following rules, but on continually working on a way of being. Merciful. Full of mercy.
It's such an old-fashioned word, but to be full of mercy is implicitly to be focused on others. It's not just giving the benefit of the doubt, and seeing the best in them – it's also wanting the best for them, and making sure they have what they need, because how can we possibly want them to suffer or come to harm – we can't. Not if we're merciful. Because merciful's focus is outward. It's an orientation. It's a stance.
It's what God desires. As Jesus reminds the disciples and us. And this story is the embodiment of Abraham learning that. I desire mercy as your orientation, God says. This is not a relationship grounded in following the rules of doing the proper sacrifices at the proper time. That paradigm is past. This is now a new paradigm. Not about rules but about a way of being.
I think that as we start our summer, we're kind of in that moment. I mean, clearly not with the drama and the horror of the story in Genesis, the murder hornets notwithstanding, but we've had all these rules for months that we've been able to follow. Here are the rules that will flatten the curve, that will protect as many people as possible, and our following them is an expression of our care for each other, our responsibility for each other.
And suddenly? Not so much with the rules. Now it's going to depend on us. Now it's going to depend on how merciful we are. On how careful we're willing to be, on how mindful of others' vulnerability we're willing to be, on what we're prepared to do and how far we're prepared to go, in order to protect each other.
It's a paradigm shift moment, in this pandemic thing. We were great at the sacrifice, we followed the rules, we stayed the blazes home, and we did well. Now, God says to us, it's all about mercy. Go be merciful to each other. Amen.