Friday, June 24, 2005

Sacrificing Isaac

When I was a kid, we had a big red book with black and white illustrations in it, called Fairy Tales for Children.  Every now and then my sister and I would get it out and read some of the stories, and it’d never fail to scare us out of our wits.  Fairy Tales for Children, indeed!  Fairy Tales for Scaring Children Witless and Making Them Do What They’re Told, more like it.  Do you remember Rumpelstiltskin?  First the loving father drops his daughter in it by telling the greedy king, oh, yes, she knows how to spin straw into gold – with the predictable consequence that things are going to look a bit bleak for her if she doesn’t – and then this dreadful little deity Rumpelsiltskin turns up and offers to do the job for her, on condition that once she’s married the king (a fairly dubious honour in itself), she has to turn over her first child to Rumpelstiltskin.  Well in this story the miller’s daughter comes off best because she has a good network of spies and they uncover the secret of Rumplelstiltskin’s unlikely name.  And if little children can go to sleep after that bed-time story, good luck to them.

But it has a certain energy, doesn’t it? Someone told me recently this sort of story is like an onion – you peel off one layer of meaning and find a whole other layer underneath, and then you peel that off and so on.  At the most obvious level there’s the rags-to-riches story with a slightly sinister warning that there’s always a price to pay.  But underneath that is where it starts to resonate with some of our deepest desires and our darkest fears, the troubling undercurrent of child abuse that maybe echoes our culture’s ambivalence towards children, the fearful image of malevolent magic that maybe conceals some of our ambivalence about God and about the basic goodness of God’s world.  Good thing Rumplestiltskin isn’t in the Bible.

Except, of course, it is.  Like the miller’s daughter, Abraham today has to make good on his side of the bargain, Abraham has to sacrifice his only son to an arbitrary and frightening God.  It’s one of the stories in the Bible we wish wasn’t there. Not the only one, by any means.  Stories of rape and genocide, of racism and betrayal – many of them stories we never read in church and probably wouldn’t be bothered reading for ourselves.  Stories that suggest that God commends this sort of behaviour or worse, that God commands it, that God inspires the darkest and most violent human passions.  Stories that we should read with a shudder, because it isn’t too great a distance between the fall of Jericho and 9/11, between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the sexual abuse of children in our own society.  A common Christian interpretation of these stories is that this was God’s old way of doing business, the old deal that was replaced by the new deal in Jesus Christ, or else that in Christ God finally revealed that this sort of thing never was God’s idea. 

But some of these stories won’t go away quite so easily, and the call to sacrifice Isaac is one of them.  A story that has become so deeply embedded in the Christian psyche that it is one of the readings set for the Easter Vigil every year when we remind ourselves of the story of God’s saving acts among humanity.  A story that in some versions of Christian theology is seen as a pre-figuring of the sacrificial death of Jesus himself.

This story is terrifying. This story paints a very disturbing portrait of God. This story says that God tells an old man to murder his own son, simply to see what the old man will do. On the face of it, such a God would not be worthy of our worship, such a God could never be the source and model of our ethics. We’d lock up a person who did what God in this story.  This is a story that Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible calls a ‘text of terror’, and with good reason.  But at the same time we know that at some deep level it rings true, at some level it’s telling us something important about who we are, and about who God is.  It’s a story that won’t go away.

But, what does it mean for us?

The first thing, I think, is that it raises a suspicion.  Is God really telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or is that just what Abraham thinks God is saying?  I have to admit, I often get suspicious when I hear people saying, without any apparent doubt about it, that God told me such-and-such.  How do you know that’s what God is saying to you?  Is it possible that God gets the blame - or the credit – a lot of the time for things that human beings want and human beings decide?  So I don’t really think I can fall for the story-teller’s line that God told this to Abraham, it doesn’t match what I know about the God who created us for love and in love – but I don’t have any trouble believing that that’s what Abraham thought he was hearing. 


