When We Don’t Like God: A Sermon Reflection on the Binding of Isaac

isaac sacrifice.jpg
The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio, inspired by the Genesis narrative

Stories convey meaning. This is a simple observation on its face, but it is important to keep at the center of any consideration of scripture. No matter the context in which a story is situated, is told, is received: there is meaning conveyed. Imagine that you have just heard this Abraham/Isaac story for the first time. You know that it is meant to tell. you something about God, something about the nature of faith, and perhaps something about ourselves. These seem reasonable, general assumptions to hold. A story does not exist for the sake of itself.

So you’ve heard this for the first time. You’ve learned that this God made a covenant with Sarah, that she would conceive and bear a son for Abraham named Issac, and this God–whom you may or may not know from previous stories is named El Shaddai–has fulfilled the promise. You may or may not know that Abraham also has a son named Ishmael, who was born to an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar.* You may or may not know that Hagar was visited by an angel and told that God was going to fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham, that of a bloodline and land, through two sons. Ishmael and Isaac.

Perhaps you are surprised, then, to hear it said by this God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac…” But it is not his only son, you might retort. Perhaps Sarah’s only biological son, but not Abraham’s.  With or without the knowledge, I imagine what really grabs your attention is God’s request to take Isaac, of whom God explicitly states to Abraham I know you love this child, and take him to a land called Moriah for the purpose of sacrifice.

Deeply unsettling, no? What kind of God would do this? 

You may not know of Moriah or how far away it is when the place is first mentioned but you quickly learn that it takes three days to get there. And Abraham has brought along two other young men, who are unnamed. You might speculate about whether Ishmael might be one of them, but such is a rabbit hole you need not burrow. You have enough to consider.

Three days. A party of four and a donkey. Hours of walking. It seems unlikely that they do so in silence. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham has told the unnamed duo of God’s request. Three days of walking, eating, drinking, passing conversations settling into silence with only the sound of footfalls to be heard, morning greetings, and evening prayers. The mind boggles to think about what transpires on the journey.

The text beckons us to inhabit Abraham’s heart and mind. The details offered in the text are remarkable, from the gathering of the wood, the loading of the donkey, the instructions to the young men, the journey to the altar by father and son. So. Much. Detail.

Do you find yourself tortured by what isn’t written? So many questions. How could you, Abraham? How did you keep anyone from knowing? And what of the boy? The eagerness and excitement on his face. An important journey with his father, going to a mountain to meet God. Oh, Isaac. No matter what occurs, you will be forever changed. 

And then, the call of Isaac to Abraham.

“Father?”

“Here I am,” the patriarch responds. In Hebrew, hin-nē(h) anî bēn, the same reply that Abraham gives when God calls his name. You likely notice this but have little time to reflect upon it, carried away as you are by the developing plot. Isaac notes the presence of wood and fire, but wonders of the sacrifice.

Where’s the lamb, papa? 

Dagger to the heart! I can’t imagine a person of any compassion not feeling punched in the gut. The trusting child looking to his father. Oh, Abraham–what must you be feeling? One of the two sons born to him, necessary elements to covenant fulfillment, looking up at him with well-known eyes. A child who trusts his earthly father is told to trust a heavenly one as well.

“God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham says, knowingly. Is he angry? Scared? Is he questioning God? Does he have moments in which he almost tells Isaac, he has words on his lips only to stop, confused and frightened? One does not mess with gods. 

It’s in the knowing that we have pain, is it not? Isaac is blissfully unaware until the moment in which he is not. Caught by patriarch, he is trussed up upon the altar with knife at the ready.

It is almost too much. Artists as disparate as Caravaggio and Bob Dylan have speculated upon, have envisioned, have embodied that moment described in the Hebrew as שְׁחֹ֖ט (lish·chot), as sacrifice. Suddenly, a voice comes from the heavens, but it is not the voice of God. It is the voice of an angel of the Lord (mal·’ach Yah·weh) that calls out, speaking first Abraham’s name–again, “here I am”–before instructing him to replace the child with a ram caught in the thicket. Abraham then conducts the first Jewish rite of substitutionary sacrifice.

