March 17, 2019
Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13.31-35
+ This past week, of course, we all watched with shock and disgust at the horrendous massacres at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was inevitable, I guess. If you have kept your thumb on the pulse of all that has been happening within these last few years, you probably noticed what I have noticed. You probably have noticed the stark and horrendous rise of islamophobia in the world. Islamophobia is, of course, a fear and discrimination of Muslims.
I saw it on social media, among people whom I thought I knew better. Usually, when I push back on it, I usually say, “You do know we worship the same God, right? We are all children of Abraham” I am met with either blank stares or denials.
There is much fear, and much misunderstanding about Muslims in our society and the world And we, as fellow children of Abraham, need to stand up and speak out whenever we see blatant Islamophobia in our midst. I can’t say that enough.
I think this massacre in New Zealand hits home for us on another basis. Most of us can relate to that feeling of having a safe haven destroyed by violence. We rejoice in the fact that our congregation of St. Stephen’s is a safe place. And to have something like violence destroy a place of safety is frightening.
We must face the fact, though, that we now live in a very violent time. And violence is a real force in our world.
One of the lessons I learned from this incident—among several lessons—was a very hard lesson on living with the threat of real violence. Violence, I realize, is something most of us don’t even consider in our personal day-to-day lives. It very rarely rears its ugly head in our personal lives. At least, I hope it doesn’t. But let me tell you, when it does, it is terrible. And you are not the same person afterward that you were before. And also, very importantly, we realize that violence is not always expressed physically.
Violence can be expressed in multiple ways, including through intimidation, bullying and downright terror. Yes, our words have consequences and can cause violence. There’s no getting around violence in our lives.
Even today, in our scriptures readings, we get some violent images. 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. Violent and strange, yes. 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 up animals—then the story makes little sense. It’s just another gruesome, violent story from the Hebrew scriptures.
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 hear 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.” Let this violence come upon me if I break what we have sworn to do.
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 the two of us breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”
As Scot McKnight writes in his wonderful book, 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. Here too, we find a sense of impending violence. The Pharisees ominously come to tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod. This is real danger. Life-threatening danger. And how does Jesus respond to this danger and impending violence? 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 as he was speaking. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. His violent 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, the shattered body of God’s very Son, and say to God’s people (as McKnight puts it): “I will remain faithful. My word is good.”
But, as wonderful as that may sound to us, to Jesus it must’ve been frightening, even though he knew full well that it had to happen. And even here we see Jesus using this impending violence as a means for us to rise above violence and fear.
Jesus is letting us see his fear and his sadness. 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. He is letting us see him for what he is about to be—a victim of violence. When we hear that phrase “Lamb of God,” we need to remind ourselves that is not some sweet sentiment. The Lamb of God is a sacrificial lamb—a lamb that is to be sacrificed.
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 too do fear and despair. Sometimes, when we are afraid, we do not want to pray to God, It is in those sometimes awful moments, that it is completely 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, in our pain, in our despair, in our horror at the gruesomeness and violence we find in this world and in events like what happened in New Zealand, that we come to God.
We come before God as an imperfect person, full of insecurities, exposed and vulnerable. And we come angry at injustice and violence.
We come angry that we have to deal with white supremacy in this day and age! Didn’t we already fight a war to end white supremacy and fascism??
And here it is again??
And, let me repeat something I honestly didn’t think I would have to keep repeating: white supremacy is in direct opposition to everything Jesus was and is. It is a sin—a blatant and ugly slap in the face of the God of Abraham.
So, we take what it is hurting us and bothering us and we release it to God. We let it out before God. We are, in that moment, blatantly honest with God. Because God knows. God has stood in the midst of that violence. And God still stands in the midst of the violence that we see in this world.
So, when we come across those scriptures and psalms full of violence that might take us by alarm, we need to recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers and expressions before God. Let us follow the example of Jesus, who even in the face of violence and death, was still able to open his heart and his soul to God in song and poetry.
More importantly, let us, as Jesus himself did over and over again in his life, pray when we are afraid or angry or frustrated. Let our prayers release our own anger to the God who loves us and knows us more completely than anyone else. In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives and this world, in the shattered open world in which people cannot even worship God in the safety of their own places of worship, we know that God, even then and there as a bright light, passes back and forth. Even 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.