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Gifts & Curses


Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac

I am more certain of God’s existence and love for all creation, than I am of my own name.

This is both a blessing and a curse, because we live in a world that is massively confused about holy things. It’s hard to click onto The New York Times website for news, only to be confronted with an ad for someone’s product featuring a picture of Jesus titled, “The God Who Wasn’t There.” What did I do to be confronted with aggressive commercial atheism? All I wanted was the news.

Yes, a lot of people reject the very idea of God, because they don’t like the YHWH of the Old Testament. “He” seems mean and vindictive.

But rejecting God is like rejecting “weather” because it’s raining right now. It just doesn’t make any sense. Rain is good and so is God, but lots of folks don’t see it that way.

Understanding the God of the Old Testament takes a lifetime of study, but here’s a shortcut: the mean vindictiveness is attributed to God by the human scripture writers, and not the way God really is.

Once you plumb those ancient writings, built up over centuries by human editors like layer on layer of lava rock, the God underneath is invariably loving, redemptive and just. Invariably!

Context is everything. You can’t just break out a Bible passage and understand it on its face. You have to start with the ignorant humans. We’re the ones who are mean and vindictive, not God. God is constantly revealing “himself” to be someone else entirely.

(God is not male or female, but for ease of communicating I will use traditional pronouns referring to God as “he” sometimes. Then I’ll undermine that tradition. You can follow along easily enough.)

There is no contradiction, instead plenty of agreement, between the Old Testament and the New, but people like Jesus a lot more than his Father. Jesus is all about love, and that’s one of his main contributions to human thought.

Therefore any Bible study ought to begin with Jesus, not Genesis. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest account of Jesus’s life and ministry, is the place to start. Then you can elaborate from there.

You don’t have to accept any of the miracles of Mark’s Gospel at first; it may be better not to evaluate them, but just watch the story like you would any other TV show.

Most people conclude that Jesus is a very good man.

He says some hard things at times, some confusing things; but then, he spoke in parables, because he knew we’d never figure out everything he was talking about. He was trying to teach the poor ignorant humans. He had great compassion for us, which is why he went around to meet us so often and show us the path to heaven.

He knew some people would never get it; people can’t be what they can’t see, which is why he made his works so visible. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. And a lot of times a person is a horse’s ass.

Miracles or no, the “greatest story every told” concerns a man who willingly laid down his life for his friends.

Do you know about Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain who was killed on 9/11? Same story.

Surely you know about Mother Teresa; same story.

Joan of Arc? Same story. We admire people who sacrifice for the benefit of others; they are heroes.

Jesus said, This is the way to live.

No other faith has such a story, which is why Christianity is at least a superior philosophy. If need be, give up your life for the ones you love.

(Also, avoid that if you don’t have to do it; Jesus died once for all, and God doesn’t need us to repeat it.)

What have LGBT activists done these past 40 years since Stonewall, but run the risk of giving up their lives on behalf of the rest of us?

Same story. And man, that speaks powerfully to me. Every right Gay people currently enjoy in the United States derives from the courageous risk-taking of ordinary Lesbians, Gay men and Transgenders. (Bisexuals haven’t contributed that much that I’ve seen, with one or two exceptions.)

For that matter, the American Revolution is the same story; courageous risk-takers. Same with the Civil War fight to end human slavery; same with World War II against fascism and genocide.

Be prepared to die for the ones you love. That’s how we should live our lives according to Jesus. Everything else flows out of that; charity, peacemaking, the love of God.

Today I have no problem with the miracles of Jesus; I believe them. Today I have no problem with the seemingly contradictory and arbitrary demands of the Old Testament God. Underneath those violent stories is a consistent, gentle, faithful love for humankind, despite our unworthiness.

We’re the ones who are mean and hateful, but with humility we can grow up to become our full selves. And Jesus shows us how.

I wish that every member of the Episcopal Church, and every Christian, could receive the teaching I’ve been given, a way of looking at Scripture that opens it up, that allows questioning, that welcomes different points of view, because no one knows everything, and Jesus has promised that understanding results from the shared examination of the community.

But I received an amazing education from four Church Army people, Ervin Faulkenberry, Howard E. Galley, Jr., Brooke Bushong and Tom Tull. Few people have been luckier than I’ve been that way.

I wish I were as good an educator as they were for me. Unfortunately I’m not. But I will leave you with this “revelation” of one of the most difficult stories in the Old Testament, the sacrifice of Isaac.

It starts 5000 years ago with Abraham, whom God identified as the most open, righteous man on earth; his openness was important, because God decided to reveal himself to this guy. If Abraham weren’t open to see and hear God, and overcome his fears of encountering the divine, no amount of talking and showing would have worked. But God chose well.

Abraham and his wife Sarah lived in a time when humans didn’t have a clue how the world worked. Anthropology shows they were just as smart as we are, but they lacked our science and technology. In their world, if good things happened, it must have been because “the gods” who controlled everything were mysteriously happy that day. If bad things happened (tornadoes, earthquakes, death), it must have been because the gods were displeased and wrought vengeance. That’s what everyone thought.

