That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Politics (page 1 of 19)

Binary Thinking? – Sermon for the First Sunday in Lend, RCL Year B, 18 February 2018

I’m a great fan of Sesame Street. The generation after mine in the Funston family, my niece Saskia, my nephew York, and my own children, Patrick and Caitlin, grew up with that show and it taught them a lot of good things. The show taught my kids literacy, counting, simple logic, and social skills. It did so using a rapid-fire mix of puppetry, animation, and short films. Created in 1969, “it was designed to deliberately mimic the fast pace and style of TV advertising in order to ‘sell’ learning to kids: An Aesop-friendly story featuring the recurring characters on the Street would be intercut with rapid-fire ‘commercials’ for that day’s ‘sponsors’ (‘Sesame Street has been brought to you today by the letters A and S, and the number 7…’).”[1]

Always, it was sponsored by two letters and a number. I thought about starting this sermon that way: “Today’s sermon is brought to you by the letters A and R, and the number 15.” But if I did that, you’d think I was going to, again, preach about guns and mass murder and the killing of children.

Well, you wouldn’t be wrong . . . but you wouldn’t be right, either.

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About “Thoughts and Prayers” – 15 February 2018

(Note: This essay began as a Facebook post, but I thought I would put it here, too.)

Let’s get something straight. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t solve; they salve. “Thoughts and prayers” are not salutary; they are palliative. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t provide a cure; they provide comfort.

“Thoughts and prayers” are all well and good, but they are not an end in themselves. “Thoughts and prayers” must lead to actions or they are simply meaningless futility. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. . . .[F]aith apart from works is barren . . . [F]aith without works is also dead.” (James 2:18-20,26)

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Discerning Prophets – Sermon for Epiphany 4, RCL Year B, January 28, 2018

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”[1] So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.

And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”[2] The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.

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Whose Image Is This? – Sermon for Proper 24A, Pentecost 20 (October 22, 2017)

As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.

The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1

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The Ten Suggestions? – Sermon for Proper 22A (Pentecost 18), October 8, 2017

I’m wearing an orange stole today and a couple of you asked me on the way into church, “What season is orange?” Well, it’s not a seasonal stole … although I suppose we could say it commemorates the season of unregulated and out of control gun violence. A few years ago, a young woman named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago; her friends began wearing orange, like hunters wear for safety, in her honor on her birthday in June. A couple of years ago, Bishops Against Gun Violence, an Episcopal group, became a co-sponsor of Wear Orange Day and some of us clergy here in Ohio decided to make and wear orange stoles on the following Sunday. Our decision got press notice and spread to clergy of several denominations all over the country.

Today, after what happened last Sunday in my hometown, I decided to wear my orange stole as a witness to my belief in the need for sensible, strict, and enforceable regulations on gun manufacture and sale, on gun ownership and use. But I am not going to preach about that; I did so after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, after the Mother Emmanuel church schooting in Charlotte, SC, after the Pulse dance club shooting in Orlando, FL. We talk about it and pray about it and preach about it after each incident and nothing changes and there’s nothing left to say. If we didn’t change things after the murders of children, after the murders of a bible study group, or after murders of people out nightclubbing, we aren’t going to change anything after 58 people get murdered (and one commits suicide) in Las Vegas. We just aren’t, and nothing I might say in a sermon will change that.

So . . .

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Authority: To Bend the Knee – Sermon for Proper 21A (1 October 2017)

Authority. The authority of Jesus Christ is what Paul writes about in the letter to the Philippians, in which he quotes a liturgical hymn sung in the early Christian communities:

At the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil. 2:10-11)

Jesus’ authority is also the subject of today’s Gospel lesson.

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Recovery: An Analogy

Recovery. It’s what they call the process that comes after surgery. A physician cuts you open, spends a few minutes or hours doing whatever needs to be done, sews (or staples or glues) you up, and they wheel you out of the surgical theater and into the recovery room. Recovery has started, but when you leave the recovery room it isn’t over. It goes on and on for days, weeks, even months.

Recovery. It’s what they call the process that comes after a natural disaster. An earthquake, a tornado, a forest fire, a hurricane cuts through your community, spends a few minutes or hours or days doing whatever is really not needed, then leaves doing nothing at all to sew up the lives impacted, and there’s no recovery room. But recovery has nonetheless started, and it won’t be over for a long, long time. It goes on and on for days, weeks, months, even years. It goes on for lifetimes.

