Preaching on the Binding of Isaac: How a Sermon on a Challenging Text Took Shape

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Preaching on the Binding of Isaac:

How a Sermon on a Challenging Text Took Shape

Charles W. Allen


The sermon:

Dangerous Stories for Dangerous People

The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis

Second Sunday in Lent

March 16, 2003

Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38

 You know, this is a pretty strange Church. I don’t just mean All Saints, though we are pretty strange by almost any measure. But I mean the Church with a capital “C,” and especially those of us who focus on the Eucharist.

We don’t think of ourselves as cannibals—why some of us are even vegetarians—and yet we cheerfully sing Jesus’ words: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood dwell in me and I in them.” We’re eating bread and drinking wine, but we keep insisting that this isn’t just a symbol—it’s still some kind of flesh and blood. It may be in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving that we feed on Christ, but we do claim to feed on Christ.

We don’t practice animal sacrifice either. But we sing of Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And we certainly don’t practice human sacrifice. But we sing that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. So what’s going on here? Just what do we think we’re doing? I keep imagining some extraterrestrial anthropologist showing up here some day and jotting down notes about this primitive species whose worship keeps mingling its loftiest ideals with images of violence and blood-lust.

Now what if that anthropologist showed up today? Well, E.T., if you’re out there taking notes, you don’t have to wait for the Eucharist to find that same strange mixture. Just listen to the lessons we read. Child sacrifice, animal sacrifice, self-sacrifice, God’s sacrifice—they’re all right there. So is Paul’s promise that there’s nothing God won’t give us, that absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. That’s right there too, and it’s one of the most important “comfortable words” of our faith. But it’s still mixed in with the image of a father who like Abraham offers up his only son to betrayal and violent death. That’s not a comfortable word.

Do you ever wonder if we should leave some of that violent stuff behind? I mean, after all, that story of Abraham and Isaac flashes all kinds of danger signals. If you met a family behaving like that today, who could blame you for calling child protective services? Is this faith or fanaticism? In the past couple of years we’ve seen more than enough people who measure devotion by their willingness to kill defenseless people. And I’m not pointing fingers at just one religion or culture. Some of those defenseless people lived in New York, but some of them live in Baghdad too. And all of us can find examples in our scriptures to justify that kind of ruthlessness. So why do we still read them?

We still read them because they show us what we’re really like. They show us that deep-seated, fearful part of all of us that leans toward violence. We were created for life together, in community with one another and with God. But we have this territorial disposition that wants to say, “My life is mine alone; my stuff is mine alone; keep out, or get pushed out.” And of course the problem there is that we can’t live all alone, we never really have, and none of our stuff is completely ours either. Other people and God are already in our lives, sharing our stuff, whether we invited them or not. And when we stumble across them, we find ourselves trying either to control them (to make them part of our stuff) or to push them out. Either way, it’s violence, and it’s a disposition each of us seems to have picked up about as early as when we first picked up a toy.

If others look too big to push or control, like God, then we try to buy them off. That’s where a lot of sacrifices come from. We say, “Here, God, you can have this part of my life as long as you leave the rest of it alone. Take an ox or two, take a bit of my paycheck, take my chance to sleep in on Sunday, but just let me keep every thing else on my own terms.” We treat God this way because our territorial bent makes us imagine God as an equally territorial, giant dictator who wants to control us or else get rid of us—or maybe both.

Over the generations, then, it’s been easy for people to imagine God telling them something like, “I’ll keep you around if you let me control you. But there are all these other people who won’t let me control them, and I want you to get rid of them for me.” And so in the name of faith we have terrorists, the Crusades, the Inquisition, a country where you can’t get elected if you’re not crazy about capital punishment, people who blame all the evil in the world on the United States, and people who blame everything bad on an “evil empire” or more currently on an “axis of evil.” We’re told that in the name of God, or democracy or security or some other stand-in for God, we need to get rid of some people, send ’em back to God, because God says so.

In other words—even today we’re not all that different from an ancient nomad who had no doubt that God might just go back on every previous promise and tell him to kill his most loved son. We say we believe in love and in a God of love. And we do believe that. Muslims believe that too, by the way. But when things get frightening, there’s a part of us that falls back on that other image of God as a giant dictator and of us as God’s blindly obedient executioners. It’s like a default setting on a computer, only it’s buried so deep behind all the programming that none of us knows how to change it. Maybe it’s in our genes, maybe it’s in our culture—who knows? The Bible never really explained it—after all, as the story goes, even before Adam and Eve there was this crafty, lying, territorial snake skulking around Eden, and we’re never told how he got that way. Somehow a world made for love became a world filled with hate and violence, and that world inhabits us far more than we want to admit, even today.

