Fear and Trembling
By Charles Rush
February 20, 2005
Genesis 22: 1-14
have just entered the season of Lent. I've never appreciated the idea of giving something up for Lent as a kind of test of your self-discipline. It is fine, as far as it goes, but just not very profound spiritually. But the concept of Lent is actually quite important because it helps us develop some of the spiritual skills we will need to negotiate the flash floods and torrential currents that will happen to us at some point in our life.
I've picked a
very difficult text this morning. When Soren Kierkegaard wrote a reflection on
this text and on the flash floods of our lives, he titled it "Fear and
Trembling". He starts the book with 5 different reflections on what was
going through Abraham's mind when this event took place that he very nearly
killed his son. He says that heard this story ever since he was a little boy
and the older he got the more horrifying and impenetrable the story came to be.
That would be my interpretation as well.
after you have children, you have to ask yourself, what was he thinking that he
thought that sacrificing his child would be a good idea, an idea that he could
in any way embrace at all. I think it was Bill Cosby who noted that it is not
accidental that Abraham was old and Isaac was a teenage boy when this trip took
place. Cosby's father was fond of reminding him, "I brought you into the
world… I can take you out." There is probably not a father anywhere who
hasn't thought this to himself.
humor aside, it is helpful to know that in the surrounding cultures, the
practice of child sacrifice was regular. This is hard to interiorize
spiritually. When I was on sabbatical, I took the short ride from the southern
shores of Sicily to the island of Motya. It was a colony of Carthage. These are the same people that
lived all around Abraham. The bible calls them Canaanites, but they are
ethnically, socially, and politically the same people. They were the first
advanced sea people, so this colony off Sicily was on a small island off shore, to
maximize their naval superiority.
The ruins have
been half way excavated. Of particular note is the graveyard which I had come
to visit. We have unearthed a pediatric graveyard there. It is full of urns,
some 400 of them. They are filled with the remains of children that were
sacrificed to the god Molech. In the small museum at the site, they have a few
of the urns and the remains from inside. I had come from a fairly long way away
just to see this, partly to try to make some sense of this story. They were
mostly infants. It is one of those moments standing in that museum over the
graveyard, when you stop being just an archeologist, stop being an impassive
observer of history, and you stand in tragic silence, wondering… just how this
came to pass.
There is the
suffering of the children… the loss of their innocent life… And a certain
pathos for the community too. You just wonder what horror happened to the
people that they thought that this is so bad, that the only way to appease the
wrath of the gods is to make this supreme sacrifice. And make no mistake, it
was as difficult for them as it would be for us.
We have also
discovered in some of the urns, the remains of cats or dogs. At the last
minute, the parents in their primal protection of their children, drew back and
surreptitiously replaced their child with the family pet, probably sending
their child away, perhaps not to see for years, maybe ever, so that they might
There is one
comment on our text by a Rabbi from several hundred years ago, who asked the
question, what the Angel said to Abraham. He has the Angel adding a couple
words "Stop killing your children". That would make this text a
polemic against the religions around Israel and perhaps it is, but we cannot
know for sure.
So as a
pastor, standing at that grave site in Motya, saying some prayers because it
was the thing to do, I was just overcome at how tragic and sad it has been that
people could actually believe that God could be so angry with them that such a
drastic and horrible thing would be contemplated, let alone acted on.
I would like
to exonerate God right now but that is another sermon. We might have legitimate
questions about whether or not God would test us in this way. But this text is
still important and we cannot flee from it too quickly because life does test
us in this way and that is the profound spiritual reality that Lent tries to
prepare us to deal with.
people saw hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, they said quite
simply, "God did that". When we see them, we say that nature caused
them but that doesn’t much change the experience of fear and trembling.
We do all we
can in our lives to plan, to structure, to produce the outcomes that we desire
and insure ourselves physically and spiritually in the case something goes
wrong. And this is well and good. But life does not let us entirely dictate.
Stuff happens and sometimes we only get to respond. And these events are so critical
spiritually that they become the most important junctures of our lives.
One of our
neighbors has described for me several different times how he was in building
#7 at the World Trade Center having coffee. Like the rest of us,
he was having coffee during a morning meeting watching the smoke come out of a
nearby building, wondering what was going on, but still not seeing what he was
looking at because of the insularity of his routine. What was actually
happening was not really possible in his mind, it just wasn't really happening.
Looking back and retelling this story, he says that the insularity of the
routine had him sort of glazed over so that he was seeing but not seeing, his
control filters just not processing information accurately. It was all an idle
curiosity… until people fell past his window. This is when he wishes he'd cut
off the viewing because those tapes still haunt him. It was during that moment
that he was awakening and shortly had a stunning realization of 'what are we doing here? We need to
go'- but not before he had taken in images that time has not yet softened, let
alone erased. And then he was jogging down the staircase, not feeling as such,
not interpreting, just moving towards safety.
It is not
fair. It doesn't make sense. It is just happening. Former plans all out the
door, gone in just a couple hours. There would be no office to go back to the
next day. Life is occasionally like that. It is like that often enough that we
need to spiritually strengthen ourselves in advance, lest we be swept away by
despair, meaninglessness, and anger.
And there is
another dimension to this story, not different from the primal sense of having
our planned present washed away, but the transcendent future that is held in
the promise of the precious son Isaac that adds gravitas to the fear and trembling.
promised Abraham descendents that would make up a great nation. In his old age,
Abraham miraculously had his first child. You can only imagine for a moment,
the joy that older childless parents had that night, the primal blessing of new
life in their arms, new life when they thought would pass them by. How good is God. How blessed is this life.