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Health Care, A Human Right – A Rector’s Reflection (for the August 2017 Parish Newsletter)

What do orange-haired casino owners, former First Ladies, Muslim refugee children, police officers, unborn babies, doctors and nurses who perform abortions, progressive hipsters, conservative Republicans, prosperity-gospel televangelists, members of Congress, transgender former athletes, Confederate-flag-waving white nationalists, Black Lives Matter activists, middle-of-the-road Democrats, and aging clergy all have in common?

Together with you and everyone else on earth, they are sacred. That’s the thing. Christianity professes the absurd notion that human beings are sacred. In the beginning, our sacred writings tell us, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. [And] God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen 1:27,31)

The German World War II Lutheran prophet and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form.” (Cost of Discipleship, SCM, 1959, p. 272) Sacred. All human beings are sacred.

And, according to an American foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, it is a self-evident truth held by our nation that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The past several weeks, the question of health and health care has been much on my mind. Of course, it has been the subject of much political debate of late, but while that’s been going on I have been dealing with the subject in a much more personal way. First, I have been preparing for the surgical replacement of my right knee. Second, as I am about to turn 65, I have been learning about Medicare and its various parts, about its interrelationship with employer-provided health insurance, and about supplements and advantage plans. I have come first hand to the same realization reached by our current president: “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” (Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, Feb. 27, 2017)

I’ve come to believe that we need to reconsider our entire understanding and approach to health and health care. If, as we Christians profess, every human being is sacred and if, as we Americans profess, every human being possesses inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then, I think, we must also adopt the position that health is a sacred human right, not a saleable commodity subject to the vagaries and inconsistencies of profit making in the marketplace

In the field of constitutional law there is the concept of “penumbral rights.” These are those rights not specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution or its amendments, but so necessary to the protection of the listed rights that they too much be given supreme protection by our courts. The right to personal privacy and the right to reasonably unrestricted travel are two such penumbral. The right to good health is, arguably, a penumbral right of those enumerated by our founders in the Declaration of Independence; without it, the rights to life, liberty, and happiness cannot be fully enjoyed.

President Franklin Roosevelt certainly believed so. In his 1944 State of the Union message he called for “a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.” These rights were to include “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” Roosevelt’s call was echoed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations in 1948 which declares: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (Article 25(1))

Although neither Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights nor the UDHR are specifically based on a Christian ethic, the implication of the biblical creation story is that human beings possess an inherent and inalienable dignity. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” in our baptismal covenant. (BCP 1979, pg 305) Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that human dignity confers on all human beings what she calls “political entitlements for the development of their capabilities.” Among these she delineates:

Presbyterian writer Chris Iosso has suggested that Christian respect for the dignity of all human beings is a matter of justice including a “positive responsibility to help the health of others … traced back to Jesus’ healing, which was partly restoring people to community and thereby restoring the community to health and wholeness as well.” (Unbound, March 6, 2014)

Similarly, Roman Catholic writer Mark Shea argues from the parable of the Good Samaritan that provision of health care to those in need is not a matter of charity, but a matter of justice:

A child does not have a right to life because of charity. His parents are not doing him a favor by not driving him out to the woods and leaving him there. They are doing him justice, because justice pertains to what is owed. A child is owed his life by his parents by virtue of being human.

The same is true of any human being in danger. The wounded man in the parable was owed his life, and the priest and Levite robbed him by ignoring him. Meanwhile, the Samaritan was not, according to Jesus, a hero or a saint, but merely a neighbor. The priest and Levite sinned by depriving the man of simple justice. The Samaritan bestowed not charity, but simple justice by giving him what we today call “health care.” (Our Sunday Visitor, May 31, 2017)

There are a lot of arguments about health and health care being made (and they have been made again and again) from legal, financial, economic, and political points of view, but they all seem to eventually come back to the notion that health is a commodity and that health care is something to be bargained for in the marketplace. What if we were to change that conception? What if, as those who believe that human life is sacred, as those who believe that human beings are inherently due respect and dignity, as those who believe in healing as a matter of justice, we Christians were to suggest an alternative point of view? What if we were to suggest that health is not a commodity but a human right? Could we change the tenor of the discussion? Could we find a way through the impasse about health care and our medical services delivery system?

