Rev. Seth Patterson
October 29, 2023
Scripture: Genesis 22:1–3; Matthew 22:34–40
Who do you want to be and what are you willing to give up to become it? What choices do you make at any given moment to have your words and actions linked together with integrity? Who do we want to be together here, in our city, state, nation and world? Who do you want to be?
This is not a test. Well, maybe a little test. A rhetorical test with real world implications. A test without any easily-definable, correct answers.
Speaking of tests, Jesus is tested in one of our texts for today (how’s that for a segue!?). Let us take a deep breath together as we open our ears, hearts and minds to these illuminating words:
The Pharisees gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied, “‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This is one of my very favorite passages in all the Biblical writings and was so pleased when it was one of the lectionary texts for today. With a few small alterations, this story is also found in the books of Mark and Luke as well as very similar writings in the Hebrew scriptures, Quran and many other sacred writings of other faith traditions. It feels so clear, so concise, so right, so important.
There was a debate in Judaism at the time whether all of the Biblical laws were of equal importance or if there was an inherent moral hierarchy—and if there was a hierarchy, who decides it and how does one follow it? So, if Jesus responded that all laws were equal, then he could be challenged on why he wasn’t teaching them all. If he said that there was a hierarchy, that opened a whole other debate and placed him in further defiance of the local leaders. So, he deftly maneuvered and named that there were two primary commandments and that everything else depended on them, meaning you followed the other laws precisely because you were loving God, yourself and your neighbor.
This passage gives me such hope. The Bible is full of contradictions and stories with unclear messages, but this is clear and concise and is how I want the world to operate. Yes, it might be difficult and complicated, but it is a worthwhile direction to work towards. And we can attach to it whatever authority Jesus may have plus connect it to the authority of so many other faith traditions. I think this is who many of us want to be, individually and together. The problem is that it is not how we tend to act collectively.
Which brings us to our second scripture of the day, another test in a very different way. Let us take a deeper breath together as we open our ears, hearts and minds to these terrible words:
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he replied, “Here I am.” God said, “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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
I have been holding both of these texts tenderly this last week, it has been clear to me that what I want is not a reflection of the whole. I want to preach on the greatest commandment, and I want to avoid Abraham and Isaac. I want to preach on the joy and hopefulness that comes from an authoritative command to love. I want to look at only what is pleasing and turn away from the terrible. But what I want doesn’t tell our whole story.
To be whole we need to face the fact that we won’t stop sacrificing our children!
I told myself I would never preach this passage. The idea that God would test someone’s allegiance by sacrificing their child is abhorrent to me. What kind of test is that? What kind of God is that? What kind of people are we if this is what is modeled for us?
(Sidebar: If you want to go deeper into this text, please join this week’s scripture study on Thursday at 11a in the parlor.)
The story from Matthew is who we want to be, but Genesis sadly reminds us of how we act, of who we seem to be today. In the Genesis story, God eventually, at the last moment, calls off the sacrificial test, says do not harm the child—but we didn’t seem to get the message! We cannot stop sacrificing our children both literally and figuratively.
Everywhere we look, we are collectively sacrificing our children on the alters of apathy, resentments, greed, thoughtless consumption, and desires for power. This isn’t new by any means, but it feels powerfully stark today. In Israel and Gaza, in Ukraine, Syria and at our southern border, in rural, suburban and urban communities here and around the world. In the ways that we continue to fund the emissions of climate change and the desire for more guns and a glorification of violence. In the ways that we defund schools, defund parental leave and child-focused hunger programs. In the ways that we are collectively ok with children living on the street or in cars or in dangerous situations. Two weeks ago, my colleague DeWayne said there is no such thing as other people’s children, but we certainly do not act that way. We have never stopped sacrificing Isaac. We didn’t listen to the command to stop. We still don’t listen. What will happen if we continue to stand at this sacrificial altar?
You may rightfully push back on this and say that you do not do this. Likely true. You can push back and say there is so little you can do about these global awful situations. Debatable, but maybe? It is normal to want to separate yourself from something this terrible. But we also do not get to pretend that we are powerless. There is a piece of Jewish wisdom that says: “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are also not free to avoid it.”
So, who do we want to be? Do we want to follow the web of global cultures that continues to normalize this sacrifice? Or do we push back against culture, be counter-cultural, and model every day the command to love.
Who do we want to be?
Continuing the sacrifice is the easier choice, our broader cultures bend us in that direction, attempts to justify it, and supports our acquiescence. What people, institutions or ideas become more powerful when we decide this is who we want to be?
Living the commandment to love God, the other and yourself is much harder and counter to our human-centric cultures. Love, while a heartwarming concept, can often feel awkward, vulnerable and uncomfortable in its public form. To make this choice, we are connecting to the ever-present God of love and co-creating with God actions and moments that support the power of this commandment.
Who do we want to be?
Years ago someone said to me something like: “Don’t worry as much about what you are going to do, focus on who you want to be and then do the things that match that vision.” And I would add to that the question: what will you give up in order to be who you want to be?
To love God, yourself and the other requires sacrifice too, but a very different sacrifice than that of Isaac. It need not involve hurt, pain or death. Discomfort? Sure. But discomfort is very different than pain. Instead, we have the opportunity to sacrifice the need to be right, to be in control, to have power, the need to have more than is enough, the need to be the center of every circle. To love fully is to give up absolute expectation of outcome and instead focus on the loving presence of here and now. “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are also not free to avoid it.”
The joke is that each Minister only has a few sermons and they just preach those couple over and over again in different ways. This is one of my few sermons; I will make it explicit. We are called to love God, love ourselves and love all others. We are called to do this even though it is countercultural, even though it is difficult, even though we would rather not. Even though we don’t always know how. And we have the opportunity to do it together, actively and in community. And you are capable. And we are capable. And we need to do it NOW to the best of our abilities so that our light shines in the darkness and models a way of being rooted in love and not in the sacrifice of our children. Who we are right now is shown in the seemingly ceaseless sacrifice of Isaac. Who we want to be can be different. May we show up, use our gifts, push against culture and love the God that fills us, surrounds us and connects us with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind and love others as we love ourselves. Everything depends on this.
Who do we want to be?
From Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), Chapter 2:16; “…(Rabbi Tarfon) used to say… It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are also not free to avoid it.”