Worship | Lent 2 | Turn/Return | March 13

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Lent 2 Sermon Manuscript
Speaker: Joel Miller
Cutting a covenant | Text: Genesis 15:1-18
After Abram had looked up at the stars.  After he’d tried to count them and lost track.  After the Divine promise that his descendants would number just like those innumerable stars.  After, as the text says, “he believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  After this, Abram still needed more. 
Abram had no children in a time when children, specifically sons, were how one’s life and honor continued past one’s death.  Abram has access to some land, but he was still a first generation immigrant, having left the urbanized land of the East, Ur of the Chaldeans, to settle in this new place.
Abram is thinking about his legacy and the land on which that legacy will live. 
The stars he could see, sure.  The land currently under his feet he could touch.  But the future. The gap between the little pieces he could see and touch now, and the future for which he hoped…that was as vast as the gaps between those distant stars.   
Abram was looking for assurance about the future.  His future.  He wanted a promise and maybe more than a promise, whatever that might be, about where all this was headed. 
If you’re familiar with this story, that’s likely where the familiar part of this chapter ends.  Because we have hardly any cultural frame of reference for what happens next.   
Here’s what happens:
The Lord, Yahweh, Abram’s Divine conversation partner that evening, takes him up on his wish for a promise, and a glimpse into the future.  The Lord initiates a covenant making ritual by instructing Abram to collect the necessary items: a heifer (a female cow), three years old; a female goat three years old; a ram three years old; a turtledove; and a partridge in a pear tree.  No, not that last one.  A young pigeon. That’s the last one. 
Abram somehow rounds up these five creatures, and then, seemingly knowing what he’s supposed to do with them, cuts them in two, right down the middle, and lays the two sides out opposite each other.  Two lines mirroring each other with a path down the middle.  Can you picture it? 
If you can, you are likely asking the same question as me.  What the…? 
This is very likely why when Genesis 15 comes up we stick to pondering the stars.  I think this is the first time I’ve preached on this part of the chapter.  What do we do with this?  Well, let’s give it a whirl.   
We are witnessing here an ancient near eastern covenant making practice.  It’s giving some insight into why the Hebrew verb for making a covenant is cutting a covenant.  Two parties cut a covenant with one another, and it’s these animals that get cut.    
There’s really just one other instance in the Bible that gives similar details about this practice, Jeremiah chapter 34.  So with this story and that story and other sources, we can gather that the cutting of a covenant is primarily a self-curse.  Now stick with me on this…
This is not a sacrifice.  These animals don’t get burned or eaten.  (They likely get buried afterward).  This is not feeding a hungry deity or appeasing an angry God through animal sacrifice.  When you cut a covenant, both parties walk down that center path, with the symbolism being that each party pledges to keep the terms of the covenant lest they become like these animals.  I promise this to you, and if I stray from this promise, may I become like these creatures to our left and to our right.  It is a self-curse that comes back upon you if the covenant is broken.  If both parties keep the covenant, no harm no foul, everyone stays whole.     
It’s a much more dramatic – and maybe effective – way of closing a real estate deal than signing on the dotted line 25 times and grabbing a complimentary bottle of water on your way out.    
So, we’ll get to that part in a bit, the actual completing of the covenant ritual, but first of all Abram gets his wish.  He gets a glimpse into the future.  This could have all happened without this part, but this is what Abram asks for, and this is what Abram gets.  After laying all this out, setting the stage for the covenant ritual, Abram falls into a deep sleep.  The kind of sleep where you see visions.
If any of you have seen the movie/musical Encanto — once, or in the case of some young fans I know, quite a bit more than once – you could think about this as the part when Bruno comes into the story.  For the uninitiated, Bruno is the outcast family member who can see the future, except sometimes just incomplete parts of the future.  In this case, the Lord takes on the role of Bruno, and shows Abram this future for which he seeks such assurance.  Childless Abram will indeed have descendants, but they will suffer.  They will be foreigners in a foreign land.  They will be enslaved – for 400 years.  But they will come out of that slavery and they will come back to this very land where Abram is right now on this starry night. And they will dwell here.
Abram is shown what he most longs for, children to carry on his name, land for them to call their own.  But he is also shown their suffering.  He asked to know, and now he knows.    
The sun is down.  It’s dark.  And now it’s time to complete the covenant. 
And here’s the remarkable thing about how this covenant is cut.  As the story goes, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch appear, and pass between the pieces, and the Lord proclaims the covenant with Abram.  Those flaming objects represent the Divine presence, making the covenant pledge, with Abram on the sideline watching it all take place.  That’s the remarkable part.  Only one party walks that path of promise, that act of highest contractual obligation.  And it is the Lord who does this. One commentator I checked with said there is nothing like it in any other religious literature (Genesis, Gerhard von Rad, p. 182).  This is not your typical covenant.   
