A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
A Sermon for Pentecost 6
June 26, 2005
The Rev. John L. Kirkley, St. John’s, San Francisco
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt. 10: 40). Amen.
In Jewish tradition the story of God testing Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, is known simply as the Akidah, the “binding.” This refers of course to Abraham’s binding of Isaac and placing him upon the altar to be sacrificed. On another level, however, I think it refers also to the binding of Abraham’s conscience. Abraham faces a terrible double bind in this story: he is asked to choose between his relationship with God and his relationship with his son. At its heart, this is a story about binding and unbinding, about how God works to unbind our conscience and set us free to receive the gift that God has promised us.
Those of us who are gay or lesbian can readily understand what it means to have a bound conscience. We know the dilemma: choose between your relationship with God and your sexual orientation. As James Alison has noted, this gets expressed in many ways. He writes that
A bound conscience is a sense of being formed by a double bind or a series of double binds. For instance: ‘My command is that you should love, but your love is sick’; or ‘You should just go away and die, but it is forbidden to kill yourself’; or ‘The only acceptable way for me to live is a celibate life, but if they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t allow me to join’; or ‘Of course you can join, but you mustn’t say who you really are’; or ‘You cannot be gay, but you must be honest.’
. . . In other words, two instructions are received as on the same level as each other, pointing in two different directions at once, and the result is paralysis.
There is perhaps no better example of such binding than John Smid, Director of Love In Action, an “ex-gay” ministry, who offers the following words of advice to the teenagers in his reparative therapy program, Camp Refuge: “I would rather you commit suicide than have you leave Love In Action wanting to return to the gay lifestyle.” How is that for a double-bind? “I love you, you’re better off dead.”
The story of Zach, a sixteen year-old whose parents committed him involuntarily to Camp Refuge, demonstrates the result of such “love” in action. Zack entered the camp earlier this month, but managed to blog about his experience. In his last post online, one week after his incarceration at Camp Refuge, he wrote the following:
My mother has said the worst things to me for three days straight . . . three days. I went numb. That's the only way I can get through this . . . I pray this blows over. I can't take this . . . no one can . . . not really, this kind of thing tears you apart emotionally . . . I'm not a suicidal person . . . really I'm not . . . I think it's stupid - really. But . . . I can't help it, no I’m not going to commit suicide, all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible. This is what it's doing to me . . . I have this horrible feeling all of the time . . .
This is the kind of paralysis that results from the binding of one’s conscience: as Zack put it, “I went numb.” Peter Toscano, a graduate of Love In Action, describes this binding as a “biblically induced coma, with a toxic mixture of fear and shame.” Peter’s “treatment” included a mock-funeral for a 19 year-old fellow member of the program. “We actually laid him out on the table,” says Peter, “so we could talk about what a shame [it was that] he didn’t live his life right.”
I imagine this young man laid out on the table, much like Isaac, a victim about to be sacrificed on the altar. When our conscience is bound by double-binds, the very possibility of life, much less abundant life, is sacrificed. We become complicit in our own victimization. We lie down on the table and pretend we are dead. It is easy to be scandalized by this state of affairs, to find it a stumbling block to our ability to accept either that God loves us or that we can experience authentic love with anyone else. How can we possibly trust God’s promises to us when we are paralyzed by such double binds as: “I love you, you’re better off dead?”
Now this is precisely the sort of situation in which Abraham finds himself in the story of the Akidah, the binding of Isaac. What I want to suggest this morning is that, at its heart, this “text of terror” is really about the undoing of our conception of God as terrible, as one who places double-binds upon us. The heart of the story is the unbinding of Isaac, and the unbinding of Abraham’s conscience. This story marks the dawning of an understanding of God that leads directly to the prophet Micah’s insight that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and culminates in the astonishing words of Jesus that “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
The story of the Akidah begins at a place where many of us may find ourselves in our own faith journeys: struggling with a seemingly divinely imposed double-bind. Abraham is being tested by God to determine whether or not Abraham will be faithful in his relationship with God. The double-bind takes the form: trust me, sacrifice your son.
In Abraham’s case, this is an especially vicious double bind: remember that God’s promised blessing to Abraham takes the specific form of offspring, of his being father to what will become a mighty nation, Israel, which will itself become the vehicle of divine blessing for the whole world. Isaac is the fulfillment of that promise. Abraham is being asked to sacrifice the tangible, beloved blessing that he holds in his hand, for which he has uprooted himself and struggled through many hardships to receive.
