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God's Love is Broader Than Our Mind
by Susan in SanPedro
Genesis 22:1-14 and Mark 8:31-38

LENT 2B (Episcopal Lectionary offers a different OT lesson than the Common Lectionary this week) March 19, 2000 ~ St. Peter's, San Pedro ~ Susan Russell Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 16; Romans 8:31-39;


What kind of father would do something like that? What kind of God would ask him to? I'm talking, of course, about the Old Testament Lesson today: some call it "the testing of Abraham" ... others "the sacrifice of Isaac" ... still others "the binding of Isaac." Whatever we call it it's a hard story -- a scary story -- a challenging story to reconcile with the God "whose glory it is always to have mercy" - the God we prayed to in the Collect of the Day this Second Sunday in Lent.

I remember listening to the story as a child and thinking I must have missed something ... and as I listened to the explanations offered by the adults in charge of my religious education, well ... they never rang true for me. I couldn't imagine the God they told me loved me enough to come and die for me didn't love Isaac that much, too ... not to mention Abraham! And Sarah ... we don't hear anything about her. Kill a child to test the father? "Because I said so" wasn't enough of a reason. Nope . it just didn't work for me.

And so in my adolescence ... and into what I now refer to as my "obligatory young adult lapsed phase" I filed it away with all the other things that didn't make sense about the Biblical story. My faith hung in there . I truly never remember a time when I doubted the presence of God in my life or couldn't turn to Jesus when I needed Him . but for a very long time I couldn't for the life of me figure out why I needed all those confusing ancient Bible stories -- or the church that went along with them.

I returned to congregational life ... corporate worship ... when my now-18 year old was three and his brother was a newborn: I came back to church so they would have the foundation I had received; I came back to church to be a good mother. And I came back with lots of questions. I think back now and realize what a trial I must have been to the rector ... "what do you mean by.? How can you say that ...?" Lots and lots and LOTS of questions. So many that, out of some desperation I imagine, the rector sent me to the bible study class being offered by the Associate - Jeff - on Tuesday nights.



As luck would have it, one of the first passages we encountered was this story of Abraham and Isaac. And for the first time, in this Young Adult Bible Study class, I heard an explanation of this familiar and disturbing story that made sense to both my head and my heart.

"What if Abraham got it wrong?" Jeff said. "What if God never asked him to sacrifice Isaac at all - what if the story isn't about earning God's favor through blind obedience but about the wideness of God's mercy . wide enough to redeem, through the ram in the thicket, Abraham's mistake in thinking that he had to sacrifice his son in order to be faithful to God."

I was both elated and shocked! Finally, an explanation I could live with . one that made sense to me. But wait: it said right there in the Bible: "God tested Abraham." How could that be? And that night, I stayed after class and asked Jeff a whole whack of questions . and he sent me home with the Genesis volume of the Interpreter's Bible - and thinking back, I guess that's where my theological education really started.

I want to quote this morning a portion of the extensive article on this passage from that very book . written in the late 40's the language is a little dated, but the content is still important to me:

"Here [in the story of Abraham and Isaac] is a chapter which shows the need of reading with discretion and discrimination. There is truth before which one will stand with reverence: but there are vestiges also of old ideas which the developing conscience has long since outgrown.

Here in the story there is imbedded the fact that once men not only practiced human sacrifice but did it at what they thought was divine command. Suppose they did that now? Any man who thought of it, if his thoughts were detected, would be put in a mental hospital. Any man who actually carried it out would be convicted of murder. So the story of Abraham going out to sacrifice Isaac may seem either incredible or else profoundly disturbing ... unless one knows what to sift out of it in order that the real truth may appear.

Why did the story of what was planned to be a human sacrifice get into the Bible? Human sacrifice was an actual custom among some of the Caananite tribes. How could Abraham show that his religion meant as much to him? Only by being willing to go as far as they did. So, in representing what went on in the mind of Abraham, the story has a deep and dramatic authenticity. He saw people around him offering up their children to show their faith and their obedience ... in spite of the torment of his human love he could not help hearing an inward voice asking him to do the same ... and because that thought seemed to press upon his conscience, he thought it was the voice of God.

The climax of the story is the revelation that what the voice of God would ultimately say was something completely different from what Abraham in his first agony of acceptance had supposed. The climax is not the sacrifice of Isaac but the word from God that Isaac shall NOT be sacrificed ... the story that began with the threat of tragedy ends in a perfect oneness between the heart of God and the heart of man.

