“No Matter What”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-2, 4-12, 17-18a
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.’ 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?’ 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.’ God brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then God said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ God said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought God all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land…’
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
This morning’s passage from Genesis contains one of the strangest, most overlooked parts of the Hebrew Bible.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Abram (soon to be Abraham) – how he and his wife Sarai (soon to be Sarah) were childless in their old age, and how God promised them that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. God promises Abram a land for his offspring – pretty standard deity fare – but then things get weird.
God tells Abram to bring a bunch of animals; Abram does, then cuts them in half, lays them on the ground, and sits around waiting, fending off scavengers as the desert sun goes down. I don’t know about you, but this seems like a pretty strange ritual to me.
Then it gets stranger. Abram falls into a profound sleep, and “a deep and terrifying darkness descend[s] upon him.”
And it gets even stranger: “When…it was dark, a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passed between” the cut-up animal carcasses, then ta-da! God declares a covenant with Abram.
Between Abram’s acting like a deranged butcher, the deep and terrifying darkness surrounding him, and firepots and torches floating around of their own accord, this scene sounds less like a covenant ceremony and more like Abram took some very powerful hallucinogenic drugs.
This is a good time for a quick PSA to remind ourselves that when people say “just open your Bible and read it, you’ll feel so spiritually edified!” – they are full of baloney. Because the Bible is full of pivotal moments like this that make absolutely no sense if you don’t have any historical or cultural context to interpret them.
I, for one, didn’t understand this passage – or even notice it, honestly – until I read Rob Bell’s book, What Is the Bible? Bell takes a whole chapter to explain what the heck is going on during this interaction between Abram and God. You see, in ancient times, when you made a covenant with someone, you took animals, cut them up (incidentally that’s where we get the phrase “I’ll cut you a deal”), laid them on the ground, and then both of you walked down the aisle between the two sets of halves to seal the deal. It was a way of saying, “May I become like these chopped up carcasses if I don’t keep our covenant. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
So Abram’s strange behavior starts to make a little more sense, because he and God are cutting a deal – “I’ll be your God, and you’ll be my people, and here’s how we’ll show we are really serious about this.” But then you read it again, and you notice that not only is Abram not walking down the aisle made by the cut-up carcasses – no one is walking down that aisle. Or at least no one human – just a smoking firepot and a torch.
Well, it turns out that a smoking firepot was an ancient symbol of the presence of God. So when the firepot and torch float through the carcasses alone, it means that God walks through alone. God essentially says to Abram, “I’ll be responsible for keeping our covenant – yep, both sides of it. Which means that no vengeful deity is going to rip you into pieces if you slip up, or go astray.”
If you think about all the times the ancient Israelites, Abram’s descendants, are going to commit idolatry in the next 1,000 pages or so, this is a pretty powerful promise on God’s part. And if you think about how often we mess up – how often we shame ourselves, hurt others, or ignore God’s love in our lives – it’s a pretty powerful promise for us, too. It means that God knows we aren’t perfect, that God knows we are going to mess up – and that God won’t abandon us, no matter how arrogant, fearful, hateful, despairing, or selfish we become. God will keep covenant with us – God will be our God and we will be God’s people – no matter what. As Rob Bell puts it, this is God’s way of saying, “Trust me, I got this.”
I think many of us struggle to embrace the truth that God loves us no matter what – perhaps especially during the Lent, when traditional observances like receiving ash, fasting, and reflecting on our shortcomings might feel more like punishments for our sinfulness than ways to draw us closer to God. And of course, many of us have felt like this outside Lent, too – when guilt over something we’ve done overwhelms us; when the shame of not feeling we’re enough as we are threatens to drown us; when abuse or depression or the toxic messages of our culture deaden us to the joys of life.
Author Anne Lamott, writing in her book Traveling Mercies about a time in her life when she was mired in addiction, bad relationships, and bad decisions, describes it like this:
“[O]ne afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me. I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. I knew there was an afterlife but felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldn’t possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.”
Despite her fundamental skepticism of people who were into Jesus, Lamott called up the pastor at the local Episcopal church and “let it all tumble out – the X-rated motels, my father’s death, a hint that maybe every so often I drank too much.
I don’t remember much of his response, except that when I said I didn’t think God could love me, he said, “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.”
We think it’s our job to earn God’s love, to be worthy, to at the very least keep up our end of the bargain. But here’s the thing, friends – we’ve got it all wrong. It’s God’s job – and it always has been. The only bargain to be kept is God’s promise to help us keep returning to a life-giving relationship with the divine, even – maybe especially – when that seems impossible.
Today’s Gospel passage is bursting with foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus at the end of this Lenten journey: “ ‘Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way…[Y]ou won’t see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” He’s talking about his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and how just days later “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” will turn on him and crucify him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Despite the passage of 2,000 years, the mob violence leading to execution-by-torture of an innocent man sounds all too familiar these days. As I read about the online white supremacist groups that fueled the murder of 49 Muslims at weekly worship on Friday, I also read the words of Wajahat Ali, the New York Times op-ed writer and hate group researcher, who writes that all those who have “helped to spread the worldwide myth that Muslims are a threat have blood on their hands.” I think we all believe ourselves incapable of such atrocities, but the very magnitude of this horror begs us to remember that just like in Jesus’ time, extraordinary violence grows out of a very ordinary willingness to disparage those who are different, or even just a willingness to look the other way when it seems scary or inconvenient to speak out.
Humanity’s insistence on sowing fear and hatred, on perpetrating violence in ways minor and great, active and passive, often makes us seem irredeemable. How can we keep doing this to each other? How can we keep breaking God’s heart?
I don’t know the answer to that, other than to say that we are all imperfect beings capable of great good and great evil, and that we all regularly miss the mark.
Yet God continues to reach out to us no matter how heinous we are to each other, no matter how blatantly we ignore God’s law of love, no matter how far gone we seem. God made that promise to Abram in the desert, and nowhere is it better demonstrated than in today’s Gospel passage, where Jesus knows exactly where he is headed, knows precisely how easily humans seduced by power stray from God’s love, knows intimately the ways fear pushes us to betray and deny him – and yet he stays the course.
By his willing death on the cross, Jesus shows us that there is nothing we can do – up to and including killing God-with-us – to break this covenant, because we were never the One responsible for upholding it in the first place.
It may seem cold comfort in the face of senseless violence and hatred or in the depths of personal despair; but in a way, I think it’s actually the most reassuring message of all: that none of this, and none of us, is beyond the reach of God’s redeeming love.
“Trust me,” God says, “I’ve got this – no matter what.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.