Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lent 2

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."

2 But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." 5 He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

I remember one very specific incident from my childhood.  This was when I was still in pre-school and so had a few days off during the week.  You know, all that counting and coloring can be a bit on the stressful side.  On said off-day, my mother promised that we would go to the park, and would do so in fifteen minutes.  This was an entirely reasonable time to wait, given how much else there was to do before heading off to the park, cleaning up the kitchen, getting my little brother dressed, paying a few bills, you know the routine of which I speak.  And reasonable or not, this was just not something that I, in my excitement and impatience, could abide, and so every few minutes I came to her asking if it was yet time for the park, if the fifteen minutes had indeed passed.  When they hadn’t, I would return to my activities in a fit of disappointment, inching ever closer to the existential cliff with each delay and rebuff.  I simply had no idea how this excess amount of time was going to pass.  How, indeed, was I to endure such cruel and gratuitous waiting?  Even as I pouted, my mother continued to do all the small things that were, in the end, for my benefit and safety.  Suffice it to say that my experience of those intervening minutes and that of my mother’s were not the same, and, yes, we did make it to the park.  And, yes, the swings and the slide were as glorious as I expected them to be.
“The waiting is the hardest part” sang that erstwhile theologian Tom Petty, and though several thousand years separates them, I cannot help but think that Abram would  agree with him; I know that the younger version of me desperate to hit the park certainly would. Our first reading finds Abram deep in his own sort of waiting.  As you will recall, the story of Abram and Sarai, later Abraham and Sarah, is primarily a story about divine promise and human impatience.  In their old age, Abram and Sarai are promised a child, a child through whom they will become parents of a nation as numerous as the stars, and against all the entirely reasonable reasons to the contrary, asked to believe that promise, and we pick up their story here, where the initial thrill of God’s promise has now been faded by each passing day and month without a pregnancy.  This promise of God’s has led to no little scandal, either. With all this wandering around, who can forget that  incident in which Abram and Sarai got thrown out of Egypt after Abram passed Sarai off  as his sister so as to spare his own neck?   And now we find Abram in that lonely and desperate place where he can see all for which he hoped beginning to outrun him,  never to be seen again.  The stabbing doubt that perhaps God is not as faithful as Abram had hoped, or perhaps Abram had, in all the delirium misunderstood God and the actual content of the promise.  So what does he do?  Well, he takes an action that you and I can absolutely relate to.  Abram leans into that adage, “if you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself,” and proposes to God a new plan: “Why don’t I just go ahead and adopt my servant, and then I will have an heir?”  asks Abram.  But God is having none of this.  Against this cautious attempt of Abram’s, God’s response is to take Abram out and observe the splendor of a thousand countless stars, and to tell Abram to look upon his future.  For his heirs will be as numerous as the stars that explode the evening sky.  One can certainly feel the incredible gulf between these two propositions.  Abram is content to adopt his servant, to gain the promise by a technicality, and to thus buffer himself from any further disappointment and worry, to do whatever is needed to just end this horrid waiting already.  God, on the other hand, is not interested in reducing this promise to something that will soothe Abram’s immediate anxiety.  There is too much at stake, and in spite of Abram’s concern and worry, God is in no position to doubt God’s own promises.  And so God shows Abram something even more glorious, even more extravagant than the initial promise of a child: a multitude of children, of offspring, too numerous to count, let alone comprehend.  So much for adhering to Abram’s low-risk policy. 
And what makes this moment so compelling is just how incredibly human it is.  Who, honestly, cannot relate to Abram?  Who among us has not, from time to time,  surveyed one’s life circumstances and wondered where God’s promise to be faithful was in the midst of all it?  Who has not felt the agony and oppression of the time that passes between a prayer and its fulfillment? Who has not felt the weariness of waiting?  Waiting for God, waiting for hope, waiting for a new job or reconciliation with a family member, or a sense of inner-peace and calm, or for life to slow down a bit, or for the grief to finally let up a bit, yes, who has not felt the pain of waiting for these things?  Who has not, in moments of desperation when everything seems to be falling apart, yes, who has not tried to take matters into their own hands, effectively telling God, “thank you very much, but I’ve got it from here?”  Yes, we know Abram’s waiting, because we are humans who must learn how to reckon with the promises of a mysterious God whose ways are not our ways. 
And plunged into this space where Abram is asked to believe something far more beautiful, and in that way disturbing, than he could have even imagined, what exactly is it that Abram does?  Well, in this most incredible moment, this moment in which Abram is led out, led out from himself and his expectations, led out from his sense of what is and what is not possible, led out from his myopic understandings and his thin comforts, it is this space, this vertiginous space that Abram is led to belief.  Led to trust God and God only.  Led to relationship with God in which the promise is again renewed and in that wide space of trust, both Abram and God are found to be righteous.  And in space of faith, God renews the promise in a startling way.  Passing through torn animals as a fire pot, God effectively tells Abram that, should the promise not come to pass, then God will suffer the same fate as those animals, such is the gravity of what God has promised. 
And it is to this space of faith that you and I are called.  Called against our fear and expectation, called against our own sense of time and the way that God fulfills what God has promised.  Yes called to lean not on our own will and self-sufficiency, but called together, with the whole of creation, with all those who wait on the Lord’s promises, yes called with all our sisters and brothers, called to this God as baby chickens are called to their mother hen, and make no mistake, there is fear and terror in this call.  We will be led out apart from and against ourselves, against that desire within us that wishes to remain self-sufficient, that desires to rely on no one and nothing.  We will be led ultimately and finally to a God clothed not in splendor and glory, but clothed in our sin and our neighbor’s needs and sorrow.  A God who, in his glory, will go to the cross, and there, as the Christ, endure all manner of thing on our behalf.  This is the God to whom our faith finally leads.  This is the God for whom we wait, and not just waiting as some sort of passive exercise.  But waiting with the sure knowledge that God’s promises will be fulfilled, and that, as the mystic said, “all manners of things will be well.”  And so we wait.  We wait in prayer and meditation.  We wait in service of all those whom crave mercy and justice.  We wait as we again take the Lord’s body and blood into our very selves.  And in all this waiting, we are found again by the God who promises every good.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

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