Monday, June 30, 2008

Preaching on the akedah: a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (the first 2/3t)

I still have to reconstruct the end of this sermon, for which I had only notes, and which worked out well in the pulpit, but the Holy Spirit was helping out then and right now She wants me to get to work, so I will reconstruct the rest of the sermon later -- or post some summary paragraphs. Sorry... but I still thought it would be worth to have us chew on these questions.

My sermons tend to make people work anyway and send them off to ponder questions and/or invite the community to reflect on these questions together.

I have more written down and reconstructed, but the place where I leave off below is a good place to stop, for now, so that you can do your own thinking.

I'm thinking our congregation might do a Bible study of the whole Abraham -Hagar -Sarah cycle of stories sometime in the next year. We'll see what folks say. We are on reduced numbers and slow rhythm in the summer, since we are university-affiliated, but that's fine. All in due time.

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8, Year A,
Revised Common Lectionary
June 29, 2008
St. Mary’s House, Greensboro

Genesis 22:-1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

We just heard a few minutes ago
one of the most disturbing stories in the entire Bible:
the story in the 22d chapter of Genesis
known in the Christian tradition
as the Sacrifice of Isaac
and in the Jewish tradition,
more accurately, as
the Binding of Isaac
or the akedah.

The story is also found
in a different form
in the Muslim tradition.
In the Qur’an,
it is not entirely clear
whether Isaac or Ishmael is the son
who is bound to the altar of sacrifice
but tradition generally says
that it’s Ishmael.

This story is a vital one
for all three traditions
who claim Abraham as a father in faith.

The problem is
that in the biblical story,
No one looks good.
At least to our contemporary eyes.

is a father who acquiesces
to slaughtering his child.

Sarah, the child’s mother,
is absent,
as are all the other women
who are part of the broader tale
of Abraham and his kin.

This includes Hagar,
the mother of Abraham’s other son,
Abraham, at the urging of Sarah
and under orders from God,
has sent Hagar off into the desert
with the boy, Ishmael. His boy.

the legitimate heir
according to the Bible
is a victim
who is spared
but who doesn’t appear in the story again.
We don’t hear anything about his
going back down the mountain
with his dad and walking home with him for three days.
– Well, would you if your father had raised a knife on you?

The ram
looks good
in that his death
spares the child;
but of course, he’s now dead.

And God –
God doesn’t look too good either.
God saves Isaac, proving trustworthy in the end,
but first God says to Abraham,
who has already shown plenty of trust in God,
“One more test. Kill your son.”

It’s ethically a very troubling story.

And it’s troubling spiritually
and existentially.
Theologically, if you want to use that word.

God does provide in the end,
and we’ve often heard the story with that emphasis:
if you are faithful, God will provide.
Sacrifice has meaning.

But the story leaves us asking:
Does God test us?
Does God provide for us?
Does God provide for us
only once we have passed a test?
Do we know
that it is God who is speaking to us?
How do we know?

Do we have to be willing to give up
even the people dearest to us
in order to be faithful to God?

Does the story hold up
in the death camps
and the killing fields?
Does the story hold up
in Sudan and Zimbabwe?
Does the story hold up
on the other side of Greensboro?
Does the story hold up
in this neighborhood?
Does the story hold up
in homes both poor and rich
where women and children
are not safe
in their own homes?

It really would have been easier for us to hear
the alternative text from the Hebrew Bible
that the lectionary offered us for today.

But we can’t avoid this story.

We can’t throw it away.
We have to wrestle with it.
It’s our story.
Generations of Christians have pondered it.
Artists have portrayed it.
It’s our inheritance.
It’s part of our common inheritance
with Jews and Muslims
and it’s part of what divides us from them.

It’s important to engage the story
for some of the same reasons it disturbs us:

This story
with the whole sequence
about Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, and their children
is about rock-bottom basics of life:

Family relations.


and the prevention of violence.

And because the stories
of Hagar, Sarah, Abraham, and their children
are core stories in millennia of living tradition
in three sibling religions
they evoke centuries of interreligious relations,
in the past
and in the present.

This story also raises,
because it is such a difficult story,
the vital question for us as believers
of our relationship to the Bible.
What are we going to do with the Bible?
Or, to put it in the other direction.
what is the Bible doing with us?

How do we read it?
Is there only one way to do so?
I want to say a few things about the Bible.
And then I want to invite us
to focus on one dimension of the story
and to do so in the present.

This is a text from the past
that makes us ask questions in the present.

If we were dealing, say, with the book of Kings,
we could look at the text in some kind of historical context
as well as in conversation with our present lives.

We can’t really do that with the Abraham family saga.
It comes to us with the revelatory power of legend.

Note that I put revelation and legend together.
Just because a story comes to us as legend
doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring us truth about our lives,
ourselves, the world around us, and God.
It is revelatory.
This story makes us ask questions in the present
precisely because
its historical context and roots are, at best, shadowy.

Another biblical note:
This story, like the Bible as a whole,
is not a rule book
and it doesn’t necessarily give us people to imitate.

There is behavior to imitate in the Bible.
But that’s not all there is.
The lens of “do as the people in the story do” doesn’t work
-- and it’s not the way we as Anglicans interpret scripture.

Think about it.
Driving Hagar out into the wilderness?
Being willing to suffer the casting out of women and children
who are foreign
or who are from what used to be called the servant class?
Who are from what some call today the underclass?
Sending children to their death?

