“A minute is a funny amount of time.” We say, “Give me a minute.” “It’ll only take a minute.” “Do you have a minute?” “He arrived at the last minute.” “Don’t wait till the last minute!” Unless you are holding your breath, we rarely consider individual minutes. A minute isn’t enough time to eat, isn’t long enough to read anything of significance, is too short for a catnap, and isn’t long enough for a substantive conversation. But yet, you and I are given about 500,000 of them every year.
What can happen in a minute? How many really significant minutes do you remember in your life?
The Atlantic magazine created a video some time back that was called “In the Last Minute”, and it included some compelling statistics. In the last minute 25 Americans will get a passport; 58 airplanes will take off; 116 people will get married; 144 people will move into a new house; 255 babies will be born; 11,319 packages will be delivered by UPS; 83,000 people will make love; 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook; 5.4 million pounds of garbage will be created; 136 million pounds of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere; 7.1 billion human hearts will beat 500 trillion times and create 858 quadrillion new red blood cells. All in the last minute.
Three days before Christmas, 1849, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was led before a firing squad. A court had sentenced him to death for allegedly taking part in anti-government activities. The author was the son of a wealthy physician; his father owned land and serfs. But those connections would not save him. He stood facing the end of his life. But for some inexplicable reason, reprieve arrived at the last minute. His life was spared and Dostoevsky was shipped to a Siberian labor camp, where he would work for the next four years. When he was released, he married, founded a magazine, and resumed writing such classic works at Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. But he never forgot that he had been seconds away from death. He was saved at the last minute.
It is not just any minute that brings us to a story from the Jewish scriptures. Because the old patriarch Abraham trundles his son Isaac all the way up the top of Mount Moriah for a date with a fire, a knife, and a very demanding God. Isaac, bless his heart, seems to be the not-quite-bright son in this story. He keeps asking his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is, never catching on to the fact that he’s the guest of honor at this horrific ritual. They reach the mountaintop, Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the altar, the knife is raised upright to slit the boy’s throat, and then and only then–at the last minute–does an angel of God intervene. “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham passes God’s “test”.
Now, I have to be completely honest with you. This is terrible scripture. I know it is beloved and well known to many believers, both Christian and Jewish, and even St. Paul found it to be formulative for his understanding of the atonement of Christ, but I can’t abide the story of a God who would ask a parent to sacrifice their own child–even if God is only testing the person. For many people outside the faith, this episode in Genesis is an exemplar of religion’s barbarity. In a book I read some years ago, The God Delusion, the outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote, “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremburg defense: I was only obeying orders. Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”
I agree, this story is indefensible. There is not one of us here who would even consider sacrificing our children–or any child–in the face of a demanding deity. Not a year goes by, however, where some deranged mother or father does that very thing; they take the life of a child and then says that is was God who told them to do so. We rightly consign them to the ranks of the mentally ill. We can “get” the purpose of the story as people of faith, that we are to trust God implicitly, that we are not to depend upon anything earthly to secure our place in the world, but when God asks for a child, God is asking too much. Maybe God is asking more than God has a right to.
When Bishop Will Willimon was at Duke University, he and his wife Patsy showed an old film clip of this story to facilitate a discussion with children and adults. “Who knows what the word sacrifice means?” his wife asked the children. A few hands went up; a definition was attempted here and there. “But what does it mean to you?” That’s when the trouble started.
“My mommy and daddy at doctors at Duke”, said one third grader. “They help sick people to be better. Every day they do operations to help people.” “And how is that a sacrifice?” asked Patsy. But the little girl wasn’t finished. “And I go to the daycare center after school. Sometimes on Saturdays too. Mommy and Daddy want to take me home, but they are busy helping sick people–so lots of times I stay at the center. Sometimes on Sunday mornings we have pancakes, though.” Everyone, from 6 years to 11 years old, nodded in understanding.
“But what does this story mean to us?” asked the chaplain. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?” “God still does”, interrupted an older woman, her hands nervously twitching in her lap. “He still does.” “How?” asked Will. Quietly she said, “We sent our son to college. He got an engineering degree, and then he got involved in a fundamentalist church. He married a girl in the church; they had a baby, our only grandchild. Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon. Take our baby, too.” She began to sob.
The silence was broken again, this time by a middle aged man. “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church?” “What?” Will asked in astonishment. “Why?”
“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.”
You and I, we know what it means to sacrifice. We’ve sacrificed to get where we are in life; we’ve sacrificed for our children, and our grandchildren, too. We have loved ones who sacrificed their lives and health for their country. My father lost much of his hearing in the Second World War. As I said last Independence weekend, I am quite certain that no one ever said to him, “Thank you for your service.” Others sacrificed so that they could experience the American Dream–whatever that meant to them. But when we Christians read this story, we cannot help but to see another sacrifice–not of an unwilling or an unwitting son–but of Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice himself so that we might have life.
And yet, we are all a lot like Abraham. We can never know the answers to life and our many questions in advance. All we can do is to act wholeheartedly, even when we don’t have absolute certainty. As much as we say that faith defines our lives, the truth of the matter is that there are no guarantees, no absolute clarity. Like Abraham, we make decisions know that we might be right or we might be wrong. Our sacrifices will be celebrated by some people and mocked by others. And once they are offered, we can’t take our sacrifices back.
So I challenge you to follow a God who asks us risk everything, absolutely everything. That means you should never give up hope, never give up your faith, never follow in your heart what you know to be wrong. You never know, God may come to you in the last minute, saving Abraham, saving Isaac, but more importantly, saving us from ourselves and the hard world in which we live.
All in the last minute.