Saturday, September 6, 2008
Seventh after Pentecost, 2008
Sacrifice of Isaac, Jean Charlot, 1933
June 29, 2008 Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (RCL Proper 8A) Genesis 22: 1-14; Matthew 10:40-42
In his landmark study, Mimesis, the great mid-20th Century philosopher and literary critic Erich Auerbach highlighted this haunting, compelling passage in the 22nd chapter of Genesis as one of the principal foundational elements in the evolution of the Western literary tradition. These two figures, the Father and the Son, crossing this vast empty landscape of the moral imagination, a memory from the deepest recesses of historical time. Yet it could be Samuel Beckett. Abraham and Isaac, Waiting for Godot.
Meanwhile, for secular, academic anthropologists and historians of human culture, this story is a watershed of dramatic significance, as the primal act of ultimate submission to the gods, human sacrifice, is suddenly transformed, lifted to a different level of sacramental substitution. And the age of modern religion is begun. There on the mountaintop where a thousand years later Solomon would mark out the perimeter of the Jerusalem Temple. Alone this morning on that mountaintop: the father and his son.
For the earliest Christians, of the Apostolic Age and among the Fathers, and across the centuries to this morning and what we witness and share and do and experience at this Holy Table, all deeper than words can describe, the Cross of Christ is viewed best, most perfectly, profoundly, mysteriously, through this lens. “Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’”
And the whole existential field of human life shifts into view. The womb of our consciousness--in which are born at once the conjoined twins of doubt and faith, fear and courage, rebellion and obedience. Read this story again, and again, and again. From Paul to Augustine, Luther to Teilhard, Kierkegaard to Bonhoeffer: the risk that moves us from meaninglessness to meaningfulness, from non-entity to identity. The cosmic roll of the dice. “Not my will,” --Jesus in the Garden-- “but thy will be done.” The wager of Blaise Pascal. Time to put up or shut up. The “leap of faith.” It is what might make us human, and what costs us everything. What strips us down and turns us inside-out. What dislocates us, and in doing so brings us into alignment and relationship with the One who is the Father of all and Source of all, the alpha and the omega, from before time and forever.
But those are words. How do we know that? How could we be sure? Are we in the game or not? The invitation to that place where no GPS system will ever be able to give us even a clue. All on us. The step into the unknown. The other side of the tape. Either it means everything, what we do, or it means nothing. Either we mean something, or we mean nothing. You decide, I guess. Fish or cut bait. A little piece of bread broken like a body. Do we want some? A little piece of bread. Do we need some? What would it mean to need that?
Even a pretty little baptismal font: a roaring river, a rushing torrent, a fatal sea--a flowing floodtide that will sweep away everything. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there.” What are you going to do? What are you going to do?
“Your son, your only son, whom you love?” Luther’s hymn: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Poetry, but how real can that get? Don’t let the drama trick us into keeping it all at arm’s-length. That’s all very good for Patriarchs and for the saints and heroes of ages long ago. Jesus says, it could be a cup of water. What could be simpler? He gets it, which I guess isn’t surprising. He gets the point of that long walk across the desert, the father and the son. The climb up that mountain trail. The standing over the sacrificial stone. The blade lifted up against the blue of the sky. Because it’s not about the price, it’s about the transaction. About the transaction. Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t have put it better. Because we can’t give even that cup of water, not really give it, freely, completely, without putting down first what it is we are holding onto for ourselves. What it is we are holding onto. Our shield and sword, our ballast, our safety. Carry them up to the Table, and there will be no way to take that broken body into our hands. The ethic and the spirituality and the music of emptyhandedness.
There is a miracle at the end of the story. I promise. Keep reading. Are we in the game or not?
What’s that noise? The ram caught in the thicket. How does that happen? Does anybody know? The ram in the thicket. Can I be sure before I begin? Is there a way to put down an advance deposit? I mean, how empty do my hands have to be? Isn't there some sort of guarantee that I can purchase before I leave the store?
How does that happen? The story before us this morning, on our way to the Table, and a story that should follow us on our way home. Bursting upon Abraham there, and Isaac, stretched out on the sacrificial stone of the altar, the bright light of an Angel. And certainly the voice of the Savior. That place for us, where we are left at the end of the story, at the top of the mountain. And back again to where it all started. “He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said—and he said, “Here I am.” Here I am. And here we are, this morning. Taking our chances.