Abram simply witnesses the Divine presence making itself vulnerable to the self-curse, passing between death on one side, and death on the other, promising life.  Not life without suffering.  Not life as blindingly bright as the stars.  But the promise of an inhabitable future where the gifts of the darkness, and the guidance of the stars chart a path through suffering. 
Abram is not asked to take on the self-curse.  He’ll likely break his end of the bargain 1000 times anyway.  Abram only need be a witness to the promise, and accept that it could indeed come to pass.  
Gathering the brood | Text: Luke 13:31-35
I don’t know why the creators of the lectionary put these two passages together. I’m a bit surprised they left that part of Genesis 15 in since they tend to cut out the more obscure passages.
There’s a fairly standard move one can make when comparing stories from the Old and New Testament.  We point to the first as an example of a judgmental and violent god, then point to the second as an example of love and grace.  It’s a fairly simple problem/solution approach.  
You may have picked up over the years that I try to avoid this formula.  Not that there isn’t violence and judgement – there is – and not that love and grace aren’t a sacred and healing response to this – they are.  It’s just that pretty much any story has all these elements going on at the same time, and it’s not always clear whether it’s the people or the god who is the source of all this.  
This banner with these triangle pieces is my attempt to visualize how these two stories overlap.  Overlap to the extent of having the same image to represent them both.
So, with the Genesis 15 story, we have the Divine presence – Love, Grace, Abundant Life, the flaming torch – walking the covenant path with death on the left and right, which results in the creation of a people.  Even though the people undergo suffering, they live surrounded by this Divine presence, whether enslaved in a foreign land, or free and secure in a land they call their own.
Not sure if that works for you, but I had some fun trying out some flannel board theology.  But wait, there’s more.  Let’s imagine this story from Luke 13 using this same image.         
When Luke writes his gospel, the city of Jerusalem had long been the spiritual and political center of Abraham’s descendants.  They’re long out of slavery in Egypt, but now under the iron fist of the Roman empire.  Jesus has set his course for Jerusalem.  He’s heading to the holy city despite threats against his life that will only intensify should he enter the city.  He’s heading there despite his own lament that this is a city that kills the prophets that are sent to it.  
Surprisingly, a group of Pharisees come to Jesus to try to persuade him to change plans.  “Get away from here,” they warn.  “Herod wants to kill to you.”  We’re perhaps used to thinking of Pharisees as the enemies of Jesus, but there are plenty of New Testament examples of Pharisees aligned with Jesus, and there’s no reason in the text to doubt this is one of those cases. 
But Jesus won’t be deterred.  He calls Herod a fox.  He essentially says he has to go.  He had to go to Jerusalem, the city he loves, despite its violence against him and others.  He has to go to Jerusalem the same way Ida B Wells had to travel throughout early 20th century America, and internationally, to speak out against the lynching of Black people, despite tremendous risk to herself.  Jesus has to go Jerusalem the same way Oscar Romero had to continue ministering with the poor of El Salvador despite the death squads coming after them, and him.  Jesus has to go to Jerusalem the same way peacemakers whose names we’ll never know have committed their lives to their communities, even now, in Columbus, in Ukraine.  Everywhere.  This continues.
Jesus is on the path, with death on his left, and death on his right.  His walk to Jerusalem is not some bloody sacrifice needed to appease an angry god.  He is the embodiment of divine love and divine vulnerability, offering life, offering a future beyond the violence that upholds the current order.
His preferred image of himself in this act is that of a mothering bird, a hen, stretching out her wing, gathering the brood under her strong protective warmth.  That’s what I was going for by the slight arc in that line on the right.  Evoking the image of the wing.
So I guess that is one contrast between this story and the other.  In the first, the animals are cut and laid open to initiate the covenant.  Here, Jesus expresses his longing to gather the creatures whole and well.
I think I somehow managed to make it this far without once mentioning Turn or Return, so I better end with this.  The themes of these stories are themes we continually return to throughout life.  Fear of living an insignificant or forgotten life; Hopes that the best of ourselves gets passed to future generations and that those generations have a secure and peaceful place to call home; The covenants we make with our god, others, and ourselves; The path we must walk despite its risks; Human suffering; God’s role, or lack of role within history; The place of sacrifice – or something else entirely – that puts us on that path that leads to life and more life.  We could go on. 
We return to these themes throughout life, throughout scripture, throughout the church year.  \
What these stories don’t give us is absolute assurance about the future.  But we do get of way of being in the present that makes the future a more inhabitable place.  A place that’s worth turning towards.  A place where grace has not been snuffed out by violence.  A place where there’s room in the land for all, including nonhuman creatures large and small.