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“CHURCHING IT UP”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, June 26, 2011
Everybody tries to church this story up. That’s a phrase, by the way, that I heard about a month ago after a Major League Baseball game. It seems that one of the players hit a prodigious, game-winning home run and after the game, sports beat reporters were approaching him for an interview.
The player, having expended every last bit of hitting power into the homer, told the reporter that he refused to “church it up.” A curious phrase, “churching it up.” It means to minimize the feat, to make light of it, to fill the air with false humility, as if he could have hit the ball a lot further.
But I refuse to church this story up. God has promised Abraham a son, even though he and his wife are well over 80. Sarah laughs. Nine months later, she’s not laughing any more. It’s a boy! His name is Isaac, which means “laughter.” He’s supposed to be the one who will, in turn, father a great nation.
But the plot thickens. Now, it seems, God wants Abraham to kill his son, to make him a burnt offering. And just as Abraham is ready to skewer Isaac with a knife, an angel intervenes. Turns out, God is just testing Abraham. Surprise!
Now, biblical commentators have spent thousands of years trying to church that story up. “Sure, it’s legitimate,” they write. “God is just testing….It wasn’t as if He’d really let Abraham do it.” Followed by knowing looks. Wink, wink. Nod, nod. Well, that’s in restrospect. Unfortunately, Abraham didn’t have that luxury. He really thought that he’d have to kill his son.
At first blush, it looks like God is being sadistic, even if He never intended for Isaac to be killed. Or, at worst, immoral. I mean, what kind of God would have a father kill his son as a test of his father’s faith? What about the kid? Well, the sagacious theologians drone, God is omniscient and we aren’t, so it’s best if we don’t question God’s motives. Playing the mystery card is a well-practiced way out of any theological dilemma.
One other feckless little technique is to universalize Isaac and make him a straw man for other kinds of things that we clutch to: money, job, you name it. When I heard the title of one such sermon – “What is YOUR Isaac?” – I thought I knew exactly who needed sacrificing.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is what it is. It could be that the apologists are right – that the story is the author’s way of saying that faith in the One God has superceded the pagan religions that required a sacrifice of the first born son to the gods. Or maybe he’s just testing to see if Abraham is worthy to be the father of a great nation. But again, what about the kid?
The fact is, God seems to get a total pass on this one. Biblical commentators always tend to church this story up, to idealize God. But theology isn’t the only place where people church things up, where euphemisms are the currency of the day. Folks in the funeral industry can attest to this. Nigel Barley, author of the book, Grave Matters, calls attention to the onslaught of euphemisms used in both obits and funeral homilies.
People who, in their lifetimes, were ill-tempered and opinionated are eulogized by saying that they didn’t suffer fools gladly. The narrow-minded are “focused” and “dedicated.” The promiscuous are celebrated as people who “gave generously of themselves.” People who were prideful and self-centered had, instead, “a strong sense of personal identity.” I could go on….
We church up lots of things and feed them to our children. Barry Moser, writing in Cross Currents, talks about this tendency in fairy tales. The big bad wolf huffs and puffs and blows down the houses of two little pigs. The pigs who had unwisely built their security of ephemera -- straw and sticks. And as a result of their ill-contrived folly, the Wolf eats them.
Or so he does in the edition that Barry himself illustrated. In one scene, we see the Wolf, resting, full-bellied amidst the ruin and rubble of his gluttony, wiping his sated mouth with the late pig's blue kerchief. We can feel a nap about to come over him as he kicks back in a landscape strewn with sticks, a bucket of picked-clean bones, a roll of paper towels, and empty jars of spicy, "no-cook" barbecue sauces.
This telling is taken from the classic unsanitized version of the tale, the one where the first two pigs are eaten and the wolf prevails -- that is, until the end of the story when his improvidence and gluttony drive him to plunge down the chimney of the third pig's brick house and he becomes not merely scalded, but the main ingredient of a garlicky wolf-stew.
We church up Bible stories on a regular basis and feed them to our kids, calling them, “children’s Bible stories.” Take Noah’s Ark, for example. What illustrations do you remember? The animals, of course, going into the Ark, two-by-two. How cute. Or maybe it’s the picture of a dove, portending dry land. How nice. Just once I’d like to see a children’s book illustrator sketch millions of bodies – humans and animals – gasping for breath, their eyes bulging, dying in the biggest genocide the world has ever known.
[Barry Moser] Flannery O'Connor once said that moral judgments are part of the very act of seeing and that everything has its testing point in the eye. And so we must use our eyes, our senses, to experience fully the mysterious mix of dark and light in the pages of the Bible. Too many readers of Holy Writ have shied away from the violence and difficulties of the real text and instead of wrestling with the terrible and eternal verities that are within its pages, have fed us "Bible Lite." A marrowless version sanitized of pointed meaning and significance that is fit only for pallid minds, a watery substitute for the real thing -- a wolf merely scalded, not the main ingredient of a garlicky wolf-stew.
There’s an alternative to churching it up, of course. And that is to reject, out of hand, any notion of God that does not conform to the God presented to us in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the lens through whom we see the world. He portrays a God who loves you more than you love yourself, a God who goes to the mat for you. A self-emptying God who would rather die himself than put you in harm’s way.
I imagine that kind of God as a grieving God, a Listening God who empathizes with you. It would be the grieving Father portrayed in Billy Collins’ poem, “The Listener”:
I cannot see you a thousand miles from here,
But I can hear you
Whenever you cough in your bedroom
Or when you set down
Your wineglass on a granite counter.
I even heard scissors moving
At the tips of your hair
And the dark snips falling
Onto a marble floor.
I keep the jazz
On the radio turned off.
I walk across the floor softly,
The windows in the house shut tight.
I hear a motor on the road in front,
A plane humming overhead,
Then there is nothing
But the white stone building of silence.
You must be asleep
For it to be this quiet,
So I will sit and wait
For the rustle of your blanket
Or a noise from your dream.
Meanwhile, I will listen to the ant bearing
A dead comrade
Across these floorboards –
The noble sounds
Of his tread and his low keening.