Sunday, February 28, 2010

2 Lent

February 28, 2010

Genesis 15.1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13.22-35

Our readings this morning are really loaded readings, aren’t they? They’re chock full of images. As well it should be—we’re in Lent and everything is pointing forward—forward toward Holy Week, forward toward Good Friday, forward toward the Cross, and forward to that point beyond the Cross—to Easter morning. But today, on this Second Sunday of Lent, we are confronted with this reading from the Hebrew scriptures—a gruesome reading if there ever was one—and then this Gospel reading about Jerusalem .

First, let’s take a look at the reading from Genesis. In it, we find God making a covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham). God commands Abram to sacrifice these different animals, to cut them in half and to separate them.

Strange enough. But the really strange part of the reading is the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the pieces. If we don’t know the back story—if we don’t understand the meaning of the cut animals—then the story makes little sense. It’s just another gruesome, violent Old testament story. But if we examine what covenant is all about, then the story starts taking on a new meaning.

Covenant of course is not a word we heard used often anymore. In fact, none of us use it except when talking about religious things. But a covenant is very important in the scriptures. A covenant is a binding agreement. And when one enters into a covenant with God, essentially that bound agreement is truly bound.

In the days of Abram, when one made a covenant with someone, it was common practice for that person entering the agreement to cut up an animals and then to stand in the middle of the cut-up pieces. Essentially what they were saying by doing so was: “let this happen to me if I break our covenant.”

What we find happening in our reading this morning is that it is not Abram standing in the midst of those cut-up animals. Rather it is God. God is saying to Abram that if I ever break this covenant with you let happen to me what has happened to these animals. God is saying to Abram: “my word is good. If this relationship between you and I breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”

As Scot McKnight writes in 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed: “What appears to us as gruesome was normal for Abraham; what was great was how graphic God got in the act of promise.”

Then, we come to our Gospel reading. The part of this story that caught me was how the Pharisees came to tell Jesus that he was in danger from Herod. Or rather, I should say, I was taken with Jesus’ reaction to this news. He is not concerned at all over Herod or even the danger that he himself is in. His concern is for Jerusalem—for the city which, no doubt, was in sight. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. As he does so, Jesus does something at this moment that really is amazing. He laments. He uses words similar to those found in the lamenting psalms. He uses poetry.

“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!”

It is beautiful. And it is powerful. It’s incredible poetry. Knowing what he knew—knowing that in Jerusalem he will be betrayed and murdered—Jesus laments. He knows that what essentially is going to happen in Jerusalem is what happened while Abram slept. In Jerusalem, God will once again stand in the midst of a shattered body and say to God’s people (as McKnight puts it): “I will remain faithful. My word is good.”

Lamenting is one of those things we don’t like to think about as Christians. After all, it is a form of complaining. And we don’t like to complain. In this part of the country, we find people who might face bitter winters and harsh summers, might make their way through floods and droughts, but who don’t ever complain much. We, for the most part, shrug our shoulders and soldier on. And when it comes to our relationship with God, we certainly never think about complaining to God.

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually despair occasionally. Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly do find ourselves crying out in despair, saying, if to no one else than ourselves, the words from our psalm today:

“Deliver me not into the hands of my adversaries.”

It’s good, honest language and it’s good to be honest about those negatives feelings we feel occasionally. We sometimes feel like life is too much for us. We sometimes get angry at other people. And we sometimes get angry at ourselves. And, as difficult as it is to admit, we sometimes get angry at God. We sometimes don’t understand why God puts before us strange displays like cut up animals and then walks in the midst of them. We sometimes don’t understand why we sometimes feel like the cut-up animals. Sometimes it is hard to love our enemies. Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us. Sometimes it is hard to love ourselves. Sometimes it is hard to pray when everything has turned against us.

So, what do we do in those moments? Well, most of us just simply close up. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us. For the most part, we tend to deny it.

But what about those feelings in relationship to God? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger or our pain or our fears before God nor do we bring them before God.

And that is where Jesus, in today’s Gospels, and those lamenting Psalms come in. It is in those moments when we don’t bring our fear, our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s Gospel and Psalm. When we look at what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel and what the psalmist is saying today’s Psalm, we realize that, for them, it was natural to bring everything before God. It didn’t matter what it was.

And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from our Gospel reading today. Jesus is letting us see his sadness and his fear. Jesus is letting us see the fear he has in knowing that he, in a sense, has become the sacrifice that must be cut in two as part of the covenant God has made with us. In fact, Jesus lays it all out before God and us. He wails and complains and lays himself bare before God. He is blatantly honest in his lamenting.

The fact is: sometimes we do despair and fear. Sometimes we do want to pray to God,

“Hide not your face from me…”

It is in those moments, that it is all right to complain to God. It is all right to vent and open ourselves completely to God. Because, the important thing here is not how we are praying or even what we are praying for. It is important that, even in our fear over the future, in our pain, in our despair, in our horror at the gruesomeness and violence we find in this world, that we come to God.

We come before God as an imperfect person, full of insecurities. Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God. Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God. Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger. God can take it. And what you might sometimes find in those moments of complaining and ranting is that the words coming out of your mouth are not ugly, bitter words at all.

But sometimes the words coming out of your mouth in those moments of despair are beautiful poetry. Sometimes, even in those moments, God takes our angry, bitter words and turns them into diamonds in our mouths.

See what we find in this morning’s Psalm. After all that complaining, we find the Psalmist able to sing,

“O tarry and await the LORD’s pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

See. Diamonds.

So, when we pray these psalms together and when we come across those scriptures full of violence that might take us by alarm, recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God. Let us follow the example of Jesus, who even in the face of his betrayal and death, even in the face of his sacrifice, was still able to open his heart and his soul in song and poetry. More importantly, let us, as Jesus himself did over and over again in his life, pray those psalms when we are afraid or angry or frustrated. Let the Psalms help us to release our own anger to the God who loves us and knows you more completely than anyone else.

In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives, God, as a bright light passes back and forth. In that “deep and terrifying darkness” God appears to us as a light. All we have to do is recognize God in that midst of that darkness. And in doing so, all we can sometimes do is open our mouths and let them the poems within us sing out to our God.

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