Back in the day, my beloved husband Dick was the pastor for one of those big, swanky, snooty Episcopal churches that had an historic graveyard right beside it. George Curran was the sexton, the guy who took care of all the grounds. After the funeral, he’d be the one to make sure the grave was filled in, then tamp the dirt down so he could plant grass seed over it. One day after the funeral of one of the parish’s poohbahs, George wasn’t just gently tamping down the dirt; he was stomping on it with every ounce of himself he had. Dick asked him why he was trammeling the grave, and George replied, “This guy was a (you fill in the blank!) who treated me like dirt the whole time he was on earth. (stomp!)” George seemed to take great satisfaction in having the last word.
Abraham’s son Isaac was probably a teenager when his father took him to the top of Mount Moriah, tied him to the altar, and lifted his knife to kill him. “Wait! Abraham! Stop! Stop!” the angel screams from the heavens: “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 only son from me.” And Abraham looks up and sees a ram caught in a thicket, and he takes the ram and kills it instead of his son.
And in scripture, Isaac never talks to his father again. When Abraham finally dies, Isaac comes back with his half-brother Ishmael. Remember Ishmael, who had been thrown out of Abraham’s camp with his mother Hagar, to make his way in the wilderness. By the grace of God and the wit of his survival instincts, Ishmael and Hagar survive. But like Isaac, Ishmael never speaks to his father Abraham again.
I imagine them meeting again after all those years to bury their common father. And in my imagination, I imagine both of them stomping on the grave like old George Curran. Stomping out their rage, their betrayal, their pain. And I can imagine that stomping on their father’s grave felt very satisfying.
What do we do when someone we love, someone we respect, someone who has authority over our lives… betrays us? The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from our enemies. It comes from those we couldn’t believe would do this to us. It hurts because that person, that relationship mattered to us. And the core of the pain is not that they lied to us, but that from now on we can’t believe them.
Scripturally, we speak of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, but I don’t think that was betrayal. Judas loved Jesus; he wasn’t trying to cause him harm. He just wanted to force his hand, to make Jesus act. But never did Judas distance himself from Jesus. As a matter of fact, when Judas realized that his actions were going to bring about Jesus’ death, he went out and hung himself. That’s not what betrayal looks like.
Betrayal involves distancing ourselves from the other person, and being willing to let the other person suffer so we can get what we want. A spouse has an affair. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere. First there’s an emotional distancing, sometimes a physical distancing. They’ve stopped caring, stopped investing, stopped paying attention. That’s the first betrayal. Everything else flows out of that. Then there is the willingness to cause suffering. Their primary goal is probably not to cause their spouse pain, but they were willing to do that to make themselves feel better. Betrayal is the willful slaughter of intimacy. It is like being stabbed from the inside out. (Ethan Wate, “Beautiful Darkness)
When someone stabs us from the inside out, how can we ever trust them again? But if we continue live in betrayal, it becomes a cancer inside us, and we ask how we can ever trust anyone again. And the betrayal starts to kill us from the inside out.
What do we do? If we live in that place of distrust, of bitterness, of devastating pain, our lives will be destroyed. Darkness will overcome us. Something has to be done if we want to have a life again.
Well, the answer is simple. We have to forgive. Duh. On the cross, Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” That’s what Christians do. But even saying the words make me cringe. Like the old cliché says, If someone betrays you once, it is his fault; if he betrays you twice, it is your fault.”
And yet… that vulnerable place that has been violated, that wants to close up, and hide, and protect itself? That is the place of our joy and life. And if we shut down, we are shutting out joy and life. We have to do something to keep ourselves from shutting down and building walls.
Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi poet and mystic, once said, “Only when faithfulness turns to betrayal, and betrayal into trust, can any human being become part of the truth.”
You have to help me with this. I’ve been playing with this thought like a tongue plays with a broken tooth, coming back to it and back to it, exploring its contours. I have a feeling that there is truth there. “Only when faithfulness turns to betrayal, and betrayal into trust, can any human being become part of the truth.”