Nonsense, God said. “There aren’t any other gods but me; I’m the only one. I don’t do vengeance, I don’t make people die. These awful events are simply a consequence of life itself; there isn’t any life without death, or the world would get too crowded and death would kill the life. You’re mortals, but your spirit can live forever.

“I love you, that’s why I made you. I want you people to learn how to treat each other; do that and we’ll actually get somewhere.”

And Abraham said, “Okay. I’m listening.”

Thus did the Jews discover monotheism and a rational, loving God. That’s why Abraham is the father of all three Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam; he realized there’s only one God, who makes perfect sense if we’ll only listen.

So far, so good. God said, “I will make you the father of a great nation. You will be my people and I will be your God.”

Abraham thought of a problem; “My wife and I are too old to have kids.”

“I can fix that,” God said. “Watch this.”

Sarah got pregnant and Abraham believed; “this God can do anything.”

She had a son named Isaac. He was a little hellraiser, but overall a good boy who sometimes listened to his parents, which is about all a mom and dad can expect.

One day when Isaac was 12, like the months of a year, God told Abraham, “Next lesson. It’s time to sacrifice this child.”

Abraham was perplexed; how was he going to become the father of nations if his only son got killed? “Uh, Lord, we got a problem here.”

“I know, but do it anyway,” God said. “Trust me.”

See, in the days of ignorance, the gods were always having to be appeased with human sacrifice. People considered the gods bloodthirsty, because when bad things happened, it must be because people sinned, and the only way to stop the disaster was to give the gods a dozen virgins. How else could people explain an earthquake? They didn’t know squat about tectonic plates. Science was not their forte, so sacrifice was the best they could come up with. (In some religions the gods then had sex with the victims. Religion was as crazy as the rest of life.)

So Abraham, who knew this God was the real One, reluctantly did as he was told. He tied Isaac to an altar to slit his throat. But as soon as Abraham did that, with his knife poised in the air, God stopped him. “Stop! Don’t even think about it!”

Abraham said, “What? You told me to.”

“For a reason, dude. I wanted us both to see that you would do what I said, even if it sounds crazy. You obeyed me! I can’t teach you anything if you don’t obey me—just like you can’t teach your son anything unless you first get his attention. See?”

“You don’t want Isaac’s blood?”

“Heck no! You think I made him so you could kill him? How crazy is that?”

“I should let him go then?”

“Yes, untie him. I’m about freedom, not death. And understand something hugely important: no more baby-killing!”

Thus did the Hebrews abolish human sacrifice—one of the great divine revelations of all time.

That was the lesson God taught Abraham. But first he had to get his attention.

Abraham loved Isaac and never forgot the lesson. Isaac grew up still raising some hell, but he knew he belonged to God.

See, it’s a loving story after all. God sets up a teachable moment, then pulls a switcheroo. But you’ve got to plumb the depths of the story to get it. God wasn’t manipulating Abraham, he was teaching him.

All the Bible stories are that way. You know full well it takes a miracle to advance human progress in the way of love. So why are the Bible stories, and the God they speak about, so mysterious to you?

I’ve come to trust God, and when the Bible stories don’t make sense to me, I keep digging.

For the Big Message for today’s era, which is God’s revelation about Gay men, see Luke 7:1-10, the Healing of the Centurion’s Beloved Slave, which follows hot on the heels of God’s revelation of the Divine Feminine and the abolition of slavery.

God is a liberator, not some mean son of a bitch. We’re the bastards, not her. Unfortunately, we’re about as spiritually sophisticated in 2009 as the ancients were as they contemplated earthquakes, before the discovery of tectonic plates.

God is everything you hope she would be, if only we learn how to live (self-sacrifice) and trust that Overwhelming Love knows more than we do, and thus deserves our following.

Meanwhile, her current themes are race, gender and sex, and 2000 years ago Jesus healed the Roman soldier’s beloved slaveboy.++


Sir Stanley Spencer: Healing of the Centurion’s Servant

7 Responses

  1. Same story. And man, that speaks powerfully to me. Every right Gay people currently enjoy in the United States derives from the courageous risk-taking of ordinary Lesbians, Gay men and Transgenders. (Bisexuals haven’t contributed that much that I’ve seen, with one or two exceptions.)

    One thinks that you’re probably not looking in the right places, then. Suggest opening eyes wider.

  2. Okay, I’ll change it. Bisexuals have contributed virtually nothing.

  3. Hey Josh, thanks for sharing your thoughts…
    I cracked up at Mary Sue’s comment… your post was about God’s love and all she saw was your comment on bisexuals : )

    Your theology is super liberal… way way more liberal than mine, but you are right on about God’s patient and abundant love for us.

    Thanks once again for your post!

  4. I forgot to ask where in Luke 7:1-10 is there a revelation about gay men?


  5. Ironic, Clive, I’m actually theologically conservative; the Creeds, the Real Presence, physical resurrection and glorious ascension. I’d think my biggest difference from you might be the Gay stuff, which is pretty minor in the grand scheme of salvation, though it’s front and center right now.

