Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 † Psalm 27 † Philippians 3:17-4.1 † Luke 13:31-35
This is one of those really awesome texts that fits well in the Dangerous Book for Boys, Daring Book for Girls[i] genre of children’s books that argue it is good to go close to the edge and, sometimes even leap over it, that understands you need to get dirty sometimes and maybe even risk a few cuts and bruises to really know something, that recognizes that an overly sanitized, protected, secured life may not actually get us anywhere worth getting.
I think of Molly and Megan McAdams who were delighted that the 2014 film “Into the Woods” included the part of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Cinderella in which the evil step-sister cuts her toe off in her desperation to fit into that golden slipper. They showed it in that film rather than scrub it out like Disney’s writers had done for their previous versions of the fable.
There’s something about the grit of life, the close experience of it, the finding our way through that has everything to do not only with our faith and life and well-being, our resilience and joy, but with our encounter with a God who tends to traffic in these places as well.
In a way, this is the call of Lent. To get a little dirty.
Abram and his wife Sarai are making it through the wilderness, trying to find their way, searching for promise and for a future. And so far, let’s just say it hasn’t gone great. And now we’re deep into the story by the time the Word of the Lord came to Abram and as if it were straight out of a chapter of the Dangerous and Daring books we get some blood and we get some guts. Sweet!
Cut a heifer and a goat and a ram in half and place the two halves apart from each other with a path between them… Cool! And then Abram spends the rest of the day keeping the Vultures and the Ospreys and the Black Crows and the Slaty-backed Gulls away from the carcasses… Gnarly!
And then, in Abram’s vision. God is a flaming fire-pot and a torch, dissecting the middle of this scene, cauterizing the story with a promise. And you might even say it gets better. You see, this isn’t just some drug induced vision divorced from reality, this was the way the ancients made agreements with one another.[ii] As best we understand, they would create just such a gory tableau. Then then would put their arms around one another and walk through the middle of the decimation and say, “Do you see this heifer and this goat and this ram and do you see these birds? The same will happen to you if you dare to break our agreement…” Awesome!
But there’s something different here. Because its not Abram and God tramping down the middle. It is a single party that passes between the crime scene. A torch and a firepot, it is God alone who travels it, as if to say, “this is what I am going to do. This is who I am. I am who I am. I am a God who keeps my promises. I am a God who makes covenant.”
This story is where we learn the difference between a contract and a covenant. A contract is built on distrust; its built on getting everything you can compared to your counterpart; its built on the expectation that as soon as one party fails, there’s hell to pay, and the other no longer has any obligation to keep the agreement.
But a covenant is different. It’s like a marriage promise. It’s what elders and deacons and pastors do when you ordain them into service. It’s as if God says, It doesn’t matter what you do. This is who I am. I keep my promises because I am a promise keeper. A covenant has no conditions; it is absolute. It is one-sided. It is sure. It is built not on transaction, but relationship. It is built on love… Wicked!
Belden Lane, in his book Backpacking with the Saints writes of Mechthild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic who understood this. She pictured God, this covenant-making God as utterly smitten by love for souls like herself and for the whole of creation and thereby vulnerable. She understood God as lovesick, aching to be reunited with everyone and everything, and cut in two by estrangement, devastated by the kind of violence and hatred and disinterest we see all too commonly, whether in Christchurch New Zealand, in the inequity of our own communities, or even in our own family systems.
Lane writes, “One night [Mechthild] imagined God saying to her, ‘I confess that I’m lovesick in my longing for you. I don’t know if I can handle being God without you. I’m eternally wounded because of my love for your soul.’”
Mechthild responds: “Let me find the salve that will heal your wound, dear Love.” And then catch this imagery and hold it against our story in Genesis: She says, “I’ll cut my heart in half and place you between the two pieces. I’ll be your physician for all eternity.”
It is an arresting turn, given the imagery of Genesis: God passing through Mechthild’s cut-open heart, and there, secure in covenantal love that flows from Mechthild’s own self-giving and passionate response.
Lane continues, making the turn back to his own dangerous boyhood longing for something deep and real and integrated with all of creation. “In her vision,” he writes,
God consents to her being the healer of [God’s] injured heart, longing to multiply their personal exchange in God’s relationship with every other creature as well. Mechthild knew that the love wounds of the divine, scored in the earth itself, remain unhealed until the universe is knit together in love.
Did you catch that? There is something of healing, of hope, and ultimately there is something of security that is captured in this passionate sense of the connection of all things, of the belonging of all things. Earth and all stars. Lane continues: “In this medieval saint, I discovered the earthy, sensuous, and intensely personal relationship with God that I had longed for as a child.”[iii]
Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century mystic similarly understood the universe as God’s body: “I flame above the beauty of the fields,” she heard God declare in her vision, “I shine in the waters; in the sun, the moon and the stars, I burn.”[iv]
Can you imagine how God must ache for peace, even as God passes through a wound that is God’s own wound, God’s own injury in the cutting in two, the rending of these animals and God’s own heart.
Insecurity is all over these texts today. In the psalm, David is looking to God for safety and solace while Saul pursues him. Abram wonders about his future and this promise that takes a lifetime to become a reality. Jesus is looking to his end in Jerusalem, lamenting the ways in which we continue, generation after generation, to refuse to accept that we belong together, that we are one. Thereby causing more pain, more suffering, more despair, again failing to secure our lives in the only way they could ever be secure: in the trust of God and the love of one another.
So Paul argues in Philippians that what passes for security is not secure. It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”[v]
So parents who have every wind at their backs still think they need to cheat to get their kids into just the right college, just the right setting for them to be secure. People who have all sorts of privilege imagine those who are other than them to be a threat and justify horrific violence to eliminate them.
We pursue those things that we think are going to give us security. But the opposite seems to be the case. We seek these things that we think will make us secure, at all costs, and we find ourselves only more insecure, more uncertain, more fragile, more desperate for some certainty that never comes.
And God passes through our torn-apart realities and calls us to look and listen, to pay attention to the God who is One, the God who is love, the covenanting God who makes a way for us.
Abraham Heschel said we usually fail to understand the divine, “not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.” We think of the holy as “up” or “out” there... Yet God is an intimate reality found at the very heart of the universe and found at the very cut-open heart of ourselves.[vi]
Perhaps Heschel gives us a clue to the work of Lent. It is a move inward, an invitation to get dirty, to look close—close enough that we see the glory of what we are, the love that splits us in two and yet, makes us whole.
Let us pray:
untamed by the names we give you,
in the silence name us,
that we may know
who we are,
hear the truth
you have put into us,
trust the love
you have for us,
which you call us to live out
with our siblings
in your human family
and with your whole creation.
[i] See Hal Iggulden, Dangerous Book for Boys. William Morrow Publishing, 2012. For similar see: https://smile.amazon.com/Dangerous-Book-Boys-Conn-Iggulden/dp/0062208977/ref=sr_1_2?crid=4GHZ91L8OH3&keywords=dangerous+book+for+boys&qid=1552604120&s=gateway&sprefix=dangerous+%2Caps%2C216&sr=8-2.
[ii] Cf. Jeremiah 34:18.
[iii] Lane, Belden C.. Backpacking with the Saints (p. 12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Ibid. Lane is quoting from Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of Divine Works, 1,2, in Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, ed. Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 91–92.
[v] Philippians 3:19.
[vi] Lane, Belden C.. Backpacking with the Saints (p. 10). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
[vii] From Ted Loder. Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Fortress Press, 2005) Adapted.
St. Andrew Sermons