Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Aqedah sermon page 3

In a more ideological bent we see great sweeping conceptions - market forces, globalization, spreading democracy. Thousands of codes compete to trap us in an interpretation of our environment - whether called tradition or reformation or revolution - and each of us is making do in the life we live - attending to details with children and parents, co-workers, bosses, clients and other participants in our bureaucratic civilization.

We have perhaps heard one voice and that voice sustains us. Perhaps it only sustains us so far, though - perhaps it doesn't do enough. Every day do we feel like our dreams are sacrificed? A hope deferred? Do we discern the love and desire of life fading? I believe there is a second voice. I believe it is found in prayer - but what I think of as prayer's other side: the side of listening, the side of silence. In silence we may hear the word that interrupts the fall of the knife. In silence we may hear laughter again.

In the midst of our work, our anxieties, our preoccupations - our living out the conventional - god calls us to pause and listen, and see, like Abraham, if there isn't something better.

Aqedah sermon page 2

For Jepthah the crisis of defeating his enemies created a need for the vow to seal the deal. The king of Moab's crisis is immediate and desperate. He hits the self-destruct button on the future of his kingdom in order to live another day.

Abraham's also a kind of warlord leader. He's not locally insignificant, to say the least. It'd not be unusual for him to do this. He could say to his servants, "stay here till I get back" [though he ingenuously says, "till we get back" - which I'll leave you to ponder, why he's lying here]. Isaac would get it - only one of us is coming back, sure. He'd be OK with it. He certainly seems compliant in the text. The only real question is, "what crisis is this sacrifice in response to?" The text begins with the acknowledgement that god wants to test Abraham. But a test implies a crisis.

Abraham has finally settled down. Hagar and Ishael are gone - so Sarah isn't nagging him anymore. He's on the homestretch - so to speak.

Perhaps Abraham's crisis is that there is no more crisis - how very modern - or that the crisis here is not outside him but inside of him.

He's home; he's settled down. In the quiet of his study he thinks, "I should be content - but I'm not." Maybe he's the kind of person who always has to be doing something. Maybe he's the kind of person who doesn't feel he's serving god unless he's doing some big thing.

Holding the knife over Isaac he could be thinking, "hey, I'm crushing my dreams - that must count for something!" God must be impressed now!

This is the heart of the big hole in the text. Between the two commands. One word to kill your son - the next word, not to. The temptation is to fill the hole with explanation. Or to pretend that the hole isn't there [sotto voice: god never gives you a problem to big for you to handle].
A hole like this invites you to walk around inside - nurture a feel for this great absence. Admit it, it can't be filled. To fill this absence is like filling the Grand Canyon. Of course think how usuable the land would be then. But you can't fill it. If you try to fill it, the hole will laugh at you - which is what Isaac's name means - laughter.
Is this some kind of Joke?

Mind you, all this made sense back then. It wouldn't make sense to not do it. So now, Abraham, who always made sense - who evoked consensus - winds up not making sense. He was performing his duty. He was fulfilling his role as leader - as provider - Abraham is the big provider - he provides for Lot and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael, quite a large household and servants - except perhaps he doesn't have a provision for himself.

To us all of this offering up a child as a burnt offering is insane. These are typically full grown, well educated, ready to take on adult roles children. That's what makes the offering so very valuable - like running a marathon up to mile 25 and then going back to the start and beginning again. An enormous price is being paid to get these results - which usually involve winning a war or overcoming an insurmountable obstacle. It's called mortgaging the future. We know this phrase. Maybe what Abraham, Jepthah, the Moabite king - let's add Agamemnon and others we might think of - what they do isn't so foreign to our own experience. We're a bit more bloodless.

God tempts or tests Abraham then with something that makes sense. Take out a loan! Put in overtime!
Fill in the blanks with your own mortgaging the future scenario. The thing is, the first word we encounter in the text - the word that seems absurd to us, makes sense to Abraham and anyone else. It's the second word - that's the absurdity. We breathe a sigh of relief - "Isaac's gonna live!", and perhaps Abraham does too - although a kind of quizzical sigh. Again the, "why are we here now?" - that kind of feeling must sweep over him and a kind of dread. Because this deliverance comes with the realization that god will not be manipulated with even the greatest price. This deliverance of Isaac  - who is playing along with it, as this is expected of him, what in his education and training probably falls under the "other duties as required" part of the heir's job description, strike's Isaac as odd too. "What is this about?" The cosmic order of expectations between humanity and god are de-centered here.

The life of faith is confusing. We find ourselves too easily trapped in the conventional. We want what everyone else wants - victory, usually in the form of being in control of our circumstances, if not the circumstances of others as well. Or another kind of victory, not being under anyone else's control, free of obligations. And we will sacrifice even what we love to get that victory, that freedom, that control. We will sacrifice our desire and the desires of others to crate a world in a more pleasing image. We can see this in our world's mad scramble to control and form. We accumulate data and statistics to predict, to advertise, to manipulate. In the beginning we call it socialization, education, training. Later we'll speak of careers and trajectories - did we make enough

Aqedah sermon

I'm not going to tell you what this text is about. That is, I'm not going to tell you this text is about how to live - or such typical things as how to succeed in something - or that it has any comfort in a kind of laid back "it's all going to be OK" sense. This text is difficult and it's intended to be difficult for a reason: to goad you into asking big questions and accepting the fact that the value of big questions is that they don't have answers. If you have a simple answer or any answer, it may be that you've misunderstood the question.

Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is spawned from this text - and Kierkegaard emphasizes there the quality of the life of faith - that it doesn't make sense. That in trying to make sense of it, it ceases to become a life of faith. My synopsis there hardly does justice to it. Much as my sermon will not do justice to it. This text creates a space and it is a creatively fruitful space to be in. The only requirement for being in this space is that you not try to understand it; that you not try to answer what question if provokes. As if a "why this is just this" or a "this is just an example of that" provided an adequate accounting.

This is the space that Paul is in when he writes to the Galatians - and also the space the rabbis are in when they pick up the pieces after the destruction of the temple. This is the space that birthed three religions. It is the space that writers, composers and artists still grapple with to this day.

What space is this? It is the space between two words - two voices: one voice tells Abraham to sacrifice his son and the second voice tells him not to. Both voices express the intention of a god we theologically define as immutable - who as the hymn says bound creation in a "changeless decree".

You see the problem. Oh, that's just our crazy theology. In any relationship we depend on speaking and being understood - waffling back and forth seems indecisive. Abraham might say, "why'd you drag me all the way out here if you were just going to be this way?" When people treat us this way we grow tired of them and begin avoiding them - unless we like getting stood up.

By the way, this is the theme of the book of Jonah - god's changing of his mind - which is a constant in the Old Testament - not so much a fear as a gnawing sense. You remember Jonah's not so much afraid of speaking to the citizens of Nineveh about their ultimate and impending destruction as he is dreading the moment when god's mercy trumps god's vengeance. He knows that's going to happen. He does it anyway - he browbeats the Ninevites into fear and trembling - and then god shows what a good fellow and merciful he is. Jonah feels like an idiot. He says so much as that. He'd rather be in a fish. Prophets have to have strong egos.

For Abraham thank goodness there's that ram trapped in the thicket. Remember Isaac's question: I see the fire and the wood but where's the animal of be sacrificed? If god had treated Abraham like he did Jonah, there'd only be the injunction to stop and no ram. What a strange scene that would be - like something from Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play where a couple of guys have an aimless conversation in a barren landscape along with passing strangers waiting for the arrival of someone who will probably never come: here would be Abraham, his son Isaac tied up, standing there holding a fire, brandishing a knife, waiting.

Here's the thing about child sacrifice in the Old Testament and ancient times as well. When you're the leader or king, it's expected of you. We have two other examples from the OT : Judges 11 - the story of a Judge Jepthah and his daughter; 2 Kings 3 - a story of the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom besieging the king of Moab.

Jepthath was a judge whose story is told in Judges 11. He makes a vow to god in order to achieve victory over his enemies - he will sacrifice the first thing that greets him out the door when he returns home. This turns out to be his daughter, who offers a very mature and calm negotiation as to how her sacrifice will be carried out.  She says, "if you've opened your mouth to the lord perform what you said you'd do - just give me a couple of months." If this had happened in a Greek story Zeus would have turned her into a constellation. In a Hebrew story she just gets turned into a festival. In this case the hero is the victim - stoic in the face of duty.

In 2 Kings 3, the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom gather to punish the king of  Moab. Besieged the king of Moab seeks to escape and cannot. So he does the logical thing - he sacrifices his son and heir. And it works! Sacrificing your first born in that era must have been a cosmic trump card. Yahweh's helping Israel and then, just as the noose tightens, the bad guys escape.

Typically sacrifice is demanded in response to a crisis.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Aphoristic sayings

he describes himself as intoxicated with his own sense of bon viveur and joie de vivre, a raffish raconteur distilling an apt mot juste from the fragrant profferings of a chilly late winter fireside meditation

he describes himself as a lover of theory who gorged himself on cliches and tropes and satire as a youth [and still even] - thus bringing ruination inanition and consternation down upon his sensitive soul. Carnsarnate!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

selection committee

I remember staying at my grandmother's, an old mill house on the corner of a street in an old mill town, when it would be raining and sometimes I would have a headache and go lie down in the bedroom right next to the corner; it was a cool dark room and I could lie down and release the tension in my head and shoulders - having shut out all the light - with only the sound of the rain and the rush of occasional tires on pavement, stopping, turning

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Self portrait

In my experience we cannot look at ourselves: the attempt at self portrait leads to an abundance of editing - the amelioration of flaws and the enhancement of desired features. Only the off chance mirror brings home the skin's blotched, boiled, bewarted, lesioned, sallow, receipt of our days. And how do we see that? wariness -who's this; revulsion -what does he want; hope -what does he bring; or sympathy - what is his burden?  The capacity lies in our judgment - whether we feel the need for defenses against the world or whether we have a curiosity about the world. Perhaps that curiosity develops in such a way that it could be expressed as love. And so the most demanding commandment - to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good - meets us in this objective gaze. When we assess the threat level before we realize it's our reflection, Perhaps we ourselves are the threat; certainly people who can't meet themselves in sympathy and curiosity might approach the world as a competition to win - a constant battle to wage; a balance sheet to fill out. We may say, "oh that's not us - that's that other person."