That’s why there’s violence in the stories we hear and in the feast we celebrate. It’s there to speak to that deeply embedded part of us that can’t hear much of anything else. It’s not there to glorify the violence. It’s there to undo it, to turn it on its head, to take our twisted God-talk and give it one more twist, so that the genuine voice of God finally breaks through, at least for a moment. It’s part of what theology professors mean when they talk about Incarnation—God comes to us on our twisted terms, condescends to be for us the God of our imagining, in order to stretch our imagination beyond the limits of its fear.

In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God not only tells us but shows us that the only way to live life is to give it up, give it away, only to get it back on terms beyond our imagining. It’s the way God lives, the way God is, and it’s how God wants us to be. And let’s admit—that’s a little threatening, and it might take a while before it sounds like good news. But it’s the best news that we could ever hear.

God shows us this same life-pattern in today’s story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham finally gets Isaac, the son God promised him for years. He thinks every thing he’s worked for has finally arrived. Time to write the conclusion. But God shows up to say, “Sorry, Abraham, you can’t keep Isaac. He’s not yours to keep. Even you aren’t yours to keep.” And of course that sounds like bad news, but only because, like us, Abraham resists realizing that life can only be lived to the fullest by giving it up, giving it away, only to get it back in terms beyond his imagining. In fact, on the terms Abraham’s most familiar with, his default settings, this boundless call to give life away comes across like this: “I take back all my promises, Abraham. Kill Isaac. Kill the one you love. Kill the one whose very name is ‘laughter’, and never laugh again.”

We’ve got the benefit of hindsight, and we know that’s not the message God wants Abraham to hear. But Abraham isn’t there yet. He lives in a culture where people openly sacrifice their own children to their gods. So it’s no surprise that he hears God this way. It’s also no surprise that he shuts down completely. In fact, after this there’s no record of him ever saying anything back to God except a grudging “I’m here.” As far as he’s concerned, a God who would act like this is betrayal personified. It puts him in such shock that he starts to go through all the motions in a daze without a word to anybody. On the way, when he does speak, it’s never clear that he believes what he’s saying. To his servants he says, “Isaac and I will go worship now, and both of us will come back later.” Will they? To his son he says, “Don’t worry, Isaac, God will see to the offering we need.” Does he mean it? The things he says are true, but he doesn’t know how to believe them any more.

Yet at the end, he can’t go through with the destruction. Something stops him. The story says it’s a messenger from God speaking with God’s voice. Now the words are still Abraham’s terms, the terms of a manipulative God, God the giant dictator: “OK, I’m satisfied now, you don’t have to go through with it.” That’s how he hears it. But that’s not how we have to hear it. The message for Abraham and us today is, “I’m here on your terms, I AM on your terms, but don’t you see? I don’t want to be that kind of God for you. True, I don’t want you to hold anything back. But don’t kill Isaac, don’t kill your hopes, don’t kill yourself. That’s just trying to keep a shred of control. Live your life by letting it go. But don’t kill in anybody’s name, especially not mine.” So the story takes the terms of betrayal, death, and total destruction and turns them into a promise. God asks for our very lives, not to destroy life but to live it to the fullest.

Now let’s not pretend this isn’t a dangerous story. It’s very easy to learn all the wrong lessons from it. But we’re a dangerous people, and only a dangerous story can disarm our bent toward violence.

We’re about to enact another, equally dangerous drama that speaks of sacrifice, a broken body and spilled blood. If we’re paying attention we really ought to be a little squeamish. But the point of it all is not just to tell us but to show us life as a gift to be given, to be shared. And it’s a gift we can afford to give away, because it’s upheld by the boundless gift of God’s life with us.

The world is still filled with violence. We know it could get worse. But here we taste and see the life that disarms our violence and makes peace more that a wistful dream. Give thanks for that life now, and let it be the life lived in you in the coming days. Amen.

 

How the sermon took shape:

Before I could write a sermon that included Isaac’s binding as one of the readings, I had to jot down some exploratory notes (see below) on how we today might consider this a story through which God can address us. I liked the result, though it’s still a fairly unformed hunch. Some of that shows up in the sermon, though I felt that some of the most intriguing stuff just wouldn’t come through from the pulpit.

For background reading, I consulted several commentaries plus works by Jon Levinson, J. Gerald Janzen, Bill Moyers, Elie Wiesel, and Carol Delaney. Given the liturgical context of my parish, I found some comments by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (now just Wendy Doniger) especially helpful about the peculiar “logic” of sacrifices in general, and those comments also appear below.