Now, putting aside for the moment speculation about the nature of God and what kind of God would test someone in this way, I ask you to risk the vulnerability of acknowledging that we all experience ourselves as undergoing such testing: of struggling to unbind our conscience caught between irreconcilable imperatives that challenge our faith, whether or
not such double-binds come from God. My mother tells of being a Roman Catholic schoolgirl, crying at night because she was sure that her Protestant friends were going to hell. Her conscience was trapped in a double-bind that took the form: love your neighbor, God condemns your neighbor to hell. We all have such stories. We can all relate to Abraham’s dilemma, whether we are Abraham or Isaac, whether we are the Roman Catholic schoolgirl or her Protestant friends.
Today the Episcopal Church is struggling with a double-bind that takes the form: remain in the Anglican Communion, denounce gay and lesbian people. We are being asked to choose between maintaining the church’s unity and affirming the dignity of every human being, as if these are mutually exclusive terms. It seems that throughout history, from Abraham until now, someone is always trying to bind our conscience, to test us to see whether or not we are worthy of God’s promised blessing. Is this someone God? How should we respond to this state of affairs?
Notice how Abraham responded. When told to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering, Abraham says nothing. He simply backed his bags, took his son and two servants, and set out for the place in the distance that God had shown him. He did not engage in argument, he was not defensive, he felt no need to justify himself. He held his promised blessing close to his heart, and walked right through the middle of the double-bind.
Abraham refused to accept the terms of the dilemma: trust me, sacrifice your son, even though he couldn’t see a way out of it – yet. The turning point of the story is Abraham’s conversation with the young men and with Isaac once they arrive at Moriah, the place of sacrifice. He tells the young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” That God would require him to sacrifice Isaac is never really an issue for Abraham. They will worship God together: Abraham cannot conceive of communion with God coming at the cost of communion with Isaac anymore than we can conceive of communion with God coming at the cost of communion with lesbian and gay people.
Then Isaac asks an innocent, heart wrenching question, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham gently replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” “God will provide” – a more literal rendering of the original Hebrew would be “God himself already sees the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” God sees what Abraham and Isaac cannot see, or sees already what they will come to see only later – that God requires mercy, not sacrifice. God has nothing to do with the binding of our conscience. God has everything to do with the unbinding of our conscience, and already sees a way out of the double-bind before we do.
The irony of this story is that the testing of Abraham, horrible on its face, is not about Isaac per se, but rather about God testing Abraham to see if he believes that God is testing him! In other words, how will Abraham respond to the double-bind? Will he become the victim or the executioner? Or will he trust that God already sees another possibility, providing a way to unbind Abraham’s conscience?
What is so remarkable about Abraham’s response is his absolute confidence in God’s mercy, and his complete willingness to trust what he cannot know or control. God sees what Abraham cannot see, and Abraham is willing to turn over to God’s care that which he cannot resolve on his own. Abraham is able to relax into God’s love, trusting God’s promise even when the fulfillment of that promise seems on the verge of being taken away. At the same time, God places enormous confidence in Abraham, depending upon him to act responsibly with the gift he has been given, the wonderful promise of Isaac that has been entrusted to him for the blessing of the whole world.
A Christian reading of this Jewish story sees another meaning in Abraham’s statement: “God already sees the lamb for a burnt offering.” That lamb is Jesus Christ, who died refusing to accept the double-binds placed upon people by religious and political authorities, and whose resurrection releases us from the burden of those double-binds. Jesus demonstrates in his life, death, and new life that God comes to unbind our conscience, to set us free to receive the promised blessing of abundant life without any preconditions.
It is not that we must change in order to receive God’s love, but rather that, having accepted that love, we will be transformed in ways that we could not possibly imagine. We, like Abraham, have been entrusted with a promise, a gift whereby we may become a blessing to the whole world. That gift is our identity as beloved children of God, bearer’s of God’s presence and blessing. Resting in God’s love, we can offer our gift with confidence and joy.
As we mark lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender freedom day, the true freedom that we celebrate is the unbinding of consciences burdened by those who would say to us: “I love you, you’re better off dead” and “God loves you, you cannot be yourself.” In response to such diabolical double binds, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Amen.
 James Alison, “unbinding the gay conscience” in On Being Liked (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), p. 103.
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