I don’t know. But I do know, from personal experience getting ready for surgery and from personal experience aging into the Medicare system, that the president was right about this thing! “It’s an unbelievably complex subject.” It’s a legal, financial, political, and – for us as Christians – religious subject. We need to speak up and insist that that religious, philosophical dimension be addressed in the public debate.

Cancerous Distortion – Sermon for RCL Proper 11A – July 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 11A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13,16-19; Romans 8:12-25; and St. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Again, this week, we have another familiar parable in our Gospel lesson, the story of the wheat and the weeds. I will come back to it. But first, I’d like to tell you about my older brother who died 24 years ago.

Richard York Funston was born on July 27, 1943; this coming Thursday, he would have been 74 years old. Rick was a very, very smart man; I would even describe him as brilliant. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas, a master’s in the same field from UCLA, and a PhD in political science specializing in constitutional law also from UCLA. He published five books on constitutional law and taught the subject in five universities, ending up as chair of the political science department and vice-president for academic affairs at San Diego State University. Had he lived, I’ve no doubt he would have been president of a major university.

But he did not live beyond his fiftieth birthday; in fact, he didn’t even get to that milestone. In October of 1992 he exhibited the first symptoms of some sort of brain dysfunction and was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke; three months later that diagnosis was proved wrong. He, in fact, was suffering from primary site brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, the same disease with which Senator John McCain has recently been diagnosed.

When Rick was diagnosed, I did some research into the disease and learned that, at that time, it was (and still is) considered incurable and invariable fatal. In 1993, 50% of patients died within six months of diagnosis; almost 100% percent, within two years. I’ve learned from the recent news about Senator McCain that medical science has extended the median survival to 18 months, but that outside life expectancy is still only about three years after diagnosis. Rick died on Father’s Day, June 21, 1993, less than five months after his accurate diagnosis. I spent the week before his death at his bedside.

So, I know all too well what John McCain and his family are facing and what they will be going through, and my heart goes out to them; they will daily be in my prayers. I would not wish what they are going through on anyone.

It’s because of Rick’s influence that I am the political junky that I am. He loved politics and we often discussed and debated the issues and races of the day. I have often wondered what he would make of 21st Century America and our current political climate. One of the things he taught me was to eschew what we have come to call “bubbles,” the self-insulating and self-reinforcing political and social circles in which we hear only those views that accord with our own and acknowledge only those facts which support our beliefs. So I read news reported by a variety of journals and read opinions and editorials written from a variety of points of view. I follow blogs and news-feeds from the Right, from the Center, and from the Left. And that is why I know that some self-identified “conservative Christians” have written that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice” and that “God is punishing him” for his political views. (See Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek, 7/20/2017.)

That is pure, unadulterated . . . nonsense! It’s that sort of offensive rhetoric by self-proclaimed “conservative Christians” that turns people off (and against) religion. What sort of person actually thinks and teaches others that God works that way? A god who did would not be a god to worship; such a god would be worthy only of contempt. Such a god would be one to follow; such god would be one to be fought. If I had even the slightest scintilla of a belief that that’s the way God operated, I’d not only not be a religious person, I’d be an anti-religious crusader. I am sick to death of the twisted, anti-human, distorted muck some people pass off as the Christian faith.

Which brings me back to Jesus and the parable in this morning’s Gospel text.

It is believed by many scholars that, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds in question are darnel, a type of grass sometimes called “poisonous darnel.” The darnel itself is not poisonous, but it harbors a destructive and deadly fungus called “ergot.” If the infected darnel is harvested along with the wheat or rye, the ergot gets into the good grain and any flour or meal made from it, and the result can be fatal.

The scientific name for darnel is lolium temulentus, the second word being Latin for “drunk.” The French name for darnel is ivraie from the Latin ebriacus meaning “intoxicated.” Both names refer to the drunken, potential deadly nausea caused by eating the infected plant. Ergotism, as the symptoms of eating the fungus are called, is characterized headaches and nausea, convulsions and painful seizures and spasms, hallucinations and psychosis, and tingling and burning in the extremities, sometimes called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, these can also be the symptoms of glioblastoma.

