Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Don't Kill Isaac" - a sermon

Don’t Kill Isaac!
Rev. Alison Longstaff, Feb 9, 2014
Bath Church of the New Jerusalem
Genesis 22: 1-14, Jeremiah 28:7-9, Selections from Arcana Coelestia 1492 and 3839:4

“And … 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.’”

According to today’s text, God commanded Abraham to “offer his son as a burnt offering.”  In the next fifteen or so minutes we will explore the history of this disturbing scripture passage, and explore what if any relevance it may have for readers today.  We will discover if and how this Scripture might speak to you, and what it might tell each of us about our spiritual journeying in the 21st century.  We will discover that this passage has tremendous relevance today, in a deeply ironic and almost humorous way.

Many scholars through the ages, including Swedenborg, have approached this story as a spiritual metaphor, not historic fact.  Some believe it to be a primitive oral parable depicting how our earliest ancestors transitioned from human sacrifice to the less barbaric animal sacrifice.  Indeed, many Hebrew scholars have assumed all along that Abraham here misunderstood God’s will. They say the story is written as if God actually commanded the sacrifice of Isaac, but the true God of love would never have wanted this. Since primitive human cultures wrote the Bible, these early biblical stories reflect what the primitive peoples thought God wanted, not necessarily what the God of love actually wanted for them.

And Swedenborg agrees, saying that God never tempts us.  He didn't tempt Abraham and he doesn't tempt us.  A spiritual temptation is a conflict between what we love and what we believe.  God doesn't send them.  They occur naturally as we mature.  What we love is never all the way pure, and what we believe often has some fault-lines in it, so God allows the conflicts that arise from these impurities and fault-lines to refine us, little by little into wiser, gentler spiritual beings.  Abraham’s story amply illustrates a clash between what he loves and what he believes.  In this case, it was his belief that was faulty, not his love.

Abraham was born and raised in Ur, where they practiced human sacrifice at the time.  They offered young maidens, little children, and especially newborn babies as burnt offerings to try to win the favor of the gods.  Abraham grew up with this as the norm, and so it would have been built into his deepest psyche that human, and especially child sacrifice was the most powerful way to prove his devotion to God.  Knowing this, we can understand why Abraham could have thought God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac.  He was very devout, so he set his intention on obeying this command.  What a mixture of innocence and false beliefs!

Now remember, Abraham is a part of you and me.  In this part of the story, he is showing us what we are like when we have a genuine desire to do God’s will mixed with false ideas about God’s will.  Swedenborg says it is when we are still “worshiping other gods.” In other words, false ideas of what is right are leading us.  Abraham here represents the times in our life when we may be full of good intentions but have very little actual wisdom.  This part of us is most likely to cling to religious dogma and to follow it blindly from fear.  This ignorant innocence is pretty much spiritually unconscious, yet it is the beginning of all that we can be.  God honors Abraham’s innocent qualityhis devout and sincere intent to do what he thinks is righteven though God would never, ever have commanded such a terrible act

The book of Genesis is about a very early part of our spiritual journey. It shows a step of growth from a more primitive spirituality into increasing love and enlightenment.  The mountain called Moriah here is actually mount Zion—the mountain upon which Jerusalem is now built.  It is the mountain upon which Jerusalem is now built.  This tells us that this story is about our first steps toward a genuine and living spirituality.  The fact that the divine being is here called “God” (Elohim) and not “The Lord” (Jehovah or YHWH) means that this story is describing our relationship with our (faulty) beliefs or our understanding, not our loves.   

Now, the way this story was taught to me throughout my childhood was this: God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  He did, but it was just a test.  God never meant for Abraham to actually kill Isaac, and Abraham passed the test, so it was all good. 

No adults around me ever questioned the violent content of this story, nor considered the trauma this experience would have brought on Isaac.  No one expressed alarm over what it would really have meant for Abraham to have to murder his only child.  It was as if Abraham just lowered the knife, untied Isaac, dusted him off, and they had a good laugh about it all.  “Just kidding. Now let’s really go barbecue that ram over there.”  As far as I saw modeled around me, this story was a lovely and unquestioned illustration of how important it is to be obedient to God, no matter what. Don’t question.  Don’t think.  Just obey

It wasn't until I had children of my own that the emotional impact of this story began to hit.  However, obedient and devout Christian that I was, I jammed my discomfort and unease out of sight, because I didn't dare question what my religious leaders and teachers had taught me with such solid authority.  “Obey without question!” was the moral of the story.  If I was questioning, I wasn't doing the good thing Abraham did. Right?

