Ah - much. much too long! Here's the unexpurgated version - editing will have to wait another couple of days.
Lectionary readings are:
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Lent 2 - trusting God
There are times when it’s hard to see any real link between the 3 readings chosen by the wise people who wrote the lectionary. And there are times when it’s hard to see any link between those readings and our lives today. And there are times when it is hard either to see a link between the readings themselves or to see a link between real life and any one of them - and then writing a sermon feels like hard work!
But then as I was reflecting on the readings I started to think about some of the real lives of people I’ve come across this last week: people struggling with bad news from the doctor, like the woman I had a brief conversation with who aid she was living with terminal cancer; people feeling like strangers in a strange land, like the man I know who is facing a complete change of lifestyle and really isn't sure what the future holds; people trying to make sense of their lives in the face of upheaval or broken relationships, like the people of Haiti or Madeira. A question emerges in these lives - and I think in all of our lives at some time or another - what does it mean to trust God in this situation? And I wondered whether this same question offers us a link between our 3 readings : what does it mean to trust God in this situation?
Abram has already had quite an adventure by the time we meet him in Genesis chapter 15. At 75 years old, Abram left his home town of Ur, in Southern Mesopotamia and his wider family and travelled with Sarai, his wife, & Lot, his nephew, to Canaan. When famine struck they went to Egypt and then back to Bethel. Here Abram & Lot separated, after which Lot was captured by hostile armies and Abram rescued him. The Lord God has previously promised Abram the land all around Hebron and in the part of the story we have heard today Abram is promised first of all, numerous descendants and secondly, the land of Canaan.
It is interesting that we are told that ‘Abram put his faith in the Lord’ and yet when God says ‘I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land as your possession’ Abram asks ‘how can I be sure that I will occupy it?’.
The Lord’s response is to show Abram a vision of a covenant ceremony, involving sacrificed animals. In a covenant between 2 people of 2 tribes, a representative of each party to the covenant would pass between the 2 halves of the animals. to show that if they broke their half of the deal they would expect to be dismembered as the animals had been. In Abram’s case, only the symbolic presence of God - in the smoking brazier and the flaming torch - passed between the animals. The Lord has made a covenant with Abram - but Abram still has his doubts and questions, and his relationship with God continues to include testing and repeated promises from God. What did it mean for Abram to trust God? Not just a once and for all leap of faith, but a set of steps towards doing God’s will - and on-going relationship with God where Abram’s trust needed to be re-stated from time to time, despite what God had already done for him.
And so what of Jesus? As we heard in our gospel reading the storm clouds are gathering around Jesus as he approaches Jerusalem and his death. Jesus refuses to turn and run, despite the warning that Herod Antipas has plans to kill him: he will continue to heal and teach even though he accepts he could meet his end in Jerusalem. What does it mean for Jesus to trust God?
Perhaps this meditation, from American author -Barbara Brown Taylor can help us to understand this:
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus' lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world --wings spread, breast exposed --but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. … Jesus won't be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter.
She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her -- wings spread, breast exposed -- without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
For Jesus, trusting God means accepting that it is always right to continue to show compassion, as Jesus does for Jerusalem, whatever the consequences. Trusting God means continuing to love to the uttermost and to trust that God’s power will be stronger than death.
And what about Paul’s letter to the Philippians? This is one of those passages of Paul where he can come across as a real pain in the neck ‘join together, my friends, in following my example...’. Yuck! And yet in another letter to the Corinthians, he does at least say ‘follow my example as I follow Christ’s’. Paul is trying to point out that, in following Christ, Christians are following the one who put God’s will first and continued to work and speak for the kingdom even when that way led to death. Paul is probably writing from Prison in Rome - so when he talks about suffering he does know what he’s talking about. He is probably also warning the church at Philippi against following some of their local leaders, who it is thought were teaching a kind of gnosticism which stated ‘if Christ has won us favour with God through his death then now that we know that, we can live with ease and do as we like’. Paul warns that pursuing pleasure through earthly things alone leads to destruction, but that ‘we, by contrast are citizens of heaven’ - so that whatever happens to us on earth will be transformed by the love of Christ at the end.
What did it mean for Paul to trust God? It meant that despite the suffering he was enduring he could look forward to eternal life in the risen Christ. It also meant that he could warn others not to think only of satisfying their everyday needs. For Paul, trusting God meant accepting that there was always more to life than meets the eye - that there is divine purpose and love.
What does it mean for us to trust God? I don’t think we can give hard & fast answers to that question. Trusting God meant different things to Abram & to Jesus & to Paul, depending on their situation. It could mean different things to the people I was talking about at the beginning of the sermon & different things to each of us according to the situation we are in.
But in all Abram’s questioning, Jesus’ persevering and Paul’s teaching there is a determination to look beyond the simple appearance of what is happening and try to discern God in action behind it.
That is also what our communion meal is about. At one level this is simply bread and wine and will remain so, yet trusting in God means believing that God longs to relate to us through it, to show us at this table that we are fed, loved and cared for. And trusting God means believing that through this meal God changes us to be more like Jesus Christ.
Eat & drink & know God’s love for you. Amen.