(A note on this sermon: I preached an earlier version of this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton on February 11. In light of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I modified the sermon before offering it at the UUs of the Chester River on February 18. I am posting this latter version of the sermon. Toward the end of the sermon, I quote (extensively) one of the students from Parkland who spoke just two days after the shooting. As we are now aware, the energy of this student and his peers has emerged into the upcoming March for Our Lives. Sue)
Genesis 22, The Command to Sacrifice Isaac (This text is included at the end of this posting).
The Meaning of Sacrifice
Our reading today from the Hebrew Bible offers a dramatic scene. Is God really be asking Abraham to kill his son? Is this a test? Why would the story present a God set to terrify Abraham?
This is one of the classic sacrifice stories. It’s early in the Bible where God is working out his relationship with man. It is an example of sacrifice in a religious context, and it’s a story that makes little sense in any literal way the 21st century. Yet, it is a story about ‘moments of truth’ and forced choices in these moments, and there are lessons that matter to us today.
In ancient times, rituals offering sacrifice to the gods were a part of worship. In Mesopotamian thought, sacrifice was to provide the gods with the necessities of life. For the Israelites, they were in this same geographic region and had their own emerging sense of sacrifice. Their worship was closely tied to making sacrificial offerings and priests implemented the sacrificial rituals using only certain animals and vegetables. The animals needed to be unblemished; sacrifice was about giving your best as an offering. Sacrifices showed honor to God, and, most importantly, sacrifices were a path to encounter God. Sacrifices helped align the people with the will of God. For them an external showing of ritual sacrifice was not enough; sacrifice was to change the internal commitment of those partaking in the ritual. Sacrifice was seen as necessary and of high value. For Abraham, his willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a test of his trust in God, or at least that is one interpretation. He passed.
This is sacrifice in a religious context. A common definition of sacrifice is ‘an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.’ It is about difficult choices in secular as well as in religious contexts. Sacrifice is often about the path not taken and what was given up in order to pursue another direction. And with deep sacrifice, there is often grief and pain which comes with loss.
There can be sacrifice in heroics. In 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac in the middle of a snowstorm. All but six passengers were killed. About 20 minutes after the crash a helicopter arrived to rescue the survivors. By one account, “After getting one man to safety, the helicopter threw a life-ring to Arland Williams… who immediately gave it to the passenger next to him. He helped the others, but ultimately drowned.”
There is sacrifice when a family member or friend offers a kidney or portion of a liver to another.
In these examples sacrifice includes risk. In these times of difficult choices, there is an impossibility of having it both ways. Something feels pressured in the making of the choice. There is a time of reconciling big things.
Sacrifice in my book is a strong term.
It is a term often used in more casual ways.
With the Olympics in progress these past weeks, we hear of sacrifice often. In these instances, ‘sacrifice’ is most often the athlete’s choice to train hard. While it is true that with the training may come the loss of a traditional high school experience, or of earnings, or career progress, or of living away from family, it’s rarely a forced choice. And for the Olympics sacrifice can be a code term for a willingness to endure physical pain as a part of the preparation. Last week the women’s cross-country ski team during an interview declared with the pride ‘we embrace suffering.’
I’m reluctant to be the word police, but the nature of sacrifice for these athletes and families feels different than the consequences which may come with donating an organ. Maybe we use sacrifice too casually? Maybe we use ‘sacrifice’ when we really mean the choice made to practice and commit in the hopes of clear accomplishment?
When you hear of sacrifice, the more difficult type of sacrifice, how do you react? Do you admire sacrifice? Resist sacrifice? Empathize with those needing to sacrifice?
While ‘admiring sacrifice’ sounds lofty, there are times when choices to put another first are both surprising and deeply honorable. We might be amazed and grateful for sacrificial choices. Sacrifice may be deeply valued. There are times we might take pride in personal sacrifices made which align actions with values. Other times sacrifice invites empathy and compassion for ourselves, or others who are forced to make sacrifices.
This past week the term ‘sacrifice’ has been used often. It has been used over and over by reporters as they described the slaughter of children and teachers in Parkland, Florida. 17 dead. Others wounded. An eerily familiar reporting of a slaughter.
Sacrifice was used to describe heroic efforts of a security guard and teacher who put students’ lives above their own and died. We heard of students doing the same for other students. Sacrifice was also heard in the lament: “How long will we sacrifice our children in the name of protecting the rights of those want open purchase assault weapons?”
Earlier I offered this definition of sacrifice: “Sacrifice is an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”
We ask this morning, how long will we sacrifice our children – their safety, their wellbeing – in the name of protecting the rights of those wanting to purchase assault weapons?
“Sacrifice is an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” Yes, the definition of ‘sacrifice’ fits for this question.
This is not a question of self-sacrifice or personal choice. Children, with no say, are being sacrificed by all of us in society who have failed to turn around the laws, and practices, and policies and culture around guns. All of us. Not just some. We are collectively accountable for society.
Soon after this week’s shooting I checked in with my Talbot clergy colleagues. Should we schedule a community vigil for this shooting? In the past, we have. Together we’ve done many. Like the reporters, reporting again and again, we know how to do a vigil. This time we decided no. We felt we just couldn’t do it again, at least not if we didn’t have also have plans to engage and act. It was a discouraging and honest set of conversations.
