© Jeremy D. Nickel 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 21, 2010
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I don't know about you, but I love to sleep. Don't get me wrong, I love the life that surrounds me in my waking hours, but crawling into my big soft bed at night, closing my eyes and letting the cares of the world fade away as I drift off into dream is one of my favorite parts of the day. I love sleep for a lot of reasons, but number one is the fact that I love to dream. My dream world has always been a magical place, more colorful than reality, where rules like gravity and financial constraints matter not. In my dreams I can fly, in my dreams I can explore new worlds and revisit old ones.
But I am also aware that not all dreams are like this. I did go through a period in late childhood, when in real life I was going through very difficult transitions, when my dream world suddenly ceased to be this safe haven. My ability to fly replaced by lead weights around my ankles, the soft wind at my back transformed into ghosts, goblins, robbers, and bad guys. I was being chased, and could not move my legs. I was in an airplane, but it was out of control and crashing. Suddenly my great escape was an avalanche of fear, confusion and anxiety.
The dream world is a powerful place, its messages impossible to hide from. Good or bad, they come unbidden with relentless consistency, dark night after dark night. It was with great relief as I began to get my waking life back in order that my dream life soon followed suit. For other people - we call them prophets - the dream world represents an even higher state of consciousness. Rather than being an escape from reality, as it is for me, the prophetic mind engages the dream world as if they are swimming in the divine. They hear the messages of their somulence not as a party thrown by their unconscious imagination, but rather to be direct revelation from god.
This tradition, of prophets communicating with their God through visions encountered while sleeping, is familiar to all three religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Likewise, these three traditions share many of the same prophets and stories. In Islam, for instance, all the minor and major prophets of the First Testament - Adam, Noah, Job, Solomon - all of these men are recognized by the Islamic tradition to be prophets. And beyond sharing a prophetic lineage, Islam also claims Abraham as the Patriarch of their faith lineage, just as Jews do.
Abraham then, represents the great connection between all three of these religions, which is why they are sometimes referred to as the Abrahamic faiths. Talk about a legacy, one man is the historic or at least metaphoric father of three of the most powerful and long standing institutions known to our species. As we continue to dream about what our faith home can become, I wonder what we can learn from the life of a man who so successfully generated such major and enduring narratives?
This week marks a holiday being celebrated by Muslims worldwide called Eid Al-adha, the feast of the great sacrifice. This holiday is a remembrance of a specific story from the life of Abraham. Although all three of these traditions honor Abraham as a prophet, they stress different parts of the story and have some major disagreements about the details of his life as well.
If any of you are familiar with the story of Abraham's life, it is more than likely the telling in the First Testament that you know, but it is important to understand that this story, like many from the First testament, also appears in the Koran, in a slightly different form. And beyond the Koran, the Muslim tradition has another set of stories, far larger in number than the Koran, that it regards as only slightly less an authority than the Koran, called the Hadiths. The Hadiths generally take small nuggets from the Koran and expand greatly upon them. For instance, there is a wonderful tradition in the Hadith literature of stories of Jesus that speak about him during a time in his life that the Bible is silent upon, as a young man, struggling to understand his special relationship with God. And the story of Abraham and his wives and sons is another area that the Hadiths greatly expand upon.
The basics details of Abraham's story are that God promised him that if he and his wife Sarah moved away from their homeland to Canaan that God would make Abraham the patriarch of a great people. But upon moving to Canaan the couple discovered that they were unable to conceive a child, so Sarah offered her handmaiden Hagar to her husband as a second wife in the hopes that he might then be able to have a child and begin the promised lineage. Hagar and Abraham did indeed conceive a son shortly thereafter, and named him Ishmael. After a few years of drama between the two wives, at the ripe young biblical age of ninety-nine, God once again promised Abraham his lineage with Sarah, and allowed them to finally conceive and give birth to a healthy child which they named Isaac. So you have the father Abraham, two wives, the first one Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the second one Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. These are the two lineages of Judaism and Islam. All Jews claim to be descended from Isaac, Sarah and Abraham and all Arabs from Ishamel, Hagar and Abraham. At this point, seeing Hagar and Ishmael as extraneous to the original plan, Sarah convinces Abraham to take them into the wilderness and to basically abandon them with nothing but a few days' provisions of bread and water.
And this is a major place where the two traditions split. In the Muslim tradition, Hagar was not abandoned by Abraham, but rather was relocated for strategic purposes. In this telling of the story, after initially having a rough start in the new land she had been relocated to, including having no source of fresh water, Hagar was divinely led to a well. Years later, Abraham is once again visited by God in his dreams and is told to return to Hagar and Ishmael.
Upon his return Abraham continues to be haunted at night by Gods words in his dreams. These are of course a far cry from the dreams I love. Rather than exploring the boundaries of his unconscious mind, rather than taking flight to the heavens, or miraculously watching from his slumber as his descendants populate this new land, Abraham receives word from God that what he must do next is to kill his son Ishmael as a sacrifice. To kill. His son. The one that he had waited so long for. The one that was supposed to be the beginning of a huge tribe of people. The one that represented all of his hopes and dreams. He was supposed to kill him.
