Sept. 24, 2017 // Narrative Yr. 4.3 // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “What Kind of God?”; Genesis 21:1-3; Genesis 22:1-14
[Continuing from last week’s story of Hagar and Ishmael and all the questions it raises about which voice is God’s voice? Where is God? Enabling the dysfunction and abuse? Or there in the desert to see and to save? ]
There’s a deity you may not be familiar with. It’s a god associated with economic gain. Worshipping this god could improve a person’s net worth. The price, though, is always high. This god is old. But you won’t find him in the intricate family trees of the Titans and the Olympians in the back of your graphic novel about Athena. This God’s name is Molech. And the ancient peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, from Carthage to Canaan, had a hard time quitting him. When anxiety runs high, and times seem desperate, especially economically, there was a temptation to court this god, Molech, with the most precious of sacrifices: the children. (Pause)
In this morning’s terrible story, the narrator tells us “God tested Abraham.” If hearing this story horrifies you, you are not alone. It has been problematic for people of faith for millennia as they wrestle with what it could possibly mean. In Judaism, this story is the “Akedah,” the Binding of Isaac, for the verb used nowhere else in scripture. The rabbis have all sorts of debates about what might be happening in this story, in fact, there is a tradition of putting God on trial for this episode. What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son? Is it God’s voice that Abraham hears? Or could it be Molech’s? As people try to understand this story, they dig deeply into the text. 1) Some will point out that two different names are used for God, the older less specific Elohim for the voice that first sends Abraham on his barbaric task, but then later the more traditionally compassionate YHWH or Adonai — the name our Jewish siblings won’t say out loud — when the gruesome deed is halted. 2) Others will point to the pronouns to suggest Abraham doesn’t really believe his son will die, that whatever is going on here, Abraham participates in it… with a wink and a nod, maybe? Abraham is in on the… “joke”… if that’s what you want to call it. He tells the servants, “Stay here with the donkey. We will worship (the boy and I) and then we will come back to you.” Did you catch that pronoun? Maybe the father tips his hand further when Isaac asks that morbid question about the missing lamb. Abraham’s answer is a nonanswer. “God… will see to it.” 3)Some who notice these bits of the story insist that here we are seeing an evolution in human understanding about God. This is God saying human sacrifice is no longer how we get things done. In a culture and a time and a land when child sacrifice was an option, this is God saying, “No. No, we’re not going to do that.” Many throughout history have admired Abraham’s extreme devotion, and Christians have traditionally added on another layer, seeing in Abraham a prefiguring of a God who would not withhold his only begotten son. I’ve read all these explanations, and so many interpretations, and I still cannot accept at face value that idea that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. Preacher Ellen Davis says, “If it is purely out of obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his willingness to submit is monstrous.” Monstrous. Let’s tell the truth about that. Maybe the real test is whether we will honestly ask the questions this story demands: Is Abraham really hearing God’s voice at all? Or is he confusing God with a different, blood-thirsty power? What kind of god is God? What kind of God?
There are lots of ideas about God to choose from, lots of gods to choose from. Molech, in fact, has many devotees today. You will not see t-shirts or rubber bracelets imprinted with the acronym W.W.M.D.? (What Would Molech Do?) You will see instead a multi-million dollar youth detention facility built in the South Bronx in the late 1990s. You will see the 1,500-bed Northwest Detention Center outside Tacoma, Washington, that I pass every time I visit my younger sister. It’s run by private prison contractor GEO Group, whose stock nearly doubled last Fall after the election and had more than tripled by May. You will see a study, reported this week by news outlets, including FoxNews, indicating that fetal death rates in Flint, Mich., increased 58 percent after the city switched water suppliers in April 2014. The city had changed water suppliers under the direction of emergency financial managers appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, to save money. The city saved money. It was the women and children and families who paid the cost when the water was found to contain increased levels of lead. Between that spike in fetal mortality and a 12 percent drop in fertility they cannot yet account for any other way, it appears the lives of a couple hundred children have already been sacrificed in Flint. Follow the money and you will find that Molech has “deep pockets,” writes Heidi Neumark. She’s a Lutheran pastor who spent years trying to support the youth in her church’s neighborhood in the South Bronx. She found that at the time $6,000 per year was spent to educate a child not imprisoned, but the city was paying out $130,670 per year to keep a youth incarcerated. She writes, “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there are many neighborhoods in our nation and in this city where child sacrifice is a daily event.” It’s stomach-churning. In the pursuit of profit, humans beings are still making sacrifices to Molech. (Pause)
What kind of God? What kind of God do we worship? What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son?
We are not so far removed from that barbaric time of child sacrifice. If we go back to this terrible story, what else we may wrestle from it. Who are we still okay sacrificing? What kind of god is God? Is God testing Abraham? Or is Abraham testing God? When I go back to this terrible story, I notice first that God interrupts the barbarism that Abraham and the storytellers find perfectly normal. When I go back to this story, I notice God disrupts their acquiescence and acceptance that sacrificing children’s lives is something one could do when times got tough. The other thing I notice is that in this story, God does provide. And whereas we typically think about worship and sacrifice as human beings giving to the gods. This story is about God giving, God providing, what is needed. What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son? Whatever else is going on in Genesis 22, that question gets answered: Not this one. Not. This. One. (Pause)
As I sat with this story this week — and all these places where we still seem to be sacrificing to Molech — I remembered an interview with Ruby Sales. She was a small black child who integrated a school with her body, in whose defense a white man was shot and killed. She was interviewed by Krista Tippet for the show OnBeing, and in that interview, she said something along the lines of, “I don’t know what’s going on with white people… It’s almost as if some white people have decided that some other white people are irredeemable.” She questioned what our god-talk has to say to the white man in Massachusetts addicted to heroin or the 45-year-old in Appalachia the world economy has found expendable. She said, “It’s almost like some white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.” Her quote convicted me. It made me ask, Who are we okay doing without? And I thought about all the people who say, “No. We’re not going to sacrifice our children when times get tough.” One particular example of that is really close to home. Back in 2011, the folks at United Way at Jackson County decided 61% high school graduation rate was not acceptable. They got a Big Idea to say, “No. We’re not okay sacrificing some of our children’s lives in this economy.” They launched a campaign whose Big Idea is that it’s okay to expect that 100 percent of the children in three districts graduate by 2020. We’re not willing to leave any of our kids behind. Last year, The Big Idea cohort of freshmen was 1338 strong. They’re already seeing increased in graduation rates in those schools. I don’t share that just because I’m excited to begin serving on United Way’s board. (I am.) I share it because I heard in The Big Idea story people saying loud and clear: No. We don’t do child sacrifice anymore. We’re not okay with letting some people’s lives countless. There are lots of other places where I see many of you say: No. Molech is not the god we worship. I see you teaching and mentoring and adopting and fostering and parenting and eldering. I see so many of you say, over and over, we will not be okay with feeding some of our children into Molech’s greedy and insatiable maw. (Pause)
“God will see to it.” That’s what Abraham tells Isaac. But in order for God to see to it, some of us also have to trust enough to lift our eyes out of what has become normal and acceptable and look and see: “There’s a ram in the bushes.” There are resources here. We don’t need to sacrifice the children! What kind of God? Not the one we worship. “On the mountain of this God, it will be provided.” May it be so.