|November 19, 2000|
|First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct 06776|
|Rev. Michael Moran|
|Write to Rev. Moran|
Mark 13:1- 8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look,
Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"
Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will
be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter,
James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,
"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these
things are about to be accomplished?"
Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray.
Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take
place, but the end is still to come.
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there
will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but
the beginning of the birth pangs. (NRSV)
Sermon: The Art of Laughter
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says "Man, you must be puttin me on."
God say "No." Abe say "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but -
The next time you see me comin; youd better run."
Well Abe says "Where do you want this killin done."
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
I wasnt much of a Bible scholar when that Bob Dylan song came out in 1965,
but I sure knew the story of Abraham and Isaac. It wasnt so much that we
had been taught about it in Sunday School, because we hadnt. It was
because in our family Bible, Deluxe Edition, it was the subject of one of
the full color plates in the fine art section:
"These carefully selected examples of outstanding religious art will
heighten the pleasure of reading the Holy Scriptures."
There is Abraham about to plunge the knife into the bound body of his young
The picture puzzled me, the song puzzled me, and I must admit, in spite of
graduate education in Bible and theology, the story puzzled me then and
puzzles me still:
Genesis 22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"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." So Abraham rose early in
the morning, took his son Isaac, and went to the place in the distance that
God had shown him. When they came to the place that God had shown him,
Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son
Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached
out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord
called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" "Do not lay your
hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God,
since you have not withheld your son from me."
What is the moral? The father was rewarded because he was willing to kill
the son? Im sorry, when I read that I was a son, and it left me cold. Now
I am a father, and it leaves me terror stricken.
So I was compelled to read when I picked up this book last summer and found
a new exploration of the story of Abraham and Isaac. I dont say
explanation, because its not a story to be explained, but exploration,
because in this story we are wandering in uncharted territory.
The book is called Messengers of God, Biblical Portraits and Legends, and it
is written by Elie Wiesel - winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and
something of a legend himself. He entitles the chapter that explores this
story: The Sacrifice of Isaac - a Survivors Story
Elie Wiesel knows something about being a survivor. He is 72 now, but it is
a miracle that he lived past age 15 when he was taken with his parents and
three sisters from his Hungarian hometown and sent to Auschwitz. In the
first hour there he was separated from his mother and sisters, but managed
to stay with his father. Together they survived until the following year
when his father died of starvation.
In spite of feeling that he no longer wanted to live, Wiesel did live, and
was liberated to an orphanage in France. For ten years he would not speak
of his ordeal. He said, "I wanted to be sure that the words I was going to
use about this event would be the proper words." Then he published "Night,"
a memoir of the holocaust that would make his name well known around the
In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Wiesel was asked about gratitude.
Oprah: There may be no better person than you to speak about living with
gratitude. Despite all the tragedy youve witnessed, do you still have a
place inside you for gratefulness?
Elie Wiesel: Absolutely. Right after the war, I went around telling people,
"Thank you just for living, for being human." And to this day the words
that come most frequently from my lips are thank you. When a person doesnt
have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can
almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.
O: Does having seen the worst in humanity make you more grateful for
EW: For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time
I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.
Gratitude is a gift of grace, and grace is a gift of experience - not
primarily the pleasant, happy, desirable experience, but quite to the
contrary as William Blake expressed so well in a poem that seems to always
rattle around my head:
What is the price of Experience Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the Streets No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the withered field where the farmer plows for bread in vain
Grace and gratitude that come out of hardship are gold tested in the fire -
different in quality and durability from that which comes when times are
good, the easy gratitude of prosperity.
The great enemy of gratitude is not suffering and want, it is ease and
abundance - it is the assumption of entitlement and complacency - that the
bounty and blessing of life is my due, something I enjoy by right of
ownership, something I can take for granted.
I suppose that after seeing his father raise the knife over him, Isaac could
take nothing for granted ever again. The whole foundation of his life must
have shifted at that moment, and although he was spared, he certainly must
have been changed. Now he was a survivor, and what would that mean for the
rest of his life?
This is the question Elie Wiesel ponders; what is the legacy that this
survivor Isaac gives to each generation who follows him in faith and in
experience? Wiesel finds an clue in the meaning of Isaacs name:
The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he
had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age.
Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son. Now Sarah said, "God has made
laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me."
They named him Isaac - laughter, or he who will laugh. Why was this most
tragic figure in Biblical history given such a bizarre name? That is the
question Wiesel asks in the beginning of his exploration and the question he
returns to at the end:
Why was the most tragic of our ancestors named Isaac, a name which evokes
and signifies laughter? Here is why. As the first survivor, he had to
teach us, the future survivors, that it is possible to suffer and despair an
entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter.
Isaac, of course, never freed himself from the traumatizing scenes that
violated his youth; the holocaust had marked him and continued to haunt him
forever. Yet he remained capable of laughter. And in spite of everything,
he did laugh.
God has made laughter for me, said Sarah; laughter allows grace to be found
in the desolate market where none come to buy, and from grace grows
gratitude, and in gratitude we offer a life of thanksgiving to God and to
Thank you for your laughter; thank you for your smile; thank you just for
living, for being human.
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