    You can disagree with me about the healing of the Centurion’s slaveboy; the evidence is indirect and is based on other uses in the ancient Greek of the word we translate as servant or slave. A certain percentage of the time it’s used to indicate a sexual-romantic relationship, and at other times it’s not.

    So what do we have here on the surface? It’s a bit of a love story, as the Centurion goes to great lengths to solicit Jesus’s intervention for this dying servant he loved. (NRSV: “whom he valued highly.”) He even protects Jesus from suffering ritual impurity by coming under a Gentile’s roof. The Centurion is a righteous Gentile who built the synagogue in Capernaum; he’s able to get Jewish elders to solicit Jesus. The climax of the story is the Centurion’s recognition of Christ’s authority. It’s a story much loved by soldiers, cops and their friends.

    Here’s the thing: we cannot know 2000 years later the exact nature of the relationship between the Centurion and his servant.

    We know that we can’t go looking for commentary on Gay rights when this category didn’t even exist in human knowledge at the time of writing, any more than we can expect to find astronomy lessons in the Bible. Knowledge is progressive; human secular knowledge and our knowledge of God.

    The fact that the Gay category didn’t exist can’t mean, though, that Gay people didn’t exist; The anthropological record is simply too strong, on every continent, in every time period. Gay guys have a way of finding each other, even without a vocabulary to describe themselves.

    If Cornelius and the slave he “very much valued” (For what? His computational ability or his warmth and generosity?) were in fact lovers, the structure of their relationship, one with more power, one with less, makes sense to modern Gay men, and perhaps to every Gay guy there ever was.

    Regardless, a Gay guy reading this passage can begin to glimpse something extremely important to him, whether it’s relevant to Cornelius or not. Because the principal internal conflict we have as Gay individuals is between our own relationship with God, which is deeply loving and “accepting,” and what other people say God says about Gays. If our experience of God is correct, wouldn’t there be some evidence of it hidden in the ancient record?

    And yes, it’s all over the place, including Luke 7, once we open our eyes to find it.

    To most people Bible study reveals layer upon layer of meaning, a magnificent story of salvation, every word and detail there for a reason (even the begats, which should have been written as a list, not prose). The text is so rich with detail that it can have one meaning to one reader and something quite different to another. I recently had a gentle argument with a prominent priest about this; he does not comprehend the Sacrifice of Isaac, which I think is a crucial turning point in the story of salvation.

    When we need comfort, and we often do, we can find it almost everywhere we look. Meaning can change from one cultural context to another; dark-skinned people may find a great deal of encouragement when God’s own darkness is held up. The same passage (God leading Israel in a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night) might appear to white Americans as a Cecil B. Demille set piece, because we don’t have the same need to know that God loves the darkness.

    When modern Gay people find comfort in David and Jonathan or Naomi and Ruth, it’s no surprise that Straight people whip right past that. Some try to explain it away, censor it or shout it down; we can’t be surprised that they never saw us in the Bible, because until recently they never saw us in real life.

    (Besides, especially in English-speaking places, they built up a tremendous system of heterosexist privileges for themselves. When you’re an overwhelming majority you can easily vote yourselves every kind of tax break.)

    So I don’t mind if you don’t see a vivid, passionate, all-male love story in Luke 7. Just don’t tell me it can’t be there; you don’t get to decide that.

    Fundamentalist Christians (and Roman Catholic bishops) are doing the Church a tremendous disservice by demonizing Gay people and making God an angry tyrant. The public looks at us and realizes we’re not demons at all. The ones who seem more like demons are the angry preachers.

    We should have seen back in Exodus that God is a liberator of whole societies. In nearer history we’ve seen the abolition of slavery, the independence of scores of nations from colonialism, the destruction of apartheid, and the freedom of a woman to wear pants and go to school if she wants. If God now wants to liberate LGBTs, we can’t possibly do a thing to stop her.

    And as that comes about, the meaning of scripture will start to align more publicly with what we’ve always known in our hearts.

    Let’s say Jesus knew exactly what he was walking into in Capernaum, a full-blown love affair, and healed the Centurion’s slaveboy exactly as desired. Do we think the Son of God didn’t know about Gay people? Or did he know it was too early in human history to reveal the whole truth?

    The story is primarily about liberating the Gentiles; if it’s also about liberating Gay people from violence, God would be awfully clever, no?

    Gayness came into being at the same moment as life itself; it’s inherent in creating a system of sexual reproduction by two genders. Of course there would be a certain number of individuals who don’t follow the norm, because variation is built into life. So God’s known about Gayness this entire time. It is ridiculous to believe that God sent a Son to preach love, and then turned around and condemned a few variant individuals for doing what comes naturally.

  6. I’m sure Isaac laughed the whole thing off just as God and Abraham did.

    If, when a child was twelve, his father was instructed by someone to kill him, and the child was tied up in preparation, all for sport (to make an “example”), I should think both adults fairly contemptible.

  7. The above comment was brought to us by one of the brilliant lawyers at Kempner Robinson, an intellectual property firm in Leeds, England, probably on company time. Not much business there, one imagines.

    Josh Thomas

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