The Very Rev. Gary Hall
Those of us who live in Washington are familiar with spin doctors—political operatives who try to convince you that what you just saw and heard was not really what you saw and heard. They swarm around after presidential debates and attempt to impose a narrative on the event that flies in the face of common sense. Sometimes candidates can be their own spin doctors, as when Donald Trump rebounded from a humiliating episode by saying, “Today I am very proud of myself because I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish.” That’s spin doctoring at a very high level, so please don’t attempt this at home.
In my day I have also heard a number of what I call “spin preachers”: clergy who interpret scripture in ways that protect you from the dangerous parts of the Bible. You know the type. When Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, they find a way to tell you that he actually means something else. This kind of preaching softens the force of Jesus’ admonition about the way wealth can isolate us from each other. It tames the story to our taste. Spin preachers are not hard to find. Any one of us can slip into that role whenever we’re given a piece of scripture that puzzles, frightens, angers, or revolts us.
Today’s reading from Genesis 22:1-14 is one of those passages. It’s the story Jews call the “binding of Isaac,” and over the course of Jewish and Christian history it has been the occasion of some epic spin preaching, even by the likes of me in my younger days. It is just an awful story—you heard it read, and I won’t try to retell it—and the temptation a preacher faces is to take the awful weirdness of it away. God couldn’t seriously have wanted to have Abraham kill his son, could he? God couldn’t really have done this merely to test Abraham, could he? We preachers shy away from those questions by reaching for our commentaries and coming up with more ingenious and fanciful readings. Those sermons always fail, because they never explain why God would do such a nasty thing to Abraham and Isaac in the first place. And while we’re at it, why replace a child with a lamb? Why sacrifice any living sentient being at all?
The older I get, the more allergic I become to spin doctoring and spin preaching. We’re not crazy. We just saw and heard what we just saw and heard. There’s no way to make the story of Isaac’s binding easy, simple, or even palatable. So how do we respond to it?
I have two thoughts: one of them concerns the weird otherness of God, the other with what this story says about how we treat our children.
As to the first. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). In polite traditions like ours, we tend to want everything to be beautiful and rational. We want God to be friendly. We want the stories about God to make sense. Over the years, people like me have done our best to keep the holy at bay, held safely as far away from our hearers as we can. We don’t think you can take it. But domesticating the holy is an impossible task. No matter how desperately preachers try their best to insulate you from it, the divine keeps breaking through. It’s no accident that some backwoods Appalachian Christians call themselves “snake-handlers.” If you keep messing around with God and Jesus, you’re bound to get bit.
The writer I know who best explains this phenomenon is Annie Dillard. This is what she said in her short, sharp, powerful book, Holy the Firm:
I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. (Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, “Day Three”)
For Annie Dillard, sitting in a church is not like sitting in a concert hall. It’s like going to a circus where high-wire acrobats are doing something they used to describe as “death-defying.” You and I go to church as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But as I read stories like the binding of Isaac, it’s clear that churchgoing isn’t natural at all. It’s risky business. It celebrates something powerful, irrational and weird. Most times it should be surprising. Sometimes it can be downright scary. It’s a testament to human ingenuity that we’ve managed, on occasion, to make it dull.
When we try to homogenize the Bible and domesticate God, we end up talking in sentimental, greeting card language. We turn Jesus into Hello Kitty and God into a Care Bear. Now, for the record, I do believe that God loves us and is friendly toward us. I do believe we are all valued, accepted, and loved. But to say that God loves us is not to say that the holy makes rational sense. When I read the Bible not through the lens of doctrine but through the eyes I use to examine the world around me, I have to admit that God and Jesus do and say some really strange things there.
When, in Dillard’s words, we “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we know what we are] doing,” we are kidding ourselves. God is God and we are not. I believe I love God. I believe I try to follow God. But I no longer believe I can understand God or explain God’s behavior with any more authority than you can. God is God and I am not. A story like the binding of Isaac, or the Flood, or the Crucifixion, or the story of Job makes me fall silent before it. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
So if I fall silent before the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, is there something I can take away from it?
Just because a story is hard doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something to say to us. When I search my own life and heart and the state of the world around me, I believe there is. We recoil from this story because it tells us a hard truth about ourselves. It asks that we confront our human tendency to do an ugly thing—to sacrifice our children to our own interests. We live in a culture that is sentimental about children, but that sentimentality masks our shared willingness to sacrifice our children at almost every turn. We send them to dilapidated and dangerous and substandard schools; we subject them to the effects of illness, poverty, and violence far more than we do adults; and we send them off to fight wars that people my age dream up. We talk about children in one way, and we treat them another. If you don’t believe me, just think about the state of the planet we will be handing on to them. Is my freedom to drive a fossil-fueled car and use an electric toothbrush worth subjecting my grandchildren to rising ocean levels, increasingly chaotic weather patterns, and the cycle of drought, flood, and famine that global warming will bring us by the century’s end?
It’s only when I stop kidding myself about my own selfishness, my own tendency to seek my own wellbeing at the expense of even my children, that I can be open to what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel:
Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward.” (Matt. 10:42)
Faced with the hard truth about our shared willingness, with Abraham, to bind Isaac over and over again, Jesus points us once more toward the possibility of generosity and compassion. We will always put ourselves before others. That is what “original sin” means. It is the sad, truth of our nature. But we’re not stuck there, because we can choose to live not like Abraham but like Jesus. We can reach out—to our children, to each other, to the world—with even a cup of cold water. We can assuage our children’s suffering, embrace and love them, make possible their nurture and growth.
Today’s readings ask that we get real about how we will treat our children. Will we lead them up the hill, ready to sacrifice them to keep ourselves safe? Or will we give up some of our own comfort so that they and the world they inherit might have some relation to the one we enjoy? The choice is ours. Abraham failed that choice, but God saved him from it. May God save us from bad choices, and may we have the grace to see the wisdom in serving the littlest ones in God’s name. Amen.