The words from the Bible we read and hear today are a struggle. Beginning with the words, “God tested Abraham,” the terrifying story portrays God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only child Isaac. And only when God sees Abraham is willing to go through with it, does God stop Abraham and spares Isaac from death. Who doesn’t want to ask, “What kind of God is this, who would do this to a faithful servant, to a child?
Various interpretations try to address this question: Some wonder if the origin of the story is not God testing Abraham, but Abraham being tempted by the practices of others following other gods, practices that may have included child sacrifice. And God and God’s angel calls, “Abraham, Abraham!” as he is about to take the child’s life and tells Abraham not to lay a hand on Isaac. The interpretation holds a very different portrayal of God. Instead of Abraham proving his faithfulness to God by being willing to sacrifice Isaac, God opposes the violence that Abraham is about to commit. And it is only at the last moment that Abraham finally hears God and comes to his senses, not laying a hand on Isaac or doing anything to him.
Are we similarly being “tested” in our failing? In the midst of the Black Lives Matter global uprising against systemic anti-black racism, is God calling us, calling me out of my white privilege and power and fragility to stop? To stop sacrificing the lives of black children of God and instead recognize and stand with and uphold black people, God’s precious children, equal before God and one another? To stop deadly problems in policing. To stop chronic disparity in social and economic support and opportunity. To stop systemic anti-black racism in all its expressions within and around us. God calling out to us and this world, stop! before another black child, another black life is sacrificed.
Today’s story follows last week’s reading of the banishing of Hagar and her and Abraham’s son, Ishmael, to the desert and suffering and death; only to see God intervene to save Hagar and Ishmael and Abraham’s other descendants. Is the near sacrifice of Hagar and Ishmael, and of Isaac, a reckoning or connecting of the life of Abraham’s two children, and the saving of both by God? Is this also a test of us in our time? That the wellbeing of all children of Abraham, of every child everywhere is God’s desire, and to be our concern and work beyond religious and cultural and political differences. Stop the divisions. Stop the disparities. Stop the prejudices that sacrifice women and children to lesser and evil gods to instead treasure and protect all as precious children of God together.
As we travelled recently, Lori and I listened to a podcast by a victim of the sixties scoop, the removal in Canada of indigenous children from their families to be raised in white foster or adoptive homes. In this woman’s tragic experience, she said her foster family followed the intent of the government, “to kill the Indian in the child.” While this was not the practise of all parents, it was the experience of many children, and the removal from and disconnect with family, culture, community, tradition was true for all children affected by the scoop. White supremacy and racist roots of this policy brought about this sacrifice of indigenous children and families. Is God not calling us to hear and see and stop the continuing sacrifice of indigenous children, now as then, in lack of support, lower funding for education, heath care, housing, clean water, lands, self determination, and more. And will we as people and communities, and a nation, hear and stop and act differently? The woman’s story included reconnecting with her birth siblings, beginning to discover her indigenous heritage, and finding her voice as witnessed by her podcast. New life, that God desires for all God’s children.
As Christians we have heard and interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac connected to God’s willingness to sacrifice God’s only child, Jesus, to the sin and violence of the world, to redeem the world. This understanding can also be a struggle, once again portraying God as desiring sacrifice, rather than Jesus being subjected to the brokenness and violence of this world that leads to Jesus’ death. And God, in raising Jesus from death to life, redeems, turns on its head, stops the violence and death of humanity, and graciously offers and challenges us to live in new and abundant life for all, for all eternity.
Even in this promise we struggle with Paul’s words from Romans. Paul argues the gift of God in Jesus is freedom from sin and death for eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. These are good news words of hope. But Paul’s analogy is slavery – to sin or righteousness. Again, in this time of Black Lives Matter and the urgent need to dismantle systemic anti-black racism and white supremacy, my speaking about slavery is an injustice to those who have suffered it at the hands of ancestors across the world, on this continent, and in this country. Here are words with which we once again have to struggle. It is an experience that is not my own, nor mine to claim. Hearing Paul’s words today offers good news of freedom in Christ, but also questions ways in which systemic racism with origins in the slavery of black people remains in me, in our church. in our communities and nation and world. The image of slavery is not mine to use, but to see its roots and continuing oppression against the lives of black people now, and to hear God’s calling us to stop, that the sacrifice of black children stop, that the freedom of black people be realized, that is the desire of God, and true freedom for all humanity, for us together for which Jesus died and was raised.
Jesus few words from the Gospel of Matthew today seem clear and simple enough that we not have to struggle with them. In these two sentences the word welcome appears six times, and the symbol of welcome is giving a cup of cool water to one of these “little ones.” These little ones who are followers of Jesus, and simply children threatened with sacrifice in our world at any time, anywhere, every child, and God’s desire and Jesus’ measure of faithfulness that they receive welcome, a cup of cool water, and the freedom and reward of abundant life of God’s gracious making for them and for all. Live lives of welcome to all God’s children. We don’t have to struggle with that, do we?
But on a Sunday and in a time of pandemic, even as we carefully open-up, but fear and anxiety remain, when all is not simple, but changing and requiring our adapting, staying calm, taking care, being kind, when we grieve for a beloved one, a gracious elder and saint who has died, and many other circumstances and challenges of our lives, this welcome is not as simple as we hope. Jesus says, welcome him and God in him, welcome a prophet, welcome a righteous person, and receive their reward. To do so, we know, in Jesus, in God’s prophets, in God’s righteousness, is to welcome God’s uncompromising call to faithfulness, as Abraham and Sarah before us, in their struggles with their world and the wellbeing of their children and children’s children, and in ours now and the wellbeing of our and all children, and their children’s children as is God’s desire.
As some of you know, Lori and I went to join in welcoming our newest grandchild into this world, to help as we could in this time of isolation for parents and children and all of us, and to see all of our grandchildren, whom we have not seen through this pandemic time, as others have experienced. We were very careful about contact before and continuing after, and we are so grateful for the chance to see them and welcome and share in the joy with and in them, so precious are they. And they are a reminder of how precious every child of God is. And our welcome, our love for, our care for, our protection of, our joy in, every child, all God’s children, and children’s children, everywhere, in every time and including this creation that is their home now and after us; that is our calling and responsibility in the freedom God gives us in Christ Jesus. That’s not simple. It will test us always in this life. But by grace it is the welcome and reward we live together with Jesus. Let it be so. In all our relations. Amen.