By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
July 2, 2023
Genesis 22:1–14 (ESV)
1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 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 of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. 9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
There are a few things that Quakers, or Friends are known for. The first is of course oats. Which has absolutely nothing to do with Friends or Quakers as a group. In fact, Quaker Oats used that name for their company to equate their brand with a name that people of the time would associate with quality and value. We could get upset that they stole the name and used it without necessarily embodying that name within the life of their company. But I am not upset with them taking our name, because it has become a touch point that introduces many to explore who we are. Like oats we are simple, we value integrity or quality, and honesty. I like those testimonies of our faith.
I also like our dedication to equality. This has become a political hot topic of late. Equality has always been a political hot topic if we really think about it. This generation struggles with one form of equality, but a generation ago we still had struggles with the concept of equality. It might have been equality of the races, genders, or immigration. Friends have always been mindful of equality and have often promoted this within and outside our Meetings.
I can fully embrace simplicity, integrity, and equality. I love that we have had a strong dedication to community as well. When Friends moved from the East to the frontiers of America these testimonies came with them. Indigenous people groups asked that Friends joined them as they were forced to move to various reservations. They asked us to do this because unlike many mission organizations Friends lived with them. We saw and they saw us as being part of their community and the children of both Caucasian and Native people attended the same school. We have often had this community focus. In most of the areas within our Yearly Meeting there was at least one school established by the Friends, and the last of those academies closed in recent history. Meaning graduates from that academy are still alive today. This last Friends Academy in Kansas, from my understanding, did not close due to a lack of students, but because they were afraid that by staying open the public school would not be able to stay open. Community was and is important to Friends. And I love the community that we have. I love attending Meetings for Worship. I look forward to the various events we have together like game days and nights. I love potluck dinners. I love them not because they are always super spiritual, but because it is community. We need each other, we need other human beings around us so that we can be fully human because we were created to be social beings.
The testimony I struggle with the most is our testimony of peace.
I remember September 11, 2001. I remember where I was the moment, I heard the news. I remember the first phone call I made after listening to the reports. I remember because I was filled with nationalistic pride and rage. I was ready to go and do whatever the president said and honestly it took several years for me to allow myself to contemplate the Quaker testimony of peace once again.
I still struggle with this testimony. Every moment of every day, I find myself reexamining this testimony. When I was a young pastor, I even presented sermons that went against our testimony of Peace, giving my full backing to our nations’ war on terror. And I proudly stood with students of the youth group as they enlisted for service. I felt enlightened, I felt like I was embracing a new freer expression of Friends. But the war continued. My oldest son was born in 1999, he was two when the War on Terror began, and he served his entire enlisted years in the same war that had been waged his entire life. Yes, my son served in the military, and we have had discussions on this topic many times.
I still struggle with this query. I struggle because war and peace is more than a classic book written by a Russian author. It is the most vivid image of nature of the kingdoms of men.
A couple of months ago someone posted a screen shot on a Quaker Facebook group page that was a quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton. G.K. Chesterton was an author from England that lived in the early 20th century. I became aware of him through his short stories depicting a mystery solving priest by the name of Father Brown. Chesterton was one of those authors that challenged his generation to rethink many things, and filled a role that was later filled by CS Lewis. I do not agree with everything he says, and actually find him to be off putting today. But I must remember that he wrote at a different time and from a very different place.
This person posted a quote attributed to Chesterton that said, “A man who says fighting is absolutely and invariably wicked, does he mean he would allow a woman or child to be skinned alive, when he could prevent it with a blow of his fist. He does mean this if he means what he says: and if he means something else, he better say something else.” I cannot find where this quote comes from because it was not referenced in the screen shot. But this quote caused me to stop and think. I claim to have a testimony of peace. I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. I am a recorded minister within a religious society that promotes peace. And the person that posted this screenshot asked what would we say to Mr. Chesterton?