Well, for one reason, because we know that child sacrifice did happen in ancient Israel:

·        we read in 1 Kings chapter 16 of two kings of Israel who sacrificed their own sons in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of battle,

·        in Judges chapter 11 we read the dreadful story of the sacrifice to Yahweh of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. 

·        in the book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6, the prophet argues that God does not require child sacrifice but justice, kindness and humility. 

Over the centuries, there came the understanding that the sacrifice of children was inconsistent with God’s character and God’s priorities.  But even today we still don’t hear God clearly.  Even today, Christians find it hard to agree on what God is saying to us – our own church is bitterly divided right now about whether God approves or disapproves the consecration of a gay bishop in the United States.  And sometimes what we think we hear God saying to us or demanding of us seems downright contradictory - outrageous, terrifying, or even unfair.  And perhaps because God does sometimes seem like that to us, there’s a disturbing sense in which this story rings true for us.  

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised about it.  If our relationship with God is a real relationship – a relationship that demands first place in our lives – then maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that we find ourselves struggling with divided loyalties, trying to negotiate our way through a minefield of unreasonable expectations, misunderstandings and mixed messages.  That’s another thing this onion-skin story asks us to think about – is it a real, two-way relationship we have with God, and if it is, are we prepared to trust God?  Are we prepared to take the risk of living as though God’s claim on us is for real?

Because, let’s make no bones about it, God has a pretty demanding agenda.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think there aren’t going to be any sacrifices.  God’s demands force us to choose whether we are going to live the comfortable status quo or the risky way of radical love and peace and hospitality that Jesus shows us.  It’s not just a choice we face as individuals.  We regularly face this sort of choice in our life together as a nation – are we going to take the risky way of justice and generosity or are we going to take the safe option of protecting our own interests?  And I think we are facing just this choice as a church right now – the call to go up to the top of the mountain and sacrifice the certainties and the safety of centuries of Christendom, to give up what for so long has seemed to be the only way of being church, much, even, that has seemed to be part and parcel of God’s promises to us.  What familiar treasures God might be calling us to give up so that we can be the incarnation and the container of God’s good news in the 21st century?  What might it mean for us as a Church to trust in God, and not in the history of what God has done for us?  It’s uncomfortable, and it’s scary.

But scary as it is, this story also contains the promise that God’s apparently unreasonable demands will not destroy us.  When it comes down to it, Abraham obeys God – not blindly, but because by this time of his life he has learned that God can be relied on – that God can be trusted.  When we learn to step out of our personal comfort zones, our lives become richer and fuller and more alive than ever.  When as God’s church we learn to trust in the future and not cling to the past, then God’s promises can come true in us.  Because the God who demands that we sacrifice our certainties, our security and even our greatest treasure, promises to be with us every step of the way.  Because the Incarnate God who comes among us and shares our lives with us, the God who sacrifices for us, can be trusted.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Pentecost 5 (19 June): God hears

In the movie, The Rabbit-proof Fence, based on a true story that happened in 1931, three Aboriginal children have been taken from their families and brought down south to Moore River, to the government institution where they are supposed to be trained to fit into white society as domestic servants.  But the three girls, Molly, Daisy and Grace, have got no intention of going along with this – they escape into the bush and travel east to the rabbit-proof fence, north along the fence for over 1500 miles, knowing it will lead them home, somehow evading the police trackers, trusting the land itself to provide them with food and water.  It’s a David and Goliath story – the sort of story that shames you and inspires you all at the same time – a reminder that behind the big issues there are thousands of individual human stories – stories that get forgotten – stories that sometimes turn out OK, that other times end in predictable tragedy. 

Today we read another challenging story about survival in the desert – this one from Genesis is rather shocking.  A mother and a child sent out into the desert to die?  A story that sometimes makes people feel they have to make some sort of excuse for Abraham and Sarah – I know of some Christians who feel these hard-edged stories from the Old Testament shouldn’t be read in churches at all, that we should stick to the New Testament.  But here it is.