My beloved husband Dick and I often tell each other that the reason our life together is so precious is because our life before was so hard. If it hadn’t been for our betrayals, we would not so treasure our faithfulness. Dick was betrayed in his first marriage, and the divorce was bitter and hard, and he thought he would never give himself to another person again. But, he explored the depths of his pain in counseling, and ended up meeting me. And he became a new creation, and so did I. In the words of Rainier Maria Rilke (1875-1926), “Every happiness is the child of a separation it did not think it could survive.”
We cannot know the depths of love, we cannot know the depths of our humanity, without pain. Without… betrayal. It’s only when we reach the bottom of our grief that we can become… truly human. Maybe it’s like birth… We have to push and push through a bloody wall of pain, to break through to the other side.
The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
I have known betrayal, and I have known deep bitterness that I savored for years. I have known what it is to put salt in my own wounds, and wish that the other would feel the pain I feel.
So I don’t want to lightly say this “this box full of darkness is a gift.” I don’t want to glibly say, “when faithfulness turns to betrayal, and betrayal into trust, then do I become human.” There are times those words sound like lies that deny the rage within us. And yet that great philosopher, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz says, “Now I know I’ve got a heart, because it’s breaking.”
How do we know our depths until we are forced into them? How do we know there is life on the other side of death, until we die and find ourselves reborn? A new creation? Filled with love and courage, because we know that the end is never really the end?
I’m just playing with these ideas. I need your thoughts. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” Does this spark some deep recognition within you? Does this have truth hidden in it?’ Or does it just sound like claptrap? What are you thinking right now?
congregational response: You can’t have light without darkness, and darkness without light…
I think that there’s truth in these words. But I also think that we can’t get through this deep, wrenching pain alone. I think we need to share the agony of the Garden like Jesus did, turning our hurt, our betrayal, our hopelessness toward heaven. My God, My God, why do You abandon Me? Why do You turn Your face away from Me.? And finally, as Jesus prayed, “Into Your Hands, O God, do I commend My Spirit.” Forgiveness is beyond me, Lord. The pain is too much for me, Lord. But into Your hands do I give my heart.
That hymn that we just sang before the scripture- Beams of Heaven As We Go? It’s an old black gospel hymn that carries within it the depth of generations of betrayal and pain. But the refrain- the refrain… “I do not know how long ‘twill be, Nor what the future holds for me. But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.”
…If Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.
And this is the first Sunday of Lent, when we are reminded that we are frail and mortal, and that pain is never that far away. Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. But we are also reminded that the grave holds no fear for us, for Christ has triumphed o’er the grave.
And so we mark ourselves with the ashes of pain, of repentance, of mortality, knowing that these are not the last word. These are never the last word.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for Feb. 18, 2018. Genesis 22:1-14; Gen 25:7-9.
God: Abraham! Abraham!
Abraham: Here I am…
God: Abraham, take your only son, your beloved son,
and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a holy sacrifice.
Abe: Lord!?? Lord, what do you mean?? Lord, answer me!
Abe: Isaac, come here son. We have to make a sacrifice to God.
Isaac: Where are we going, Father
Abe: To Mount Moriah, Isaac.
Isaac: Is that very far away, Father?
Abe: It is as close as my worst nightmare, son.
Isaac: Father, I see the knife, but you forgot the sacrificial lamb.
Abe: God will provide the lamb, my son. Come along.
Isaac: How much farther do we have to go, Father?
Abe: Our end will come sooner than my heart can bear, my son.
Here we are. Turn around now… and close your eyes.
God: Abraham! Stop! I know now that you will obey My every word
for you have offered up that which you love most in the world.
Look behind that thicket; there is your sacrificial lamb
Abe: The Lord has provided. The Lord will provide…
Isaac: And my father Abraham lived to the age of 175 years, and then breathed his last.
My half-brother Ishmael too him to the cave our father had
purchased for his grave, and buried him beside my mother, Sarah.