The angel also relays God’s reasoning: Because I know that you fear me, I won’t make you kill your son. The Hebrew word for fear, יְרֵ֤א (yā·rē), is used in a variety of contexts so we cannot limit its meaning to a specific one. Fear of God, it seems, is what we must give.

You may or may not notice that this story is attached to a place name; I think that depends on who you are and how you hear.

But there we have it, the story that is supposed to tell us something about God, about the nature of faith, and about ourselves. Millions of pages have been written on this story. Far too much to even hit upon in one sermon-length reflection.

Let us, however, consider how the three Abrahamic faiths relate to the story. In general–again, space constraints–Judaism notes the prohibition of child sacrifice as practiced by the Canaanites, and the nature of faith. What these observations mean specifically once again depend on how you locate yourself in the story, and of whose faith we are speaking. Abraham’s? Isaac’s? What about Sarah, the mother who has been told nothing, who has no idea that when her husband and only biological son set out, it is with the intention that only one return? Who’s faith?

In Christianity, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Jesus. God substitutes a ram for Isaac only to later substitute the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb, with God’s son, Jesus. Therefore, the passage is about the nature of faith and also of God’s sacrificial love.

In Islam, the specific son is not named. It might be Isaac, it might be Ishmael. Interestingly, neither Sarah nor Hagar is mentioned by name, either. The story is not limited to one son, one moment, one act of faith; it is so universal, we can find ourselves in a variety of roles within a single lifetime. Sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Isaac. Sometimes Sarah. Sometimes the donkey. 

What can we take from this that is of use?

That within the three religions that were launched by Abraham, we have three general viewpoints that have infinite specifics between them. Yet the story continues to do what it is meant to do, to bring us into a space in which we seek, we discern, we look for a God we cannot ignore. Despite our objections, our heartsick, our anger, our desperation, we are pulled, inextricably, back to this tale.

I may love you God, but right now I don’t like you very much.

Sometimes, it is the struggle that matters more than what happens at the end. It is about the impossible choices we make and why we make them. And it is about a God who is to be found, even in the midst of the unthinkable. Amen.

*I’m selective about linking Wikipedia, but this article is an example of how valuable such a free source of researched information can be.

After the Sermon: The Revelation Abomination

4 horsemen.jpg

In grad school, I took a course called “Women and Sacred Language.” We visited various houses of worship. I remember being in a mosque with someone who went on to become one of my closest friends. We were washing our feet, and I was being a tad obnoxious. A broken engagement has followed too quickly on the heels of a divorce and an ill-advised, reckless relationship. I was at peak bipolar but was a good five years and fifty gallons of whiskey away from diagnosis.  I was dreadfully insecure. I couldn’t hack it at a premiere New Testament Ph.D. program, and after earning my second master’s degree I would also fail at another, not-so-prestigious doctoral program. I was trying to define myself as a scholar, and it sometimes made me a bit unbearable.

So there we were, washing our feet, and I made some quip about the seven horsemen of the apocalypse. My friend, who has a rapier wit and sarcasm like a cobra’s bite, said, “Did they add three? I thought this was your area, dude?” Everyone in the room began to laugh, even those who were not in our class. Peak bipolar means peak paranoia. I’ve got paranoid schizophrenia on both sides of the family, each one ending in suicide. I stammered out that I was a Markan scholar–which was and is true–and buried my shame. As I said, he and I are very good friends and I know that he did not mean anything by it. But ever since then, thinking about the four horsemen has elicited feelings of embarrassment.

A Horse of White

Last week we established that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych, meaning that they cannot be understood one outside the other. Today’s passage from Revelation 6 and 7 pick up where they left off, with the slaughtered Lamb standing upright, about to take the throne and open the seals of the scroll with writing on both sides. One of the four creatures that both comprise the throne and stand in guard of it speaks amidst thunder, a common accompaniment to God’s workings. “Come!” the voice bellows with the breaking of the first seal. A white horse appears.