Darnel is common throughout the Middle East and infestations of grain fields are a constant danger. So Jesus’ parable would have struck home forcefully with his original hearers; they knew well what might happen to someone who ate that fungus-infected grain. Later, Jesus explained the allegorical meaning of the parable to the Twelve, “the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one.” (Mt 13:38)

In his commentary on this story, scholar Eugene Boring suggests that “we can surely see, shimmering behind [this parable], the experience of Matthew’s church – and ours, too.” He goes on to write:

It chronically comes as a shock to find that the world, that the family into which we are born, that even the church is not an entirely trustworthy place. The world has places of wonder, but alleys of cruelty, too. Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes in with bad. “Where did these weeds come from?” is a perennial human cry. (Commentary on Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VIII, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1995, pg 311)

Where did these people, these self-proclaimed “conservative Christians,” these poisonous weeds who cancerously distort the Gospel, blaming a devastating disease on some warped notion of “godly justice” come from?

Part of me, the part that still remembers my brother’s suffering, the part of me that sat by his death bed, would like to go root them out, pull them up root, stem, and head like the bad weeds they are, simply exterminate them. But, of course, the other part of me pays heed to the rest of the parable, to the master’s order to his servants to leave the darnels be until the harvest. This is, writes Boring, “a realistic reminder that the servants [which is to say, you and me] do not finally have the ability to get rid of the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good.” (Ibid.)

Our gradual this morning is not taken from the Book of Psalms, as it usually is. Instead, we have a reminder from the deuterocanonical book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” that God, the source of righteousness, does not judge unjustly, that instead God judges with mildness and governs with forbearance. “Through such works,” we say to God as we recite the text, “you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.” (Wis 12:19)

Paul writes in the same spirit in this morning’s epistle lesson. Echoing the parable’s message that the world is “not an entirely trustworthy place,” he writes, “The creation [is] subjected to futility.” (Rom 8:20) But we know that creation, and we ourselves, will one day be freed of that futility:

We know [writes Paul] that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (vv 23-25)

We could hope that our brothers and sisters, those so-called “conservative Christians,” could hear and learn that message. We could hope that they would stop broadcasting the perverse notion that God causes brain cancer, or earthquakes, or hurricanes, or floods, or whatever as punishment for human failings. We could hope that they would recognize what the great theologian Karl Barth stated so simply, that “God is either known by grace or he is not known at all.” (Church Dogmatics, II/1, 27)

We live in an imperfect world and we belong to an imperfect church, and there is very little we can do to change either of those facts; as much as we might wish to rip out and do away with those who distort the Christian message, the poisonous darnels among us, that isn’t our job. “We are given the task of living as faithfully and as obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.” (Boring, op cit) We are to “wait for it with patience.”

But not with passivity! The master’s prohibiting the servants from weeding the field “is not a divine command to ignore injustice in the world, violence in society, or wrong in the church.” (Ibid.) No! We must stand in witness not only against “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but also against other self-identified “Christians” who pervert the Gospel. Whenever we hear or witness such nonsense as suggestions that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice,” we must answer clearly that it is not! We must have the courage of our Christian convictions and proclaim the truth of our faith in the face of such distortion. What we hope these so-called “conservative Christians” hear and recognize and learn, we must say and demonstrate and teach.

In this respect, last week’s opening prayer bears repeating: When we are faced with such twisted falsehood and misrepresentation, O Lord, “grant that [we] may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. Amen.” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Collect for Proper 10, page 231)

(Note: The illustration is a representation of glioblastoma cancer cells from Glioblastoma multiforme – stereotaxic radiotherapy brings promising results? by Aleksandra Jarocka, MD, and Anna Brzozowska, PhD.)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Knight of Faith & the Dark Night of the Soul – Sermon for Proper 8A – July 2, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 8A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and St. Matthew 10:40-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The great Anglican preacher Herbert O’Driscoll begins his reflections on our Old Testament lesson, the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, truthfully the near-murder of Isaac, with these words:

No one approaches this passage without feeling the great weight of it. It exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers. (The Word Among Us: Year A, Volume 3, Anglican Book Centre, Toronto:1999, pg 35)

In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that “darkness and mystery,” those thousands of unanswerable questions, are really fundamental the nature of our relationship with God. (Our opening prayer at each Eucharist, the so-called Collect for Purity, is the opening prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing.) The book takes the form, in part, of a conversation between student and master. The student asks how one can think about God, and the master replies that a human being cannot actually do this:

[O]f all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love . . . . “ (The Cloud of Unknowing, Evelyn Underhill, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 31)

The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem which he did not title but which has come to be called The Dark Night of the Soul. The first verse, as translated by A.Z. Foreman, a linguist at the University of Chicago, is this:

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
(Poems in Found Translation)

St. John of the Cross, who published his poem with a couple of expository essays, said of the first stanza:

In this first stanza the soul relates the way and manner which it followed in going forth, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, and in dying to them all and to itself, by means of true mortification, in order to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation, which causes passively in the soul the negation of itself and of all things referred to above.