We need to continue to ask, ‘But act how? What would matter? What ideas do we have to help change this pattern of sacrifice?’ We’ve been righteously indignant before. We’ve been to marches and written letters. What will lead to meaningful change?
My conversation with colleagues has helped me listen with a new openness. And, as I do, I have Googled, and I made lists – what actions fit for this community? Good ideas are out there. Perspectives to treat the gun safety issues like auto safety, and new groups headed by fierce moms and ways to donate. So yes, we can act.
What gives me the most hope today is the voice of a teen. Today is February 18 and just this Friday, February 16 (just two days after the shooting), Anderson Cooper from CNN interviewed Cameron Kasky, a student from Parkland’s high school. I offer these words from CNN’s transcript:
COOPER: You think you see this as a catalyst for change. I mean, I’ve never been to a school after a shooting like this where I’ve met so many students who are talking about issues of guns in this time when so many politicians are saying now is not the time to talk about the it.
KASKY: Everybody has done an amazing job responding to this. The Stoneman Douglas community, the Parkland community, everybody was in equal amount of supportive and grieving and inspired. We’re going to use this to try to make something better out of it.
COOPER: Do you really think change is possible in terms of the kind of change you want?
KASKY: Everything I’ve heard where we can’t do anything, and this is just out of our hands, it’s inevitable, I think that’s a facade … I think that’s what they want us to think.
I think that after every shooting the NRA sends a memo saying send your thoughts and prayers, say let’s not talk about it now, say this happens. This is the only country where this kind of thing happens.…
COOPER: You know, obviously there are a lot of politicians who are focusing on mental health and saying something needs to be done about that, greater focus on mental health.
KASKY: I think mental health is important. I think that it’s being used as a way to get out of discussing gun control. I think there’s a very clear connection between the two. I’m not trying to take everybody’s guns away. It was a 19-year-old who legally bought an AR- 15 which is a weapon of war. If he had been through the least bit of screening, somebody would have said this person does not need a weapon like that. I think there need to be a lot more regulations put on guns and it needs to be a lot harder to get them.
COOPER: So, you know, you’re a junior right now. Obviously, you’re thinking about college, what you want to do afterward. Has this changed your thought about what you want to do with your life?
KASKY: Absolutely. I’ve always been inspired — I think I’ve always been passionate and had a drive. This is something completely new. This feels like a calling. This doesn’t feel like a hobby. I’m trying to spread as much awareness about this as I can. I hope to continue doing that as long as it takes. …
COOPER: You set up a Facebook page as well you want people to know about.
KASKY: Yes. It’s called “Never Again MSD.” It’s a central place for people in Broward and all over the world who are sending their support because we’ve gotten amazing support from everybody. A lot of people feel the same way we do. A lot of people want to show everybody in the polls that we’re not having this anymore.
COOPER: Were you at the vigil last night?
KASKY: I was at the vigil yesterday. It was painful to see how many people were touched by this. It’s good to know everybody is inspired. …
COOPER: Do you worry that this will become, you know, a week from now when the media moves on, this will become another in a long line of tragedies?
KASKY: That was the thought I had, but I’m not worried because I’ve never seen this reaction before. Everybody is sending support. Everybody believes what we’re doing. We’re done believing that this is inevitable. This can be stopped. This needs to be stopped.…This is the time to talk about guns. Thoughts and prayers are appreciated and everybody who is thinking about us and sending support, we do hear you and we appreciate you and we thank you. But there’s much more that can be done, much more that needs to be done and much more that people like Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are not doing. It’s scary to think that these are the people who are making our laws when our community just took 17 bullets to the heart. It feels like the only people who don’t care are the people making the laws.
The sacrifice of our children is not inevitable. Hear that: The sacrifice of our children is not inevitable.
What if these young leaders like Cameron actually have the momentum and mobilize – and we help them? Help them find platforms, listen, and offer resources, vote our values and get others to vote. Cameron does not envision our society as stuck. He was born after Columbine. He’s part of a group of youth who have an alternate understanding of society.
Beyond mass shootings, guns kill one and two individuals every day, year after year. It’s about much more than mass shootings. There are too many guns. I hear duck hunters from my house many mornings. Safe hunting and safe sportsmanship are not the issue. Cameron knows this, and so does the overwhelming portion of the public. Sensible policies make room for safe, responsible gun ownership and use.
Yes, some others see the choices differently than I do. It’s not that those who see this differently wish for children to be sacrificed. They love their children too. But for some, the right of virtually everyone to own virtually every type of weapon is seen as more worthy than making choices for the safety of our children. Some see more guns as making society more safe, not less. Their assumption differ widely from mine.
Most of society doesn’t see the balance this way. Most want more limitations. And yet, there is a disconnect between the portion of society wanting sensible policies and the actions by elected officials.
I come back to the story of Abraham and his moment of truth. When a sacrificial choice is put before us, the choice is hard. These can be powerful moments of discernment. Times to learn. Times to assess what we trust.
These moments are times to ask, what is inevitable? Where is the potential for change? Can society do better regarding guns and gun violence?
For me, sacrifice isn’t a day-to-day word.
And yes, I worry when we are sacrificing our children.
And yes, I believe our collective actions can change the path, with persistence, our actions can. Somehow.
May It Be So
The Reading, Genesis 22, The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He 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.’ So 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. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then 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.’Abraham 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. Isaac 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?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When 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. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He 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.’ And 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. 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.’
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.