Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Abraham was having computer problems. As he was grousing and cursing at his computer screen, his son Isaac walked by. “What’s the matter, Dad”? Isaac asked. “There’s something wrong with my stupid computer. I’ve contacted help and I’ve rebooted it and I’ve turned it off and back on again and nothing works.” “Dad,” said Isaac, using the tone of contempt that tech-savvy teenagers employ when speaking to their ignorant elders, “I keep telling you. It’s a memory problem. You don’t have enough computer memory.” “My son,” said Abraham, “Don’t you worry about that. God will supply the RAM.”
I know – it’s a groaner, but you have to admit that it feels good to find a little humor in the very disturbing story of Abraham’s (almost) sacrifice of Isaac – a story which would probably be banned in any school other than Sunday school – a story so upsetting that we put a parental guidance warning on this week’s Godly Play lesson. Nonetheless, we all know the story – so there must be something important we’re supposed to learn from this tale of terror – and a reason why a preacher would choose to preach on it if she could possibly avoid it.
Ostensibly, this is a story about faith. After all, that’s what Abraham is famous for – his belief in and obedience to God form the foundation for not one but three major monotheistic religions. He is the one who picks up his family and leaves his livelihood to follow God to an unknown country. He is the one who believes God when God tells him his allegedly infertile wife will bear a child in her “old age.” But Abraham is no superhero. He is weak and selfish, participating in a scheme to father a child at any cost by impregnating an enslaved woman. He agrees to banish his first son, Ishmael, who would have died as a result were it not for the direct intervention of God. In a part of Abraham’s story that we don’t hear in church, he tells his wife to lie and say she is his sister so more powerful men think she’s single. But today’s story is without a doubt the one that makes us cringe: the one where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his long-sought-after and beloved son Isaac. And in response to this unthinkable request Abraham simply saddles up his donkey and sets off, no questions asked. How can he do it? What is he thinking?
Scripture doesn’t tell us, but some modern scholars have suggested that Abraham’s thinking was influenced by the symptoms of a mental illness – that his recurring encounters with God were simply hallucinations. Honestly, in this day and age, if Abraham shared his belief that God wanted him to kill his son he would almost certainly be diagnosed with paranoid religious delusions. “As many as 60% of those with schizophrenia have [such delusions]” so it seems reasonable to look back on Abraham’s actions from our position of “advanced knowledge” and tell ourselves that he was simply ill, mistaken in his idea that God would put such a horrendous idea in his head – that God would test his faithful servant in that way.
As comforting as that theory is, however, it is a cop out. The fact is that it doesn’t matter whether Abraham suffered from schizophrenia or any other mental health issue. Lots of biblical characters might be considered to be mentally ill today, just as many people in our own time experience perceptions that are out of sync with those of the majority of people in their cultures – but that doesn’t make their stories any less important or any less true. Abraham’s narrative is significant for a simple reason. It demonstrates how human beings are in relationship with God – how God speaks to the heart of each of us – to our deepest anxieties, desires, and confusion – and when we choose to listen, God provides us with what we need.
Notice that I said that we have a choice. Scripture does not say that God made Abraham take his son to be sacrificed. Abraham chose to do so, believing that the God he loved would do as he had always done for him- that God would provide. And God did. We can be appalled by Abraham’s seeming willingness to kill his own son. We can wonder how the being we consider a God of love could so cruelly test her faithful servant. We can apply modern psychology or consider ancient context, but the bottom line is this: Abraham chose to trust in God’s mercy – to believe that, as our Presiding Bishop so often says, if it’s not about love it’s not about God -and God proved him right.
None of this means that this isn’t a scary story. Most of us can’t imagine having enough faith to believe that God will always stay our hand when we are on the wrong path if only we will listen to him. Yet making the free choice to trust God is exactly what Paul means when he talks about being sanctified. Paul believed that salvation through grace meant both that we are saved from sin and that through grace we can be transformed- choosing to give our lives to God and to follow where the will of God leads us.
It is not an easy choice – but it is what Jesus asked his disciples to do – to go out into the world, assuming that the Lord would provide for all their needs. He never told them it would be easy. They were to practice radical hospitality, which means not just welcoming or asking for welcome from those who look or think like us. It means reaching out to draw in those who are in need of the presence of God, even when this threatens our ways of thinking and believing. It means stepping out of our comfort zones to welcome strangers even when we are afraid of them, and it means loving people even when they speak to us with hate. That’s the terrifying part. The amazing thing is that by putting ourselves out there – by risking what we have so that others may have more – by seeking solidarity with all of our fellow human beings, we will be blessed.
That’s because God wants us to live in relationship – with God and with one another – because it is only in relationship that we can walk confidently and obediently through times of upheaval and anxiety. Even when it is hard to understand or seems risky or scares us, we can choose to trust God and welcome and be welcomed by all our sisters and brothers in God’s name. The Reverend Stephanie Spellers says that right now people are asking her how they can do this – to begin to move away from self-interest and toward solidarity with the suffering other. One way, she says, is to look for wisdom in the margins, to “recognize the power of God in the community that is suffering, the community of the oppressed…God is [there], powerfully… [Moving toward solidarity is recognizing that you should] want to be with people who have needed God, who have sung the songs of God with their whole hearts, because it was the only thing that got them through…Solidarity is partly understanding that… salvation lives on these margins and that’s why [we must] go there…That’s taking up the cross. That’s seeing Jesus and … going to be where he is and being changed by what you find there. There’s nothing easy in it, but there’s lots of God in it – and that’s why we go.” AMEN.
Evan D. Murray, M.D., Miles G. Cunningham, M.D., Ph.D., and Bruce H. Price, M.D. (Fall, 2012), “The Role of Psychotic Disorders in Religious History Considered,” Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosicence, 24(4).
Stephanie Spellers (2020), quoted in “Wilderness Time video conversation with Kelley Brown Douglas,” https://www.facebook.com/episcopalian/videos/732741227552722/?v=732741227552722