My brothers and sisters in Christ,
The story we just heard about Abraham and Isaac is one of the most troubling stories in the Bible. The passage from the Book of Genesis today depicts a God who commands Abraham to kill his beloved son Isaac. Isaac was the son born to Abraham and Sarah after many years of infertility, and so he was a long-awaited and very cherished son. Not only that, he was also the son that God had promised to Abraham and Sarah. God said that Isaac would be the father of many generations.
So it does not make sense at first that God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. From a moral and ethical view, it is very wrong for Abraham to kill Isaac. It is murder, and it violates the special bonds of love between parent and child.
It also seems wrong for God to command Abraham to do something that is unethical. How can that be? If God commands Abraham to do something that we believe to be ethically wrong, what is the right thing to do?
Theologians and philosophers have discussed this passage many times, and they speculate a great deal about God and Abraham. In his famous book Fear and Trembling, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard deliberates at length about this story of God and Abraham and Isaac. He wonders if anything that God commands can be evil. He also wonders if God ever intended for Abraham to kill Isaac. Perhaps God was just testing the limits of Abraham’s faith. Or perhaps Abraham did not really intend to kill Isaac. Perhaps Abraham already knew that God would never really ask that of Abraham, so he followed God’s command, but he knew that an angel of the Lord would stop him before he killed Isaac. When he tells Isaac that God will provide the object of sacrifice, Abraham may be suggesting that God will not really make him kill his beloved son.
What I find surprising is that we rarely talk about what Isaac was thinking. This little boy seems to know that something strange is happening because he asks, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And then he definitely knows something terrible is happening when his father binds him and places him on the stack of wood. Then his father takes out a knife to kill him. The boy must be terrified.
Isn’t it strange that we don’t wonder about Isaac? His father almost killed him. And yet somehow he must go back down the mountain with his father and live as if his father had not tried to kill him.
Biblical experts tell us that this story was not so strange in the time it was written. Other religions of this era actually sacrificed children on altars. The point of this story, they say, is that God wants to show a significant difference between those religions and the true worship of God. The true God does not demand the killing of children. Religions that would sacrifice children are idolatrous and false. Instead, God merely wants to test Abraham’s obedience.
That might explain why the writers of Genesis do not tell us much about Isaac as a boy. As a child of that time, he was a little one. He was insignificant. He was unimportant to the writers of this story because children were unimportant at the time. They were like cattle or servants. Their living conditions did not matter.
We treat children much better these days, don’t we? We would never consider sacrificing a child on an altar to an idol, or even for some great ethical imperative, would we?
The news stories about the thousands of migrant children in detention centers in Texas and now California and Arizona make me question what we do to the little ones of our world to serve a great ethical imperative.
The situation we have at our borders is a complicated one. It is complicated morally, politically, and economically. We have thousands of children, often unaccompanied by parents, pouring into the United States over our borders. They are coming due to violence and poverty in their home countries. Most of them are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
This is not a good situation for any party. It is not a good situation for the parents or grandparents in the home countries who send children off, hoping for a better life for them. Only parents in a desperate situation would send their children off on a dangerous journey alone.
It is not a good situation for the children, who sometimes are shepherded by criminals and are treated roughly. Even if they make it across a border, they are detained in large, overcrowded facilities in the United States.
It is not a good situation for politicians in border states who do not know how to handle this flood of children pouring into their state. Texas is putting children on buses and dropping them off at bus stations in Arizona.
And it is not a good situation for President Obama, who is under fire from both conservatives and liberals to do something about our country’s immigration policies.
What should we do? What prophetic action is called for? Whose altar must these children be sacrificed upon? Or is an angel of God going to appear to save these children?
The voice of Jesus in today’s Gospel is the prophetic voice that speaks to me on this issue. He says, “El que los recibe a ustedes, me recibe a mí.” And he also says, “Y cualquiera que le da siquiera un vaso de agua fresca a uno de estos pequeños por ser seguidor mío, les aseguro que tendrá su premio.”
These little ones who are pouring across our borders are not criminals but rather terrified, desperate children seeking God’s providence. Like Isaac, their situation with their parents is compromised. They probably don’t want to leave their parents, and their parents don’t want them to go. And yet, they trust that God will provide for them, even though they, like Abraham and Isaac, cannot know exactly how God is going to rescue them.
Jesus calls upon us to welcome the little ones and to give them a cup of water. In his day, “the little ones” meant “the unimportant ones”. They are not the great prophets or teachers of their time. They are simply people who are travelling from town to town and proclaiming the Gospel.
In our time, however, these children in our detention centers are the little ones who travel from afar, pressing upon us to care for them and to welcome them.
Yes, it would be ideal if the economic conditions in their countries permitted them to stay. Ultimately, our hope is that children can be safe and can stay with their parents. That is how family life is supposed to go.
Nevertheless, the children are here. They are in overcrowded facilities, and some of them lack beds or showers. As Christians, we must ask ourselves, what welcome does God command us to provide these children? What constitutes a cup of water for these little ones?
When we discuss immigration in this country, people feel great fear. They fear that their state will lose money. Our hospitals and schools will be overrun by undocumented children, and we will spend too much of public funds on these children.
But we also spend a great deal of public funds enforcing immigration laws: we pay border agents, we buy weapons for border agents, we build walls, we prosecute them with lawyers. We spend a great deal of public money keeping these little ones out. And we sacrifice them upon the altar of protectionism and economic stability.
Or we sacrifice them upon the altar of law. Many Americans argue that it is wrong to enter this country illegally. The law must be enforced, even when the undocumented immigrants are young children.
The story of Abraham and Isaac demonstrates just how complicated it is to determine the ethical imperatives of our time. Is sacrificing a child right or wrong? Is saying no to God ever right, or is it always wrong?
When Jesus speaks to us through the Gospels, he shows how complex ethics can be. He does not give us simple rules to follow. For example, does his message about welcome really require us to welcome everyone in every circumstance? What about violent people? Surely Jesus does not require me to invite a violent person into my home or sanctuary, does he?
I believe that Jesus’ message of welcome startles us and challenges us. It makes us realize that some of the situations that we find morally impossible to decipher are actually a revelation of God’s providence. Just as God’s test of Abraham helps Abraham and Isaac understand just how providential God is, the plight of these migrant children is revealing to us yet more evidence of God’s providence.
These thousands of scared, lonely, and hungry children are seeking God’s providence. These children are like the lost boys of Sudan, who were forced to flee their country due to violence and wandered to safety to refugee camps in Kenya. Eventually, many of them were airlifted to the United States. Many of these boys converted to Christianity while in refugee camps because they believed that God saved them, in the same way God saved the Israelites when they wandered for forty years in the desert. They are now adults, and many of them have returned to South Sudan to help rebuild that nation.
These children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are refugees from violence and poverty, and they need our help. Like Isaac, they are bound, and they need liberation from these detention centers. They need the parental love they have left behind in their home countries. They need medical care, beds, food, education, and pastoral and legal care. Some of them have family and friends in the United States who can provide homes for them.
As a nation, we need to trust that God will provide for us all. If we offer to meet the simple needs of these little ones, if we welcome them as we would welcome Jesus, then God will provide for all of our needs as well.
As we come to our altar today to drink from the cup of salvation, let us pray about how we can mobilize to offer welcome and a cup of salvation to the little ones in our midst.
[Preached in Spanish at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California on June 29, 2014]
Readings: Genesis 22:1-14