Four-Horsemen-White-Horse-Rider-Revelation-6-Four-Seals-e1359239022124

Some interpreters have argued that the rider of the first horse is Christ. The description is intriguing. White is a color of purity and is associated with Christ in both the Transfiguration (Mark 9) and his resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke, and John. He is not so much wearing a crown as he is a wreath–in Greek, στέφανος, or Stephanos, from which we get the name Stephen–and in his hands is a bow.

These are potent symbols, and I will once again recommend in the highest possible terms the commentary written by Dr. Ian Boxall. The bow seems designed to elicit memories within the original audience. At the time scholars believe Revelation was written, late 1st/early 2nd centuries, the Romans were being challenged by the Parthians, who were known for their power and prowess with the bow. Further, Nero, who had died, was rumored by some to still be alive and collaborating with the Parthians to reclaim his empire. Perhaps even more potent is the similarity between this image and the god Apollo, who carried a bow and was known to be a seer of futures.

This image, Boxall argues, is a reference to Jesus’ words in Mark 13, known as the Little Apocalypse. The words are not Jesus’ and the apocalypse is not really an apocalypse. You know what to do.

the-holy-roman-empire-neither-holy-nor-roman-nor-an-empire-discuss.jpg

So what is being referenced here are the false prophets and messiahs that will come in Jesus’ name. The first horseman looks like Jesus and can be mistaken for God’s agent, but such is the nature of evil: it appears enticing even as it destroys everything around it.

A Horse of Red 

horse-red-2-picsay.jpg

The second horse is a fiery red, symbolizing the blood that soon will spill. There’s a curious line in 6:4, that the rider is permitted by the Lamb to remove peace from the earth. We must ask, can the possibility of God’s peace be absent, even for a moment, and God still be God? Paul especially links divine peace to human hope, so what seems to be at play here is the false peace that humans manufacture through agreements they know full well they do not plan to honor. Much like how the current occupier of the Oval Office is threatening to back out of myriad agreements. Human peace is disingenuous when it is brokered by charlatans and fools. Violence breaks out in the most unlikely of places, like schools or a Wal-Mart.

A Horse of Black 

black horse

We often associate scales in iconography as representing justice, such as Lady Justice outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here they represent the opposite, the lack of justice will manifest itself in myriad ways, including outlandish prices for necessary goods. Kind of like charging $15 for a gallon of gas in the midst of devastating calamity.

What’s especially interesting, though, is the reminder that the Lamb is still in control. Notice that it is not the third living creature that calls out; nay, it comes from the throne itself. Olive oil and wine will not be touched, which can mean a variety of things. For now, let it suffice to say that both wine and olive oil take a great deal of time and patience to fashion and were vital to first-century life.

A Horse of Puke Green 

pale-horse-revelation-death.jpg.crop_display.jpg

The fourth rider is upon a steed of pale green; the Greek word for pale is χλωpός, chōros, from which we get our word chloroform. The rider provides the popular imagination the Grim Reaper. Death–in Greek, θάνατος–is accompanied by Hades, who we will remember is a deity before becoming a location name. Hades, or the underworld, was akin to the Jewish concept of Sheol.

This rider is given even more territory; as he rides, those not killed are made sickly, turning green from illness, malnutrition, and lack of compassionate responses.

A Horse of a Different Color 

Revelation 7:9-17 envisions something different. A great multitude has gathered before the Lam’s throne, and they are waving palm branches. This was a practice during Sukkoth, the last harvest festival of the year. What was harvested, you may ask? Grapes and olives. The wine and olive oil the Lamb decreed be untouched are now symbolized by a great multitude that has within it authentic diversity.

For too long the Book of Revelation has been used to frighten people into compliance with religious decrees and requirements that have nothing to do with the love of Christ. What Revelation actually offers us is a heavenly, unsettling glimpse of the relationship between God’s realm and our own. We are assured that the Lamb–slaughtered, yet standing–remains in control. Human beings will continue to slaughter and kill as long as selfishness and avarice are tolerated. When we revision our notions of love and power–again, the Lamb slaughtered, yet standing, who is animated by love, not the cravings of Caesar–we understand why our hearts should be directed toward God is we ever want to achieve peace.

