Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, June 29, 2014
[Isaac] said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering.” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8)
When my family and I moved here several weeks ago, one of the best parts of our drive from Minneapolis to Houston was listening to a playlist entitled “Journey to Texas.” It was created by one of our new friends in this congregation, someone who even mailed us a description of the songs. About the first one, “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan, he wrote: “Minnesota’s native son starts you off on your journey. The song has ‘highway’ in the title, so it must be a road trip song, right? Plus it begins with Dylan’s retelling of a famous Bible story, which seems appropriate.”
This morning I’d sing the opening lyrics to you the way that Bob Dylan does, but, let’s be honest, that’s impossible for most people on this planet. So I’ll just read them:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
That’s Bob Dylan’s version of the story about Abraham and his son Isaac. The original version, set, as we heard this morning, in the land of Moriah, comes from the first book of the Bible. Earlier Abraham had been called by God to leave his home and go to the land that God would show him. So he answered that call and went, cutting himself off from his past.
Now Abraham is commanded to go once again to a God-chosen place. This time, however, something more is required — the sacrifice of his son Isaac, threatening to cut himself off from his future.
Most Christians refer to this story as the sacrifice of Isaac. Of course, that’s the very thing that doesn’t happen in the end. Most Jews refer to it as the binding of Isaac. Needless to say, the binding is gut-wrenching enough for Jews and Christians alike. It’s a difficult story to hear, regardless of our faith or lack thereof.
That’s certainly true for me. Eighteen years ago on this date I was ordained as a deacon. Seventeen years ago on this date I was ordained as a priest. I’m also the father of two sons. So disturbing questions arise as I think about Abraham and his son Isaac and the God whom they serve. Why would God test Abraham in a manner that seems immoral? What does this say about God?
What does Abraham’s willingness to go along with it all say about him? Last night, for example, I read a comment on Facebook from someone who said that Abraham may rightly be called the father of many nations, but neither of his two sons would likely have nominated him for a “Father of the Year” award.
How did Abraham’s wife Sarah react when Isaac ran into her arms and trembled with fear? How did this horrific experience affect Isaac for the rest of his life? We demand answers and shake our fists at the cruelty of God. But the text is either silent about these things or comes at them from a different angle.
This story catches us off guard and throws us off balance. It surprises us with terrifying details that override everything else. Within the context of the Ancient Near East, this story would have also caught its first hearers off guard and thrown them off balance. However, they would’ve been surprised not by the beginning of the story but by its ending. In other words, they would have been surprised that Abraham didn’t sacrifice his son. They would’ve been even more surprised that God himself prevented it from happening. That’s because child sacrifice was a common practice in many cultures throughout the Ancient Near East.
But the God of Abraham called this man and his descendants to a different way — the way of faith. The provision of a ram for the sacrifice was a sign of grace in the midst of the horror that surrounded them in the world. Later generations of Jews would look back to this story for hope. It encouraged them to remain faithful even when the facts on the ground seemed to deny the promises of God.
Some of those Jews identified the mountain where this took place as the temple mount in the holy city of Jerusalem. There the house of God would be built as a dwelling-place for the divine presence. There sacrifices would be made in the same manner that Abraham offered the ram to God in worship. So what are we to make of these sacrifices that maintained the relationship between God and his people?
While it may seem alien to us, the need to offer sacrifices isn’t really counterintuitive. We’re born owing something to God, needing to return something to our Creator. But that’s usually so far off the radar screen that we play this out in our lives by feeling we owe something to the forces around us. An old friend named Paul Zahl once translated this for me into a contemporary metaphor that I’ve never forgotten. He said to think about the image of a toll road.
I can remember the first time that I ever drove on the Garden State Parkway while traveling to Yale Divinity School in Connecticut. There I was, driving through northern New Jersey in an ’86 Thunderbird with North Carolina tags. I felt like I was in NASCAR race from one tollbooth to the next. I had all my silver change out in the tray so that I could throw the exact change into those little baskets. The whole time quarters and dimes are falling in between the seats, and I’m terrified — absolutely terrified — that I’ll end up in the wrong lane without the right change and some New Yorker in the car behind me is going to start yelling at me.
What I’m trying to say is that it was a very stressful situation. And I thought to myself, “How do people live like this every day?” Of course, the truth is that people do live like this every day. Life is a toll road. As my friend Paul Zahl says, that’s what we’re all doing, we’re all paying tolls.
You pay a toll to your parents so that they’ll be satisfied with you, so that they’ll be happy with you. It’s true even when you’re a teenager. That’s what seems so great about the day you enroll in a university on the East Coast. You think you’re off the toll road, but you’re not. You simply pay a toll to the other influences in your life until you need a little more spending cash. That’s when you have to come back to the City of Houston and pay another toll to Mom and Dad.
Or maybe you’re one of those men who throws yourself into your work to the point of neglecting your spouse far too often. So you pay a toll to your wife. You buy her a diamond necklace. That might get you down the road through the end of the year.
Sometimes the toll we pay is much more valuable than a handful of priceless gemstones. We’re not always innocent of the charge of binding our own children and those of others through various kinds of neglect. We who presume to stand in judgment over Abraham too easily hand over these children to far lesser deities.
We offer them to the gods of our careers and manifold self-interests. We offer them to the gods of poverty and preventable childhood diseases. We even offer them to the gods of success and over-achievement when we fail to teach them that those who are blessed are meant to be a blessing to others. Right now, in this state, we have an opportunity to be a blessing to thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed the border with Mexico. Of course, we can also choose to sacrifice them.
Life is a toll road. And before you know it, you’ve spent your entire life paying tribute to all sorts of idols. None of us wants to be approaching that last tollbooth at death, looking back over our lives and fearing that we’ve given it all away and gotten nowhere. That’s why the people of God started looking for a messiah, looking for the one who is able to deliver us from this toll road to death, “a full and perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” Think about it, “the whole world” — that includes you.
And this, as my friend Paul Zahl says, is the miracle. You’re off the toll road the moment you realize that you’ve been forgiven, that you don’t have to offer up perfection to God or to all those other things in your life that you try to substitute for God. Jesus Christ has paid the toll for you. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life paying tribute to the forces that surround you and overwhelm you.
God doesn’t want you to have a mid-life crisis in your endless attempts to please your Daddy. God wants you to dream dreams and to share them with him. God doesn’t want you to give your wife a diamond necklace as a replacement for your love. God wants you to love your wife. And God certainly doesn’t want you to rob children of their childhood, a divine gift to them and to us, a time when they discover the joy and wonder of God’s new creation and when we rediscover those things through their eyes. Jesus Christ has paid the toll so that you can live.
What God really wants isn’t a ram but you — all of you — including your whole heart. The words of Psalm 51, which describe this, can be your own prayer:
Open my lips, O Lord,
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,
but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
And in the unlikely event that you sound like Bob Dylan when you try to sing from that heart, well, God will love you anyway. You’re off the toll road . . . today.
2 BACK TO POST I’m indebted to the Very Rev. Paul F.M. Zahl, an Episcopal priest and the author of Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, not only for this metaphor but also for his description of driving on the Autoroute du Sud in France, which echoed my own experience on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, and for my variations on his example of the student and his example of the spouse that I’ve used as illustrations. You can listen to his sermon, “The Toll Road,” which has captivated my imagination for more than a decade and inspired these words.
4 BACK TO POST Psalm 51:16-18 (1979 Book of Common Prayer). Note the different verse divisions of this and other psalms in the New Revised Standard Version.