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Christianity, like all forms of human spirituality, dares to ask the question: how should we live? Now, there are many other questions we ask as well: Who or what is God? What are the origins of the universe? Where did we come from? Where do we go when we die?
But in my estimation, these questions boil down to the same concern: How should I live? What should I be concerned with? How do I stand before my God?
Because all of these questions, as much as they may appear to be questions about God, are really questions about who or what God is in relation to us.
If God is the source and the sustainer of our life, our redeemer and judge, our hope and our salvation, then surely, we must orient our lives in a way that reflects that. Even though we are saved by faith through grace alone, we know that it is impossible to experience God’s love without being changed. Thus, one cannot contemplate God for long before being moved to ask ethical questions about one’s own life.
Our Old Testament reading this morning, the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, is a classic text in Christian ethics. The Binding of Isaac, or the Akedah, as it is known in Hebrew, distills the question of Abrahamic Religious Ethics down to its purest principle: unwavering dedication to God alone. So often, this text is referenced as a testimony of Abraham’s faith, and to be sure, Abraham does show great faith. It is faith alone that allows Abraham to answer God’s call.
When God calls out to Abraham, Abraham answers using one of my favorite Hebrew words: “hinneh-ni.” This word carries a strong, declarative meaning. Abraham does not respond to God by saying, “huh?” or “what?” or even, “yes?” Hinneh-ni means, literally, “Behold! Me!” The English translation, “Here I am,” captures this quite nicely. Abraham lays himself bare before God, hiding nothing, giving himself completely to God’s Will. And Abraham follows God’s instructions, even as God tells him to do something truly horrific, to sacrifice his own son. For this, Abraham is applauded as a person of great faith, someone to be emulated, and rightfully so. For it is often difficult to follow God’s Will in trying times.
The story of the Binding of Isaac reminds us that even the things that we place the most importance on in our lives are secondary to the Will of God. God is sovereign, God is all-knowing, and to place anything before God is to violate the central tenet of Abrahamic faith: total, unadulterated commitment to God.
Abraham is a person of great faith.
But I do not want to focus on Abraham’s faith today. I want to focus on something that seems far more appropriate for our current times. I want to focus on moral outrage. Because try as I may, I cannot read this story without feeling a rush of anger. How could Abraham lift that knife? How could he be willing to build that fire? Abraham is a monster!
But—when I look a little closer, I see another side of Abraham. A side I can identify with.
I do not have the courage to say, “Here I am,” when God calls my name. No, I am simply not capable of that faith just yet.
But luckily, Abraham does not only say, “Here I am” to God, but also to his son. When Isaac, sensing that something is not quite right, calls out to his father, Abraham responds in exactly the same way that he responded to God, saying, “Here I am,” showing the same unquestioning devotion to his son that he had shown towards God.
And it is this cry of “Here I am,” “Hinneh-ni!” to Isaac that outrages me so. Not because it is disingenuous or callous, but because in answering Isaac with the same reverence that he responds to God, Abraham reveals another dimension of his soul. It becomes clear that Abraham himself is morally outraged at this arbitrary violence that God has commanded of him. This is not the Abraham of faith, who is willing to coolly sacrifice his son for God’s pleasure, but Abraham the father, fully acknowledging the horror of what he is about to do. This is the Abraham that I can identify with—the Abraham who is disgusted with himself, even as he tries his best to do what is right—the Abraham who looks skyward in dismay, wondering how a loving God could allow something so apart from what he knows to be God’s nature.
The Biblical narrative does not mention how completely disoriented Abraham must have been—how his voice must have quavered as he answered God, and his son. How he must have felt short of breath, as if getting the word, “hinneh-ni” out of his throat took all the strength he could muster. We do not read how his heart raced, how his chest tightened. It does not describe the sweat that must have run down his forehead. We read nowhere how his hands must have shaken as he clumsily constructed the sacrificial pyre, or how his hand trembled as he stretched out the knife.
And it is not until this moment, as Abraham’s strength is failing in light of the atrocity he is about to commit that God calls out to him, “Abraham! Abraham!” And again he says, “Here I am!” And God tells him not to lay his hand upon the boy.
Many people see this as a test of Abraham’s faith—a test that he has passed with flying colors. But I believe that it is also a test of Abraham’s conscience. A test of his capacity to be morally outraged. The results of this test are slightly harder to discern.
Even as he prepares to carry out this morally indefensible sacrifice, Abraham’s conscience seems deeply conflicted. His parallel responses of “Here I am,” first to God, then to Isaac, and then finally again to God, reveal the symmetry of Abraham’s commitment to both his God, and his love for Isaac. Neither is placed fully above or below the other, but rather, they exist in tension with one another, until God ultimately resolves this tension, by sparing Isaac’s life.
In doing this, God shows that Abraham’s love for Isaac, his undying affection and commitment to his son is not something idolatrous, that gets in the way of his love for God, but a human reflection of this divine love.
In this recognition, we see that while Abraham is willing to build the fire, and raise the knife, he is all the while morally outraged, that a tyrannical God would cause him, a man who is human, to do something as inhuman as sacrificing his beloved son. And in the end, this moral outrage is justified—God does not ask Abraham to murder Isaac. Though we are flawed creatures, capable of making all-too-human mistakes, we are also endowed with a conscience capable of discerning God’s Law, which is stamped upon our hearts. As Paul reminds us this morning, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” even when we do not have the right words, or know exactly how we should respond, we are not so estranged from God’s love that we cannot make moral judgments.
Abraham’s moral outrage stems from the fact that he knows that God in this story is not acting faithfully. What God demands of Abraham is not proper to a human parent, and it is not proper to a loving God who is intimately concerned with humanity.
