Come Tuesday many of us will spend time in the dark staring up at sudden bursts of light overhead. Fireworks that find the dogs running for cover. I’m guessing they’d rather we didn’t celebrate Independence Day. It doesn’t fit their idea of what’s meet and right so to do. Like the ram in our first reading today, the only hope for the dogs is running away.
Oddly enough, in 1776, not everyone felt the same way about the American Revolution. “Anglican” clergy, for one, had sworn allegiance to the English crown in their ordination rites. They’d made a holy vow. Only 28 percent of them were patriots, willing to break that vow. The rest were British loyalists or neutral.
Both sides were full of righteous men with opposing ideas of what was meet and right so to do. When the war ended, the mixed bag of remaining colonial clergy began the difficult work of establishing a revolutionary church for a revolutionary nation. Their plans for the first American Book of Common Prayer removed allegiance to the Crown. That was the easy part. The hard part was deciding how best to commemorate Independence Day.
Patriotic clergy proposed a collect for the day. Naturally, former loyalists dreaded its inclusion. The issue was resolved when the patriots decided to withdraw it for the time being.  It was a gesture of hospitality made toward their loyalist brothers. You could say they landed on the side of welcome, the same welcome Jesus lifts up in our gospel today: the hope of welcome before all else, the hope of welcoming Christ in other people.
As it turns out, the Collect for Independence Day didn’t make our prayer book until 1928. I plan to read it today just after the prayers of the people. I’m pretty sure it’s a prayer we welcome.
Today Jesus bids us welcome pretty much everyone, and suggests that in welcoming a righteous person we welcome him. Leaning into his welcoming project, I’d like to explore not the work of patriots doing their best to welcome loyalists, but the more ancient project of welcoming Father Abraham.
It’s not an easy project, at least not today it isn’t. But welcome isn’t supposed to be easy, else Jesus wouldn’t have mentioned it, would he? He’d have taken it for a no-brainer. So l ask you today to welcome Father Abraham caught in the act of binding his son Isaac as a sacrificial offering to God. He’s a righteous man doing what he thinks is meet and right so to do. And yet, and yet, you have to wonder about that.
We’re told Abraham leaves home with Isaac in the early hours. Likely he doesn’t want his neighbors to see him leaving with his son and returning without him. Apparently, God has asked him to sacrifice his son. And the possibility of that sacrifice also marks a terrible self-injury to Abraham. Kill Isaac, and he’ll also kill off the promises God made to him. For his part, Isaac knows nothing at all about his father’s righteous intention.
In a mere nineteen sentences, this hard story drags you into sudden darkness where you’re not sure what’s right at all. But then mercy arrives in the nick of time when an angel of the Lord tells Abraham to hold back his hand, to do no harm to his child, his only child, the child he loves. It’s a kind of Jewish firecracker, a dark story that ends with a sudden burst of light.
For me, the central question is whether Abraham is dealing with God or dealing with his own ideas about righteousness. I’m hoping the latter because I don’t think God ever asks you to sacrifice your child, your favorite child, the child you love. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus and Mary, the God of Paul and the saints – that god holds back the hand of despair and holds out the hand of mercy.
According to Jewish tradition the critical moment in this story happens when Abraham sees the ram as an alternate offering. The Jews consider this particular ram a twilight gift. Rabbinical tradition recounts how at twilight on the eve of the very first Sabbath, God created additional gifts human history would need in the nick of time.
Among them: the rainbow given as a sign after the great flood, manna falling from heaven, the rod of Moses, the shape of the letters on the tablets of the Torah, and the tablets themselves. Also making their list is the ram of Abraham, the one Abraham suddenly sees as a holy alternative to sacrificing his son, his favorite son, the one he loves. 
These are all gifts of mercy. And somewhere along the way, Tradition began to think of mercy itself as a twilight gift: light breaking in on whatever darkness you struggle with. Christians might add the Cross and the Easter Tomb to this list of twilight gifts. After all, the Cross and the Tomb are illuminated by the Resurrection, itself a twilight gift in the nick of time.
Of course, if you’re like me, you might wonder why God allows us to stagger and thrash about in the dark at all. Why not flood our lives with noon light from day one?
I’m in the dark on that one. But in the dark, I know there’s something about the dark that changes your relationship with God and with other people. It happened to Abraham. It happened to St. Paul, too, blinded on the road to Damascus. And today Paul redefines righteousness as an obedience of the heart.
If you listen close enough, you can hear Abraham moving through the hope of righteousness toward a more heartfelt obedience, the story itself moving from “his son, his only son” to “the son he loves.”
In the dark, the heart always longs for merciful alternatives. Surely, straight from the heart, Abraham longed every step of the way for mercy. Surely, even as he bound the body of his son, he longed for an alternative grace, for something or someone to hold back his hand. Surely he longed so fiercely to hold on to his son, it changed how he heard the voice of God.
Praying in the dark changes how you hear the voice of God. Praying in the dark absent the hope of your own righteousness changes how you hear other people. There, the one thing you can see is the need for mercy, for light and grace enough to live by, not only for yourself, but for others, too, most especially for those you claim to love yet bind and sacrifice to your own ideas of righteousness. Don’t make that sacrifice.
Instead, pray in the dark. If you pray long enough, alternate prayers are bound to arrive. They came to Abraham. And they came to Paul, too. I close with his words this morning: Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.
- Fr. John-Julian, OJN, Stars in a Dark World, Outskirts Press; Denver, CO, The Order of Julian of Norwich, 2009.
- The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky, translated by William G. Braude, Schocken Books: New York, 1992, 42.