Monday, June 27, 2011

Tested: Sudan, Abraham, Us

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

The worldwide Anglican Communion has been called to make today a day of fasting and prayer for the people of Sudan. The timing of this call relates to several things. July 9th will mark the official separation of southern Sudan from the north. In these days leading up to that milestone, United Nations commissioners are making strategic decisions that will affect the transition, and UN peacekeepers are being put in place to monitor that transition. All of this is against a background of growing tension over unresolved disputes, not the least of which is who owns the oil that lie below the land, especially along the border between north and south.

So we shall pray, and at least symbolically honor the call to back up prayer with fasting by serving at our coffee hour today only that cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. That may seem such a token effort, but let it remind us that we are in fact one global family: how the independence of Southern Sudan gets realized matters to all people, as does the resolution of disputed land, and oil, and water, and human rights, in all places.

What is being tested in Sudan is what can be built of hope and courage and a passionate desire for those basic freedoms that we in this country will recall and gratefully celebrate in just a few short days. Perhaps if we pay attention to what July 9th means to the people of Sudan, we will find our July 4th observance more meaningful than ever.

Elizabeth Williams tells me that displaced southerners—like Anglican Deaconess Mother Raile Daffala, who visited us years ago and gave us this powerfully apostolic bowl that keeps gathering our gifts for the world—as she and her extended family and the millions of southern Sudanese who have fled the violence in their homeland now consider returning, they face the grim fact that there is virtually nothing there. It is said that in an area as large as Alaska, not a building remains standing. Roads are in severe disrepair, agriculture disrupted, institutions gone.

This moment in the lives of displaced southerners is not so much an entrance into the promised land as it is their standing in the shoes of ancient Abraham and Sarah, hearing the call to leave whatever they now have and set out on a desert journey into the unknown. This is not exiled Israel returning to its homeland with the blessings of the government where they had resettled; northern Sudan is hostile to division. Nor is it in the mold of our own revolutionary story, patriot farmers and tradesmen and established householders defending their homesteads from tyranny: the people of south Sudan have little, and those who will return will return to nothing but the land and its resources, their rights, and their responsibilities. And, they trust, the support of the free world.

What can be built will be found through the testing of these days and months and years.

In our first lesson today, a famous, even infamous, passage, Abraham is being tested.

The Bible trains us to think of Abraham and Sarah as pioneers, founding figures like George and Martha Washington, representatives of the new. But in fact Abraham and Sarah also represent the truly ancient. They go back to times when people believed they were required to ritually sacrifice their children to ensure the success of some great venture or the security of a new settlement or the building of a new defense tower.

We could hear this difficult story as telling how Abraham’s obedience to God was being tested on that mountain, whether Abraham valued, loved, feared God enough, with an undivided heart, enough that he would follow through with this dreadful call to sacrifice his only child, whether Abraham believed and trusted God enough to keep taking one desperate step after another up that grim path. Another way of seeing this testing is that God was designing an experiment to learn if Abraham was ready to sever himself from that primitive culture of child-sacrifice, and so prove himself worthy of his being chosen to lead God’s yet greater experiment of forming the heart of a nation to listen for and treasure the mind and will of God.

This second way of hearing this grim story is reinforced by the unmistakable message that it is Abraham’s obedience that is being tested. Obedience to what? To the prevailing culture of the day, or to the mind and will of God? At the root of our word obey is a form of the Latin “audire”, to hear. To what is Abraham listening? What message is he hearing?

By the story’s end, he hears and finds the good news of the free gift of God. An unfortunate ram caught by its horns in a thorn thicket provides the life that is to be sacrificed. The demanding nature of God that drove him up that mountain is transfigured, revealed to be a gracious nature that in and of itself provides the way to freedom and new life. This outcome is so close to the heart of the Christian Gospel that this story is one of those appointed for use at the Easter Vigil, when the Church catches its breath at how far God goes on our behalf: in Christ God is the sacrificed victim. The earth shakes on Good Friday not as special effect, but as sign of the profound shakedown of the old order as the new creation takes hold and fills the void.

Poets have taken an interest in this story of transition between old and new. Delmore Schwartz in his poem “Abraham” has the patriarch say,

“…the boy (Isaac) was born and grew and I saw
What I had known, I knew what I had seen, for he
Possessed his mother’s beauty and his father’s humility,
And was not marked and marred by her sour irony and my endless anxiety.

Then the angel returned, asking that I surrender
My son as a lamb to show that humility
Still lived in me, and was not altered by age and prosperity.

I said nothing, shocked and passive. Then I said but to myself alone:
‘This was to be expected. These promises
Are never unequivocal or unambiguous, in this
As in all things which are desired the most:
I have had great riches and great beauty.
I cannot expect the perfection of every wish
And If I deny the command, who knows what will happen?’”

That’s as far as I’ll read—enough to suggest this poet’s view of Abraham cynically arguing himself into an obedience that sounds superstitious… not a high view of a hero. More like a self-interested man, a frightened man.

Our hearts are with Isaac, as the story goes dark around him. He was rescued from death, but not from trauma. That is caught in a poem by another 20th-century American, Bink Noll:

“When Isaac watched his father strain back
the ram’s head, its throat separate and bleed,
evisceration, and fat turn to smoke,

not he had heard any angel speak
but felt sharply where the rope still cut,
how his own neck cracked, his own flesh burned…

Then the poet appears to say in his own voice,

“How we sons lay awake to ponder
the misery of such divided men
to whom the patriarchal lies come true.

My son shall not watch me in a fury
of faith take fire to the altar where
I sacrifice nothing I cherish.

Then, as premonition and description of what the poet dreads,

“He may feel my hands grab like priest hands,
his eyes may die in the brightness
that I have meant obedience entire.

So much I walked with my mad Abraham.”

I think we’re meant to catch the message that, as indignant as it makes us, we are not above repeating what this poet calls the madness of Abraham.

One last poet drives this home, Wilfred Owen, himself a sacrificial victim in World War I, about which he writes in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Owens imagines Abraham failing the test, refusing to listen, perpetuating the violence. And this Abraham is the governing power of each war-making nation that refuses to sacrifice its own pride.

No wonder we struggle with this story. It puts us squarely in the ancient sandals of Abraham.

We have seen how he is tested. How the peoples of Sudan are tested. We all are tested, day by day, to see what can be built of us, by us, set upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. May it be a holy temple acceptable to God, shaped not by prevailing culture but by the mind and will of God that we are called to hear.

(The poems quoted can be found in Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible, Volume 1, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder, published by Oxford University Press, 1993)