“Never Give up on the Curve”
A sermon by
The Rev. Keely Franke
June 26, 2011
I learned to drive when I was growing up in the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas. In the summers my family spent four to five days out of seven at our place at “The Lake.” We kept the roads between Fort Smith and Mount Ida hot. With the exception to some limits, I pretty much had total freedom when we were at the lake. At 12 my dad taught me to drive behind my mom’s big suburban, at 15 I got the car that I still have today, and once I turned 16 I was set loose to drive myself wherever I wanted to go. I love driving and still do most of the driving today because it gives me the feeling that I’m in control of something.
The drive to The Lake took about 2 hours, sometimes an hour 45 minutes. The first half was mostly farms and dinky towns with a lot of cops who had nothing better to do than give you a ticket. But once you hit Y City and turned left heading towards the mountains it was free game. You could drive as fast as you thought you could make the curves going up into the mountain. I loved driving this stretch. I found you could easily do 10 miles over the recommended speed around the curves and 15 if you wanted to push it.
My dad likes driving, too, and I’ll never forget when he was teaching me to hug the curves driving through those mountains. It was weeks before I turned 16, when he would set me loose to drive this road on my own, that he said the thing I’ll never forget. “Never,” he said, “never give up on the curve.”
This summer in our lectionary we have some of the all time great stories of the beginnings of our faith. Starting last week with the long and beautiful creation story we will now be hearing these stories from Genesis and Exodus well into October. These are the stories of our fathers and mothers. Of Abraham and his son Isaac. Stories of Jacob’s ladder and Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers. Stories about Moses and the exodus out of Egypt.
They are also the stories of our mothers. Of Sarah and Hagar, Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, and Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives. My two personal favorites are Shiphrah and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who disobeyed the Pharaoh’s command to kill all first born Hebrew boys and thereby risked their lives while saving our faith. And then, of course, Miriam playing the tambourine after the crossing of the red sea.
These are some of our most beautiful stories. Stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, of freedom and celebration, of a people finding their identity as God’s very own. But there are also some very disturbing stories as well. Stories of violence against nations, jealousy and hatred between brothers, and destruction
in the name of this very God. Stories very disturbing indeed and it is the story of this sort which we encounter early on in our readings today.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac. It’s a good thing this wasn’t the text last week on father’s day. I don’t think Abraham would be winning the father of the year award by any means. Or God either for that matter. It is a chilling tale and when read up closely it is downright terrifying. But it is after all a story of our faith, the story perhaps of the father of our faith and so we are left to wrestle with it.
In seminary we had to read Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. We all complained to no end as we struggled through this little, impossible book. It’s one of the few though that I did read all of, and I’ve reread it several times since. Here Kierkegaard examines the pure anxiety and terror of Abraham being asked to give up that which he loved most, his son Isaac.
One quiet and dark morning Abraham woke up. Without telling anyone, not even Isaac’s mother Sarah, he got together a couple men, woke up Isaac, cut the wood for the sacrifice and headed off. In the story preceding this one Sarah herself had
asked Abraham to banish Hagar and her son Ishmael out of jealousy. Now Abraham again was being asked to cut off another son, the promised son, but this time by killing him himself.
In silence the men road three long days. At any point Abraham could have called the whole thing off and yet with determination he carried on. On the third day they dismounted their donkeys and Abraham and Isaac headed off, alone up into the mountains. This was no leisurely drive. It was Isaac who broke the silence first. He too had had much time to ponder and it became very clear to him that something very important was missing. “Father,” he said, “where is the lamb for sacrifice?” Isaac, whose name means “lauhgter”, was not laughing anymore.
At this point we ask ourselves, what father could really sacrifice his own son? And even more so, what God would ask a father to do such a thing? As a friend in seminary said, a God who would demand this is a really creepy God. I have to
agree. In the eyes of the world this story is a story about a really creepy God and a father who is about to commit murder. But Kierkegaard encourages us to see this story differently:
“All along he [Abraham] had faith, he believed that God would not demand Isaac of him, while still he was willing to offer him if that was indeed what was demanded. He believed on the strength of the absurd, for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed absurd that God who demanded this of him should in the next instant withdraw the demand. He climbed the mountain, even in that moment when the knife gleamed he believed – that God would not demand Isaac.”
The difference for Kierkegaard is that Abraham had faith. A faith that believed in the impossible through the strength of the absurd. A faith that believed above all that God is a God of love. And in a cultural context where child sacrifice was practiced, Abraham believed that our God would not require this of him. This faith made Abraham the father of our faith.
Faith is a tricky thing to talk about it and I don’t know that I have this kind of faith. I like to have too much control. Our faith is a paradox. “A monstrous paradox,” Kierkegaard calls it. Because it is a faith which demands that in order to gain everything we must be willing to lose everything first. To acquire the great love of our life we must first be willing to give up that love and believe that upon doing so we will gain it ever most fully again.
Back in the 60s Bob Dylan wrote a song and had an album called Highway 61. Highway 61 started in New Orleans, Louisiana and followed the Mississippi river valley through Memphis, St. Louis, and into Duluth, Minnesota. It was a route frequently taken by African Americans going north to find freedom. The song starts like this:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done ?”
God says. “Out on Highway 61”.
This faith of ours is one that I only very cautiously urge you to consider. It is a faith that is not for everyone. I don’t want to believe that our God is a God who tests us. A God who threatens us if we don’t obey. And yet whether we like it or not we are tested in many ways.
We find ourselves driving along the road without a care in the world. It’s summer, the sun is shining and suddenly out of nowhere – a curve that we didn’t expect. Instead of going 10 over the recommended speed you are really 25 over and you have two options. To give up and really lose it all or to trust the curve.
Abraham was thrown a curve. And he never gave up. He rose to the occasion, said “Here I am,” kept his eye on the curve, and God didn’t let him down. As our reading says today: “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.’” So whatever you do, yea of little faith or of much, never give up on the curve. Amen.