How wonderful the mystery of this world. He is living a life of promise,
expectation, grace, hope. It is life in the ascendancy.
narrative that slowly, deliberately, deadeningly unfolds before us. Abraham
saddled his horse. He organizes his servants. He wakens the boy and gives the
boy the wood to carry. He looks up and sees the mountains. It is still three
days more walk.
With each step, he is being drawn
toward the edge of the abyss. He lets the servants stay. He hands his son the
wood. The son looks at him innocently, naively, "Father, where is the lamb
All of these
turns are little deaths, slow small deaths. And what is dying before him is not
just his son but the future and that adds compounds the spiritual gravitas of
We have these
small deaths regularly. Some of these you stop and notice. I surprised myself
the day my youngest daughter went to first grade. She is the last of 4. Walking away from Franklin school, I was
briefly overwhelmed with a sense that this ritual that I had been through so
many times was now done. I would never pass this way again. I suddenly wanted
it back and I was anxious and worried at the same time wondering if I was
really taking it all in around me. Did I appreciate the simple blessings that I
had been living…?
Most of us
have these scripts written in our subconscious, if not our consciousness. We
think that when we get to this place in our life, we are going to look like
this and our children are going to be like that. And these scripts are fairly
definite. Most of them we can't describe but every teacher in Summit can tell you what the parents of
their students want for their children. They have expectations.
I know one
pre-school teacher who was having her first parent-teacher conference with
young parents. They went over socialization, abstract concepts, language
skills, and gross motor coordination. The parents asked a lot of earnest
questions. Finally, they leaned forward to the teacher and in rather hushed
tones said, "Do you think he is really on an Ivy track?" "Is he
smiled back incredulous and wanted to say, "I don't know but he's great
No, we have
these unwritten scripts and hopes and expectations. We live in the face of a
promise unto the future. And a lot of the time, we don't even know it, we can't
even really articulate this until it doesn't come to pass. How many fathers have
I known that couldn't really even explain why they were so frustrated and
disappointed when their children turned out not to have any interest in
competitive sports. Their boys played in youth leagues like everyone else but
as they grew into their own, they just wanted to play, didn't care about being
All-state, not even all-Conference… Just wasn’t their thing. Dad is fuming
inside, can't articulate what he is really angry about, just fuming… Until, he
realizes that unconsciously, all these years he had just assumed that when he
got to mid-life, he would be able adorn his own fading athletic career with the
patina of the next generation's exuberant athletic prowess. He'd be able to
brag on his son. They would practice together, share advice and reminiscences
together. They would share the glory and the glory would live on. This is what
would bring them together.
without any preparation, one morning you wake up, have a series of
conversations with your son, and you realize that this isn't going to ever
happen. What we had assumed up to this point is never going to happen and you
don't really have a plan B for how to relate to him.
It is really
the future disappearing before your eyes that gives those moments their
spiritual gravitas. These are just small deaths that prepare us for more
profound spiritual deaths.
I remember a
conversation with another father, a few years after his son had tragically died
too young. He was reflecting on how much a bog his life had been since that
time, having a hard time articulating what he wanted to say. He loved his other
kids and his wife but… But this kid had been the spark. He had the humor. He
was the fun that got them all going and kept everything on the right plane… And
now, it just wasn't fun anymore in the same way. I want my old family back, he
said. It was so overwhelmingly sad and fearful for him realizing that his
future family wasn't going to be. And in that moment, it is not helpful to
point out that the family can be re-made into something else.
That moment is
simply a moment of anxiety, of dread, of fear. We come face to face with our
own coming-apart. The center may not hold. It is a day of fear and trembling.
That is what Abraham saw that day, when, for whatever reason, he took the
We don't ever
want to go through that moment. I wish for you that you will avoid it… but you
won't. That is the reminder of Lent. We will all face, ultimately our own
death. In all likelihood, we will face our own coming-apart before that moment
actually arrives. We will see the future disappear before us and have to come
to grips with our own non-Being.
I can't give
you any steps for getting through that. I can't tell you that it will be all
right. I can't make that easy for you. It won't be. And if it was, you wouldn't
be fully living. You wouldn't be really human.
All I can tell
you is what Abraham discovered. All I can tell you is what the Christ
discovered. That somewhere in that process of facing the death of your future,
somewhere in the process of experiencing your own existential moment of coming
apart, God can cover you and you can be changed.
I don't know
that you will be surrounded by any warm presence. I don't know that you won't
be shaken to the core. I can't say that it will all suddenly be okay. I don't
know that it will suddenly all make sense. I doubt very seriously that it will
be warm gushy butter. I have no idea if you will find comfort in any normal
sense of that term.
The only thing
we are told is that in some fundamental sense, you will be blessed, whatever
that means. I do not mean that lightly but too much religious language is
hopelessly sentimental and one thing I am fairly sure of at this stage of my
life, it is that a profound spiritual life is not a sentimental experience.
"We get driven as hard as we can be rode" as an old Country song puts
We don't go
out of our way seeking this experience. It will come to us one way or the
other. The actual profundity of Lent is to remember that, to reflect on it a
moment ahead of time, and to do the things spiritually to prepare ourselves in
light of that reality.
My brothers and sisters, among other
things I hope for you courage, strength, and faith… You will need them. Amen.
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