And not only must he kill his son, but he must bind him like an animal sacrifice, place him upon an altar and cut his throat. This sacrifice is what God demands before God is willing to fulfill God's promise to Abraham. We the readers of this story are supposed to understand that God requires this one last sacrifice to be sure that Abraham truly follows God's will and not his own. And without hesitation Abraham indeed leads his son on a three-day hike through the woods to a remote spot where he binds his body with rope, lays him upon an alter, and prepares to cut his throat.
But just as Abraham was about to bring the knife down upon his son's throat, God once again revealed Godself, saying that this whole ordeal was merely a test of Abraham's faith, that he had passed, and that he should instead of killing his son, sacrifice a ram on the alter in his place.
Now, this is a terribly difficult passage for the modern mind to wrap around. These days when some one tells us that God speaks to them in their dreams we call them crazy. These days when someone tries to justify any violence in the name of their God, we call them an extremist. These days when someone tries to kill someone in the name of their God we call them a terrorist. So it can be very hard for us to relate to this story. Some of what I learned through text criticism, however, has helped me engage stories like this.
One lesson from that discipline that will help us here is that when the Biblical, Koranic or Hadith writers wanted to really grab the attention of the audience, they had to go way over the top. And these authors were writing this story at a time when murder was much more commonplace, when the value of life was just different. So the author of this story had to build the tension as high as they could to grab our attention and focus it on what their true message was. As a modern reader we find the device they used to build the tension distracting because we have been trained by our modern sensibilities to immediately identify with Ishmael, the powerless, Abraham's helpless son. I imagine the terror he must have felt, the confusion, and anger at being a pawn in his father's game with God. But the contemporary audience would at this point be focused like a laser beam on Abraham. This is in many ways the dramatic crescendo of the entire Abraham saga. We have waited with him for decades as he tried to have a son. We celebrated with him when this seemingly impossible goal was finally realized, and now we are to be with him in the depths of his faith as he trudges forward through the unimaginable to continue to live in the will of his God rather than his own. If we do try and engage with these stories through the eyes of their contemporaries, and focus on that aspect of the story, while doing a little interpretation, I truly believe that there still is much wisdom to be squeezed from these initially hard to fathom stories.
So then, what is the larger message I do see in this story that is applicable to us today? I think the first hint comes from how Muslims celebrate Eid Al-Adha, the holiday that marks this occasion. Each family will purchase a ram and have it slaughtered, just as Abraham did in the end of the story. But, after the ram is slaughtered, they will evenly distribute the pieces, a third of the meat kept for themselves, a third of the meat to friends and family, and the final third to the poor and needy.
Islam is very much a faith that understands how important it is to give to others. This idea of sacrificing what one has for the good of the group is literally the ethic at the core of Islam, every bit as much as submission to the will of God. This is a concept that the Muslim world is generally way ahead of the rest of us on. And here in this ritual we see that each family gives two-thirds away and retains only a third of their meat. It is given away freely, with no expectations for what it will bring in return.
And this is the message that I bring to you today. It is an important one that this community always needs to keep in mind. As a member of this community you are asked to make a sacrifice, to give of yourself for the greater good of this community, for the greater good of the larger world and, believe it or not, for your personal spiritual greater good as well.
And don't be surprised if hearing your minister asking you to make a sacrifice is a bit jarring. It is rare these days that we are ever asked to make a sacrifice. This is, after all, a time when we even fight wars without demanding any sacrifice from the country. We talk about the need to change our behavior to reverse climate change, but hope that we can do it through advances in technology rather than sacrifices in actual consumption. No, we are not a people or a culture accustomed to making any sacrifice. But here at Mission Peak we really do ask for a sacrifice from you.
We call it your time, talent and treasure, but sometimes I bet it feels to some like your blood, sweat and tears. But this is what spiritual community is truly all about. If you are not giving something of yourself to be a part of Mission Peak, then you are not experiencing all that you can from your involvement with this community. And what Eid Al-Adha really asks us to do is to give of ourselves simply for the act of giving, to be fully immersed in the joy of taking something that you could have, that you may even want, and to let it go by giving it freely to someone else, and thus freeing yourself from its power.
And it is not just the giving of yourself that is the sacrifice. A huge part of the power of giving is when you can find that place within you to give without expectation of what you will get in return. This is especially important in UU religious community. We have an incredibly diverse set of beliefs and people coming through our doors every Sunday. We are believers and non-believers, we are Christians, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, Conservatives, Liberals, Gay, Straight, Questioning, Male, Female, Transgendered and pretty much every other point on every spectrum you can imagine. This is beautiful and truly something worth celebrating, but it is also a juggling act that requires openness on your part. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling that because you give so much of your blood, sweat and tears to this place that you are entitled to hearing your favorite hymn, to having a meditative piece of music not disrupted by applause afterwards as you would prefer it, to having the minister address the issues most important to you. But we are all in here on Sunday, all full of different needs, wants and desires, and simple math should make it obvious that not every person is going to have their needs met perfectly every Sunday.
But if we are able to give with that spirit of openness, then hopefully you will be made satisfied with the very fact that someone else you care about, someone else in our community of faith did have their needs met today, and what could be more important than that?
This is a message that has little to do with intentions, and everything to do with actions. As this community continues to grow and take new shapes, we must hold this message close to our open hearts as we make space for new and different people, with new and different needs. No, intentions will not be enough, we must each look within ourselves to sacrifice some of our own wants and needs and desires for those in our midst. This change begins with you, it begins with us all
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