When I first moved to Kansas City, a homeschool cooperative asked me to speak to them about our traditions of faith in a comparative religions class. The students said to me, that they heard that Quakers did not believe in war. I laughed at this statement. And I asked them if war existed. They laughed at me when I asked this question because of course war exists. Then I asked them another question, “Should war exist?” The room went quiet. And I let the silence linger for a while. Then one of the parents spoke up and began to quote the just war theory. And another brought up the holocaust. And I told them yes, these are all realities within our world. This is why I do not say that I do not believe in War. Because war is a very real and terrible thing. I did not ask if there are justifications for war, but should war exist?
That is my issue with the quote attributed to Chesterton as well. Of course, I would do everything within my power to prevent harm to another human being, but what are we admitting when we justify this in our minds? To justify the use of force to prevent evil leads to the general acceptance that evil is acceptable. That we would need to use violence to prevent the use of violence is a cycle of violence that leads to more violence. And all of this dishonors the image of God in all people. Should war exist? Should suffering exist. If God was a good God, why would he allow this to happen?
War and peace are often at the center of my own spiritual struggles. When we think of war, our minds often go to disputes among nations, but that is not the full extent of war. War begins right here. It begins in the minds of each of us. It begins with our own desires and our own relationships with those around us.
I want us to consider for a moment the story of humanity’s origin. God created the entire universe and near the end of the sixth day God created man in their image. Later the story goes a little deeper and says that first God created Adam which is derived from soil, so basically Adam means mud man. And this mud man was incomplete, so God created Eve out of the mud man’s side, to be helper or rescuer. It is important to recognize this for what it is. Eve was created out of the side; the image is that Adam divided into equal parts. And Eve was created to be a rescuer not just helper. Rescuer because without Eve, Adam was incomplete he needed Eve.
I mention this because it gives us an idea of where the breakdown in relationships comes from. Later we are told a story about Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel. Scripture tells us that Abel was accepted by God and Cain was not. We are told that Abel was accepted because he offered the better sacrifice. Why does this really matter? Abel gave the best; Cain gave too but he gave what was left. I have heard it said that the offering of Abel was better because he offered livestock and God wanted the blood, where Cain offered produce. God also wants produce. One of the required sacrifices was grain offerings, which would be right along with Cain’s offering because grain was the first plant domesticated. The goodness of the offering, in my opinion, is the attitude of the giver. Cain satisfied himself first, then gave. Abel gave first. The disunity between the brothers, the jealousy that emerged, the war, or violence emerged out of self. Cain wanted to satisfy himself first.
This is at the heart of all war, a war between individuals and a war between nations. My rights, my desires, my needs outweigh yours. Should war exist? No. God spoke to Cain and asked, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” If you do well, will you not be accepted? This word, well, is what we should consider. We often associate it with doing good, this leads us to believe that the action, the offering, our works are what we should focus on. Even if we are protestants that believe that we are saved only by faith, we still get caught in the trap of being good. But the word is not legalistic, it is relational. The sense is to go well with, pleasing, or to be agreeable. God is encouraging Cain to work within the community. Love God, and Love your neighbor, right from the very origin story. Cain did not do well. He was not agreeable, and violence entered our human existence. Cain in his mind thought if I cannot have what I want, I will kill to take it.
Some of my greatest struggles in life revolve around this very thing. In sixth grade, I was sent to the principal’s office for fighting. What was the fight about, baseball cards. I had a card that someone else wanted. I refused to trade it and they tried to take it. I continued to refuse and eventually I found myself sitting in the principal’s office. The worst part about it was it was the principal’s son that was trying to take my baseball card, and I only headbutted him in the stomach it was not like I punched him. And he had it coming right. That fight was war. I was justified, but I was not agreeable. And he was also not agreeable because he was willing to fight to take was not his. Should this happen? No. Should I have given him the baseball card, also no. He should have offered something of equal value for a trade, and if you must know it was a Mark McGwire rookie card.
Disputes between students on the playground, arguments between spouses, fights between siblings. These are all aspects of war. They are manifestations of our own disagreeableness, and our own yearning to fulfill my desires over the needs of the larger community.