Or is that already what we do?

The power of the Bible
is often that it offers us
not prescriptions
but a mirror.

A mirror of our family relations
of the dynamics of human history
of relations between communities.
A mirror of religion
and the actions people do in religion’s name.

Later in the Bible,
the prophets will certainly point these things out to us
and so will Jesus.

Now the question for us
for today, in this place, from this text, in this time.

This disturbing story
shatters our image of God.
Perhaps it also shatters our sense of self.

I just used a violent image: shattering.
The story is a violent story.
It is a story about trauma.
It probably is hardest to hear
for those who are survivors of trauma,
whether individual or collective.

It is a story about violence.

The world in which the people of Israel
lived 3,000 years ago was a violent world.
The world into which Jesus was born
2,000 years ago was a violent world.
The world in which
Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived 1,000 years ago
was a violent world.

We live today in a world of violence
in which we raise children to send them off to be killed
in wars planned by their elders;
in which women and children
are too often unsafe in their own homes;
in which the descendants of Hagar and Sarah and Abraham
are not at peace with one another.

So this is my question for us
and not one I can or will answer
in ten minutes in the pulpit,
but a question for us as a community,
wrestling with a story
that disturbs our understanding of God.

What is our understanding
or image
of God
in a violent world?

[More words to come - but think about the question...]


FranIAm said...

Oh Jane... Oh Jane. This is amazing.

I will look forward to the end, but your beginning has given me much to ponder and to pray with.

Thank you.

pj said...

Yes indeed. I'm fresh out of words of my own right now -- pretty bad, for a writer -- but there is much to mull here.

By the way, it doesn't feel unfinished to me. But then, we literary types are comfortable with ambiguous endings.

I think we may just have to understand that we may never fully understand. (God in a violent world, I mean.) It's a tough one; it makes it hard to argue with the atheists. "I know the world sux but I can't help but feel the presence of God." Yeesh.

Ken said...

Back in the days when I was attempting to be Jewish, the Akeidah rolled around on Rosh Hashanah and the poor rabbi was stuck making it sound in the spirit of t'shuvah. He never got it right. The only true reading I heard of the Akeidah was from a woman rabbi (no kidding) named Joy Levitt at a Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, NJ. She saw all of Genesis as a saga of dysfunctional families: Cain & Abel, Abraham and Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac and Rachel as deceivers and deceived. Joseph, the arrogant little putz, learning humility by his trip to prison...and then by his ultimate forgiveness of his brothers for what they did to him years before.

Which doesn't explain the Akeidah. It's said that God puts Abraham through this test so he will learn his strength. God knows it already. Is Isaac an obedient tool of his father who believes is is God's command that he willingly follows? Or does he think he's father is nuts?

What if Abraham had replied "Are you out of your effing mind? I don't care WHO the hell you think you are, but you are not having my son!" Would history--real history--have been changed one iota? It is hard for me to accept as worthy of respect a God who would demand ritual sacrifice of his servant.

I believe there is a Midrash that suggests that Isaac never recovered from the shock of near death. I'm reminded of Dostoevsky's mock execution that turned him in a drunk and epileptic. That Isaac became addle-brained and easily the prey of his wife who wanted all good things for her son but not for the rightful heir Esau. There is a lot to answer for here. I can't do it.

Jane R said...

The rabbi speaks truth. As I noted, scripture is often a mirror of our own lives.

So, what is your own image of God?

Are we operating on images or understandings of God that are more in our own image than in that of the true and living God? Are there consequences to this for our own lives and those of others?

And what is the relation between our understanding of God and the violence in and around us?

Dorothee Soelle says that during the Nazi era God was weak and small and did not have enough (human) friends...

Ken said...

That of course is an almost impossible question to answer: I mean my (anyone's) image of God. It shifts. God is Goodness and God is the mythic Trickster and God at times is simply vicious. Anyone who has not experienced all those Gods (and more), raise your hands please.

So do we create God in our own image as He is claimed to have created us? You know I am going to haul out the chicken here, along with the nestful of eggs. Getting into the proverbial question opens theological doors I am not going through unless I go to seminary for three years, after which time I will know enough not to mess with those questions. Which is to say that ignoramuses like me will save the world by asking questions that people with knowledge won't touch.

Soelle's comment is strange. I don't know if God was weakened or if we treated him like he didn't exist. Her remarks are far from the explanations I've heard and read for God's role in (or out of) the Holocaust. There are Jewish views that treat it as a punishment for secular Judaism. I have seen it treated as God's judgment on the rottenness of Eastern European Orthodoxy. People go around blaming God for their own poisonous little minds.

Just this...did God smile upon the Anglicans burning the Jesuits? Did he favor Cortes' destruction of the Aztec culture in favor of some kind of Christianity. God bless Bartolome de las Casas, a reed that stood against the wind and withstood the fire. I believe he was one of the 36 just men for whose sake God did not destroy the world.

Last. God and social violence? I give up. It is everywhere. It is, I suppose, part of a process by which we rationalize repellent activities--physical and economic violence--and then get down on our knees in worship. It is again in our power to put God aside, to deny him before the cock crows, at the same time we think we're being upright.

Best I can do on short notice.

FranIAm said...

Our image of God is something I toy with in a small way today. As if that is toying material...