Grace Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2020, Pentecost 4A (livestreaming)
What is God Doing!!??
In May 2003, a woman in New Chapel Hill, Texas took a large rock and smashed the skull of her fifteen-month-old son, then led her two older sons outside and did the same to them. The two older boys were killed, while the toddler survived but was disabled for life. She then called 911 to report what she had done. In court a year later, her defense attorney sought to have her found not guilty by reason of insanity. As he described in his opening statement, the woman was “a sick person on a quest to be closer to her Lord.” He continued by stating that the woman believed that God had told her that the world was going to end and that she “needed to get her house in order,” a part of which included killing her children. Witnesses, he continued, would testify that she loved her children and also believed “that the word of God was infallible.”[i] The plea worked: she was indeed found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentenced to eight years in a state mental hospital, from which she was released in May 2012.[ii]
It’s not as though this is the only such story you could find out there, if you had the stomach for horror and the patience for googling. And it comes as a surprise to no one that the insanity plea was successful. To us, the very possibility of conceiving of such a thing seems the textbook definition of being insane – of not being in one’s right mind, or of “exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind” as Merriam-Webster defines “insane.” Of course she was insane, we say. Of course.
And then comes today’s reading from Genesis.
Right away it’s bad news: “After these things God tested Abraham.”
I mean, that’s the kind of thing we specifically pray not to happen in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the kind of thing we don’t really want to believe God really does. God issues the test, and Abraham says, as far as we learn, nothing: he just gathers up his son and his belongings, along with two servants, and sets out to do the deed When Isaac asks where the sacrifice is, Abraham offers an answer that is either elusive or prescient. He binds his son, and is about to kill him when an angel of God intervenes forcefully, attributing to Abraham fear of God and allowing him to see a ram conveniently caught in a thicket, sacrificeable instead of Isaac.
It’s a struggle to make anything out of, and Jewish commentary has struggled with the story far longer, and maybe far more honestly, than Christian critical observation. Part of that struggle inevitably involves questioning why Abraham is so passive in his response to God’s test, when that has hardly been his pattern so far in Genesis. Throughout this book’s account of Abraham’s life the relationship between God and Abraham had been by turns funny, personal, challenging, and about a billion other things, but not formal and distant. Perhaps most notably, back in chapter 18, Abraham had been most bold in challenging God’s stated plans to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, going so far as to bargain with God (a thing we’re specifically taught not to do) to refrain from destroying them if even ten righteous persons could be found there. Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case, as the two cities were indeed destroyed (though Abraham’s nephew Lot was saved).
Things had gone strangely for Abraham since then, though. First Abraham had gotten in trouble (for the second time) with a regional king for trying to pass his wife off as his sister, in a misguided maneuver to spare his own life. Then his wife had borne their son Isaac and insisted on throwing out Hagar (for the second time) and her son Ishmael. Finally a minor tiff came up with that aforementioned regional king over a well, a tiff that had to be settled with a gift of sheep. It all sounds strange, to be sure, and there’s a reason that those stories don’t get into the lectionary. And that’s where today’s reading commences, “after these things.”
What happened to that Abraham, who bargained so relentlessly with God? What happened to the Abraham who knew darned well that God was not one to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked” (18:23)? What happened to the Abraham who knew God well enough to challenge him?
There are a lot of different varieties of tests. In the contest of scripture we tend to think of a “test” as being something to be endured, that we have to survive by faith, so to speak. That is how this passage is typically read: God was testing Abraham’s faith.
What if the tests we face are different? When I was a professor part of my job entailed occasionally giving tests, but that wasn’t about anybody’s faith or lack there of. The point of that kind of test was to see if any of the music and idea that we had discussed and listened to and learned over the term had stayed with the students at all. The question to be answered was ultimately have you learned anything? What do you remember? Can you take what you’ve heard and seen and put it into practical use?
What if that’s the test Abraham really faced?
What if that’s the test we face?
Have we learned what it is to follow God? Not merely to tick items off some checklist of half-remembered Bible verses we memorized in Sunday school as children and give ourselves brownie points for doing them, but to wholeheartedly, whole-mindedly, whole-bodiedly, and whole-spiritedly follow God? To be so saturated with the life and teaching of Jesus that we know what is real and what isn’t, maybe for the first time ever? To be so overtaken and occupied by the Holy Spirit that the spiritual discernment we so badly need to get through the tests we face is simply a part of living?
If you go in to class expecting a multiple-choice exam and instead are given essays to write, you’re probably in trouble. Are we just guilty of trying to win some blue ribbon for super-faithfulness, like those churches that keep reopening only to have to close again because of a new coronavirus outbreak? Will we ever learn that our test is not to be some kind of super-Christian, but to learn most simply how to listen and know and follow?
Later in Hebrew Scripture we hear from the prophet Micah (6:8) the most direct statement of what our test is: “…what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Or you could turn to Jesus’s words in Matthew’s gospel (22:37-40):
“You shall love the Lord 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.”
You want to talk about a test from God? There you go. Pick up your pencils. Begin.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
[i] “Attorney: Woman thought God told her to kill sons,” cnn.com 30 March 2004 (accessed 27 June 22020) http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/03/29/children.slain/index.html
[ii] “Deanna Laney out of mental institution,” kltv.com 24 May 2012 (accessed 27 June 2020), https://www.kltv.com/story/18620253/deanna-laney-out-of-mental-institution/