The ways of God may sometimes be hidden and at first not understood; but ultimately God's will is found to be not contradictory to the purest emotions planted in the human soul. The Bible, read in its great sweep and progress is the story of the revelation of God as love -- a love vaster and more profoundly wise than souls can always recognize, but in the end such as will satisfy all that is highest in those souls.

Those today who read the Bible reverently but with reverence that is discriminating, cannot take this passage as simply and uncritically as earlier generations did. It used to be held that to question the authority of any part of Holy Writ was close to blasphemy. Who were we that we should "pick and choose"? If it was written that Abraham's blessing was confirmed because he was ready to slay his son in sacrifice, then that was God's truth and the matter ended there.

But it could not end there. Religious thinkers who humbly and truly wanted to think God's thoughts began to perceive that God's thoughts are higher even than some of the Scriptural interpreters understood -- seeing truth from a limited perspective and ascribing to God convictions which had come to them out of an environment where they saw "through a glass darkly."

It is NOT the will of God that Abraham should sacrifice Isaac; the nature of God was revealed instead when God stayed Abraham's hand and prevented the sacrifice. Abraham was not blessed for correctness in conception of God's will; he was blessed because when he thought he knew God's will he was willing to obey -- because he was not so set on being "right" that he missed the chance to be faithful -- because he stayed open to the new revelation that God offered to him in the "ram in the thicket."


They called it a "historical critical hermeneutic" in seminary. I didn't know that then, but when I finished reading the book Jeff had given me that night, I knew I'd been given a gift. I knew that I would never again look at the Bible as an ancient repository of incomprehensible stories, but as a gold mine of truth that had as much to do with my life as it did with Abraham and Isaac ... and Sarah. I knew, for the first time, what they meant when they talked about Scripture as the "Living Word of God."

"You did then what you knew then. When you knew better, you did better," said Maya Angelou to the woman who had come to her for spiritual direction. And so might she have said to Abraham after this incident with Isaac. Or to Peter after his faux pas in today’s gospel.

No half way measures for our patron saint Peter! He'd already figured out who Jesus was . "You are the Christ! The Son of the Living God!" Yea, Peter!! But as usual, it was two steps forward, one step back. A big giant step today! "Jesus began to teach the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering . and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him." But Jesus rebuked him right back, saying "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Peter's understanding of what the Messiah would do ... would look like ... would accomplish ... was nothing like the work that Jesus had come to do. Just as Abraham long before him, Peter got it wrong. Yet when "he knew better, he did better" ... until the next time! It's not about being right: it's about being faithful.

Listen to Biblical scholar, Verna Dozier: "Faith always includes the possibility that we could at any given moment be wrong, and that is why it requires courage. Kingdom of God thinking calls us to risk. We always see through a glass darkly, and that is what faith is about. I will live by the best I can discern today. Tomorrow I may find out I was wrong. Since I do not live by being right, I am not destroyed by being wrong. The God revealed in Jesus whom I call the Christ is a God whose forgiveness goes ahead of me, and whose love sustains me and the whole created world."

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind If our love were but more faithful we should take him at his word And our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.

Good News, indeed. But not easy news, sometimes. There is perfect freedom in such love . but also awesome responsibility: and nothing scares us more than freedom. I came face to face with that fear in a last week. I met with a young woman who had recently become a Christian -- turned her life over to Jesus and to the faith community that embraced her -- that forgave her for her past "wild life" and offered her "all the answers." She finally knew that she was saved ... or would be as long as she continued to (in her words) just "follow the Word of God." The possibility that there might be more than one way to interpret a piece of Scripture terrified her. The idea that one could even BE a Christian and not believe the Bible to be the literal Word of God affronted her. And the fact that, in this Episcopal Church, open to all meant ALL was more than she could handle. "I thought this was a Christian church," she said. "and I’m afraid it’s not."

And afraid she was: afraid of the kind of freedom Verna Dozier writes about. She wanted answers ... not a place to ask questions. A "Because I said so" God was fine with her -- and she found a place that offered exactly that. And I pray that it will continue to be a place of support for her in her journey: in her life in Christ.

For I DO believe there is more than one "variety" of Christian -- and today I thank God that I’m the Episcopal kind! I thank God for bishops who are both prophets and pastors ... for priests willing to be teachers and mentors. For a community that not only taught me to sing the old hymn "Just As I Am" ... but taught me to believe it as well. For the stories of Abraham and Peter ... and everyone else who ever took two steps forward ... and one step back. For a church that didn’t insist I settle for a “Because I Said So” God … but encouraged and equipped me to ask the questions I needed to ask. And most of all, I give thanks for "the God whose glory it is always to have mercy" -- and for the freedom to claim that promise and the privilege of sharing it with others.

Thanks be to God. Amen.