LSTC

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

James Kenneth Echols Preaching Prize Competition 2012 - Carolyn Albert

The following sermon was preached by Carolyn Albert, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Tuesday, April 10, 2012.


Genesis 22:1-14

A reading from Genesis.

1After 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.”

The word of the Lord.
So often…when we gather here around this book, this Word,
it seems we find ourselves in the mountains…
Sometimes with Jesus – transfigured in glory…
Sometimes with Moses – receiving God’s commands for the people…
Sometimes with Noah – safe above the dark waters of death
that fill the earth beneath…
Sometimes…we come here to find ourselves in the mountains,
feeling that much closer to God.

And today…as we gather here around this Word for a second time…
we find ourselves journeying to the mountains again, yes…
but not the shining mountains of glory and hope and safety…

We are here with the weekend’s fresh Alleluias still shining bright,
with the light of Christ’s resurrection burning in our midst,
but in the afternoon sun of Hyde Park,
a cloud seems to pass over Easter’s light.

I wish there was a more gentle place to begin,
but the story doesn’t offer one…
At Abraham’s “Here I am!”
God just goes straight for gut… it seems…
“Take your son…who you love… Offer him as a burnt offering…”

So, whether we are braced and brave…or raw and unprepared,
today our sacred story brings us a few fearful steps
behind Abraham and Isaac…
up Moriah’s mountains…
to a place of white knuckles and held breath…
This story brings us to the very moment
that we fear might be the last…

The mountains of Moriah may be halfway across the globe…
but those peaks are not a foreign place…
We know what it is,
not to descend to hell, but to climb up to it…
where the air is cold and thin.
I don’t know where Moriah is for you…
but I know that if you have been there,
when you hear this story you hear and see
and taste and smell it all over again…

Since I was very young, Moriah has smelled like a hospital room.
My parents made the anguished journey up that mountain path with me
in a sterile fluorescent pediatric ward more than 27 years ago.
I was too young to know where we were going,
But like Abraham,
my parents knew exactly how frightening that place was.
Without knowing how, they had to let go of their child,
their only child,
who they loved… and of the future they had dreamed for her.

Like so many parents before them, watching with held breath…
their daughter being wheeled back into surgery again…
down that sterile fluorescent hallway…
their hands clasped so tight their knuckles are white…
It occurs to me…
I don’t even know if they have smaller hospital beds
for one and a half years olds…
How hopelessly fragile a baby would look,
swimming in so much antiseptic bedding.

Their little girl.  Their child, who they loved…
going back under the knife again.

The first time it isn’t so bad, maybe…
because you can make yourself believe everything will be better.
There can be hope first time we are asked
to walk a foreign and unplanned path.
But instead of being healed, we can be left scarred…
partially blind… immobile…
waking up to bad news instead of good.

The promise of the whole future grows dark in that moment…
we hold our breath… clasp white-knuckled hands…
and wonder how to find our way back down into daily life
from this mountain of grief…
wondering what future lay now in the darkness
off the pleasant path that we had been hoping for.

It is one thing to venture into an unknown future, full of possibilities.
It is another to look down a path
paved with the bleached bones of our dreams.

 

You see, the first time God told Abraham
to go out to the place God would show him,
the danger of the unknown was tempered
by the hope that God held great things in store.
There was such promise the first time he was asked
to walk that foreign and unplanned path.
But now…

Isaac, Abraham’s only beloved son…
the whole promise of the future in human form…
is under the knife, about to be carved into pieces.
bound on an altar…

What happened in those long three days walking towards the mountains?
How rough must that final ascent have been
that even the donkey couldn’t go with them?
How did Abraham keep putting one foot in front of the other,
knowing where he was going?

And, I wonder, when that final moment came,
I wonder how long Abraham’s arm was raised,
white-knuckled, clenching the knife’s hilt…
before he heard the voice and saw the ram that stayed his hand…
I imagine, as the promise of his future grew dark,
that he held his breath…

And even though Isaac walked back down the mountain alive
with his father in the end…
even though my parents and I all got to leave
the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital…
we all lose something at Moriah’s dark altar.
Something must die, it seems, in that place.

It happens in so many ways…
in the moment when someone is brave, or cruel, enough
to say the word “divorce” out loud…
when mere words are strong enough to knock the wind out of us:
“Cancer,” “Overdose,” “Alzheimer’s,”
We hold our breath.

 

The Bible tells us very little
about what that hellish ascent did
to Abraham’s relationship with his only beloved son…
Sarah is silent from their return until her death… 
Isaac – the future of his people, the incarnate promise of the Lord –
lives… and yet… nothing could be the same.

And what about the ram?
The future is changed with even more finality for some
on top of that mountain.
Like the ram whose blood ran instead of Isaac’s,
some go there truly to die.

That clenched hand… that held breath… might be the last.
Moriah is where we stare into the moment past which there may be
nothing at all.
A punch in the gut can become the vertigo at the razor edge of a cliff.

Is there anything to hold onto then except each other?
Except that last lungful of air?
Perhaps not. But in Moriah, in the white-knuckled held breath…
with nothing left to grab onto…something grabs onto us.
The silence breaks.
God speaks…

The very Word of God meets us on death’s mountain,
to proclaim that we are known by the Lord,
and that this is not the end…
to grab us away from the edge of the cliff…
God proclaims that the promise is big enough
to hold even this darkness inside it…
that even now, God is not far away.
There is life beyond the held breath,
the clasped hand, the knife…
the last moment we can imagine…
life beyond the hope for the future grown dark.

And God doesn’t just speak kinds words of comfort…
God comes and grabs onto us in Moriah…
or you could call it Golgotha…
The whole promise of the future in human form,
comes into the many-named darkness.
Jesus Christ lets go the last breath for us…
to exhale when we can only hold our breath…

On the cross, Christ’s hands are not clasped white-knuckled and shut
but open and wounded and marked forever for us…

Jesus climbs Moriah’s mountain and enters our death fully.
He does not leave us to ascend to hell alone…
And then… and then…
when he gasps the first breath of resurrection in the dark tomb…
in that moment beyond the final moment…
His breath grabs us away from death,
and our lungs fill again along with his.

This is the gasp of resurrection as we come up from the water,
or feel it cool and rushing over our heads in baptism.
The breath of Christ dying and living again
grabs us away from Moriah and into the arms of God.

No machines now, no ache, no pain, no fear…
Moriah can’t hold Christ…or us…any longer.
Yes… we may…no… we will… still struggle there…
but our story will not end there.

Abraham, Sarah and Isaac’s story goes on;
My story, my parents’ story goes on;
your story goes on.
Our story as the people of God’s promise goes on.

As we prepare in these Easter days to witness
Christ ascending to reign with the Father and Spirit forever,
Moriah is eclipsed…but not forgotten.
It has a new name now – “The Lord will provide.”

The wounded hands of Christ are open in blessing now…
as a reminder to us that Christ claims us
even from the highest darkness…
The mount of death has become the territory of the Lord of life.

And Christ’s wounded hands are raised as a warning to Moriah,
that he will return again and again to bring back anyone
that death tries to keep from him.

With Isaac & Abraham, with all who have been to Moriah’s mountains…
With Christ, through Christ…
In Christ we are promised this:
Moriah will not have us.
We belong to God forever.

Amen.

Please note these sermons are the intellectual property of their authors and LSTC and are Copyright protected. All rights reserved. Material published here should not be used without attribution. See our website's Terms of Use policy.

Page last modified May 24, 2012