200621 – Cat’s in the Cradle

Yr A ~ Pentecost 3 ~ Genesis 22:1-14

What a great text for Father’s Day! I mean, it’s got everything, right? A dad and his son going on a three day camping trip, they’ll do some bonding (I mean binding), there’ll be a fire, and some outdoor cooking (too far?). It’s a beautiful Father’s Day story. Well, except for the child sacrifice part.

Ok, it’s not a beautiful story. It’s a horrific and repugnant story.
Many people wonder why it’s even in the bible – it’s so awful.
Why would God test Abraham in such a vile way – to ask him to sacrifice his son and then let him off the hook at the last second?
Why would God ever do such a thing?

Well, the answer, of course, is that God never would do such a thing. In my view, this is not a literal/historical story.
And even if it was, then it would be a story about how a man could so catastrophically misunderstand and misinterpret God’s will.
We know something very important about God.
We know that God’s nature is love – God’s very being is love.
God loves because God IS love, and love can only love.
Full stop.
So any interpretation of scripture which tries to suggest that God required or incited repugnant things is a blatant misinterpretation.
No, what we have is a group of humans (ok, usually men) who do terrible things and then try to cover their butts with “Oh, God made me do it!” Look, if it’s not love, it’s not God. End of story.

So, what are we left with here?
It could be a story about how Abraham got it all wrong and God intervened at the last second to save the day. We’ll have a poke at that.
But I think the story’s actually about something much deeper, and scarier – and here’s the part that’ll make you squirm: It’s a story where we are supposed to identify with Abraham, because we do what he did all the time. I’ll come back to that.

First, this story does work as an allegory about discernment. Abraham begins the story by receiving a message from God. But if you know much about Abraham you’d know that he’s an arguer. When God told Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed Abraham argued and bartered with God to reduce the requirement of finding 50 good people in the city and it would be spared down to just 10. (Spoiler alert – even that was too high!) So it strains credulity that Abraham, upon hearing that he’s supposed to go and kill his own son, that he and his wife Sarah yearned for for decades, as a burnt offering, would proceed without a word of argument or complaint.

No, in this interpretation Abraham is being set up here as an example, an archetype, a stand-in who represents all those people who get an inkling about God’s will and run off and do it (or don’t do it) without a thought about discernment. Obviously I’m talking about big, life-changing things here – not just a feeling that you should give someone a call or whatever. To thoughtlessly just follow (or ignore) something great big (like, oh I don’t know, killing your kid!) that you think might be the will of God, is utter foolishness.
We’re supposed to ask God questions, and wonder, and wrestle.
We’re supposed to have to pray about it, and ponder it, and talk about it with our loved ones before we run off in God’s name – especially when what we think we’re perceiving as God’s will is directly and categorically antithetical to God’s nature and being (like, oh I don’t know, killing your kid!).

Another reason you know this story is just a story and not history is that Isaac, who is likely 13 or 14 years old at this point, seems to just obediently and silently let himself get tied up and then hops up onto the altar.
Genesis 22:9 Abraham bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
Really? Not a peep of complaint from this teenager? Not a chance!

And then, we get the big lesson. Just as Abraham is about to do the deed (in the story, not real life) the voice of God breaks in – right on cue, just like in Hollywood – and stops him in the nick of time. And there, in the bushes, they see a ram that can be sacrificed instead.
Well, God is not Houdini, and magic tricks are not God’s shtick.
I think we’re supposed to understand that the ram was there the whole time but Abraham just couldn’t see it. He was so committed to his misperception of God’s will that he couldn’t see God’s presence and providence.
He should have been able to see it – and he should have known better from the start – but his discernment was flawed – with almost tragic consequences.

So, that’s a pretty decent theological lens through which we can look at this story. But I don’t actually think that’s the best lens.
Instead, I want us to ponder that in all likelihood we are actually Abraham in this story.
Child sacrifice has always been an abomination. (Yet another reason not to take this story literally.)
But I’ve got some troubling news for us.
I think, in a manner of speaking, we actually practice child sacrifice all the time.
No, not on a stone altar with fire and a knife.
We tend to sacrifice our children on the altar of busyness, or interests, or ambition – sometimes our own ambition, sometimes our ambitions for them to be the next Gretzky or whoever.

It makes me think of that hauntingly and disturbingly beautiful song by Harry Chapin called “Cat’s In the Cradle.”

My child arrived just the other day. He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay. He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad. You know I’m gonna be like you.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon. Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
“When you coming home, Dad?” “I don’t know when. But we’ll get together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.”

My son turned ten just the other day. He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let’s play. Can you teach me to throw?”
I said, “Not today, I got a lot to do.” He said, “That’s okay.”
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
It said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah. You know I’m gonna be like him.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon. Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
“When you coming home, Dad?” “I don’t know when. But we’ll get together then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.”

In the next verse the son comes home from college and the Dad wants to chat, but the kid only wants the car keys.
And in the last verse the old, retired Dad calls his son on the phone. Sadly, the son doesn’t have time to talk. Life’s too busy.
And the Dad realizes that his son grew up to be just like him.

It’s a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching song.
And we think Abraham is a monster for thinking it was ok to sacrifice his son.
Or God was a monster for suggesting it.
Maybe the deeper, and far more unsettling point is that we’re more Abraham than we want to admit.
And it isn’t God who’s demanding the sacrifice. It’s us.

Now don’t judge yourself too harshly.
Sure, every parent (or partner, or friend) can see some of themselves in this, but no one is all this or all that. That’s the challenge.
We can all probably identify a bit of ourselves in this.
Maybe it’s not about kids with you.
Maybe it’s about another relationship that you look back upon woefully and realize how you took someone for granted. Humans frequently fall short in relationships.
We truly love, and along the way we get distracted, usually by our own self-interest, and we sacrifice the relationship as surely as Abraham sacrificed Isaac.

Now, with that lens operating, let’s look at the presence of God in this story. Because in the end Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac.
He awoke to his error and everything changed.
How did he awaken?
God finally got through to him.
God’s voice finally penetrated through the barriers Abraham had constructed and stilled Abraham’s hand. Isaac wondered where the sacrificial animal was. Abraham answered, “God will provide.” You see, he knew the right answer, but he just didn’t trust it. Isaac says he can’t see the animal. In the end, Abraham sees. It was there the whole time. He just couldn’t see it until somehow God’s Presence and love broke through.

You see, this really is a pretty good Father’s Day scripture reading after all – because it teaches us that if we’re awake to and aware of God’s Presence and love that our relationships can be redeemed and deepened, before it’s too late.
God’s love captures our attention, and we love in response – not just God, but our neighbour, and one another.
Awakening to God’s love transforms all our relationships. Maybe this message even connects to our Indigenous Sunday.

Genesis 22:14 So 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.”

It shall be provided indeed!
Not a sacrifice: Love.
Because that’s who and what God is.

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon. Little boy blue and the man in the moon. “When you coming home?”

I am home!
I’ve always been home: I just didn’t notice.