Sunday, June 29, 2014

Testing Faith

A Sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

I took my first SAT was when I was thirteen years old. Wandering the stacks of my local library, I happened across the test prep section, where I found row upon row of books about preparing for the SAT, the PSAT, the MCAT, the LSAT, the GED, and on and on the list went. I hadn’t heard of most of them, but as a homeschooled student, I had heard over and over again that it would be essential that I get a high SAT score if I wanted to get into a good college. I checked out Ten Real SATs, and one Saturday afternoon, I sat for three hours at the desk in my bedroom and self-administered the test. In retrospect, the very fact that I wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon taking a practice SAT for fun should have told me that I had nothing to worry about.

I sometimes read articles bemoaning our education culture of high-stakes testing and test-driven teaching. I meet parents of toddlers who are busily preparing for preschool entrance exams, and parents of middle-schoolers who are stressed and anxious about the tests that will place them into high schools. I hear of schools where test prep has to be emphasized to the exclusion of not only art and music, but also reading novels and writing essays. There are lower-stakes tests as well: every time I log on to facebook, I see that my friends are taking tests for fun: “I got House Lannister. Which Game of Thrones house are you?” their posts query. Or: “78% of Americans will get this math question wrong. Can you find the answer?” Our culture finds itself in a new and troubling relationship with testing. But I would argue that this obsession with tests and testing is nothing new.

Our First Testament reading today speaks of a very different sort of test. It comes from the book of Genesis, which has been following the patriarch Abraham, whom God promised to make a great nation and sent out to a land unknown to him. The text has made its way through many stories of Abraham: the birth of his son Ishmael by his wife’s concubine Hagar; the promise of a son to Sarah even though she was well beyond her child-bearing years; the birth of Isaac, and Abraham’s subsequent rejection of Ishmael and Hagar; all interspersed with journeys all over the Ancient Near East. Now we come to these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham answers with the prophetic response ‘hineni,’ which is not exactly translatable, but we typically render as “here I am.”

God then commands Abraham, “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.” Of course, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son, Abraham has another son, Ishmael, whom he sent away with his mother, Hagar. The Jewish tradition offers an interesting take on these words: in Hebrew, the word order is “take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.” The rabbis argued that there must be a reason God uses so many words, and so they imagine Abraham playing dumb: “take your son,” says God. “Which one?” replies Abraham. “Your only son,” says God. “Isaac is the only son of his mother, and Ishmael is the only son of his mother,” Abraham responds. “The one you love,” God says. “I love both my sons,” asserts Abraham, although he has sent one of his sons into the brutal desert. “Isaac,” God finally clarifies.

The text proceeds in grim and excruciating detail, describing Abraham’s preparations, his journey with his son and two servants, then the last leg with Isaac only. Isaac questions where the lamb is, and Abraham tells him “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” They arrive at the place that God has appointed, and Abraham builds an altar, lays the firewood, binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and raises the knife. At the final moment, an angel calls out to him to halt, declaring, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram, which he sacrifices instead of Isaac.

What are we to make of this troubling story? Traditional interpretations tend to praise Abraham’s unswerving obedience to God’s command. Perhaps you have heard interpretive statements like these: Abraham follows the path God has set out, even though it is painful and horrible, and lo and behold, at the last moment, God intervenes and provides. We, the listeners, are urged to be like Abraham, following God’s will even when it is painful, difficult, or confusing. Here’s another one: Abraham is willing to risk everything for God, and is richly rewarded. We, the listeners, should be willing to give it all up for God. Christian interpreters have pointed out the resonances between this story and that of the crucifixion: the sacrifice of an only son; the “lamb of God” who is ultimately sacrificed.

Here’s the thing, though: I find those interpretations terribly unsatisfying. Certainly, we should follow God’s will for us even at great personal cost, even when it is difficult and hard and frightening; certainly we should be willing to give up what we hold dear if that is what discipleship demands of us. Should our faith make us willing to cut the throat of another human being, let alone our own child? Do we believe in a God who would demand such a thing? Is that the God we know, the God we worship?

With questions like these in mind, interpreters have wondered whether this text might originally have been a story that spoke out against the sacrifice of human children (which was, in fact, a religious practice that sometimes happened in the cultures of that time and place). Perhaps as scripture took shape over the centuries, different traditions melded and merged, mixing themes of a God who rejects human sacrifice with themes of faithful obedience, ultimately forming the story the tradition has wrestled with ever since.

