Called to Sacrifice

We are Abraham.


We are Abraham, called to follow our God wherever God leads us. Abraham, leaving behind his childhood home in Ur and setting out to travel hundreds of miles to a new land, to create his family and his life there, to make a home there. How far have each of us traveled since childhood, not in miles, but in our spirit journey?


We are Abraham, faithful to our God, believing in God’s promises—in Abraham’s case, a promise of descendants as numerous as the stars—descendants of him and his wife Sarah. And yet no baby arrives. Years and years of waiting, and nothing. What has God promised to us? How are we faithfully waiting, faithfully following, trusting that God will deliver? Sarah despairs and gives her maid Hagar to Abraham so that he at least will have a child, if not her child. Ishmael is born. And at long last, true to the promise, Sarah delivers Isaac, beautiful, beloved son. This is the child of the promise. Hagar and Ishmael are banished, no longer needed. Cruel fate, but God calls them to survive and start another family line in the Abrahamic religions. So Isaac is the only child remaining with the family.


We are Abraham, called to sacrifice this remaining son, this beloved child. What?! How? How could this be God’s call?


There was apparently a practice in early Hebrew religion of child sacrifice. We hear reference to it in Micah, which was written a few centuries later:

With what shall I come before God,

    and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,

    with calves a year old?

Will God be pleased with thousands of rams,

    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)


Is this the God we worship? Do we need to sacrifice our children to appease an angry, vengeful, punishing God?


Even in this Old Testament story, where God can be portrayed that way, the answer is no. Even as Abraham’s arm is raised, knife in hand, Isaac lying there bound and helpless on the altar, an angel breaks through Abraham’s trance, his misapprehension. “No, no, don’t do it!”


It’s a horrific story. Is that the God I believe in? No. I don’t believe God tests us randomly like this. But I do see God’s beloved children being sacrificed. It happens every day.


We never hear Sarah’s take on all of this. She dies in the next chapter, having never uttered another word to Abraham. Perhaps that is because this story is written in a patriarchal culture, and her voice doesn’t matter. Or perhaps that silence speaks volumes about her rage and indignation, her inability to conceive of Abraham taking her one and only son to kill him. What was he thinking? Why would God promise them descendants as numerous as the stars and then take that away? What devil possessed Abraham? What God does he serve, anyway? In the Old Testament people often live very long lives. But even if Sarah dies at 127 years old, perhaps her cause of death was a broken heart because, after all this time, Abraham became someone she didn’t know anymore, set on destroying the family they had worked so hard to build together.


Our God does not call us to sacrifice our children on God’s behalf. We know that. It’s what makes this Genesis reading so horrific. If we could show Abraham the very next verse in that Micah passage, he would see this:


God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

   and what does God require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

   and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)


Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. It sounds so simple. And yet, the sacrifices continue.


There is, of course, the portrayal of Jesus as God’s beloved son, sacrificed on the cross for doing justice and loving kindness, which so rocked the hierarchy that those in charge had to get rid of him. Can’t have justice and kindness breaking out in a world of oppression, where Rome taxes the Jewish peasants right off their land in order to support its military regime. The beloved children of God who are poor, sick, hungry, naked, desperate—they are seen as disposable, sacrificial offerings to the Roman war machine of domination and power, which rolls right over them.


And still, the sacrifices continue, even today. On this Pride Sunday, we remember all who have died of AIDS, that plague that showed up in the 1980s and particularly ravaged the gay community. How many people died because it was the “gay disease” and therefore not worthy of funding research? Because those beloved children of God were considered disposable?


I have spoken before of the tragedy within families who worship a God that they perceive to be condemning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. And when one of their own children comes out to them, these parents have to make a terrible, terrible choice: Do I continue to love my child and walk away from my God, from the church that has defined my identity and community, my whole frame for perceiving the world and my place in it? Or do I sacrifice this child in order to serve God as I understand God? Some parents choose their God and their church; they inform their LGBT child that he or she or they are no longer welcome in this home.