“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” the writer of Hebrews states, “and Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone.” The writer of Hebrews is encouraging those of faith to continue to walk in the faith. To not turn away even though others ridicule and make it hard. The writer encourages us to strive to make peace. I like the word strive. I like it because it is active. To strive means we are actively in pursuit of something just outside of our grasp. Peace does not just happen it must be worked for; it must be pursued. The writer of Hebrews then compares this pursuit to Esau. Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup. His desire for something in the short term was so great that he gave it all away. He did not understand striving. We can work ourselves to the bone for a bowl of soup, and we might see ourselves as good honorable people. But we have not gained anything, we have not moved forward. We need something greater, something bigger. Esau sold his birthright for soup, and then he desired the blessing, but he had already given it away, and was ultimately left without because his focus was on himself. We do not always know what we are giving up when we focus on ourselves. We keep walking forward and suddenly we stop, and we realize that our family is gone, our children are grown, and what do we have to show? We need something bigger to pursue something greater.
Abraham, Esau’s grandfather, understood this. God spoke to Abraham and asked him to follow him, and in return he would make him into a great nation, and a light or wisdom to the nations. We do not always understand this calling. We might think that Abraham was pursuing his own selfish desires, but that is because we might not understand the fulness of the story. Abraham was from Ur. Ur was one of the earliest of the great ancient civilizations. Abraham was asked to walk away from what appeared to be good. And what would he gain?
As I have studied over the years, I have found something interesting. Much of scripture is not unique. Stories in scripture often have parallel stories in other cultures. Some might say this disproves the bible, I do not think so. I think it empowers it. Much of what we see as Torah, came from the teachings of this early civilization from which Abraham emerged. And many of these ancient cultures had religions that were polytheistic, but most pointed to one Most High God that was above all others. Abraham had an audience with this Most High God, and God told him if you follow me, I will give you a nation, and through you I will restore all the damage these rebellious lesser spiritual beings have caused.
Abraham did not just leave Ur to gain a nation, he left because he had faith that this Most High God could do what was promised to him. For one hundred years he believed. And he did not see the fruit of that faith. Then in the twilight of his life, God finally granted him the first fruits of the promised nation. He had an heir. And God again spoke to him saying that it is through Isaac that your offspring will be named.
For a century Abraham trusted God. He pursued or chased after God. His greatest desire and the desire of the community that traveled with him was to become the people that followed the Most High God that was over all other gods. They knew the stories told in Ur, of the men of renown. They knew that these lessor deities gave those that followed forbidden knowledge that gave them power over the other nations. They saw this over and over, they watched as tribes fought against each other gaining greater power only to then lose that power to another. Abraham knew the stories. And who was he? He was just one insignificant man without an heir, and yet the Most High God came to him and said I will show you the greater wisdom and through you and your offspring set all this chaos right once again. For a century Abraham followed this God, and now he had the blessing promised. Then God spoke again.
“Take you 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 of which I shall tell you.” I really do not like this story. I hate this story. It seems to go against everything we know about God, yet Abraham was obedient. I have often wondered why Abraham would not question the action and then I realized something. Truth is truth no matter where it comes from, but often the truth is surrounded by skewed ideologies. That is what is going on here. Much of God’s wisdom is already in the culture of Ur, but it has been skewed through the manipulations of quests of power. Human sacrifice was one of those manipulations. Abraham for the past one hundred years was learning the wisdom of God, and for the most part he was following faithfully.
God did want sacrifice. He did require offerings. We think of these things as appeasing the angry God, but could it be that these sacrifices were like a band-aid keeping our disease away from the holiness of God?
When God told Abraham to take Isaac to the mountain, Abraham knew that this was odd. God had just told him that it was through Isaac that his offspring would be named. But Abraham also knew that whenever he leaned on his own understanding he usually ended up in some weird predicament. Abraham set off with his servants and son, with one thing in his mind. “The Lord will Provide.”
Everyone in that party knew something was missing. They knew because they knew Abraham. It was not uncommon for him to offer sacrifices, but they knew that the animal was missing. More than likely Abraham’s own face showed the immense stress of the situation. He knew that he needed to follow the word of the Lord, yet it did not make sense. And each step of the way he would utter under his breath, “the Lord will provide.”
