Rev. Caroline Barnett
The Stories We Tell
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When you think about it… it’s pretty miraculous what all this story has been through to get to us today.
Our scripture for today began as a simple story. Told by the Hebrew people as a way to remember their ancestors. It was a myth, a fable, shared by the community. This story and the ones like it were passed down, each generation taking the time to tell the next one. It was a story told in times of abundance and joy, but more often during times of hardship and suffering.
The ancient Hebrew people who told this story first spent very little their history as their own sovereign nation. Most of their years were spent as people under occupation from the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, and the Persians. And when a new empire invaded, they often divided the population, sending some to far reaching corners of the empire to weaken the entire community, causing destruction, war, and famine for all.
But in spite of all this, the people survived and so did their stories.
And kept telling these stories until they came into a time period where people wrote things down, and so they compiled them and read them and copied them down again. And again. And while they continued to suffer at the hands of others, but they survived and stories did too.
A miracle of perseverance and hope.
And so it makes sense the many of the stories we read today in Genesis are stories of God’s faithfulness and of a promise that even when things seem dire, these people will survive.
When the world said: "You are no more than slave, expendable," the story said: "In the beginning God created us and called us good."
When the world said: "We will destroy your people," the story said: "God promised Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca that they would be ancestors some day. You are that promise."
In the midst of trauma, the Hebrew people told these stories to remind themselves that God’s covenant is not easily destroyed.
Even so, this story in particular, this request from God for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, is hard to one hear. It’s a story that makes many people to today angry at God.
Once, I was in a Bible study where we read this story and a man with his own sons spoke up with distress and emotion clawing at his voice. "I want to be faithful to God more than anything," he said, "but if I was Abraham, I would tell God no."
But when scripture challenges us, it is often helpful to remember that though it is a gift to everyone, we are not the original recipients of this story.
So what would the first storytellers hear in this? How do a traumatized people make sense of this?
Trauma— any trauma— has a way shutting down emotion and trust. It can destroy faith in God, faith in the world, faith in ourselves. Like funhouse mirror, it distorts reality into a reflection where we can see the outline, but the image is warped.
So perhaps, when we who are not the first storytellers look at God through this funhouse mirror, expecting a crystal clear image, God can look grotesque. But perhaps for those whose suffering has felt endless and meaningless, they are grateful to see God at all.
In telling this story the first storytellers affirm that God is a part of their lives, that if God speaks to Abraham, even to say terrible things, maybe God is still speaking in their lives. God has not abandoned them.
But this story is not just a one-sided request. When God says “Abraham,” he responds: "Here I am." And God tells Abraham what to do, and Abraham, with seemingly no objections, prepares to sacrifice his son.
At first read, it appears that Abraham has no issues with the task before him, that he follows God’s command in a display of unwavering obedience that he is later praised for. But if we listen to Abraham’s words, we hear a different story.
When Abraham and Isaac leave their travel companions behind, Abraham says: “We will return.”
And then the father and son walk up the mountain, and Isaac asks the obvious:
"Where is the lamb?" and Abraham responds simply: "Don’t worry, God will provide it."
Now some who read this story say: Well, Abraham must have been lying to comfort Isaac or to keep the other men from interfering. Of course he isn’t telling the truth.
But I see no reason to assume Abraham must be lying.
Instead, I wonder, if by telling Isaac that God will provide, he is not actually talking to Isaac, but he is talking to God, demanding to God: "You will provide a lamb."
Abraham trusts in the promise that God has made him. He trusts in the covenant that his story will not end with him. If I understand this text, Abraham is holding God accountable to this promise.
You will provide a lamb.
And God does. With flair for the dramatic that makes for a great story, God intervenes and ensures that the promise God made remains intact.
God praises Abraham for his faithfulness so maybe dissent when he is asked to do something unreasonable is a part of a faithful response.
If Abraham can hold God accountable, then maybe first storytellers do not have to passively obey the powers-that-be in their own lives miserable.
If Abraham can change the expected outcome of this story, then maybe the first storytellers can imagine a new story for themselves.
If Abraham says no to the cruel sacrifice of his child for the powers-that-be, maybe we can do the same.
Our world is different than the world of Abraham and the world of the first storytellers, but it is still ruled by powers that demand us to sacrifice others.
These powers aren’t God, or even a distorted image of God that we might see in a funhouse mirror, they are powers created by humans but still shape the world we live in, like racism, poverty, and oppression.
And they have demanded sacrifices from us. Well, from some of us more than others.
Last month, as George Floyd was dying on the street in Minneapolis, the breath leaving his lungs, he cried out for his mama.
These words remind us that before he was anything else, he was someone’s child. But because he is black and we live in a world that wrongly links blackness with crime, with wrongdoing, with threat, he was sacrificed on the altar of racism.
The power of racial hierarchy demands that some people are sacrificed, that their lives are worth less than others, that like Isaac, they can be used as collateral damage to test our country’s obedience to the powers-that-be.
But these things are not God.
They promise none of hope and justice and love that God promises Abraham and us.
So if Abraham can speak up to God, demand a change to the story because he desperately believes and trusts in the promises of God, then aren’t we capable of speaking up against things far less important, far less life-giving than the God of Abraham?
We can be like Abraham, like that man in the Bible Study who knew immediately that being faithful to God does not require the sacrifice of someone’s child, we can hold the world to the promise of life and dignity that is meant for all people, not just for people who look like me.
Since March, I’ve heard a lot of people joke that 2020 is a year for the history books. But it really is: It has been a year unlike any other in my lifetime, and I have doubt that there will be books and documentaries detailing all that has happened, and probably what is still to come. Because let’s be honest, the year is not over.
But beyond the facts and the figures, I’m curious what will be the stories we tell.
What are the stories we will tell our children who will tell their children about who we were in 2020?
I hope we tell stories of how we cared for one another through a pandemic no one was prepared for.
I hope we tell stories of how we took seriously the reality of racial injustice and the ways it shapes all of our lives.
I hope we tell stories about how we did not give up on God’s promises of life, how we spoke up when they seemed to be forgotten, and made sure no one else was sacrificed.
Friends, I hope that these will be the stories we tell.