Feeling the Equality Set Out By God Long Ago
A sermon based on Genesis 22:1-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 2, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The Fourth of July weekend was coming up, and a nursery school teacher took the opportunity to tell her class about patriotism. “We live in a great country,” she said. “One of the things we should be happy about is that, in this country, we are all free.” A little boy stood up in the back of the room with his hands on his hips and said. . . .“Hey! I’m not free. I’m four.”
On Tuesday of course we celebrate being free on July four. And actually the joke brings up a point that relates to our lesson AND Independence Day. The point that our understandings of words can lead to misunderstandings.
A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the Lectionary lesson and a calendar and I noticed for the first time that this Abraham and Isaac story came up on the weekend I traditionally preach a Fourth of July sermon.
Some of you may recall the first sermon I preached here four years ago was one of those sermons. I was a candidate for the pastor position and noted “that one of blessings of being clergy is that I get to stand up in a pulpit around the Fourth of July and read aloud from one of the greatest secular texts ever written. . . The exact words are not found in the Bible, but they vibrate with Divine presence.”
The words I was referring to four years ago, of course, are:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .
I am hoping those words sound familiar. They come from the Declaration of Independence.
We all tend to like those words, many of us love them. We’ve been taught that the hope is that we have been and are living into making the enumerated truths come about as reality for everyone, not just as God given truths on paper, but as an every day reality . . . not just for some citizens, but for all. The good news is that truthfully, many Americans feel equal now, much more so than when the Revolutionary War began in 1776. But also truthfully, there are many Americans who do not yet feel equal, indeed the phrase “feel equal” I got from a powerful statement basketball superstar Lebron James recently made in response to racist vandalism on his house in my home state of California.
I doubt there are any in this room who disagree that the equality and rights assertions in the Declaration of Independence are something all Americans should feel they have, certainly Lebron James, and logically each and every other American regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, age or disability.
The reason I love those beautiful words from the Declaration of Independence is because they promise, they provide hope, and they provide a goal we keep working toward. They are our secular moral compass.
We do need to keep working, and work harder, toward that goal in order that Lebron James and every other American feels equal. We do that by not stopping our efforts at “equality for all.” We must continue the efforts full bore until we make it so for all . . .make it so that the reality that our God created equality and God-given rights, is felt playing out evenly in our communities from sea to shining sea. The promise of equality is right there in the words that formed this nation.
There is a gritty beauty in knowing that this nation was founded on the idea that God made every single person to have and to hold– and to feel– equality, to matter as much as the next person, always and in all ways. It’s a beautiful thing that gives so much hope and so much promise and made this nation the first in history to strive for equality for all its citizens.
There have throughout our history, of course, also been those who have understood the meaning of those words to allow conclusions that some are more equal and more entitled to the God-given rights enumerated in the words of the Declaration of Independence. There have also been some, who feeling equal themselves, feel less motivation, or no need, to make sure everyone else feels equal too.
And so the nation struggles even still (241 years later) to make everyone equal and everyone feel equal. That struggle means there is still vibrant life and power and promise in those words. Those words have for those 241 years called us to our better selves and THE better way, the way of liberty and justice for all. Those words understand the Creator set all of that up – equality and rights– and the words recognize that our Creator– God– calls us to fulfill that promise.
To put it in the language of the theology of United Church of Christ, we understand that God is still speaking, and we as a nation are still listening and responding. There is good news in that. Everyone feeling equal is sadly not yet a reality, but it remains our highest goal. Still. It is our moral compass. We may disagree how to best achieve that goal. But it is in the news almost daily because far and wide – from sea to shining sea– we care about it. We want it. We feel called to it.
And here is the thing, a thing we may never have connected before . . . the motions that set the ball rolling toward liberty and justice for all in 1776 can be understood to have begun a few thousand years ago with Abraham hearing the Lord speaking, and listening to the Lord, and responding to the Lord in our lesson today. That may sound like a quite a leap, but I think that’s because most of us have been taught to hear the story of Abraham and Isaac . . . well, in good part as a god-awful lesson about a father whose faith is tested by a god who tests him by cruelly asking that he kill his own son.
I have addressed this story before, and I think it is important that I do so every so often because it’s a story many of us find disturbing and counter to the God of love we experience and follow. What kind of god would ask a parent to kill a child, any child, let alone their own? What kind of parent would act on that request by a god or anything else?
The story is usually taught, and thought, to be about (if we are honest about it) an abusive god and abusive father conspiring to kill a kid, and both being lauded for the efforts. I know it is a traditional way to hear the story, but it does not jibe with our experience of Yahweh, the God of love, or with a person faithfully following that God. Traditionally the story is heard as being about Abraham’s unquestioning faith in a test of resolve set up by God. I am going to suggest, as I have before, that we do not have to hear the text that way . . . and that to do so leads to a misunderstanding of both God and Abraham. The God of love and a follower of that God would never subject a child or any other person to abuse, or even pretend to test faith that way. The God of love only speaks words of love, only acts with love which include calls for liberty and justice and equality for all. In other words, Isaac (like his father and everyone else since the beginning of time) was created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, that God would never seek to take away or ask anyone to take away. Indeed God only calls us to provide them. No one has to agree with me, but, I am convinced that the story can fairly be heard to squarely fit with both the God of love and a follower of that God.