But some parents have a wake-up moment, as Abraham did, knife poised, ready to slaughter. They hear that angel voice saying, “No, no, don’t do it! Grow in your understanding of what God requires of you.” Faced with such a terrible choice of church or child, they say, “I reject the idea that God wants me to sacrifice this beloved child, that God will condemn this child to hell for how they love.” Those brave parents walk away from their old understanding of God. They walk away from their church community, sometimes at great personal cost. They wrap their arms around their LGBTQ children, and they start over. One woman walked away from a church she loved, joined a PFLAG group—Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays. She started making buttons saying, “I love my gay son.” She goes to Pride events, rallies, just walks down the street—wherever—with signs saying, “I love my gay son.” She strikes up conversations on this topic in coffee shops with complete strangers. She is fearless in serving her God of love and justice. She is fearless in loving her son. She had to find a new church, figure out a more loving theology, and it is now what feeds her soul as she does this work with great joy.


In this moment, we are Abraham awakening to a new and better way. We see the sacrifices continue: sacrifices of Black and Brown bodies that are treated as less than, as disposable. Black bodies that live out the results of centuries of racism, discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, police brutality, poverty, denial. Beloved children of God sacrificed because some stand-your-ground vigilante decided that an unarmed young Black man wearing a hoodie was a threat as he walked through a White neighborhood. And Trayvon Martin was sacrificed on the altar not of God but of racism and fear. Beloved children of God sacrificed, calling “I can’t breathe,” as the knee of racism and oppression pressed the life out of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes. Beloved children of God sacrificed, like Breonna Taylor, like Ahmaud Arbery, just living their lives when death burst in the door or hunted them down in the street.


We are Abraham, seeing the sacrifice of immigrant children separated from their families at the border, treated as subhuman, kept in facilities as if they were criminals, when their only crime was wanting a decent life with their parents safe from the gangs and tribulations of their home countries.


We are Abraham, awakening to all the environmental sacrifice zones on the planet: places where the land, the water, and the people have been so loaded with toxins that healthy life is not possible. Places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, where oil refineries dump or spill their petrochemicals into the water, making all the fish and shellfish toxic—where, during Hurricane Katrina, those waters flooded into the homes of poor Black people, making them even sicker than they already had been in that environment. Environmental sacrifice zones like the Mississippi River, where the pesticides and herbicides from the commercial farms in the upper Midwest wash into the water and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey, some years, where no fish can breathe, no sea-life can survive.


We are Abraham, called to spare our children, to love them and provide a healthy life for them such that they can thrive, just as they are—gay, lesbian, bi, trans, straight, Black, Brown, White, disabled, poor, immigrants. Whoever and however they are, we are called to love them and to work for a world in which they can thrive. We do not serve a god of fear or hate or convenience or greed or power. Yet the sacrifices to those gods continue. God’s beloved children are not disposable, are not to be sacrificed on altars to those gods. God’s beloved creation is not to be sacrificed on the altar of “progress.”


We are Abraham. We put down the knife. We wake up from whatever delusion was misguiding our steps. We make amends, even when that requires sacrifice of our pride, our narrow understandings, our privilege. We devote ourselves to serving God by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking, humbly, with God.


What does it look like to be Abraham after he has almost sacrificed his son? How do you say, “Oops, sorry. I lied to you, Isaac, and to your mother, Sarah, about the purpose of this journey. I took advantage of your youth and powerlessness. I love you. I don’t know what I was thinking. How do we repair this relationship?”


We are Abraham, acknowledging mistakes, working to make things right. Those of us who are White are examining our White privilege, listening to the Black voices telling us how it is for them in a racist society. We are standing on street corners or marching in protests proclaiming that Black lives matter. We are learning about conditions at the border. We are feeding the hungry, donating clothing or food or money, volunteering our time. We are listening for the still-speaking God to help us make things right. And on this Pride Sunday, we are sporting rainbows, celebrating God’s promise of faithfulness and ever-present love for God’s children of every size, shape, color, and orientation. God loves all of God’s children, and all of creation. May we do no less. Amen.

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