Thursday, February 18, 2016

Trusting the God of the Covenant

Lent 2C, February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18After 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.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But 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.” 5He 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.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
God's Covenant with Abram, by Jan Goeree (1670-1731)
7Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He 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.” 10He 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. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.  17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On 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...

Luke 13:31-35

Cara Hochhalter's woodblock print depicts the story of Jesus looking back on Jerusalem and yearning to gather all of her people under the love of an inclusive God, but they were not willing. "As a hen gathers..." is from Luke 13:31-34. Submitted photo
by Pastor Cara Hochhalter of Charlemont, MA
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He 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. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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.’”

It is no secret that I sometimes have trouble trusting God with the future. I like to know what’s going to happen next month, next year. I like to be able to envision what my life will be like, so I can prepare myself. Given the kinds of conversations I have with you as your pastor, I’m pretty sure this means I am human. I think about a conversation I had with one of our members who said she just wanted to know how much time she has left in her life- because then she’ll plan accordingly. Another person wanted to just know already what would happen with her job, whether her employer would renew her contract. We want to know and plan and prepare. Not knowing can be the hardest part.

I remember the weeks leading up to my interview to be approved for ordination I had the only panic attacks of my life- in which I had a tightness in my chest when I woke up in the morning. It was like a weight sitting right on top of my lungs, and I could barely get enough room to breathe. Even though I had no reason to worry, I did worry that the candidacy committee would turn me away and refuse to let me be a pastor, which was a future that I had hoped for and prayed for and prepared for over the course of several years.

I think that’s the kind of deep anxiety that Abram has in our text from Genesis today. He wonders aloud, not once, but twice, whether God will come through on the promise of offspring. Abram has a hard time trusting God with his future. He complains, “Look, I’m not getting any younger, God, and my heir is a servant born in my house, Eliezer of Damascus!”

We pray prayers like this all the time. We say things like, “Hey God, my son has MS, and the treatments don’t seem to be working!” or “This contract is running out, and I don’t have an offer of a new job after this one.” More generally, these prayers fit into the form of, “The future isn’t looking too bright. Are you paying attention, God? Do you even care?”

In our Old Testament story, Abram, the patriarch of faith, expresses deep doubts, and lovingly, God responds. For modern ears, it’s a strange story- God has Abram get a bunch of animals, which Abram then cuts in half. What we miss as modern people is that in this ritual, God is literally cutting a covenant with Abram, and that’s what you do in Hebrew- not make a covenant but cut a covenant. God is saying, “I swear that I will do this thing, and if I don’t, may I, God, be cut in half like these animals.” God’s very self is on the line as a sign of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Moreover, this covenantal promise is completely one-sided. Abram isn’t required to do anything. God simply promises to keep God’s word.

This foundational story of the Jewish faith continued to underpin St. Paul’s understanding of how God acts, and Martin Luther, who studied St. Paul’s writings extensively, took up the theme- God loves us and saves us, not because we are faithful or good or meritorious but because God loves us, and this is grace.

We see this grace not only in St. Paul or through Martin Luther’s writings, but we see it lived out by Jesus, who is God in the flesh, the Word incarnate. Jesus says to the Pharisees and all of Jerusalem, “How I longed to gather you under my wings, but you were not willing.” Jesus loves them, even though they turn away.

Even now, Jesus turns toward us in love, arms outstretched. So especially when we are afraid, let us run to Jesus, like chicks run to a mother hen. 

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