God has promised Abraham that he will be the ancestor of a great nation – he and Sarah don’t see how this could be possible and fair enough! They’re both over 90 at the time – but they try to work it out, try to help God’s plan along a little – maybe they can make it happen, maybe if Abraham takes Sarah’s maid, Hagar, the foreigner, they can have a child through her.  So Hagar’s child, Ishmael, is Abraham’s oldest son but he isn’t the child of God’s promise, quite the opposite, he is the child who represents Abraham and Sarah’s attempt to second-guess God – to make it happen themselves, because God isn’t quite getting it right – Ishmael’s very existence, especially after Isaac is born, reminds Abraham and Sarah they have failed to trust that the God who has brought them this far has also got the future under control.  There’s something in this little scenario that’s relevant for us as individuals, but also relevant for us as the church – being faithful to God means trusting in the future – the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus is always an Incarnate God and can be trusted to reveal himself in the future just as much as in the present and in the past.  Planning is good, using our imagination and our creativity to work out what it means for us to be the church in today’s world is good – but the most important thing is to trust God and to understand that we don’t create the future – the future is where God creates us.

So Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s attempt at social engineering, a bit like Molly, Daisy and Grace represent an attempt by the Government of the 1930s to engineer the sort of society they wanted.  But now he doesn’t fit the plan – Sarah needs to make sure that Ishmael doesn’t usurp her own son Isaac, the one that God really promised her, so she resorts to another ugly attempt at manipulating the outcome.  And Abraham, the great patriarch of faith, goes along with the idea – Hagar and her son are given a little bag of bread and water and sent out into the desert.  It’s a scene that unfortunately isn’t that unfamiliar to us – racist jealousy and cruelty is an ugly fact of the world we live in today – we need only think of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, violence between Muslims and Christians in Aceh – but the truly shocking thing about this story is that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the desert by the great father and mother of our own faith, their expulsion an attempt to make God’s promises come true.

We need to think about that.  God doesn’t have perfect people to work with, just ordinary people with mixed motives, sinful people who sometimes act out of the best intentions but other times act as though the only thing that really matters is preserving their own power or their own property.  People like us, people like me.  Over the last few years we have seen our own church having to apologise, for example for inaction and worse over the blight of sexual abuse.  Sometimes we’re blind to the evils of our own day, and the part we ourselves play in allowing them to continue.  But for all that, God still chooses to call and to use sinful human beings like us – like Abraham and Sarah, like me.

But let’s go back to the story – you wouldn’t want to read a more gut-wrenching account of a mother’s despair as she faces not only her own death from thirst, but the death of her child.  But before the inevitable happens this is what we hear: that God hears – in fact, that is the meaning of the Hebrew name, Ishmael – God hears him.  Ishmael isn’t the chosen one, we’re told he isn’t part of the main plan – but this little Arab boy who doesn’t seem to matter much to human beings does matter to God.  This is the hope in this story for us, I believe.  Forget Abraham and Sarah who can’t see how God’s plans can come true unless they meddle.  Focus on God, who refuses to accept that Ishmael is just a statistic, or that Molly and Daisy and Grace are just statistics.  When human beings are lost in desert places – literally or metaphorically – God hears.  That’s what this story tells us.  God hears.

And that is also what Jesus tells us – one of the things Jesus tells us – in this mixed bag of sayings in this mornings reading from the gospel.  Jesus shows us – in his life and death and resurrection – a God who refuses to leave human beings in the lurch but comes among us and shares our world with us.  A God who is prepared to suffer for us.  And Jesus tells us his God is the one who knows and cares for each one of us – not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing.  We need to be clear about what is being said and what’s not being said here – sparrows continue to fall, as sparrows always have, and so will human beings – there’s no easy promise of special protection for Christians but there is the promise that God sees, that God cares and loves every one of God’s creatures individually.  Jesus doesn’t answer the question that people have asked all down the ages – why does one child die?  Why does God allow it? But he tells us that God cares, that God is not indifferent, that God suffers.  And Jesus continues to tell us this even as he knows the inevitable consequence of his message, and as he faces his own agonizing death on a Roman cross.

St Paul also knows about God’s solidarity with weak and imperfect human beings, and he puts it like this in the letter to the Romans: “we don’t even know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for human words.  We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” [1]  God hears, even when the desert is too silent and too empty for anyone else to hear. 

Maybe the story of Ishmael is not just a footnote in the history of God’s plan for God’s people.  Maybe we need to hear it as a preface to the story of Jesus himself, the story of a God who leaves no human cry unheard.  The story that tells us that there is no tragedy that is not suffered by God, no human pain that is not held in the wounded hands of Christ and transformed into a work beauty, and love and joy for all who will accept it.

Ishmael.  God hears.

[1] Romans 8.27, 28.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I remember hearing about the situation of a middle-aged couple who were witnessing the slow self-destruction of their 30 year old foster-daughter. It was a painful story, one that challenged me to think about the difference between what I might think is the right thing to do, and what people are capable of in real life. This couple were confronting the hard choice between wanting to protect their daughter who had for some years been into the drug scene, and whose life was a constant cycle of broken relationships, losing jobs and getting kicked out of rental accommodation, brushes with the law and desperate attempts at rehab – the hard choice between sheltering and protecting the daughter they loved, and realising the limits of what they could do, that there were limits to how much they could give of themselves before the cost became too great, that there were limits to how much of their daughter’s pain they could endure, even limits to how much they could care. Eventually they had to make the hard decision to tell their daughter she couldn’t come home again, that she couldn’t count on them to always pick up the pieces.

Somebody pointed out to me the other day the irony that the story of Noah’s ark is always such a favourite with people who write children’s Bibles, that it’s a constant theme for babies’ nurseries and even the designs on kiddies pyjamas. Of course it’s a really cute picture – the animals all go into the ark by families, two by two – a picture of domestic contentment where everybody gets along together, even the lions and the zebras. Nobody ever gets eaten. Except, of course, when you really think about it, it’s not such a fluffy and cuddly story at all, not really a story you’d want to be telling your toddlers - when you think that what it’s about is God deciding to start creation from scratch, sending a worldwide flood to wipe the slate clean, by drowning every living creature in the whole world except the happy families in the ark.

As a story it raises a few practical problems – like the old perennial about how Noah managed to get to Australia and back to collect the echidnas and platypuses in under seven days (and in the process tell the difference between the males and the females) – or how Noah managed to build this gigantic wooden barge all by himself – as long and as wide as a football field and as high as a five-storey building.
So despite the excitable claims we hear every know and then that somebody or other has found a piece of fossilised wood in Turkey that might be the remains of the ark, there are some problems in taking this one literally. Maybe it’s based on the distant memory of flooding on the Tigris-Euphrates delta – and the similarities between the story of Noah’s ark and the ancient stories of the civilisations of Sumeria and Babylon suggest they’re based on a common tradition – but basically I think we need to read it as a parable. Like the parables that Jesus told to illustrate the truth about human beings, and the truth about God. Jesus’ parables were mostly fairly realistic stories, like a man who plants a vineyard, or a woman who loses a coin. They might have actually happened, or they might be just stories. But the importance of Jesus’ parables isn’t whether or not they really happened, but what they tell us about where God is in our lives, and what it means to love other people as much as we love ourselves. So we might put aside some of the practical problems in the story of Noah’s ark and ask ourselves: what does it mean? What does this story tell us about what God is like, and how God relates to the world that God made?

Which opens up the really hard questions. Because what a lot of people have got from this story is that God is so angry that he sends a flood to wipe everybody out as a punishment for the evil they keep doing. We don’t know the details, but God complains that the earth is filled with violence. And so God decides to do away with the lot of them. It’s a problematic story. I can’t help thinking of the claim made by some Christians after the Boxing Day tsunami that God had sent this disaster as a punishment – that the hundreds of thousands who died had somehow deserved their fate – it’s an offensive suggestion, isn’t it? And what sort of God behaves like that? Well, the story of Noah’s ark comes out of a very different worldview and a very different culture to our own, but there are a couple of things we should maybe notice. Firstly, that in the story God isn’t angry at all. In fact we get a very different picture, of a God who is in turmoil. In verse 6, which we didn’t read, the Hebrew says that God’s heart is filled with pain, that God’s heart is broken because of the deep, ingrained evil that seems to be woven into human nature and corrupts the whole world. God’s judgement, thoroughgoing and extreme as it is, is not described as a punishment but as a way of renewing creation through this one man who lives in right relationship with God. That God chooses a flood to accomplish this suggests something about cleansing or purging, but more importantly it relates to the story of creation itself – in Genesis chapter one God creates the world out of an initial watery chaos, and in the Great Flood God seems to be throwing the whole thing back into reverse, back to watery chaos and then starting again. The flood itself might be seen, not as a punishment but as the logical outcome for a humanity that couldn’t learn to live in relationship with God or in harmony with the natural order. Certainly, the story suggests something about the relationship between human responsibility and the wellbeing of the natural creation, and I don’t think it’s any accident that humanity and the non-human creation all end up – so to speak – in the same boat.

Yet by the end of the story we can see that the new creation is not a complete fresh start at all - because it is based on the remnants of the original one. Not only that, but human sinfulness has not been eradicated and at the end of the story God acknowledges that humans are what humans are. The truly startling thing about this story, is that what changes, is God. What changes, is God’s relationship to the world God has made. In fact the very reason that God gives for the flood in the first place – that human beings are irredeemably evil – is the exact same reason God gives for promising at the end of the story, never to flood the earth again, in chapter 8, verse 21: ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, because the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth’. That’s why the story of the Great Flood can never be used as an example of God’s judgement, precisely because it is the flood that sets the ground for God’s promise to humankind, and that sets out the terms of God’s relationship with what God has made.

You see, this parable comes out of a great insight into what it means to be human – and what it means to be God. People don’t change. The relationship between God and humanity is lopsided from the very start, but God decides to stay with creation as it is. God is committed to us, but there’s a cost. Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament scholar, puts it this way: ‘The flood has effected an irreversible change in God. It is clear now that such a commitment to the creation on God's part is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world.’
What this means is that God chooses to suffer, as the cost of being in relationship with us. God chooses to be in covenant with us, despite knowing that we live our lives in a vicious cycle of weak good intentions, selfishness and failure. God chooses to accept the cost of loving us, and we see the cost of that love, the ultimate expression of the lopsided covenant between God and human beings, on the cross. And this is what St Paul recognises; that our hope lies not in our own faith or our own righteousness, but in the righteousness of God which is revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The vicious cycle has been replaced by a circle of wellbeing, a circle that flows from the goodness and the faithfulness of God and ends up bearing the fruit of goodness in each of us as we are restored into good relation with God.

Here’s another parable: When Noah and the whole family climbed down from the ark, and the stretch their legs a bit, God says to them: ‘I’m making a new covenant with you, and I’m giving you a sign that this world has been created in peace and for peace. But it’s a special sign, because you can only see it when you look at it through the waters of a flood or through eyes filled with tears’. And there appears in the sky the first ever rainbow, a great arc from horizon to horizon. And Noah and his family look at the rainbow in wonder, but then the youngest, Japheth, asks his dad: ‘We’ve come full circle in our journey on the ark – from dry land to water and back to dry land again. How come the rainbow is only half a circle?’
And God says: ‘I’ve made a start. Let’s see how you go finishing it.’