This sermon is a bloody mess. Literally.
This story from Genesis 15
depicts a bloody mess,
and it is the mythology underneath a bloody mess.
First of all,
we should notice some huge problems for us.
Abram has an heir already:
his son, Ishmael, who
we have to assume was the progeny of rape,
since his mother was Hagar, Sari’s Egyptian slave girl.
And the land that God is giving to Abram
and his descendants,
is already inhabited by other people.
All of this perfectly foreshadowing
the bitter enmity between Jews and Muslims,
Israelis and Palestinians.
Literally a bloody mess.
But I am not going there
because I do not have a dog in that fight,
and because it doesn’t matter what you and I think anyway.
At least not today, not in here.
So, let’s look at the other bloody mess.
What’s with cutting animals in half?
This story opened the floodgate
on a vividly bloody memory of mine.
I was fortunate and privileged
to be a frequent guest
of an agricultural cooperative
and liberation base-community in El Salvador.
For over a decade
I visited and took parishioners there once or twice a year
to learn about authentic community,
and to imagine the application of liberation theology.
Once, when I happened to be there
for a special anniversary of theirs,
I witnessed the slaughter of a cow.
There were visitors from many countries staying there
to help them celebrate,
and the cow played a central part in that celebration
because beef was not a common staple of the diet.
The portion for the community celebration
was taken away, and the rest of the red meat,
glistening in the morning sun
and already an attraction for flies,
was placed in dozens of piles on a flatbed truck
apportioned for each household.
The mob of community dogs
circled anxiously below,
happily licking up droppings and scraps.
It might have seemed disgusting and gross
in our more antiseptic world,
but my fascination and repulsion
soon turned to a kind of awe and reverence
for the children’s joy
as they gathered excitedly around the death,
and from the dignity and intention
with which this obviously cherished resource
was carefully shared.
We keep the flow of blood, slaughter, and death
on the other side of multiple veils
and in so doing, we lose some of
the power and vitality of life itself.
So, in order to bring home this weird story
in the Book of Genesis,
we need to conjure up the sticky red liquid
with its singular scent of life,
and the color of flesh inside.
This Genesis story lets us in on an ancient covenant ritual –
a liturgy that makes a Supreme Court Justice
or President of the United States
with his or her hand on a holy book,
look small and pathetic.
Basically, cutting an animal in half
and walking between the strewn meat,
meant that I am making a covenant with you,
and if I do not live up to my promise
then I will be cut in half
Since God was involved,
it was not just one little animal.
There was a three-year old female cow,
a three-year old female goat,
a three-year old ram,
and a turtle dove and pigeon of indeterminate age.
In other words, a bloody mess
of sacrificed animals.
FYI: the three-year old bit
has to do with the purity of the number three,
and the animal reaching its adult strength and stature,
while doves were a symbol of fertility.
But the bigger deal is God,
represented by a smoking pot and flaming torch,
and with Abram as God’s avatar
moving them through the middle of the bloody carcasses.
God is promising Abram – get this now –
that if God fails to keep this promise,
God will be cut in half
That is pretty dramatic
and it is hard to know what to do with it.
In the story, this drama was a way
for God to show Abram
just how serious the promise was.
Which had to be done, I guess,
because God had been stringing Abram along
for years and years with promises of progeny,
land, and well-being.
With this strange ceremony,
God was not just hanging the reputation
of divine word on the line,
but making God’s actual existence
vulnerable to fulfilling a promise to Abram.
“…Maker of all things,
including the fear that makes
all of us, sometime or other,
flee for the sake
of our small and precious lives,
let me abide in your shadow —
let me hold on
to the edge of your robe
as you determine what
you must let be lost
and what will be saved.”
(“The Fox” by Mary Oliver)
Part of the distance
between the Bible and us,
is life and death.
For most of us, most of the time,
our religion and religious practice
is a sideshow
rather than the gameboard
we move the pieces of our lives on.
That is not our fault
or even something we need to change.
That’s just our world today.
