Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | August 28, 2022
When my daughter Jane became a mother, she told me how she was suddenly aware of just how dangerous a place the world can be. “Welcome to my world,” I told her
It was a warm June evening in 1986. My brother Joe and his family were visiting my home in Clarion, Iowa. I was busy cleaning up after the evening meal and the kids were running around the place. A neighbor came to the door. “Are you missing any kids?” he asked.
“I saw one that looked like one of yours running down Main Street without any shoes on,” he said. I hadn’t really noticed, but now that he mentioned it … that would be Elliott, two and half years old at the time.
I ran around the corner to Main Street and halfway up the block there was Elliott standing ankle deep in a puddle of water in the street. Cars were stopping. As I picked him up out of the puddle, the looks on the faces of the people passing by seemed to imply, “What kind of parents would allow their child to wander off unattended like that?”
I felt terrible but I would have felt far worse if anything bad had happened. Bad things can and do happen and there’s no going back and undoing them. When something goes wrong because of parental neglect, or even just missing that split second of vigilance, it’s a life sentence of grief and remorse.
A tragedy is a story where people are set on a course toward a certain unpleasant outcome. We look at tragedies and wonder why people didn’t do something to prevent the bad thing from happening. But the nature of tragedy is that the clues to the outcome are only revealed in hindsight. When you’re inside an unfolding tragedy you don’t always see it happening.
Last week in telling the story of Hagar the slave of Sarah, I mentioned that stories in the bible commonly don’t end with, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Stories in the bible end like they do in real life – sometimes tragically; sometimes things turn out well enough; a lot of stories are just problematical. Meaning, if we try to make them too neat and tidy by removing the rough edges, we remove the heart and soul of the story.
A neat and tidy view of scripture seeks ‘practical application to our daily lives.’ We want scripture to be like a tool we use to fix things when life goes wrong. However, neat and tidy does not often apply to the reality of life. Real life is often messy. Real life has nuances and depths of meaning. Real life has rough edges and unresolved issues.
So when we recognize that scripture is often problematical, and when we take an open and honest look at problematical stories or texts, we are able discover how the rough edges of the story relate to and mesh with the rough edges of real life. That discovery might not smooth out the rough edges so much as to help us understand and cope.
One story that I wrestle with is the story of Abraham nearly killing his son Isaac, because God told him to. Abraham is called a hero of faith because he trusted God. God told Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham didn’t question God. He just went ahead to do what God told him to do. He even made Isaac carry the wood by which he would be burnt.
Isaac noticed they had everything they needed except for a lamb. “God will provide us a lamb,” said Abraham.
When they got to where they were going Abraham told his servants, “We’ll go on ahead to worship and then we’ll come back.”
When they reached a likely spot, he tied up us son and got ready to kill him. Just then at the last minute, God intervened. “Now I know you fear God.” And there was a ram with its horns caught in the thickets.
For that we say Abraham had faith. Faith enough to do what God told him to do; faith enough to believe, ‘God will provide.’ For that we say, ‘we should be like Abraham.’
But it’s not really the kind of story that makes for good application. I would want to say to God, ‘believe me when I say I fear you. Because if you ask me to kill one of my children, fear is the operative word. And if I hear voices, even the inner voice I’ve always thought of as God’s nudge, telling me to kill someone, I’m going to question the validity of that call. It would cause me to wonder what I’ve been listening to all along.
I would want to say to God, if you’re just playing with me, I would just as soon not play that kind of game. Because asking me to do something that goes against the grain of who I am and who I know you to be, and then pulling me back at the very last second isn’t fun and games.” If people played those kinds of games, we would call them cruel.
So why would God? Therein lays one problematic aspect of the story. It’s not a problem that can be fixed, so much as pondered. Pondered in questions such as why would a loving parent be willing to put his or her child at risk? And that’s a question that becomes more difficult the closer we get to the story. Looking in from a distance it’s easy. But when you’re living it, not so easy.
In some respect we’ve tried to make sense of the Abraham story and others like it, by saying that God put Jesus to death, as a sacrifice for our sins. We use all manner of illustrations to show how because Jesus suffered for us, and God suffered for making him suffer, that we should be so grateful in return that we dedicate our lives to him. That way we can avoid the ultimate suffering of hell.
That may seem like a harsh description of what we call the atonement, but at its core, it’s a fairly common understanding. I believed it for a long time myself. I could understand such a heavenly father because that’s what the people who were there when my faith was developing told me. And I could understand the concept of an angry and vengeful heavenly father because my dad made it easy to believe that father figures were naturally angry and vengeful.
I relate to this story by looking for the faith of Isaac. He was in a completely vulnerable position. His sense of trusting in a hopeful outcome was very different from his father’s sense of trust. It’s a rare occurrence if we find ourselves in a position like Abraham. It’s more likely that we know the experience of Isaac; facing situations with limited options, where hope is our only resource.
When I was growing up, my brothers and I had to fight for our honor. If there was a scale to be balanced and my dad heard about it, he would send us out of the house and say, “If you don’t fight it out, you’ll have to get back in through me.” And off we would go like knights on a crusade. Sanctioned by the will of our father.
But one time he went too far. I was 15 years old. A girl on our street got into trouble and her dad wanted to fix the guy that was responsible. So he came to my dad and the both of them came to me with a proposition. It was a job offer. My job would be to find the guy in question and hurt him. They named a price. They said if he had to spend time the hospital, they would pay double. And of course it came with the warning, “Don’t tell your mother.”
Most dads of 15-year-old boys would say, “Hey son, let’s kick the football,” not “Hey son, let’s give the bad guy a kicking.” Besides the bad guy in question was no pushover. I could have been the one in hospital or if successful, I could have gone to jail. As I thought it over, I was not willing to put myself in the position my dad was willing to put me in. I was not going to be Isaac to his Abraham.
Generally speaking, a good way to determine if there is something you should not do, it’s when it comes with the caveat, “Don’t tell your mother.” I wish there was another chapter in the story that began, “And when Sarah found out what happened…”
That experience is one reason why I wrestle with the story of Abraham nearly killing his son. And I do appreciate the hopeful outcome. Trust God and God will provide. There’s a truth there that runs deeper than circumstances. We can’t always see the outcome while we’re in it. Faith isn’t the difference between tragedy and happily ever after. Faith is coming to terms with the possibilities. In real life the rough edges of all that’s unresolved are often the best we get in place of happily ever after. Amen.