June 28 sermon of the Rev. Dr. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” In the name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
God loves you. God loves me. God loves everyone. Even the people we don’t, even the ones that cause damage to the world, even the ones who harm us. God loves everyone. No exceptions.
One of the implications of this is that anything God asks of us or puts in our way is designed to lead us to joy. And joy is found in union with God, with each other, with the earth, and with ourselves.
The story from Genesis is at first reading a horrible story. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own child. Many commentators have struggled with this, not least the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. And by the way, it should not be called “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Isaac is not, in fact, sacrificed. The Jewish tradition calls it quite properly, “The Testing of Abraham.”
At one level it can be seen as a legend that shows that the God of the Israelites is not willing to have human sacrifice. This God substitutes a ram for the sacrifice of a child. OK. But why need there be sacrifices at all?
This story is a good example of how the context in which we read the story affects how we hear the story. This reading is also one of the options for Good Friday and for the Great Vigil of Easter. If we hear the story on those occasions and we hear God asking Abraham to “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering,” we can’t miss the pathos that God is asking of Abraham exactly the same costly sacrifice that God will make in offering up Jesus, his son, his only son, whom he loves. Today, in contrast, we hear the story on a Sunday of ordinary time. We hear it as part of the ordinary reality of being a follower of God. How on earth can this be ordinary?
This week, for the first time I noticed a small detail that I had never noticed before. God does not tell Abraham to sacrifice his son. God tells him to offer him as a sacrifice. As it turns out God does not accept this offering. That got me to thinking about the idea of offering. We make offerings every week. We offer our money for God’s Church to use for its own good and the good of the world. We offer food so that God’s people can help their neighbors. And we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, at Holy Communion, for God to use to make the world a better place. God takes these offerings, and gives them back to us to use in God’s name. God makes these ordinary things and makes them holy. The very word “sacrifice” is a combination of two Latin words that mean “to make holy.” God takes what we offer, makes it holy and returns it to us to use in God’s name. This is what happened with Isaac. The churchy term for what we offer is “oblation.” The bread and wine we offer are oblations, the money, the food, and our own selves are oblations. God makes them holy. God makes them sacrifices. Then God gives them back to us changed in some mysterious way into tools for building the Kingdom of God.
So how do we and offering of our lives to God? There is phrase in this story of the Testing of Abraham that occurs three time. At the very beginning, God calls Abraham by name, and Abraham says, “Here I am.” On the journey to Moriah, Isaac want to ask his father why there is no lamb for the offering. He says “Father.” And Abraham answers in the same way that he answered God, “Here I am.” Then, just when Abraham is ready to kill the boy, the angel calls Abraham to stop him, “Abraham, Abraham.” And again, Abraham replies, “Here I am.” The Hebrew is “hineni.” It becomes the standard response to God or an angel. Eli the priest will teach the boy Samuel to use the phrase when God calls him.
Here I am. Is not this what we do every time we pray? We stand before God and say, “Here I am.” Here are my thoughts. Here are my worries. Here are my troubles. Here are my joys, my dreams. Here I am. Use me. Here I am. Heal me. Here I am. Change me. And is this not how we should be in every human relationship? Here I am. This is who I am. What you see is what you get. Here I am. I am ready to share my story with you and to listen to yours. Here I am. I am ready to work with you to make this world better than it is. Here I am. How can I be of service to you? Here I am.
Every day, we get to present ourselves to God, to each other and to the world. Here I am. Every day we get to offer ourselves to God, to each other and to the world. Here I am. Like Abraham we don’t know what the result will be. Like Abraham we know that the Lord will provide. Like Abraham we know that we will return with our Isaac. We know that our offering will be made holy and given back to us to make the world more like the world God wants.
And Jesus says whoever welcomes any of us welcomes him. Every time one of us says to the world or to a person, or to an institution, “Here I am,” the world, the person, or the institution can choose to receive Jesus or not. This is Luther confronting his beloved Church, “Here I stand.” This is Dr. King facing the racism of this country, “I have a dream.”
This is every one of us when we stand with our fellow citizens and demand justice and the rule of law. This is every one of us before each other and before God.
God tested Abraham.
“Here I am.”
“Offer your son.”
“Here I am. God will provide.”
“Here I am.”
“Do not lay your hand on the boy. Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
This is the core of all prayer. This is the core of all true religion and faith. This is the core of all discipleship. God comes to us, disguised as our life. And when God has got our attention, whether it is a burning bush, or the song of a robin, or an unarmed man killed by the police, we say, “Here I am. Here is my life. Make something holy of it, and I will use it for you. Here I am.”
Gods says, “Offer your life on a place that I will show you.” This is how God loves us. This is the way to joy.