Other interpreters have asked this question: if God was testing Abraham in this way, did Abraham pass the test?

In the 1950s, the world was deeply shaken by what they had seen take place in Nazi Germany. How, people wondered, could so many people have been led to participate in such evil? A psychologist named Stanley Milgram designed an experiment, hoping to learn about what kinds of people would participate in harming strangers, and under what conditions. Were people with lower IQ’s more susceptible? Younger or older people? People from wealthy or poor backgrounds?

Here is what you would have experienced as a participant: you enter a room where you meet another participant, a middle-aged man. You randomly select roles: you will be the teacher, the man will be the learner. You watch as he is strapped into a machine with electrodes. You go into another room, where you can hear him over a speaker and speak to him over a microphone. In front of you is a machine with voltage levels and a button. You teach him a series of word pairs. Then the experiment begins: you give him one word, and he responds with its pairing word. If he gets it right, you move on. If he gets it wrong, you give him a small electrical shock with the button. After a few mistakes, you increase the voltage. After several mistakes, he starts to complain of the pain. “Ouch! That hurts! Stop!” Perhaps you look at the researcher, who assures you that everything is fine and you have to go on with the experiment. Soon his complaints get more strenuous: “Wait! I have a heart condition! I don’t want to do this anymore, let me go!” A few more wrong answers, and you turn the dial up again to a voltage marked “Danger: Severe Shock.” The learner begins to bang on the wall separating him from you, begging for mercy. If you hesitate, the researcher says, “You must continue.” You turn the dial to a setting marked “XXX.” You push the button. Then there is only silence.

About two thirds of all subjects were willing to administer that final shock four times. Two thirds. Humans, it turns out, are shockingly, devastatingly willing to harm each other because someone who is perceived as an authority figure tells them to do so. We care deeply about being approved of, being found adequate, meeting the expectations set before us, passing tests. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son may not be such a remarkable show of faith as we have heard. Most people would be willing to do something similar.

Did Abraham pass the test? I kind of hope not. I imagine God waiting and hoping for Abraham to come to his senses, and finally intervening.

I do not believe in a God who rejoices in violence, whose will for us is that we should harm – or threaten to harm, or be willing to harm – other people, be they friends or enemies, strangers or our own kin. Perhaps one way to understand this story is as a reminder of how dangerous blind obedience can be. A reminder that our desire to please authority, to measure up, to pass the test, can overwhelm our own inner compass, our own sense of personal integrity. If we think that God is calling us to harm others, perhaps our response should be not “Here I am,” but “Why?” or “Did I hear you right?” or “No!”

Tragically, these questions are not abstract theological quandaries. Over the centuries, Christians have thought they heard God’s voice in scripture seeming to condone slavery, domestic abuse, sexism, and homophobia. In their zeal to follow the scriptures, churches have been willing to inflict harm on women who were thought to be witches, on unmarried mothers, on Jews and Muslims, on gay and trans* teenagers, and on and on and on. And today, as the LGBT community and allies of our city gather for Pride celebrations, we remember all the harm that has been done to that community, as we declare that God rejoices in human diversity and calls the church to bless and not to harm.

The good news of the Gospel is this: there is no test set before us; we do not need to prove we are good enough, faithful enough, smart enough, or brave enough. We are loved with a love that cannot be broken by our failure to measure up. We are loved with a love that loves us despite our obsession with measuring up. Jesus came not to test us, but to show God’s love for us. The work before us is not to pass a test, but to live in faithful gratitude.

The life of faith is not a test. The life of faith is not blind obedience that harms God’s beloved children. Living faithfully means bearing witness to God’s love, living our way toward God’s vision for the world. Living faithfully is speaking out against injustice and violence. It is doing justice and loving kindness. Resisting misinterpretations of scripture that condone violence and prejudice, classism and sexism and homophobia. Standing up against bigotry and hatred. Declaring our faith in a God who calls us to do good and not to do harm. Living faithfully means knowing that God may call us to sacrifice wealth and possessions, or prestige and position, or even – sometimes – our own safety, but will never call us to sacrifice our integrity or the wellbeing of others.

So wherever this road of faith leads us, let us follow with faith and trust in the God who is always at work to bring peace and healing, justice and mercy, to all people.


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