 

 

 

 

After the Sermon: The Revelation Investigation

I’m a word nerd. Not quite as accomplished as my dear friend Claire Monserrat Jackson, who is a writer that you should be reading if you are not already. But nonetheless, a word nerd. So it brings me great joy to say that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych.

You can’t understand one without the other. We talked last week about chapter four, and we were left perhaps a bit confused as to what was transpiring. Chapter five is itself odd on the surface, but when understood in tandem, the gatekeeper and the key-master are walking hand-in-hand.

The first sight in Revelation 5 is that of a right hand, a sign of power and authority in the biblical tradition. The hand holds a scroll that has writing on both sides; the Greek word βιβλίον (biblion) provides the root for our English word bible. However, βιβλίον does not refer to a codex, what we call a book. There are numerous theories regarding the significance, but two presented in Dr. Ian Boxall’s Black’s New Testament Commentary are worth noting.

  1.  The scroll is a legal document, like a will or testament fashioned in the Roman tradition. Legally, valid wills had to be witnessed and sealed by seven persons, each with a distinctive wax seal. It could only be opened after the testator died. The commentary is palpable: in Rome’s kingdom, a person unwillingly dies and the seals are opened by those greedy for their allotment. In God’s economy, Christ willingly dies and in so doing, offers a path to salvation that can only unfold with the Lamb of God opening the seals. 
  2. Another possibility is that the scroll represents the Tanakh and the New Testament being sealed in perfection, signified by the use of seven. I like this one, as too much of Christian history has involved telling our Jewish siblings that they are God-killers and calling their sacred texts “old.” 

Then the text takes a curious turn. An angel–many exegetes believe one of the so-called archangels, like Michael or Metatron–declares that the entire cosmogony has been searched and been found wanting for one worthy to open the scroll.

Like, not even God? Y’all went to the reaches of heaven and not even God was worthy?

Here we see evidence of what I call in my upcoming book, Mark as Manifesto, a Pauline Christology. The emphasis is upon the salvific death of Jesus. Later, Augustine and then Anselm will use passages from Revelation to develop the doctrine of original sin and the blood atonement theory, respectively. But we should be wary of projecting those ideas onto the text of Revelation.

The imagery continues and brings into focus the purpose of the two chapters, to contrast and compare the Roman notions of power with the power of God. As John bitterly weeps, like Peter at the well, an elder proclaims the victory of the Lion of Judah.  This potent symbol is paired with the root of David, alluding to the stump of Jesse mentioned in Isaiah 11. “Both titles would evoke in the Judaeo-Christian mind an image of the Davidic Messiah, God’s anointed king who would act on his behalf in the last days.”*

Drying his eyes, John of Patmos sees the Lamb of God, slaughtered, yet standing. Perfect, yet bloodied. Again, the number seven is key; what is being presented as perfect does not meet the legal requirements for a paschal lamb. Yet, take the scroll the lamb does and sings himself a new song. Soon a celestial choir–no doubt sounding almost as good as the World House Choir–joins in. Harps were the traditional instrument of worship at the time, and gold bowls filled with incense were traditional offerings in sacred spaces; what we have here is a heavenly worship. What happens in the heavenly realm that John witnesses are to be brought back to the people as a model for how to acknowledge the Lamb of God. Early Christian iconography, including cruciforms, emphasized Jesus as the Lamb of God.

What does God’s power look like? A slaughtered lamb so perfect that even saints throw away their crowns and bend the knee. Honor and glory are not to be found in earthly power and worship of the temporary, but rather through love, sacrifice, compassion, and rightful worship. Let us not get bogged down in thinking of worship as something we do only in buildings and solely through mindless blathering. Proper worship is how we center God in our lives, how we follow the directives of Jesus, so eloquently summarized with the Shema and “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

I fear those powerful words have been robbed of their sting through some of the aforementioned mindless blather that comes from so much of Christianity. We’re to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Think of Jewish prayer with phylacteries or tefillin.