And this going forth it says here that it was able to accomplish in the strength and ardour which love for its Spouse gave to it for that purpose in the dark contemplation aforementioned. Herein it extols the great happiness which it found in journeying to God through this night with such signal success that none of the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh, . . . could hinder it; inasmuch as the aforementioned night of purgative contemplation lulled to sleep and mortified, in the house of its sensuality, all the passions and desires with respect to their mischievous desires and motions. (St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, E. Allison Peers, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 16)

In contemplating this bizarre story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, we are forced to approach God with the same sense that the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. We must read this and take it in through our love of God because we cannot make sense of this intellectually; if we try, we may end up not loving God because this God who seems to demand human sacrifice is not lovable.

Better folk than I have tried to make sense of this over the many centuries, the millennia since the story made its way into the foundational religious literature of Judaism and Christianity. Let me tell you about some of their attempts.

Although tradition says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), biblical scholars identified four “sources” or schools of authors for it. The earliest source is called the “Yahwist” because this writer (there may be more than one, but I’ll refer to each source as a single person just for ease of expression) habitually refers to God by that name; it is believed that the Yahwist was associated with Jerusalem during the united kingdom of Israel sometime before the year 950 BCE. The second source is called the “Elohist;” he won’t use God’s Name but substitutes the word “Elohim” (meaning “Lord God”). The Elohist is next historically, believed to be associated with the norther kingdom around the year 850 BCE. The third source is the “Deuteronomist,” so called because he is the author of Deuteronomy and some of the historical texts outside of the Pentateuch. The Deuteronomist is believed to have written during the reign of Josiah in the southern kingdom of Judah around the year 625 BCE. The last is the “Priestly” source, sometimes called the “Redactor.” He is believed to have taken the other three, edited them together and additional material of his own, about the year 500 BCE shortly after the Babylonian Exile.

I tell you all that because one of the ways scholars have tried to make sense of this story of Abraham and Isaac is to argue that it’s a mash-up, that the Redactor has taken an early Yawhist story, mixed it up with some bits from the Elohist, and added some bits of his own to create a story which emphasizes the obedience and submission of Abraham at the expense of the story’s depiction of the Almighty. The emphasis is on Abraham’s trust, not on God’s demand. “Abraham does not simply obey; he obeys because he trusts. He could have obeyed because he was ordered to do so; if God commands, he had better respond. But [the text] makes clear that he obeys because he trusts God, that God will be faithful and will act in his best interests.” (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg 499).

Another way faithful people have sought to make sense of the story is by adding to it themselves. In the rabbinic tradition there is the practice of authoring what are called midrashim. This is a genre of rabbinic literature which seeks to flesh out the characters of the Bible. The midrashic authors often sought to provide a sort of back story for the biblical characters. The sages invented these stories to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and fill in the blanks, making the biblical sketches into human figures with whom we can more easily identify. Some of the most famous midrashim have become so imbedded in the tradition that many people do not even realize they aren’t found in the Bible. (The pious legends of Joseph, Mary, and other saints are a similar sort literature.)

The opening words of today’s text, “After these things,” apparently can be understood in the Hebrew as meaning “after these words,” so the midrashic rabbis, wondering what that might mean developed some explanatory scenarios. One midrash on this text suggests that God and Satan had a bet about Abraham much like their wager about Job, i.e., will the righteous man, Abraham, kill his son when asked? Another imagines Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s older son born to Hagar the slave woman, arguing about whose circumcision is “better” – Ishmael’s because was done when he was a teenager and therefore able to refuse, or Isaac’s completed when he was an infant only eight days old. Isaac says he is willing to sacrifice every member of his body to God, and God thus tests Isaac through his order to Abraham. Another midrashic gloss on the story tells us that Isaac at the time of this incident was 37 years old and a willing participant in his near-sacrifice, not an innocent and unsuspecting child. Changing or trying to understand the story through editing, revision, and addition is a venerable tradition.