I also kept reading material inspired by Rene Girard (and Girard too), who offers a very complex theory of sacrificing that involves community maintenance though scapegoating--identifying and excluding (often killing) somebody who represents a threatening difference. Much of that seems plausible to a point, though I’m still not persuaded that we can explain all sacrifices this way, and my sermon provides a slightly different account that I’d be willing to defend. But I’d very much like to believe that Girardians are right to detect in Jewish/Christian scripture a deep undercurrent that critiques the violence typically associated with sacrifice. I don’t buy any suggestion that Christian scripture does a better job of this critique than Jewish scripture, though some Girardians and near relatives often seem to suggest this. So let me start with a quote from John Milbank, who buys Girard’s argument, if only up to a point.

 

Milbank:

The religions and polities that exclude, characteristically seek to identify one thing that must be removed; a scapegoat, which can become in some ambiguous fashion “sacred,” because of the efficacious effect of its expulsion, bearing away all that is undesirable, together with all the guilt of the community. At the same time, the relationship of the community to the transcendently divine often demands further acts of distinction in the form of “sacrifice.” The divine demands an offering, the violent separation, by fire or knife, of spirit from body, a purging off, to send up to heaven. Originally these were human sacrifices, then later commuted, symbolic ones, but still, frequently, in addition the lives of those fallen in holy wars, or else the sacrifice of a pure ascetic spirit that has become indifferent to disturbing emotions… [O]ne can trace in the Bible the slow emergence of the opposition to the common factor of violence in all human norms. For it gradually takes the part of the scapegoat, and starts to place a ban on revenge against those who first violently excluded their brethren (the protection of Cain by God). The Hebrews were originally nomads, and chance and prophecy constantly recalled them to their nomad status. (Girard) … In the course of this nomadic history, sacrifice is also commuted. Finally, in Christianity [only there? I doubt it—cwa], God is thought of as asking only for the offering of our free-will, in a return of love to him. This is no longer in any sense a self-destruction, or self division, but rather a self-fulfillment, an offering that is at the same time our reception of the fullness of Being. It is receiving God: “deification.”

—John Milbank, “‘Postmodern Critical Augustinianism’: A Short Summa in Forty Two Responses to Unasked Questions” Modern Theology 7:3 (1991):229-230. Emphasis added.

O’Flaherty:

[Sacrificial surrogates represent] an ideological conflict outside both space and time: the conflict between the need to offer oneself to the god and the need to stay alive … The Eucharist … stands at precisely the same remove from human sacrifice as the “suffocated” rice cake in the Hindu ritual stands at its own remove from the sacrifice of a goat [and the goat from that of a human] … Such schizophrenic metamyths about rituals … represent moments when the tradition says, “We used to do that, but now we do this. We used to do sacrifice, but now we don’t anymore; we are better than the old religion that we have evolved out of. On the other hand, what we do now is essentially the same as what we did; what we do now is really sacrifice still, but a better kind of sacrifice.” These traditions are driving with one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator; they are trying to find a way to have their rice cake and eat it too. They are saying, “It is a wafer and therefore a moral improvement on human sacrifice, but it is also flesh, with all the power of the sacrifice that it came to replace; we are doing the same thing, but we are doing it differently.” The bread and wine are a transformation of the original body and blood of Christ, but they are also transformed back into that body and blood in the ritual; so too, the rice cakes that replaced the goat become the goat. Without the myth about the ritual, they would remain simply bread and wine and rice cakes.”

—Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 115, 118. Emphasis added.

  
Binding Isaac versus Boundless Self-Giving: Exploratory Notes


Some rash (and always debatable) theological assumptions gleaned from the whole of Jewish/Christian Scripture and its living interpretations to the present:

God always comes to us on our terms. (God “condescends” to be for us the God of our imagining.)

Our terms are always partial and twisted, finite and fallen.

But God shows up in them anyway. God must be the God of our imagining in order to be more.

God’s boundless self-giving gives our terms another twist, or maybe several twists, and that’s how they really become God’s terms, so long as we let them go.

It’s a risky game, always putting us and God to the test, but for folks like us there’s no other way to hear the genuine voice of God.

God comes to us on our terms, consents to be the God of our imagining, but God’s self-giving is never wholly confined by our terms—it remains boundless.

 


Genesis 22

This interpretation turns on the preceding rash assumptions plus the following: Our lives, past narrators’ lives, narrated characters’ lives, and God’s life are all utterly wrapped up in a boundless rhythm of mutual self-giving. That may sound like a threat to our individual identities, but it’s actually how they are established and maintained.