Women-of-the-Wall .jpg Pictured: The amazing Women of the Wall who have been physically attacked by men for daring to proclaim that the נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh or soul) has no gender. Interestingly, nephesh is a feminine noun.  

When we keep God in our hearts, on our minds (signified by the box of the forehead), and as the source of our strength (the wrap around the right arm and Scripture box in the palm), we can become an integrated whole. When we remember that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that we only know how to love ourselves through loving God, we have all that we need. We need not fear death, for in the loving of God, ourselves, and others as exemplified by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we have eternal life.

Yeah, I get that this can seem like hibbity-jibbity on the surface. A lot of nice words that are overly generic and do not address things like little kids getting cancer. But those are not the questions Revelation seeks to answer, at least in my view.

We began this journey with me admitting my concerns about Revelation and presenting ideas from scholars about how to properly contextualize the text. Revelation is fantastical for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is to throw us into a world that cannot be reasoned and can only be experienced. I used to think such talk was obfuscation, an intellectual dishonesty owed to being unable to present good arguments. So I now use a phrase I used to detest: when you have faith, you can understand certain things for which reason cannot account.

I honestly don’t know if Christianity is the “right way” to spiritual enlightenment, but it is the path that works for me. I have had moments in which I have acutely felt both eternity and decay within myself. I, like you, carry within myself the inherent contradictions of being capable of immense love for others and of destructive hatred of myself. I’ve found that by continually deconstructing a sense of self that is derived from titles and accomplishments, I’m able to connect with nearly everyone I meet on a significant level. At times I become overwhelmed with love for others. As someone with bipolar disorder, this spiritual gift is a great blessing and a great curse. Jesus tells us to love in balance, always returning to the source of it all.

Our investigation continues next week. Stay tuned.

 

*Boxall, I. (2006). The Revelation of Saint John (p. 97). London: Continuum.

 

After the Sermon: Unity is not uniformity

Paul employs “armor of God” imagery in both Colossians and Ephesians. It has been a staple of Christianity since the inception of the faith. This Sunday in worship, after we heard Ephesians 6:10-20, I brought an easel with a pad of flip-paper into the aisle running between the pews. I then asked the following two questions in turn: who has a positive reaction to this terminology, and who has a negative reaction?

The congregation was split, interestingly along gender lines, at least as represented through those who spoke openly. I imagine if I could read minds, that division might not have held. But if you go by crude gender stereotypes and assumptions, you know who fell where on the spectrum. I’d be one to defy said exceptions: I generally do not like the armor of God imagery and do not find it beneficial to my own spiritual walk. I’ve had to frame it up differently.

This is largely because I understand the historical milieu in which Paul operated. He believed that the Parousia–the second coming–was imminent. He eschewed the very religious laws he once helped enforce as a Pharisee because he felt that time was short and grace was all-sufficient. Paul really only had one message; it was fairly nuanced and systematic but had Saul of Tarsus been in the Beatles instead of Paul of Liverpool, the famous would song something like, “All you need is Christ, doop-dadooby-doop.”

This is not insignificant. Paul wrote to a people who were living under a powerful and capricious empire. Persecutions depended upon who was in power, and Paul had to contend with Nero, perhaps one of the most batshit crazy emperors in history. There are compelling reasons to regard Nero as the antichrist mentioned in Paul’s writings. Paul was clear that he meant a spiritual armor for a spiritual war, but that has not been the prevailing understanding throughout history. In fact, the image is one used by white nationalists. Paul believed that demonic forces were behind the brutality of Rome and that these were unleashing themselves upon the bodies and spirits of Jews and Jesus believers. Paul was waiting for a celestial clock to run out.

Paul was wrong.

I can’t throw away Paul completely, as he is vital to Christian theology. He’s in the canon whether I like it or not. So, here’s how I frame it up: We don armor when we feel the need for protection from an expected assault. Our cultures have largely regarded those wearing armor as brave, but I submit to you that armor is used primarily when one feels fear. War is always the result of fear, and some fears are good. We should fear white nationalists, but they only exist because of fear. They fear that others might do to them what white people have been doing to the rest of the world for centuries. This doesn’t mean other nations and races have not committed atrocities; such objections are simply obfuscations to distract from facts. We wear armor because we are afraid. I think to deny this is to deny something basic about the purpose of armor.

In this week’s worship, I asked the congregation to be honest about their fears regarding our future. Some voices shook, some contrary opinions were offered, but everyone was engaged. After the Spirit had moved us on that question, I asked the bigger one: what are your hopes?

Because that is how I ultimately frame up the armor of God: it is, as my fellow United Theological Seminary alumnus Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has written, the audacity of hope. I choose not to give in to fear. That doesn’t mean that I ignore it. Not at all. I am well aware of that which frightens me, but the armor of hope is what helps me remain at the proverbial table. The armor of God can help protect us from the allures of greed, avarice, envy, covetousness, and other myriad sins. But it is up to us as individuals to get to the point in which we no longer need the armor because those weapons can no longer hurt us. I’m hoping to get down to a light chain mail, myself; this bastard sword is getting too big to carry around, too.

This Sunday’s worship, as on each first Sunday, we shared the Lord’s Supper. All are invited, none are compelled. We share a common cup, all receive the same amount of bread. We dwell in unity, even if we have different fears and different hopes. We stay committed to one another because that is what we believe God calls us to do. The failures of white nationalist “theology,” along with myriad other reasons, is that it holds that purity is racial and that everyone must look the same, act the same, think the same, be the same. That is not Christianity, even for Paul. His entire ministry was literally race-mixing.

Unity doesn’t mean we all think the same thing, it means that we don’t walk away from the table when we don’t get our way. Unity means the courage to speak your heart, but also to listen to others, as well. It doesn’t mean, though, that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, or any other accidents-based phobia should be respected in-and-of themselves. Christians have a primary call to seek out those on the periphery and then to ask them what being at the center might look like; it means listening and then acting appropriately. It means hearing how we have been complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in structures that keep others oppressed.

Unity is nigh impossible if we do not prioritize the pain and needs within our immediate communities. Unity is not saying that all fears and experiences are equal. They are not. It is binary thinking that gets us into trouble, though; if someone else’s pain is deemed more profound or immediate, too many of us respond as if the claim is that our pain does not matter. Emergency rooms prioritize people by the severity of their injuries and needs. Churches should do that as well instead of setting up triage for people who aren’t bleeding.

I do not accept the notion that somehow it is inhospitable to take a stand against prejudice. The idea that the feelings of the oppressors are more important than the pain of the oppression is perhaps one of the most dangerous circulating today. Racism is not a matter of opinion upon which we can agree to disagree. At least it isn’t for me. It does not mean that I will automatically walk away from a racist, but it does mean that as a spiritual leader I am clearly going to say, “if you want to work through your prejudices and start developing healthy relationships with those you claim to hate, I can help. This church can help. But if you want to dominate the space and conversation, accusing others of intolerance because they call racism what it is, then I think there are some churches in the surrounding towns that are more your speed.”

When I first heard Queen Latifah–we so close I just call her Queen now–and the song “Unity,” my already inbred racism and misogyny kicked it. It was still so unusual to see and hear a black woman speaking out and not backing down. Luckily, I had several female mentors who lovingly, but forcefully helped me guide through it. A few years later I had to do the same thing with Arab men and Islam. I don’t point fingers at anyone I don’t point first and most emphatically at myself.

But I can say that it is better on the other side of those prejudices. I have many powerful female friends and colleagues, specifically women of color. I have learned and continue to learn from them, but more importantly, we share our lives. Same with Muslims and Arab men. Unity means that we bring the whole self to the table and are honest about our fears because we believe there is hope. That’s the only armor I need.