The Rev. Canon John L.C. Mitman
Lent II C
21 February, 2016
Grace Episcopal Church
This morning's reading from the Book of Genesis is one of my favorite passages. Perhaps it is my affection for Abraham and Sarah. But more than that, it is a great old story that teaches a central truth of our Judeo-Christian tradition: namely, the persistent, giving love of God; God's relentless pursuit of us; the faithfulness of God; the faithfulness of the love of God.
Now I have to admit that this passage has so many bits and pieces of ancient Middle Eastern thought and practice in it that it is quite difficult to sort it out. However, it is worth investing a few minutes to reach the extraordinary teaching at the end! We have included a copy of this text in your bulletin so please take out your copy and follow along.
Here we find ourselves at the beginning of the whole story, the whole book, the whole Bible. This comes just after the Garden of Eden, the Flood and the story of the Tower of Babel. The story goes that God appeared to Abram in a dream. Now this Abram is the same person whose name was later changed by God to "Abraham" which means, "Father of a Multitude."
In this vision, God said to Abram, "I am your shield and your reward will be very great." As Abram was old and he had no son and heir, he had real trouble believing Godís words! Abram thought that he had no future at all, let alone to be declared by God as one whose reward would be great.
It is important to understand what not having an heir would have meant to Abram. Remember, there was no social security system in his day; Abram was a nomad, that is, a keeper of flocks of cattle, sheep and goats who, as it were, roamed the range with no permanent home. When he grew too old to herd and defend his flocks, there was no social structure to provide for Sara and him; nor was there even a city to which he could go and live in poverty, protected from the elements and the marauding thieves of the wilderness. In the face of all this, Abram had sadly provided for his old age by adopting a slave who would become his heir in return for providing care for Abram and his wife, Sara, in their old age. This adopted son of a slave is the one identified as "Eliezer of Damascus".
In the face of all of this: Abram's and Sara's age and their nomadic life, God made a promise and, the text says [most extraordinarily!] "Abram believed the Lord."
Then we come to some very strange stuff in this story. Abram is told to take a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon and slaughter them. He laid out the carcasses, one half of the carcass on one side of a path and the other half of the carcass on the other side of the path. These, you see, are the trappings of sealing a covenant in many ancient, even pre-historic cultures. We remember that this story comes at the very beginning of the Bible, at least 3,000 and as many as 4,000 years ago! The idea was that these animals were of some considerable value (just think of purchasing this menagerie at Whole Foods or even Stop and Shop in 2016!). Hence, animals and birds of great value were slaughtered and laid out in this peculiar way and the parties to the covenant (in this case, God and Abram) would walk between the halves of the carcasses, the idea being: "Look at these bodies! Let it be it unto us as it has been unto them if we should break this covenant!"
The story continues with Abram falling asleep, a sleep in which God promises that Abram would be the father of a great people, "more numerous than the stars." And there was an extraordinary vision of a smoking fire pot (a brazier, a kind of portable bar-b-q or hibachi) and a flaming torch, both of which Abram sees passing through the midst of the carcasses. The brazier and the torch with their light and smoke drifting heavenward, light and smoke which, in the eyes of ancient peoples, bridge the gap between earth and heaven. And God makes the covenant with Abram: To your descendants I give this land from the great river in the south (the Nile) to the great River of the North (the Euphrates). The promise is the deeding of virtually all of the land in their known world! And there the story ends.
Now, there is so much strange and ancient stuff here that the most important truth may be lost. The extraordinary thing is not in the sacrifice or in the divided carcasses or even in the fact that God spoke to this man, Abram. This scheme for the sealing a covenant, while very strange and bazaar to us, was totally acceptable to many ancient peoples. And, God had spoken to lots of people in both the Old and New Testaments. That's not so special. What is most extraordinary here is the dramatic way in which God reached out to Abram, offering him the whole world. But we note that God asked nothing in return.
We are told that Abram believed -- but God required nothing of Abram. The tradition of the divided carcasses called for both parties, both parties to the covenant to pass through the midst of the animals. But in this passage, only God passes through -- in the form of the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch (the same symbols, interestingly, which were used by God in leading Israel in the wilderness following the escape from Egypt). But only God reaches out; only God makes promises; only God seals the covenant.
Hey, this is the story of the unrelenting grace of God, the unrelenting love of God going after Abram and his descendants, Abramís descendants seated right here this morning in the pews of Grace Episcopal Church in Hartford, Connecticut. This is the story of the establishment of a covenant not just with faceless humanity (as in Noah's rainbow) but with a person, a three dimensional character, Abram, and his descendants.
And this is a covenant which is not at all like a contract or a covenant in most of human experience. The difference here is rather like the difference between one of us saying to a business partner, "I will give you this piece of property if you, in return, promise to pay me $300,000 at 6.62% interest over the next 20 years." Compare that script to the scene in which one of us would say to a business partner, "I will GIVE you this $300,000 piece of property and I hope you will do something nice for me sometime later on ." Full stop. No conditions. Just a gift. Thatís certainly not what we would find in chapter three of Donald Trumpís ďThe Art of the DealĒ! The only place I know of such a covenant being established is between members of a family. Then again, what could be more appropriate, for God is the father, the pro-genitor of this, our family.
So from God, Abram and humanity are the recipients of the offer of a gift of covenant, the gift of relationship.
So, to close, today's Gospel reading is yet another story of the relentless love of God. Here in Luke, the relentless march to Jerusalem to the Cross of Calvary continues, the relentless march of love continues, the relentless march to Jerusalem of the one who loved us enough to die for us.
The relationship with God offered to us by God is a gift which we could never repay; a gift for which we could never, ever barter or trade; a gift we could never, ever earn. The relentless lover God pursues us just as assuredly as this same God pursued Abram, our ancestor.
As we walk to Jerusalem with our Lord in this Lenten Season, Jesus is saying to us, come along with me, come along with me to my Kingdom, to the Great Heavenly Banquet. Come with me, join with me, be with me in love and service and trust. Just as God and Abram established the Old Covenant, the Old Testament, so Jesus, the Christ Our Lord, establishes with us, you and me, the NEW COVENANT of love and faithfulness and redemption. Thanks be to God!
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