If we take this rash assumption to be true, it is not anachronistic to read these dynamics back into ancient texts and stories, as well as into our current reading of those stories. It is not anachronistic to imagine God using the terms of ancient times to speak this truth to ancient peoples, and it is not anachronistic to imagine God using these ancient terms to speak to us, especially since we’re not as “progressive” as we think.

Similarly, it is not anachronistic to imagine ourselves in the place of Abraham, letting some of our reactions flesh out what we’re allowed to see of Abraham’s. And all of this is consistent with noting plausible historical reconstructions and ideological interests at work in such a story and its legacy. It serves many purposes that clash with what we fallibly and self-servingly take to be God’s purposes.

God comes to Abraham on Abraham’s terms. Since God’s self-giving remains boundless, showing up that way always puts us to a test. But it also puts God to the test, since the God we imagine turns out to be a form that God “condescends” to take, in fact to be, for us. And we might use this form God takes to justify horrific actions, leaving God stuck (at least for a time) with a terrifying identity.

Abraham’s terms are partial and twisted: Deep down, he may sense that his life and God’s are utterly wrapped up in a boundless rhythm of mutual self-giving. But he doesn’t begin to understand how that works (do we?). It scares him into thinking the worst. He thinks that this boundless (thus unpredictable) rhythm means that God can go back on promises, ask unthinkable things, require him to show total devotion at the expense of other people’s lives, even Abraham’s life. Or if you prefer, the narrator thinks or wonders about this, and so do we sometimes. We’re all wrapped up in this story, and we find this boundless rhythm at the very least unsettling. It’s even more unsettling if for a time God might even be for us as we fearfully imagine.

God shows up anyway, in the only terms Abraham can hear: in the language of betrayal, death, and total destruction. What else could boundless self-giving mean? The only way to live life is by giving it up, giving it away, only to get it back on terms beyond anyone’s control (even, perhaps, God’s control).

God really said all this, or so we’re rashly assuming, because, in fact, God says it all the time: Life can only be lived by giving it away. But in Abraham’s terms a boundless call to give life away comes across like this: “I take back all my promises. Kill Isaac. Kill the one you love. Kill the one whose very name is ‘laughter’, and never laugh again.”

Abraham shuts down completely, and never again speaks to God, except to say “I’m here.” God has betrayed him. God told him to put his hopes in Isaac (21:12), and now God dashes those hopes. If this is how God behaves, nothing has meaning. If this is how gravely Abraham has misunderstood the God he thought he knew, then maybe he never knew God at all. Maybe there is no faithful God to know. Betrayal, death and total destruction have already happened. More, a God who would act like this is betrayal personified. All that’s left is to act it out. (Again, I’m not saying that Abraham really thought all this, or even the earliest narrators. I am saying that it’s legitimate for us to imagine Abraham thinking this.)

And so Abraham starts out in silence. When he does speak, it’s never clear that he believes what he’s saying. To his servants he says, “Both of us will worship, and both of us will come back.” (Right) To his son he says, “Don’t worry, Isaac, God will see to the offering we need.” (Sure). Oddly, the things he says are true, but he doesn’t know how to believe them.

Yet at the end, he can’t go through with the destruction. Something stops him. The story says it’s a messenger from God speaking with God’s voice. The words are still Abraham’s terms: “OK, I’m satisfied now, you don’t have to go through with it.” But the message for Abraham and us readers is, “I’m here on your terms, I AM on your terms, but don’t you see? I don’t want to be that kind of God for you. True, I don’t want you to hold anything back. But don’t kill Isaac, don’t kill your hopes, don’t kill yourself. That’s just trying to keep a shred of control. Live your life by letting it go. But don’t kill in anybody’s name, not even mine.” So the story turns the terms of betrayal, death, and total destruction into a promise that God doesn’t really ask this of any of us. God asks for our very lives, not to destroy life but to live it to the fullest.

Once we know this, though, why shouldn’t we throw this ancient stuff away? Why do we still speak of this rhythm of utter, mutual self-giving in such bloody, violent, destructive terms? Well, maybe if we knew this with our whole selves, we wouldn’t need this stuff. But we don’t really know it as well as we say we do. There’s a side of us that still hears the promise as a threat. We don’t want to let go. So we look around to find something or somebody else to “let go” in our place. We still practice human sacrifice in all kinds of ways. We still imagine God in our terms, and God still has to be this God of our imagining, in order to be more. But when we hear stories of sacrifice and violence that turn on themselves, that twist those terms into new meanings, this fearful side of us (and God-with-us) gets disarmed, at least for a time.



 



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