The blind and devout me pictured Isaac lying there, all tied up on the wood, serene and trusting, docile as a—well—lamb.  But when my reason kicks in I can’t help but ask, is that really how it would have happened?  Didn't Isaac have a few problems with this scene?  Maybe there is a good reason he was bound up tight before being laid on the wood.  He must have put up a fight, the same way our reason objects to being sacrificed on the altar of religious dogma. And this detail changes the whole feel of the story. 

Swedenborg tells us that that emotional content of a Bible story contains important clues as to what meaning the story holds for us today.  Imagine Abraham’s inner torment as he looked down at Isaac.  Imagine Isaac struggling and crying out, “Dad!  Dad!  Don’t do this!!”  Imagine Abraham, torn between his intense desire to follow God’s will and his breaking heart.  See him lifting Isaac’s chin in order to slit his throat.  Can he really kill this precious, long-awaited son of his old age?  This is Isaac, his only child with Sarah—the son whom God promised to him, whom Sarah bore to him when she was in her 90s! The anguish, the conflict that Abraham would have felt, is just what we feel when our love challenges old and deeply held religious beliefs.

“But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” (‘Here I am,’ Swedenborg tells us, represents a person coming spiritually awake, or coming to ones senses.)  “12 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.’  13 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. 

There is a way out of this temptation.  Abraham faces a temptation we all face, and in this story chooses the love of his son over the religious dictates of his upbringing.  When we bump up against deeply buried religious fears, and yet are courageous enough to make the choice for love, we also choose as Abraham did.  When we do, we stand in the space between the old culture and the new, between death and life.  After we choose for love, we may even hold our breath, waiting for lighting to strike.  But when nothing dire happens, we breathe, and breathe again, and begin to relax into our new way of being.  On the other side of this temptation, when we choose for love, there is always a new dawning.  We find a fresh new start, things look different, more spacious.  There is a greater light, and deeper peace.

Meanwhile, all around us may be those who still cling to the old beliefs.  They cannot help but judge us for our choice.  They cannot see what we see until they are ready to make that step too.  Perhaps that in part is why Abraham left Ur. Practically, spiritually, and correspondentially, he didn’t fit any more.  He didn’t belong.  Perhaps he needed to get away from those who judged him for letting Isaac live.

This story is about the stage of our spiritual awakening when we first move away from a dogmatic, inherited, or “historic” faith towards an intelligent, thoughtful, and internalized faith—one that springs from an ongoing spiritual dialogue with an intelligent God, not one that involves strict obedience to what religious authorities told us God said.

And here is where the deep irony comes in.

The devout and ignorant mind encountering this text believes it telling us to value staying devout and ignorant.  The importance of complete obedience is what it draws from this story, not the importance of the exercise of reason.  The story is actually about allowing our reason (Isaac) to live, yet many use it to glorify blind obedience.  Irony of ironies.  It is about allowing our intelligence to live, and yet it is used to exhort believers to blind obedience.  If wasn't so twisted, it would be funny. 

But this is the human condition.  We draw from the Word what we expect to draw from it.  That is why Abraham believed God said to sacrifice Isaac.  From his culture and upbringing He expected God to command it, so that is what he heard.  When we are in a state of devout and unquestioning allegiance to religious “law,” that is the sort of thing we hear also.

Ooh.  Problem.  So, if we draw from the Word what we expect to find in it, how does anyone ever get free from false understanding?

Well, here is how it works: Abraham represents you and me taking the first baby steps of our spiritual walk—which is most commonly to learn the religious “rules” around us and to try to follow them perfectly.  There is comfort and safety in following rules.  There is safety in going with the crowd.  Obedience without intelligence is not what God intends for us, but it is all we've got at this stage.  It feels good. It makes us feel safe.  This is Ur. We start there, and we are meant to start there.

BUT: obedience without intelligence is not all that we've got.  God has given us Isaac.  Isaac, who is flesh of our flesh; Isaac, who is our birthright and our future.  Isaac, representing our intelligent and rational side, whose very existence challenges ignorant and blind faith.  Isaac, who is from God, and is meant to be in our future. 

God intends for us to grow by means of Isaac—which is to develop an intelligent and rational relationship with religion.  But that can feel scary.  How many religious communities think that reason is the enemy?  Rational intelligence, (Isaac) threatens dogmatic beliefs. Our first fearful impulse is to kill the questions that arise because they challenge the traditions as we have been taught them.  This is the heart of the conflict, and this is the irony.  God gives us the very questions necessary to challenge our primitive beliefs so that we can grow, if we just have the courage to let those questions live.