Then the kid speaks up, “Dad…Where is the ram?” I have been in this place. You have probably been here as well. Each of us have been in a place within our life where we really do not know what the next step is, but we know that we are supposed to move forward, we know that we should continue down the path set before us. We know that, but where is the paycheck? Where is the praise? Where is the assurance that I am following the correct path? The world around me seems to be going in an opposite direction and yet here I am swimming upstream. Our children are aware of our situation, they know when we are troubled. This I believe is the test that God was giving to Abraham.
Would Abraham remain faithful even when his child questioned the path? Dad, where is the ram?
We do not know every aspect of the situation. We do not know everything. We are at the best of times working with partial knowledge, but we often know the destination. What moves us through the deserts of failure toward success? Is it our own ability, or our own knowledge? Is it because we were destined for this? Is it because we have somehow sold our souls to some demonic force like the ancient stories of old? Who knows? The question is where is your destination, and what are you doing as you go there?
This is why war is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. War is violent it denies the image of God in our neighbor. It destroys instead of builds. But what is most devastating is that it denies God’s provision. To go to war is to trust in our knowledge and our abilities, and what do we have to do to gain the knowledge and abilities? We steal, we lie, we develop plans in the shadows. Everything surrounding the institutions of war are contrary to true friendship and the strengthening of relationships. It has to be that way because deep within there is fear and a lack of trust.
The child Isaac walked with his dad, the child knew that something was missing, and the child could have demanded that this missing piece was present before he took a step. Yet, Isaac walked with his dad. He trusted his dad, and he trusted his dad’s God. Even when the seeds of doubt took root and Isaac asked, “Where is the ram?” Isaac was satisfied with the answer, “the Lord will provide.” He was satisfied, because the Lord had always provided. Isaac trusted even when his father tied his hands and placed him on the alter. We look at this story often from Abraham’s perspective but look at it from Isaac’s. Did he fight his dad? Did he question his dad’s intentions? The faith of Isaac is immense.
What is the difference between them and us? The difference is where we place our trust. In what do we entrust our future? I struggle with our peace testimony. I struggle because I am human. I live in a nation with certain ideologies. I live in a world with over a billion people with different ideas and values. I like my way of life and they like theirs. And at times those values come into conflict. But just as God said to Cain, “If you do well will you not be accepted.” If you are agreeable, if you are willing to cooperate and work together, will we not have peace? Should war exist? No, but it does. It exists because we do not believe that God will provide, so we must take control of the situation ourselves. It exists because we accept that war is an acceptable means of resolving conflict, even though we realize that the only thing it can do is destroy.
I will close with one final thought. As I tried to come to terms with this testimony of Friends, I read a book by Jasmine West called “A Friendly Persuasion.” This is a wonderfully deep and short book that speaks about the trials of living a lifestyle of Friends. The story takes place before and after the American civil war. And in one chapter she wrote about a conversation between the father and his son. The son has a desire to live out his faith. He knows in his own mind what is right and is willing to give his life to bring that world into existence. He tells his dad that he wants to join the Union Army because he feels it is important to rid the world of the inhumane practice of slavery. The father in his wisdom affirms the boy’s willingness to serve, it is good to be willing to die for what we feel is right. But the father asks a simple question, “Are you willing to kill for what you believe?” That one question floored me in my quest for truth. Am I willing to kill for what I believe?
I have had conversations with Friends in Moscow as well as Kyiv. They are looking at this conflict from very different perspectives. And they are struggling because they too, like Friends throughout the world have a peace testimony. There is a difference between defense and aggression. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, but this does not mean that we are to back down. To turn the cheek means we stand firm without wavering. It means we stand in faith that God will Provide. Yes, we should prevent the harm of innocents when we can, but we must be careful not to go beyond what is necessary. We should always be disgusted with the destruction of war. Because it is always testimony of the failure of human nature. That we would rather kill than becoming agreeable. We would rather take matters into our own hands than have the faith that God will provide.