Year A, Proper 8
“Is that story true?” This is a question I am often asked as a storyteller. My reply is always, “Yes, it’s true! Whether it happened that way or not!” In her book, Is That Story True?, Laura Alary answers the question in very true ways as she relates the story of Maggie, a little girl listening to her mother’s bedtime stories. Maggie’s mom has wise answers as Maggie asks her question each night, “Is that story true?”
I think Maggie’s question is one we ask with fear and trembling as we hear the first story in our lectionary texts this week. “Is that story true?” Is it true that child sacrifice was something practiced in Abraham’s time? Is this a story about God rejecting that practice? Is it true that God tested Abraham? Is it true that God would go to the extreme length of asking for Isaac’s death? Is it true that God seemingly manipulates people to “inspire” faith?
Why doesn’t Abraham just say “No?” If God tests our faith is God ultimately on our side? Does something – someone? – have to be sacrificed to make atonement to God, to appease God? This story brings up so many questions. And it is not an easy story to hear. Or to preach on. I don’t blame you if you avoid it!
Yet this story’s austerity calls to me in an odd way. This story gives me pause as I read the lectionary this week because twenty years ago I was asked to use it as the focal point for an hour long storytelling presentation for a biblical studies conference. The invitation came at the same time I made the decision to enter divinity school in my forties with two young children. Ultimately this story challenged my faith in a very personal way.
I was terrified that I was sacrificing the well-being of my children to follow my call to seminary. Would I neglect them as I was caught up in the demands of school? Through wrestling with this story in its literary form in Genesis, through the midrash of the Talmud, the contemporary writings of Jewish scholars and even in my dreams, I came to understand my dilemma better. I realized that ultimately my children belonged to God and not to me. God would not provide the call and the way to divinity school if God was not going to also provide for the health and welfare of my children. I was falling into the trap of being a “functional atheist.” “Yes, God, I will follow your call and I know I have to do it ALL on my own, by myself, in order to be responsible.” This was my first formal theology lesson. And I realized I was practicing bad theology!
Ultimately Maggie learns from asking her question, “Is that story true?,” that stories can be “true on the inside even if they are not true on the outside.” We do not know the complete factual context for the story of “The Binding of Isaac.” We do know all the questions that it raises. We do know that twice in the story we hear the confession of faith, “The Lord will provide.” My experience with the story ultimately relied on that confession even in the midst of all the questions I still have.
As you ask all the questions presented in this story and our other texts this week, I invite you to wrestle and dream with them. What does it mean to be a true prophet? Jeremiah says that when a prophet prophesies peace and when peace comes true then we will know the word was from the Lord. It seems it may be easier to be a doomsday-sayer than a proclaimer of peace. What does it mean to be “a slave” to obedience and grace, rather than sin? It seems our lives are truly changed when we point them in the direction of truth rather than falsehood. Yet like being a prophet of peace is more difficult, living as a “slave” to obedience and grace can be easier said than done. And what is true welcome? Is it wider and broader than we ever imagined? It seems to cross the boundaries of doctrine, tradition, polity, and even religions. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’ (Matthew 10:40). What is true here?
Each of our texts invites us to push the envelope of faith and practice this week in preaching. The psalms sing comfort and inspiration as we pursue questions and travel unknown paths. With you on the journey!
- The first story that I recommend this week is the Alary’s book, Is That Story True?. You can find it on Amazon and its part of Amazon Prime. And I hope its in your local library.
- The second tale on truth-seeking is a parable from the renowned Buddhist teacher, Tich Nach Hahn. I found this story at the website, Wisdom Commons. Below is the parable:
“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them. The Buddha told a story about this. A young widower, who loved his five-year-old son very much, was away on business, and bandits came and burned down his whole village and took his son away. When the man returned, he saw the ruins and panicked. He took the charred corpse of an infant to be his own child, and he began to pull his hair and beat his chest, crying uncontrollably. He organized a cremation ceremony, collected the ashes and put them in a very beautiful velvet bag. Working, sleeping, eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him. One day his real son escaped from the robbers and found his way home. He arrived at his father’s new cottage at midnight and knocked at the door. You can imagine at that time the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes and crying. He asked, “Who is there?” And the child answered, “It’s me, Papa. Open the door, it’s your son.” In his agitated state of mind the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away, and he continued to cry. The boy knocked again and again, but the father refused to let him in. Some time passed, and finally the child left. From that time on, father and son never saw one another. After telling this story the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. If you cling to it so much, when the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will not open it.”
Source: Being Peace; by Arnold Kotler; Page 57-58; Published by Parallax Press , Berkeley, CA, USA , 1996
- As we consider the truth of Jesus’s word on welcome in our Matthew text let’s consider stories of extravagant welcome. I found two websites that tells stories of welcoming refugees around the world. Check out “We Welcome Refugees. Com.” They have not just one but two pages of stories! The second website is Refugees Welcome.com. You can find their stories here.
- Finally, what are the stories you know from your experience about extravagant welcome? When were you welcomed in this way?
Blessings on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!