And that fit, of course fits with much of the rest of the Bible, so it is fair for us to look for God speaking in the lesson in a loving way to a loving follower, –and even as a seeding of the ideas of equality and unalienable rights set out in the Declaration of Independence. Abraham’s hearing God call him away from human sacrifice is revolutionary, at least as revolutionary as hearing God’s call to declare an independent nation based on equality. Both revolutions at the core are about liberty and justice for all. Both are about rights for all. Both lead humankind to a day when we all feel equal.
See here is the thing, religions in the Ancient Near East at the time of Abraham practiced both polytheism and child sacrifice. If we listen to the God of love speaking in the text we can actually hear God through Abraham challenging both. 2. The request that a child be sacrificed in the text is the first bit of evidence. It’s not discernable in the English translation, but the name in Hebrew of the divinity that asks for the sacrifice is “Elohim.” Elohim can be hard as is a plural term for God. So we can hear the plural, polytheistic gods – the elohim– of the Ancient Near East ask for the sacrifice, which the elite patriarchies of that time claimed the gods they imagined did.
Abraham’s culture’s gods had been calling for the abuse and sacrifice of children (3)– but finally, wonderfully, magnificently, gratefully “Yahweh,” the God we know in the singular form, is the name of God who demands in verse 11 that the abuse and sacrifice be stopped. 4 So in our text we can hear the elites’ polytheistic gods– the Elohim– being heard to require Isaac be offered up as a burnt offering, and we can hear the real loving One God we know– Yahweh– speaking the opposite command to Abraham telling him not to do it, to stop child abuse and murder . . . To. Put. An. End. To. It!
Abraham hears two voices, the culture’s Elohim calling for ritual child sacrifice, and Yahweh calling for a stop to it. Abraham chooses to follow Yahweh – our God. Yahweh– speaks to Abraham, and Abraham listens and follows that One God, not the polytheistic gods. And the rest of the story can be heard to bear this out. We are told Abraham loves Isaac, and in the story he acts like he does. He speaks to Isaac like he loves him and shows concern for his safety by carrying both the fire and the knife up the mountain.
Most tellingly though is the fact Abraham’s words on the way up the mountain set out a plan to not comply with the Elohim’s demand for sacrifice. Abraham truthfully lines out his plans before he goes up the mountain, telling the servants (quote) “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then we will come back to you” (end quote) (v. 5). That is what happened, so we can hear this as truth, not trickery. The traditional way of hearing that quote is that Abraham is lying, and plans to kill the child as the Elohim were understood to ask. But if we instead hear Abraham’s word’s as speaking the truth we hear his plan to do what he and Yahweh have in mind– the plan to bring Isaac back alive!
The same thing can be said regarding Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question about where the lamb for the offering is . Instead of lying we can hear Abraham to speak the truth that “God . . . will provide the lamb . . .”(v. 8). Which is what Yahweh and Abraham planned AND DID!
When we understand Abraham words as truth, not lies, he becomes a hero. He can be heard not as faithfully moving to offer his kid as a sacrifice as tradition suggests, but faithfully moves not to. Abraham and Yahweh can be understood to plan from the start to bring Isaac back alive off the mountain.
We can hear this story as echos of the beginning of God evolving in human understanding away from a multitude of gods who sided only with the elite and wanted appeasement through sacrifice and abuse of non-elites. And moving toward understanding there is One God ,Yahweh, who evolves in human understanding to be love, and as such desires the well being of everyone, not just patriarchs like Abraham, but non-elites like children and others’ the culture considered expendable or less equal.
The story can be understand as a lesson about the God of love calling Abraham – and all humans– out of unloving ways and into loving ways. This necessarily, logically, leads to acknowledging the equality and rights of the non-elite. In our lesson it is a child, but that movement opened the floodgates to all others . . . just as our Declaration of Independence’s words of equality and rights opened the floodgates for every American, not just to the landed European male citizens of the colonies in 1776, but to everyone.
That Declaration was heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian theology going all the way back to God stopping violence done to non-elites in our story today and Jesus’ revolutionary way of love for all. One revolution begat another and begat another. Begetting other movements, revolutions, to acknowledge and strive for the equality and rights of those who do yet fully feel it, like our American movements for equal rights for Women, People of Color, LGBTQ, People of other Faiths, and the Disabled, etc. These are God inspired revolutions to evolve all of human culture to the point where everyone feels the self evident truths
that all . . . are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .
* This sermon is based in part on a body of work regarding the Abraham and Isaac story in Gensis 22:1-14 that I did in the past in seminary, sermons, and teaching I have done along the way.
1. Smith, Mark, The Early History of God, Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co.(2002), 171-181; see also, Psalms 106:34-38; Jer 7:31, 19:5, 32:35; Lev 18:21, 20:3; Eze 20:25-26.
2. Lowen, Jacob, “Translating the Names of God” The Bible Translator, V. 35, No. 2 (1984), 201.
3. Plaut, Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1981), 149. Note: The convention in Judaism is not to use the word “Yahweh,” but to replace it with “Adonai,” the author is following this convention.
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