First, Do No Harm. June 28

First, Do No Harm

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill, Palenville, Quarryville United Methodist Churches, online; June 28, 2020


I don’t like this story.  I don’t like Abraham in this story; I don’t like God in this story.  And I feel so deeply for Isaac, used by his father as a pawn, a bargaining chip to prove Abraham’s devotion to God.  It’s Isaac who is at the center of the story, and it’s Isaac who retreats into history, who doesn’t develop the deep and rich relationship with God that both his father Abraham or his son Jacob do.  And no wonder.  As the story is told, God used Isaac and broke his trust and wounded his heart and soul early in life.  I struggle with this portrayal of God.  I much prefer the God we witness to in the song we just sang, Jesus Loves Me

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong…

Jesus loves me, and you, and all the children of the world, made in God’s image, precious and worthy of love.  This is the witness of Jesus, calling children to him, whom we sing about in trust and love in a song so many young children learn as a foundation of their relationship to Jesus.  This song is so basic to our understanding of our faith that the United Methodist Hymnal offers it in four languages besides English, so that everyone can sing it and claim its basic truth for themselves.  Jesus love me.  Jesus loves you.  Jesus loves us.


Human sacrifice is not the way of the faith of the Bible; other religions in the Middle East practiced human sacrifice, child sacrifice even, as did ancient religions all over the world.  Leviticus explicitly mentions a prohibition to the Israelites of the ways of Molech, the ancient Near-Eastern god of some of Israel’s neighbors, who craved and demanded child sacrifice.  Scripture witnesses that child sacrifice was never a part of regular practice among the Israelites.  There are gruesome stories in the Bible, but anything resembling human sacrifice is abnormal and atypical. 


And then there’s this story. Ancient biblical scholars, the rabbis, explained this story as a simple exercise of testing between God and Abraham, each of whom, they insisted, knew that Isaac was never in danger.  But Isaac wasn’t told about that unstated understanding, nor is such an understanding made explicit in the text.  I can only come to grips with the story as a misunderstanding by Abraham.  There was a movie about Noah made a few years back, in which Noah believes that God’s intent is to destroy all humanity and save only the animals.  In Noah’s mind, Noah’s immediate family were only instruments to save the animals; post-flood, they would simply die off.  Noah is so sure of this that he moves to destroy his own grandchildren when they are born.  I don’t tell you this to spill the plot twist of a movie, but to illustrate that humans don’t always understand all that God is about nor all that God intends.  We can get it wrong.  God’s covenant with Noah, marked by the rainbow, makes it clear that Noah was wrong.  I believe Abraham gets it wrong when he thinks God tells him to sacrifice Isaac.  That may be too simplistic, maybe too easy a rationalization for you.  I respect that.  It’s where I am with this story so far.  I promise to keep wrestling with it.


However, there is a different truth made manifest in this story.  It is a descriptive truth, that child sacrifice is real and horrible.  Today, although we are horrified by Abraham’s willingness and capacity to bring Isaac to the brink of death, we are complicit in sacrificing children far too often to the gods of war and ideology and wealth and nationalism and individualism.  After the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, Garry Wills spoke of our society’s worship of our modern-day Moloch.  Wills declares that guns are our society’s Moloch, the god whom we are willing to lift up and to sacrifice our children to.  Hundreds of children have been killed in school since Sandy Hook. Hundreds more have been wounded by guns in the same time-period.  Thousands have been traumatized by regular shooter drills reminding them that their lives are cheap, and we won’t protect them, because we can’t garner the political will to do so.  This is hardly the welcome and care Jesus offered to children.


Guns aren’t the only way we sacrifice children.  There are still children kept in detention centers, uncared for, expected to stand for themselves in court without counsel, in very rough conditions, now exposed and suffering from covid-19 and not adequately attended to.  Our nation is willing to sacrifice their lives, because they weren’t born here, though we name them as precious in Jesus’ sight. 


This medical emergency caused by the corona virus has closed schools across the country.  The disparity of education available to our children has been laid bare as we realize that kids in affluent areas have computers and broadband and privacy in their homes to keep up with online school, and kids in poverty are being left behind.  Can we ask these children to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” if we aren’t willing to bring them into our lives and our churches in love and justice?


The Black Lives Matter marchers cry out the names of children as part of their witness of grief – Tamir Rice was 12 when he was shot by police in Cleveland in 2014; Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was killed by George Zimmerman, a vigilante who has not been punished with wrongdoing in Trayvon’s death; Elijah McClain and Freddy Gray were 23 and 25 respectively, not children, but still young men, murdered and mourned by marchers and protestors, because our society is willing to sacrifice their lives instead of confronting racism and growing toward justice. 


God gives the gift of life.  And God gives us one another, to care for, to watch out for, to protect from the consequences of hatred or prejudice or abuse of power.  Abraham used his power over Isaac to diminish his humanity and use him as a player in a conversation between Abraham and God.  We have not ceased to use people, children and others, as players in our own negotiations with God, with life, and with finding a way through.  That’s not what a life of faith looks like.  People, children especially, are not tools of negotiation nor bargaining chips with which to gamble on prosperity.  They are precious lives, made in God’s image, worthy and lovable.  God calls us to take responsibility for the safety and care of the children in our lives and for the people whose lives connect with ours, in ways large and small.  Love your neighbor, says Jesus.  Love your enemy.  Tend my sheep and feed my lambs, Jesus says to Peter. 


Abraham’s story is descriptive of our world today.  Just as Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrificial fire, so schools ask kids to carry the bulletproof backpacks every day, reminding them of the danger we place them in daily, and we aren’t even looking for a ram to appear to save children’s lives. 


I still don’t like this story, either in Genesis or in the world around us.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we can commit to speaking out against the horror of child sacrifice.  We will continue to sing Jesus loves me, for each child on earth, and determine to work toward life, not death, for children, in our schools, on our borders, and in our streets.  Abraham is the villain in this story; we will stand with Isaac.

Genesis 22:1-14

22After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He 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.”

3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”



Psalm 13 (UMH 746)

1How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

2How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,

4and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Romans 6:12-23

12Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. 20When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Matthew 10:40-42

40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”


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