No—a God who would command such a horror could not be a God for humanity. A tyrant who issued such arbitrary decrees that ignored love, the highest ideal of humanity, would indeed be a God ill-suited for human worship. Because even though human beings are often led astray, committing horrible injustices against one another, at our core we remain aware of what is good, of what is true.
We are made in the image of God, and the love that we feel for one another is a reflection of the love that God feels for us. Nothing can erase that love. Nothing can fully extinguish our passion for justice, our sense that there is a proper order to the world.
And because of this, we are able to know when something is wrong. It would have been wrong for Abraham to slaughter Isaac. It would have been evil. And that is why it should move us not only to admiration for Abraham’s faith, but to moral outrage at the prospect of the injustice being done to Isaac.
God wants to know if the law of love and justice has truly taken root in our hearts. God wants Abraham to spare Isaac because what God has commanded is morally outrageous. God wants to make sure that—even when a command comes from someone we trust, or someone we should trust, be it God, or a king, or a president—God wants to know that even in the face of tyranny, we are willing to feel the white hot anger towards injustice that God intends us to feel.
Moral outrage seems to be all around us. Turn on any cable news network, and you will find plenty of moral outrage, on both sides of virtually every issue.
People are morally outraged that the government is involved in healthcare, and people are morally outraged that the government is not more involved.
People are morally outraged that we aren’t doing more in Syria, and people are morally outraged that we are too involved.
It is easy to look at all of these different opinions, and think that perhaps morality is simply a question of opinion. This would free us from the need to take a definitive stand. After all, plenty of people have taken moral stands in the past, and turned out to be wrong. So, in light of this, why take the risk? Why not simply say that truth is relative, and that we can all agree to disagree?
What if I am wrong?
As long as humans exist, this question will remain. We will never know precisely how to act in every situation—and rest assured, we will make plenty of bad decisions.
But this shouldn’t stop us from being morally outraged. If we trust that God has stamped our hearts with God’s Law, as Abraham’s heart was stamped with love for his son, then we must believe that we are capable of knowing what is true, what is good. Good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust—these are not simply arbitrary categories invented by human minds; they are categories that correspond to reality. The fact that we can be mistaken about right and wrong does not mean that right and wrong do not exist.
And so, while there are some things upon which we may simply agree to disagree, there are some things which should prompt moral outrage, no matter what tyrant may issue the decree.
This week, the President of this country, a country that has claimed for so long to embody humanity’s highest ideals; a country that has stood for freedom, truth, and justice, not simply as opinions, but as expressions of God’s eternal decree that all are created equal, in the image of God—this week, the President of this country decreed that some of the human beings who choose to bravely risk their lives in defense of these ideals—brave people, who risk their lives simply by existing in their own skin—the President of this country, declared that these people, these heroes, these patriots, are more valuable as scapegoats, offered upon the altar of public opinion, than they are as beloved children of this nation. And I can only hope—that as he kindled this fire, as he bound these lambs, as he extended the knife to make this sacrifice, that it was done with fear and trembling. That his conscience was all the time convicting him of the atrocity that he was about to commit. I can only hope and pray that the man who sits in this nation’s highest office carried out this morally outrageous, cowardly act, with contempt for the god that moved his hand—the god of political calculus.
Because, when it comes to the dignity of human beings, the value of human lives, from Isaac all the way down to each of us sitting in these pews, there are no alternative facts. We are beloved by God. We are good. In all of our shapes and sizes, in the variations in our skin tones and our hair colors, in our different languages, and creeds and customs, and despite what some would have us believe—in the various and beautiful ways that we express our genders and our sexualities. In all of our endless complexities—we are good. Even though, like Abraham, we may not know exactly how everything will turn out, God has shown us this much: that we are all God’s beloved. There is not a one of us who deserves to be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion. No human being should be sacrificed as a means to some other end.
Much is up for debate. At times, our political division can be disorienting. More and more, we are told that to be morally outraged at the trampling of the rights of minorities is to stand in the way of progress for the majority. But as Christians, I believe that we are called to see through this. This country is a democracy, intended to be ruled by the will of the majority, but the majority does not dictate what is ultimately right and wrong. Majorities can be led astray. It is only with the help of God, who speaks through the Spirit, that we can discern that which is good—that which is true. We know that bigotry in all of its forms, is antithetical to the love of the God that made us.
When we read the Binding of Isaac, we know that while we may aspire to have Abraham’s faith, to follow God into uncertainty, we must also aspire to have Abraham’s compassion—to look to those around us who suffer needless violence and discrimination, and to be morally outraged at the arbitrary exercise of cruelty by the powerful. To turn fully toward those who are oppressed, and say, “Here I am,” beloved brother or sister, I will stand beside you no matter how unpopular it may become, no matter what tyrant may falsely claim to speak for the Will of God. For as Paul reminds us this morning, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sometimes love looks like moral outrage; sometimes to be faithful is to doubt.
Yes, God sometimes tests our faith. God wants to make sure that we are able to stay hopeful through trying times, that we are able to see goodness even amidst turbulent times, and that we are able to be a light as darkness gathers.
But I believe that God also wants to test whether or not we are willing to say enough is enough. Are we willing to look skyward, shaking with anger, and say, “God, from where will our help come? How long must we suffer the injustice?”
And so as we go from this place today, may you take with you this singular piece of ethical guidance: if you walk in the love of Christ, you will not be led astray. None of us can fully, know the Will of God, but if we trust that God has written the Law of love onto our hearts, then we must trust that when we act according to our human compassion, when we live with respect for the dignity of all people—we are never far from the Will of God.
Would you pray with me:
God, we pray today for our transgender neighbors,
May they feel the love and the recognition that they are owed as children of God.
And may we never forget the law that you have forged upon our hearts,
May we never lose our capacity to be outraged by injustice.
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents