The Akedah and the Godfather of Gloom

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.[1]

Not surprisingly, a deep and abiding spiritual life was important to Leonard Cohen. He believed that everything he wrote was liturgy.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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:

Hineni, hineni,
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.”[13] 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.

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my Lord.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ashly Fetters, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Became Everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,'” The Atlantic, December 4, 2012.

BACK TO POST Mordecai Finley, “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi,” Jewish Journal, November 16, 2016.

BACK TO POST Gideon Zelermyer, “Leonard Cohen’s Temple Song,” The Globe and Mail, November 18, 2016.

BACK TO POST John Haydon, “Leonard Cohen releases ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,'” Communities Digital News, May 13, 2015.

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.

BACK TO POST Matt Brosnan, editor, “What Was the Battle of The Somme?,” Imperial War Museums, undated.

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.

BACK TO POST “Hollywood Cemetery and James Monroe Tomb,” National Park Service.

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.

From the Rector #58

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

The middle of the summer always seems like a good time to contemplate a poem from Wendell Berry, who is not only a lyrical wordsmith but also a novelist, cultural critic, and a Kentucky farmer. From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, here is his poem “The Vacation,” which is a good reminder to be present not only during times of refreshment but also in our day to day life:

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #57

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew includes one of the “Comfortable Words” in traditional Anglican liturgy about finding rest in Jesus, whose “yoke is easy, and . . . burden is light.” The next time you find yourself passing Christ the King Lutheran Church on Greenbriar Drive, notice that you can see part of that familiar quote on their wall. In his book Wishful Thinking (and later in Beyond Words), writer and theologian Frederick Buechner reflected on the rest that Jesus offers us:

In a sense we are all hungry and in need, but most of us don’t recognize it. With plenty to eat in the deep freeze, with a roof over our heads and a car in the garage, we assume that the empty feeling inside must be just a case of the blues that can be cured by a Florida vacation, a new TV, an extra drink before supper.

The poor, on the other hand, are under no such delusion. When Jesus says, “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), the poor stand a better chance than most of knowing what he’s talking about and knowing that he’s talking to them. In desperation they may even be willing to consider the possibility of accepting his offer. This is perhaps why Jesus on several occasions called them peculiarly blessed.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #56

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Frederick Buechner is an American writer and theologian. Here’s a quote from his book Wishful Thinking (and later in Beyond Words) that you can ponder today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow:

To make suggests making something out of something else the way a carpenter makes wooden boxes out of wood. To create suggests making something out of nothing the way an artist makes paintings or poems. It is true that artists, like carpenters, have to use something else—paint, words—but the beauty or meaning they make is different from the material they make it out of. To create is to make something essentially new.

When God created the creation, God made something where before there had been nothing, and as the author of the book of Job puts it, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (38:7) at the sheer and shimmering novelty of the thing. “New every morning is the love / Our wakening and uprising prove” says the hymn. Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them. If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy. Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again either.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

On the Road with the Rector #10

Added LaneLiving in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.

The next “On the Road with the Rector” event is a community interfaith service during Pride month for and in support of our LGBT neighbors, friends, and family members. Pride month occurs each June in cities and communities throughout the United States. The Library of Congress has a brief summary of the history of these celebrations and a variety of related resources. Those resources include a broad selection audio and video recordings that include poetry and literature, historical reflections, and personal stories. All of that can be accessed by clicking this link.

The interfaith community service will take place this evening — Thursday, June 22 — from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in the Proler Chapel at Congregation Emanu El, which is the synagogue that borders Rice University and is located at 1500 Sunset Boulevard. You can read and share details about this service on Facebook by clicking this link.

From the Rector #55

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Earlier this week, I read a short devotional that was written by Mary Zahl and posted on Mockingbird. It’s about pain, and the doubts that sometimes invade the psyches of Christians when pain arrives on our doorstep. I was particularly struck by the observation at the end about the difference between hope that is given rather than hope that is grasped. The only one who is truly holding on tightly and securely is Jesus, of course, and the one being held and loved is each of us in his arms:

Again and again, I have been struck by Christians using the language of faith to ward off the presence of pain. It’s understandable—pain is painful. All of us want to avoid it as much as possible, and when we can’t avoid it, we try what we can to minimize its side effects. As Christians, we get nervous admitting the depth of our pain, because what if it is a sign of a lack of trust in the goodness of God, a lack of faith? . . .

When pain is denied or kept at bay, the sufferer misses out on the opportunity that comes with facing pain honestly, which is feeling the weight and powerlessness of it. Counterintuitively, the experience of going into the pain generally brings out compassion, peace, and even joy on the other side.

Like the day we call Good Friday, our deaths (no matter how small) can be transformed—resurrected—such that we might even call them good. Conversely, when we hold onto words of “Christian hope” almost as if they were magic, we miss out on the joy and hope that come when the resurrection power is given rather than grasped.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #54

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

As we enter the rhythms of summer, here’s a prayer entitled “Occupy our calendars” from the book Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann:

Our times are in your hands:
But we count our times for us;
we count our days and fill them with us;
we count our weeks and fill them with our busyness;
we count our years and fill them with our fears.
And then caught up short with your claim,
Our times are in your hands!
Take our times, times of love and times of weariness,
Take them all, bless them and break them,
give them to us again,
slow paced and eager,
fixed in your readiness for neighbor.
Occupy our calendars,
Flood us with itsy-bitsy, daily kairoi, [i.e., God moments]
in the name of your fleshed kairos. [i.e., Jesus, the incarnation of God’s time] Amen.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #53

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Today is the Day of Pentecost — a joyful feast that concludes the season of Easter as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God’s own presence with his people and throughout every corner of his creation. It’s like the wind, which one can feel but not see. It’s also like fire, which Episcopalian and author Rachel Held Evans describes in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding Church:

The Spirit is like fire, deceptively polite in its dance atop the wax and wick of our church candles, but wild and mercurial as a storm when unleashed. Fire holds no single shape, no single form. It can roar through a forest or fulminate in a cannon. It can glow in hot coals or flit about in embers. But it cannot be held. The living know it indirectly—through heat, through light, through tendrils of smoke snaking through the sky, through the scent of burning wood, through the itch of ash in the eye. Fire consumes. It creates in its destroying and destroys in its creating. The furnace that smelts the ore drives off slag, and the flame that refines the metal purifies the gold. The fire that torches a centuries-old tree can crack open her cones and spill out their seeds. When God led his people through the wilderness, the Spirit blazed in a fire that rested over the tabernacle each night. And when God made the church, the Spirit blazed in little fires that rested over his people’s heads. “Quench not the Spirit,” the apostle wrote. It is as necessary and as dangerous as fire, so stay alert . . .

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #52

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Today is first and foremost the Lord’s Day in this glorious season of Easter. It is also Mother’s Day in the United States. For those in search of words to honor and address both of those realities, I offer the following prayer that I’ve adapted and greatly expanded from the Church of England:

Loving God,

This morning we thank you for mothers and children, for those who’ve been like mothers for us through the years, and for joyful moments, past and present, of life together at home.

Be with those who are grieving because they have no mother whom they can turn to because of death, disease, or estrangement. Be close to those who are struggling because they have no children to embrace because of infertility, tragedies, or broken relationships. Be near to us in every act of love that is shared within this church, fulfilling our promise to support baptized children in their life in Christ.

Help us as a community to nurture all the saints, young and old, with eyes to see and ears to hear their needs and hopes and dreams. And remind us of how you have been like a mother to your people in every generation, including ours: “. . . it was it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Stoop down to us, O Lord, today and always. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #51

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a portion of the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John is read in our liturgies.  Those words refer to Jesus as the good shepherd and to us as the sheep whom he protects. And the twenty-third psalm is always heard on this day, which is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.

For me, these familiar themes bring to mind the words of a favorite German chorale in the Moravian Church, which is a paraphrase of the twenty-third psalm:

Jesus makes my heart rejoice,
I’m his sheep, and know his voice;
he’s a Shepherd, kind and gracious,
And his pastures are delicious;
constant love to me he shows,
yea, my very name he knows.

Trusting his mild staff always,
I go in and out in peace;
he will feed me with treasure
of his grace in richest measure;
when athirst to him I cry,
Living water he’ll supply.

Should not I for gladness leap,
led by Jesus as his sheep?
For when these blessed days are over
to the arms of my dear Savior
I shall be conveyed to rest.
Amen, yea, my lot is blessed.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector