Too much religion. That was the unanimous opinion of my family last weekend. The memorial service for my grandfather was nice – but the minister was a little heavy on the religion. It was too much. Too much religion.
Maybe this was the same thought in the back of Abraham’s mind when he makes his way to Moriah to “offer [his son] as a burnt offering.” Even as he “rose early in the morning” to go to the mountain that God would show him. Even though he was going to worship on top of that mountain, perhaps Abraham thought – somewhere in the back of his mind – this is just a little too much religion.
My family’s complaint was the long-winded preacher’s repeated emphasis on the passion of Jesus. They wanted to celebrate my grandfather’s 79 years of life – not focus on the sacrifice that Jesus may have offered with his life. My aunt said that the point was made, but he didn’t have to keep going on about it. My father protested that the death of Jesus was not the assurance he wanted, not at this moment, if ever. It was all just too much. Too much religion – as I suspect it must have been for Abraham – even if he doesn’t seem to bat an eye.
Our human response is to assume that Abraham is angry and a little indignant. We assume that he’s questioning the accepted Jewish ritual observance of offering a sacrifice to his God – but none of this appears in the Biblical account. But, it’s not there – “no anguish, no heated arguments with Sarah, no teetering on the edge of faith.” Abraham just goes to the top of that mountain with his son following at his heels asking, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
And even with this question, Abraham doesn’t waiver. He assures his son that God will provide that lamb. God will provide, and they walk on together with the certain awareness that God never said this was going to be easy. The stuff of faith is not supposed to be easy. Sarah can laugh at God all she wants, but the God Abraham has come to know has done some pretty amazing things – all the while promising that “God will bless those who bless him, and the one that curses Abraham God will curse.” So, really what could go wrong? Why would Abraham’s faith teeter as he raises that knife to kill his son?
This is a stark and frightening image. Abraham was just listening to the voice of God. He “thought it would be the right thing, in God’s eyes.” But, these are not Abraham’s words. Even though he looks up, we don’t know if Abraham is looking up to see God’s eyes. We only know that when he looks up, he sees a ram.
This idea of it being the right thing in God’s eyes isn’t offered in the Biblical account. It’s transcribed by a Methodist pastor named Pat who shares the story of Anola Dole Reed with her friend over cups of tea. Her friend Rebecca is also a pastor, and they often share cups of tea and talk about the loneliness that often accompanies ministry. Pat confessed to her friend, “He killed her. With a kitchen knife. In front of three of their children. The baby was sleeping.” Rebecca listened to her friend’s story and then dared to ask the question we all wonder when we hear these kinds of stories, “Why?”
That’s when Pat talked about how Anola thought she was doing the right thing, in God’s eyes. This woman who had been murdered by her husband with a kitchen knife while her three children watched, thought she was doing the right thing. Anola was keeping the family together. Pat explained the pastoral challenge of this situation:
“A good woman would be willing to accept personal pain, and think only of the good of the family. You know, ‘Your life is only valuable if it’s given away’ and ‘This is your cross to bear.’ She heard, just like you and I have, that Jesus didn’t turn away from the cup of suffering when God asked him to drink it. [Anola] was trying to be a good Christian, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.”
Too much religion. That’s what it sounds like to me. This is the kind of faith that ignores that Sarah or even Ishmael might have had something to say about Abraham’s actions. It is the kind of religion that focuses so tightly on the bindings – whether those are the bindings that held Issac to that wooden altar or the limitations that hold us back to a certain set of beliefs.
This is too much religion. It’s too much when we ignore how our stories and those on the news and those seated beside us don’t become part of how we hear the Biblical account.
Too much religion is what happened to Paul when he wrote his many letters to Rome or Corinth reminding the newly forming Christian communities what it means to practice love. Paul thought that the world was going to end. Any day now, Jesus would come back. His understanding of faith was all about sacrifice – because there was nothing to live for. Jesus was coming back and so these early Christian communities didn’t worry about how to govern themselves or what to sing. The only way for them to understand love was to look forward to the end of what they knew in Jesus’ triumphant return to earth.
But, we have stories. We are not limited in this way. Like Abraham, we look up in search of answers – but when no ram appears – we turn toward each other. This is what it means for us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Like Anola, we are trying to be good Christians. We are trying to be faithful – but that doesn’t mean that our lives are full of sacrifice. We want to do the right thing in God’s eyes, but we aren’t seeking tests. After all, it’s summer time. We would rather leave the tests and rules behind us, even if this is a story about Abraham being tested. We’re not counting the crosses we bear to evidence our devout faith.
If this were so, we would have no room for joy. There is plenty of personal pain. But, when there is too much religion, there never seems to be enough room for joy. And in a world full of sacrifice, abuse and tough stories, it seems that there needs to be more room for joy – if only we are brave enough to seek it buried beneath all of the bindings of our shared faith.
The story of Pastor Pat is from Proverbs of Ashes, which you should read. It's one of my favorite books on a very tough subject. I found another great sermon illustration in the chapter on Divine Suffering in She Who Is. It was a tough choice. I hope I made the right one.