Do you think this ancient parable is irrelevant to our modern problems? We see Isaac sacrificed again and again, every time Christians burn the Koran, every time a suicide bomber succeeds, every time a Sunday school child is scolded for her questions; every time someone who is gender variant or loves someone of their same gender is spurned, shamed, shunned, or cut off.  It is indeed any time you or I feel compelled in any way to judge or cut off another human heart just because they do not believe the same things that we do.

Make no mistake, Abraham is you and me, and everyone else who makes the spiritual journey.  You very likely will never believe that the best way to prove your love of God would be through murdering another human being.  But would you sacrifice a human relationship?  Would you cut off someone you love because of a lifestyle choice, or a different religious path? Each one of us does indeed hit regular choice-points like this in our spiritual walk—points at which we must choose between the religious expectations we inherited or that make us feel safe, and the call of our beating heart.

Can you recall any such choice points in your life?  A time when you hung between two futures—one which conformed to the religious rules around you and one which bucked them and made a daring choice for love? 

I can think of several times in my life when I felt myself at such a crossroads.  The day my middle sister told me she was in love with a woman was one.  I was faced with rejecting her “for her own good” because I had been taught that God considered homosexuality an abomination, or continuing to love her for all the fine qualities and gentleness that she embodied.  It tore me up inside to consider this decision.  I was caught between fear of transgressing “God’s law” (as taught to me) or losing my sister and hurting her deeply by rejecting her.

In this case, my love for my sister and my love for the unmistakable goodness in her character trumped the “rules.”  I dared make a mistake in God’s eyes, because I simply could not slay my relationship with her nor reject the innocence I saw in her soul.  My heart won over my head.

Now, before I go further, I caution anyone against believing that choosing a personal relationship over a cut-off is always the better choice.  That would simply be making a new religious rule that exempts us from needing to discern and choose on a case by case basis.  True faith is living faith, which means it must adapt and discern moment by moment, case by case, using the best it has of love and wisdom at the time. 

In truth, choosing to continue to lovingly accept this sister and her partner was also choosing a cut-off in another area of my life.  It meant I would no longer be in the good graces of all those who continue to believe that homosexuality is a sin.  In choosing this sister, I lost, in part, my other sister, one of my brothers and my father.  Those losses were not easy and continue to ache, but for me the choice for greater and more inclusive love was the only choice that sat well with my soul.  The lesson here is about using ones heart with ones intelligence and conscience, and not simply allowing other people’s rules to choose for you.

Regardless of what you may feel about my personal choices, I submit that today’s Scripture speaks with tremendous relevance to issues still very active in our modern world.  Christians and many other faith communities across the world face modern issue after modern issue calling us out of dogma and into a more loving, well-reasoned belief system.  This is the story about the parts of us that we think we need to kill to prove we love God. This is about the regular confrontation of our heads with our hearts.  Fear makes us cling to absolutes and blind obedience.  Loves gives us the courage to step away from a rules-alone approach to faith, and to engage in the discussion with heart and intelligence.

Isaac must live. He is our only path to a mature spiritual life.  It is scary to allow our questions to challenge our beliefs, but we need not let that fear control us.  Isaac is our birthright.  God gave us Isaac and intended him to live, to give Abraham (which is our spiritual beginnings) a hope and a future. When we, like Abraham, let our hearts speak and over-rule our fears, love wins.

And when love wins, we all win.


The Readings
Gen 22: 1-14 1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."  2 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."
3 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.
4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.
5 Then Abraham said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you."  6 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.
7 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?"
8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. 
9 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.  10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 
11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."  12 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."  13 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.  14 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."

Jeremiah 28:7-9.   But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people.  The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.  As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."

Two selections from Arcana Coelestia (aka Heavenly Secrets)
From paragraph 1492 The internal sense is such that it is the emotion itself lying hidden within the words which constitutes the internal sense.
From paragraph 3839:4 This being so, angels are acquainted with the emotion enclosed in the subject-matter of the Word; and this entails every variation according to the types of emotions present in the angels. From this it becomes quite clear how holy the Word is, for Divine love, that is, love coming from the Divine, is utterly sacred, and since the subjects within the Word spring from the Divine love, this means they are utterly sacred because they are full of the Divine Love.

Revised from a sermon called “Love Wins” By Rev. Alison Longstaff, preached June 26th, 2011

1 comment:

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