We have a crowded field in 2019,
jampacked with economics, healthcare, education,
politics, world affairs – an Ebola outbreak one day,
threat of measles another,
and somewhere on the planet pneumonic plague pops up.
Climate change is flooding Miami and
taking down million-year-old glaciers.
rich people bribing their kids into college,
a neighborhood up in arms against a church…
there is so much crowding our lives
that our little religion
with its antiquated way of looking at things,
just has a hard time getting heard
let alone being the gameboard
on which our lives play out.
Meanwhile, as Mary Oliver denotes,
literally the rest of creation
lives as mouse and fox –
a dance in the grass
upon which life and death balances.
Most humans in the world, in fact,
are thrust into the same dance –
the one between Herod and Jesus,
in which moves the power elite
and the marginalized;
the first making the big decisions
and the second, a nothing beneath their feet.
So it is clear
that our relative privilege –
because of who we are
and where we live
and how we are able to live –
truly changes our perspective.
When raw power,
blood, violence, and death
seem more like activities at the margins of life
rather than immediate, constant,
and desperately personal,
we get removed from the biblical story
and have a harder time hearing it.
Again, that is no criticism,
just a recognition of our Sitz im Leben –
or our setting in life,
and how different life is for us
than those inside the biblical story
or even most generations of Christians before us.
The idea that God would rather die
than betray an absolute promise –
whether the one to Noah
or the one to Abram
or the one to Moses
or the one to us through Jesus,
is a big question.
Our Sitz im Leben,
that is, the gameboard on which we find ourselves,
has Auschwitz and Hiroshima
in the rearview mirror,
and climate change and black holes
on the horizon.
Can we be so sure that Abram
got those promises right?
When we face questions like this,
brought to us by life in the 21stcentury,
I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
You may recall that he was the German Lutheran pastor
who was filled with evangelical certitude
in the decades before WWII,
but eventually became part of the plot
to assassinate Hitler.
He was imprisoned
and hung a month before Hitler killed himself.
During his years in prison,
Bonhoeffer reflected on his faith
and the future of Christianity,
given what the German Church had experienced
and what many of his own friends and neighbors
proved capable of.
He was able to smuggle these musings
out of the prison on pieces of toilet paper
and scraps from whatever he could find.
It was by no means a systematic theology,
but altogether, it filled a posthumously published
book of deep and thoughtful reflections.
In it, one phrase that comes up,
as he reflected on what would be Christianity in the post-war,
is what he called “Christianity Come of Age.”
a Christianity that has grown up
and no longer lives with the innocence
or denial of childhood.
I think a Christianity that has come of age,
is one that recognizes
that whatever our ancestors imagined
about the promises of God,
they do not include God protecting us from ourselves.
A Christianity come of age,
learns from the experiences
of previous generations
and does not engage in magical thinking
that God will save us
from the self-destructive choices we make.
A mature and thoughtful Christianity
will incorporate the wisdom of the ancestors
into the wisdom of the sciences,
and allow all of it
to inform the faith perspective
of our present generation.
It seems to me that a Christianity come of age
holds God to the promise
to be presentwith us,
imbued and infused in the creation
of God’s making.
But a mature faith would also understand
that it is on us to be co-creators,
and to live or die with what we create.
In other words,
God’s presence can empower us
and equip us
and heal us
and embolden us,
but it cannot dofor us.
God will not dofor us
what we will not do for and among ourselves.
It is on us
to put in check any Herod
who abuses his power.
It is on us
to live with, rather than conquer,
people who were in the land before us,
and prosper together
with people who came here after us.
It is on us
to restore the atmosphere and the waters
by changing how we live.
You name it
and it is on us
to address it
and rectify it
and restore it
and reconcile with it –
with God’s HELP
but NOT God’s superpower.
I leave the question of God’s superpowers
to other mysteries
that physics and faith
cannot adequately explain or prove.
But it seems pretty clear
and certain to me,
that God has given US super powers
all our own.
We are not using our super powers well,
and God will not make us use them properly
if we choose not to.
So it is on us.
Lent is a good season
to evaluate how we are doing
and how we might do better.