But the story pretty much stands “as is” in our biblical canon and although it is fun to imagine these back-stories, when we rely on them we don’t rely on Scripture. We rely, instead, on our own imaginations. The text remains stark and troubling, dark and unfathomable.

The 19th Century Danish Theologian Søren Kierkegaard in looking at this story called Abraham a “knight of faith.” A knight of faith is a person willing to make a move of resignation in which demonstrable love of God predominates over worldly happiness. The knight of faith does this in solitude, as Abraham does. Despite the fact that he loves his son, Abraham’s love of God is greater, so he resigns himself to giving up Isaac at God’s command, and he moves to do so without discussing his actions with Sarah or with anyone else. This is what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Seventh-Day Adventist writer Jason Hines describes it this way:

When God asks us to do something that defies social convention or that seems out of the ordinary, if we decide to do it, it seems that we feel the need to justify our decisions to others. It is a human trait – we don’t want to seem crazy for doing whatever thing God just led us to do. However, the knight of faith realizes that the walk of faith is not always a group activity. Therefore there is no need to justify the action.” (Jason Hines, The Knight of Faith, Spectrum Magazine, April 25, 2013, online)

For the knight of faith, the ultimate deciding factor is not the ethical norm, but his individual relationship to God. To fulfill the telos – God’s ultimate purpose – Abraham’s faith in God is called upon to set aside normal canons of ethics and humanity. Here, the knight of faith encounters the dark night of the soul: Abraham, in John of the Cross’s words, “in order to attain to living the . . . life of love with God” must “go forth” from himself “and from all things,” including not only his beloved son, but also the ethical norms his community. One cannot do this intellectually; as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, God “may well be loved, but not thought. By love may [God] be gotten and [held]; but by thought never.”

Herbert O’Driscoll, in his commentary on today’s lessons, noted that he could find little, if any, connection between this seemingly monstrous Old Testament tale of Abraham nearly killing his child and the gospel lesson, and on the surface he is right. But our gospel lesson today is the tale end of Jesus commissioning his apostles, which began in last week’s gospel reading with his telling them

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:34-39)

Now he tells them that there are others, outside their families but within the community of disciples, who will welcome and reward them. “The integral relationships between the disciples, Jesus, and God replace the disciples’ broken relationships with family and society. . . . [T]he call of discipleship does not fit very happily with ‘traditional family values,’ whether ancient or modern. The vocation of disciples necessarily relativizes all other relations and obligations – whether to party, corporation, or family – in favor of the new family that is the community of disciples.” (Stanley Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42, Working Preacher, online)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, of course, is not history, it is metaphor. It is not meant to teach us about the characters in the story; it is meant to teach us about ourselves. As metaphor, I suggest to you that it represents the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith and action revealed in Jesus words in last week’s and this week’s gospel lessons. Just as Abraham had to turn away from and reject the ethical norms of his society to follow the command of God, so must the disciple of Christ be prepared to deny the cultural norms of his or her society. Again, as John of the Cross said, “in journeying to God” we must not allow ourselves to be hindered by “the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh,” any more than Abraham was hindered by the ethical norms of his culture.

As Christians called “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Catechism, BCP 1979, pg 855) we are to be salt, preserving agents actively working for that restoration in the midst of and rejecting a culture many perceive as decadent and decaying. We are to cooperate with Christ’s redeeming power working through us in ways that may contradict cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide.

A commitment to being countercultural . . . isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard. Going against the ebbs and flows of culture can create friction and sometimes provoke a hostile reaction to the good we are trying to create. Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon remind us that this should be expected, for “whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.” (Gabe Lyons, What Does Being Countercultural Look Like?, Q Ideas, online; quoting Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1989, pg 94)

The story of the binding of Isaac and the gospel story of Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles are both stories with what O’Driscoll called “great weight.” They exude a darkness and mystery that raise a thousand unanswerable questions; they call us to an alternative way of seeing our world, to protest and stand against what is wrong, to cry out against injustice, and to call for an end to corruption. They call us to stand for something better, to stand for the “restor[ation] all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” to stand for “the sweet and delectable life of love with God.”

(Note: The illustration is “Le Sacrifice d’Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). It hangs in the Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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