Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, July 2, 2017
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. So Abraham rose early in the morning . . . and took . . . his son Isaac . . .” (Genesis 22:1-3)
Last fall the world mourned the death of the “high priest of pathos,” Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was also known as the “godfather of gloom.” He was 82. Most people know him for his song “Hallelujah” from 1984, which was resurrected in the 1990s through a reverent version of it by American singer Jeff Buckley. “Hallelujah” became a kind of secular hymn.
Not surprisingly, a deep and abiding spiritual life was important to Leonard Cohen. He believed that everything he wrote was liturgy.
While some might recall his interest in Buddhism, to the point of becoming a Zen monk, Cohen himself thought of that as merely a discipline for meditation. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he said in an interview in 2004. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.” Cohen’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents of the Montreal synagogue where he was raised and to which he maintained a connection for his entire life. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. “I had a very messianic childhood,” he once remarked. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron the high priest.”
His second album, released in 1969, included a song called “Story of Isaac.” Written by Cohen, it retells part of today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis:
Well, the door it opened slowly,
my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
and his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So we started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.
Now the trees they got much smaller,
the lake was just like a lady’s mirror
when we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over,
I heard it brake a minute later,
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle,
might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
he looked once behind his shoulder,
and I guess he knew I’d never hide.
As someone with blue eyes who also happens to be the father of a nine-year-old son, I can hardly read those lyrics without shaking, whether out of fear or out of anger. Most Jews refer to this story about Abraham and his son Isaac as the aqedah — the “binding.” Leonard Cohen’s version takes us right up to the point in the narrative when Abraham is about to tie up his son and place him on top of the wood on the altar that he has just finished by hand.
Most Christians oddly refer to this same story as the sacrifice of Isaac. That’s, of course, the very thing that doesn’t happen in the end. Regardless of the title we give it, this is a story that is gut-wrenching for Jews and Christians alike. It’s difficult to hear, whether we’re strong in our faith or struggling to believe that God exists.
In spite of the grace that appears at the last possible second like a sudden, life-giving rain in the desert, we find the prelude to all of that barbaric. What was truly barbaric, however, was the fact that child sacrifice was a common practice in many cultures throughout the Ancient Near East. Believe it or not, it’s the end of this story that would have surprised those ancient peoples.
And we have more in common with them than we would surely like to admit. Leonard Cohen knew that because his song shifts gears from the biblical narrative to our own narrative. Cohen doesn’t sing of the binding or the saving. Instead he addresses directly those who stand where Abraham stood, singing:
You who build these altars now
to sacrifice our children,
you must not do it anymore.
His words bring to mind the anniversary yesterday of the worst date in British military history when 19,240 men fell at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In a ritual that had become routine during the trench warfare of World War I, the whistles sounded, and they went “over the top” for the last time. A survivor said, “It was hell let loose . . .” Another witness said, “There was nothing but brown earth, shell holes, and death. Nothing else.” One Scottish veteran would later recall that “[his] company went over 230 strong [that day], and only 11 privates survived.”
And Cohen’s plea reminds me of the time I officiated at a graveside funeral at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Not only is the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, buried there, but also 28 Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate enlisted men, including some 7,000 bodies reinterred there from Gettysburg battlefield. The anniversary of that battle is also this weekend.
To describe all of those enlisted soldiers as “men,” however, is not to tell the whole truth. I had arrived at the cemetery a little early for the service, so I took a short walk to the nearby Confederate section. I soon found myself surrounded by the graves of hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. The headstones with dates on them testified to the fact that too many of those buried in the ground had been teenage boys when they left home to fight. They had their whole lives ahead of them.
An important difference between the hills of Hollywood Cemetery that overlook the James River and the unknown mountain in the land of Moriah from Genesis is that Abraham wasn’t cut off from his future as he stared, surely with grief, at the body of his son. The promise that his descendants would bless the nations of the earth had seemed like a flickering flame that was about to be extinguished. Yet it wasn’t. But Abraham hadn’t always been so trusting in the God who had called him to step out in faith. As Ellen Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, puts it:
You might remember those stories of Abraham passing off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister when they are traveling in foreign territory. So Sarah gets taken into the royal harem as a concubine, not once but twice . . . and Abraham gets protected status as her “brother.” God never told Abraham to do that. Abraham did it because he was scared; he might get killed if someone wanted Sarah, knowing she was his wife. Abraham put Sarah in that terrible situation because he did not trust God to pull them through the danger.
Professor Davis, who would later reflect on the binding of Isaac in relationship to Jews who kept their faith during World War II in the ghettos and in the Nazi death camps, suggests that:
[T]his harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand. . . .
This story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful more often than we like to admit. . . .
The 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and, it seems, asks us to bear — and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish.
This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.
Just before the Jewish high holy days last fall, Leonard Cohen celebrated his last birthday. His gift to himself and to the Jewish world was the release of a new song, hauntingly beautiful, called “You Want It Darker.” Some of the words come from the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. Others — and not for the first time in Cohen’s songs — might even hint at Jesus, at least to Christian ears:
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.
Cohen seemed to acknowledge that he was in the sunset of his life as he sang:
If you are the dealer, let me out of the game.
But he does so with a profound trust in the Lord, and looks back to the aqedah, which is read during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year Festival, at the beginning of the high holy days. The refrain for the song is the Hebrew word hineni, which means, “Here I am.” It’s what Abraham says to God and to his son and to the angel.
So Cohen sings:
I’m ready, my Lord.
Cohen lived through those high holy days and died a couple of weeks later. I, for one, expect him finally to see the face of the messiah for whom he was taught to long from his childhood. “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame,” Jesus embraces even those who stand where Abraham once stood and begin to wonder with fear and trembling if God will — or even can — make a way where there is no way.
As the prophet Isaiah says, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” And that is good news not only for the “godfather of gloom” but also for each one of us, in the midst of whatever time of trial we may be facing. We’re neither alone nor unloved.
I’m ready, my Lord.
1 BACK TO POST Ashly Fetters, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Became Everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,'” The Atlantic, December 4, 2012.
2 BACK TO POST Mordecai Finley, “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi,” Jewish Journal, November 16, 2016.
3 BACK TO POST Gideon Zelermyer, “Leonard Cohen’s Temple Song,” The Globe and Mail, November 18, 2016.
4 BACK TO POST John Haydon, “Leonard Cohen releases ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,'” Communities Digital News, May 13, 2015.
5 BACK TO POST I’m aware of the fact that offering this as part of the interpretation of the story, although it does touch real history, is not embraced today by a majority of biblical scholars. That is say that I acknowledge that it might not have been what was originally intended when the story was first told, which is not to concede that peoples in the Ancient Near East would not have been surprised by the ending rather than the beginning of the story. That is true and worthy to be contemplated.
The Bible itself is a witness to the power of reinterpreting what has been received in light of the present realities facing the people of God. Prophetic literature such as Jeremiah 19:4-6 seems to put an emphatic divine thumb on the scale in favor of this part of the interpretation that I’ve offered. During the Babylonian Exile, which continued beyond the lifetime of Jeremiah, surely the children of Israel debated whether the Lord would sacrifice Israel or rescue his chosen people.
The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, believing wholeheartedly in the Christian witness to “the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead,” reinterprets the same story as God figuratively raising Isaac from the dominion of death by giving back to Abraham his son alive. In the same way, it suggests that we can always trust God, including those moments when the facts on the ground testify otherwise. The ultimate example of that, of course, is Good Friday. Neither sin nor death will have the last word, even if their shouting is the only thing we can hear.
6 BACK TO POST Matt Brosnan, editor, “What Was the Battle of The Somme?,” Imperial War Museums, undated.
7 BACK TO POST Christopher Woolf, “Why the Battle of the Somme sas the bloodiest day in British military history,” Public Radio International, July 1, 2016.
8 BACK TO POST “Hollywood Cemetery and James Monroe Tomb,” National Park Service.
9 BACK TO POST Ellen F. Davis, “Radical Trust,” Faith & Leadership, July 25, 2011.
10 BACK TO POST Davis.
11 BACK TO POST Zelermyer.
12 BACK TO POST Leonard Cohen sent a beautiful letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, who was the inspiration for his songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire.” She died in Norway on July 29, 2016, at the age of 81. Two days earlier, these words from Cohen were read to her by a close friend:
Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
13 BACK TO POST Isaiah 42:3.