Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 28, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
As we consider why the story of Abraham binding Isaac is included in sacred texts, I believe it helps to consider that the arc of the biblical narrative evolves away from human sacrifice in a post-resurrection community toward the welcome table where we offer our lives to one another as living sacrifice.
Arts & Architecture
The Sacrifice of Isaac
WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia
Chagall's rendering of the biblical account of the sacrifice of Isaac.
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Spirituality & Psychology
I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Watkins' performance of Spiritual, "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table."
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Why is there power in naming reality?
When my niece was in kindergarten, she found herself in the company of a room full of children with a Sunday School teacher who asked, “Can anyone tell us who Abraham is?” Her hand shot up.
The unsuspecting teacher called on her. Hoping, I imagine, for a solid answer such as, “He is the father of the Faith,” or, perhaps, “He is the one through whom God made a great nation.” Instead, what the teacher heard was something like this—“He is the man who banished his wife’s slave and their son to the desert and tried to kill his other son.”
I assure you she had not been coached by my brother or sister-in-law.
I have always valued this family story. My niece, like children can do, named what we often keep quiet. The hard truth.
Our older son recently introduced a made-up word into our family’s lexicon. Unspeakaboutability. It means, simply, the condition of being unnamable.
Today’s story of the sacrifice of Isaac is in this category of unspeakaboutability. Just as are many things in the bible: slavery, torture, war, misogyny, child abuse, to name a few.
We have spoken about this Abraham story across the ages, to be sure. We’ve tamed it and massaged it in every way possible. But what we find hard is to speak about what is actually happening.
The truth is, there is no treatment of this text that satisfies. Nor should there be. Just try for even a moment to imagine being Isaac, or Abraham, or Sarah in this story. It is a nightmare too horrific to tell. It is, simply put, a reality with which we should make no peace.
Perhaps, it is a text we need–precisely because of the terror it reveals. Precisely because there are those among us who have stories too horrific to tell.
I grew up in a land of “unspeakaboutability”—about many things—but most of all about race. No one spoke to me about the wealth gap and redlining. But I saw the evidence every time my parents drove us across North State street and headed West to where the neighborhoods had dirt roads. No one spoke to me about state violence against black lives. But I felt it thick in the air every time I was in public and witnessed interactions that needed no words. No one spoke to me about the fear black people lived with every single day. But I saw it in heads bowed and eyes averted.
These unspeakable realities moved silently yet powerfully through everything we touched where I grew up.
We’ve begun, of late, to experience a new reckoning with unspeakaboutability. Many of us are not very practiced in the art of making the unspeakable named, seen, and understood. Even so, silence is being broken. People are daring to speak hard truths.
Why does it matter to speak about terror, like the sacrifice of Isaac, without apology or revision?
Because what we can speak about, we can change.
As Mr. Rogers said so well to the children among whom he ministered:
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”
When we speak truth, we begin the long journey to back to the welcome table Jesus set for us all, in conditions not so far from ours, where there also existed longstanding oppression of one people by another. It is why the image of welcome we hear in today’s gospel was such a revolutionary concept.
The welcome table Jesus laid is the place where every one of us can receive and give freely.
Yet, we cannot feast together with abandon as long as any of our stories are relegated to the land of unspeakaboutability.
Amid the challenges in these days, there is powerful good news. We are speaking about hard things. We are looking at hard truths. We are acting. It’s messy. It doesn’t always go the way we want it to. But it’s happening.
In Abraham’s day, there was much that was unspeakable. Child sacrifice was not uncommon. French philosopher René Girard asserts that the story of God stopping Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was shared to break the belief that sacrifice was the only way to appease the human appetite for violence.
If Girard is right, then this desperate story of violent sacrifice transcends itself, becoming a story of hope. God stops the violence. Isaac lives.
The sacrifice Jesus made, by giving his life, was not to glorify the cross as a means of appeasing an angry mob. No, it was to show us yet again that we can grow past the worst parts of ourselves. As Archbishop Tutu has said, “Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine.” When it seems no terror is enough to satisfy the human craving for violence, love wins in an empty tomb. Once more, the story transcends itself.
Is it possible that our story, like Abraham’s story on Mt. Moriah, like Jesus’ story at Gethsemane, is transcending itself? Dare we hope? And do we have the courage to be part of transcending such a long story of violence, scapegoats, and oppression—and reach for something different?
Can we imagine the telling of a new story–one where the empty tomb truly is more compelling than the occupied cross? One where welcome is true and substantive, rooted in mutual giving and receiving by all of us, one to another, on solid, equal footing?
If so, there will be nothing about which we cannot speak anymore.
If so, Justice will, at last, roll down like mighty waters.
And we, we will feast together, truly as one, at the welcome table.