Cutting a Covenant
The Rev. Amy Spagna
Lent 2C – February 21, 2016 Genesis 15:1 12, 17 18
Everywhere I’ve looked this week, it’s seemed like the dual currents of, “That isn’t fair!” and “I’m really anxious!” have been in the water. This nation lost a sitting Supreme Court justice, and a great deal of hand wringing and political wrangling over his replacement began only hours after the news of his death broke. Closer to home, the headlines are filled with stories detailing the ongoing arguments about how to finance badly needed repairs to Rhode Island’s bridges and roads. And on a personal note, my friend Rachel, who was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer a little less than two years ago, got yet another piece of not so good news about the progress of her treatment. There is so much about her situation which is definitely not fair. Needless to say, it’s grown into a major cause for worry for all of us who know and love her. Those of us in that circle who are people of faith have often found ourselves asking not only where God is in all this, but also how God could possibly leave us all without the abundance of long friendship that was promised when we met as college freshmen. The only consistent answer we’ve gotten has been along the lines of, “Don’t be afraid, because I’m in this with you.” At times, it’s felt like a kind of cold comfort, though in the absence of some miracle cure, it’s about all we have to go on.
We find Abram in much that same boat this morning. Having wandered far from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans on nothing more than a promise of land and descendants, he’s been left to wonder if those things will ever come to fruition in his lifetime. The blessings and the promises he’s received up to this point on his journey are all fine and good. However, they aren’t enough to make Abram feel more secure about his future and that of his family. It’s not a surprise that he’d be thinking about it, at his age. At this point in the story, he’s already 75 years old. His wife Sarai is 65. Both of them are ancient by the standards of their day, so it’s easy to imagine they are thinking about it, hard.
It’s not that their travels have left them with nothing. They have substantial wealth in the form of their herds, as well as the belongings and human resources they’ve brought with them. By the standards of their day, they are fairly well off. And yet, they are still missing something. Abram’s chief complaint is that all this wandering through the desert has left him without the one thing he really wanted, and that was a blood heir. That he’s without one is not ideal, though is not the end of the world. He does have a contingency plan in the person of Eliezer of Damascus, who is a slave in Abram’s household. However, that he’s had to make this plan really bothers him. He’s not afraid to let God know it, either. In a very short span, he says twice, “You have given me no offspring!”
With this statement, it’s almost as if Abram is accusing God of failing to live up to God’s end of the bargain. I imagine the lead up to the conversation we just overheard between the two of them might have gone something like this: “Hi, God. It’s Abram – you know, the guy you asked to leave the security of his home a few years ago. What exactly are you doing here? I’ve walked thousands of miles and narrowly avoided getting into serious
trouble a few times to boot, all because you promised me land and children. I’m kind of tired, and could really use a break – or at least, some sign that you’re still out there and are going to hold up your end of this bargain.”
And so God appears to Abram in a vision, where we get the meat of Abram’s complaint. It’s a very serious thing to try to charge God with not keeping God’s end of the bargain – which is the heart of what Abram is trying to say. His words stem from something common to the human condition, and that’s fear. I don’t mean the kind of fear which leads us to run away from an animal with large claws and big, sharp, pointy teeth. The kind of fear Abram expresses here is the existential sort which makes us wonder what we have to show for everything we’ve done, and if any of it mattered at all. His question is that of a man who is wondering what his reward is for being faithful to this God who’s pulled him out of his home and asked him to wander thousands of miles “to a land I will show you.” If he’s going to feel better, Abram HAS to know how God can be trusted, particularly when God’s sense of timing in fulfilling a promise isn’t in sync with Abram’s sense of what’s proper.1 I’m also told that Abram’s response to God’s initial appearance in his dream can be paraphrased as, “Really?” complete with all the curiosity and frustration it implies. God has yet to make real the promise of descendants, so maybe Abram’s real question is, “What will you give me? Is my reward to be something other than children?”2
God’s response? Don’t worry! “You won’t be able to count how many children you will have!”
And Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, NRSV)
This tells us as much about God’s character as it does Abram’s, and that’s how both of them are pretty darned good at keeping promises. The Hebrew in this verse is ambiguous at best, which leaves open the distinct possibility that the description of “righteous” could apply to both of them. One way to read it is as we just heard: Abram believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness. In other words, Abram trusted God’s promise. In return, God indicated that the patriarch had fulfilled the obligations of his relationship by such trust. But this sentence might also be understood like this: “Abram believed the Lord; aye, Abram reckoned that God’s doubling down on the promise was God living up to the obligations of his relationship.”3
Living up to those obligations is what “righteousness” is about. God knows this, so to show how serious God is about it, God does what is called “cutting a covenant. “Abram cuts a bunch of animals in half, and then God, in the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, passes between the pieces. It seems like an odd practice to us now, though it was not
1 Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 6.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730. 2 Ibid.
3 Ralph Klein, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 12, 17 18” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1599.
all that unusual in the cultures of the part of the world where Abram was traveling. It was commonly used to seal agreements between two vastly unequal parties – for example, God and Abram – with the understanding that breaking that agreement would result in the offending party’s being cut in half and then burned like the animal carcasses. God’s being the one to pass between the pieces places God in the position of suffering the consequences, instead of Abram. It marks God as a righteous God who keeps promises. And as we know, God did finally deliver the goods to Abram, in the form of Isaac and all those who came after him. For his part, Abram was no less worthy. He passed every test God threw at him with flying colors, living to the age of 175 and dying, “an old man and full of years” (Genesis 25:8, NRSV).
At the very heart of the interaction between Abram and God are two big things: faith, and trust. If Abram can see and understand that righteousness is THE hallmark of God’s character, and that as a result God will make good on God’s promises, then Abram can believe and trust that things will come out as God says, and in God’s good time.4 And so too can we put our faith and trust in God’s ability to show up in our lives, whether asked to or not, instead of doubting whether we’ll get what was promised. In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier summed it up this way: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.”5
The ability to be open to the new and unimagined possibility does not automatically take away our anxiety or fear. We have to work at it. As people who claim to have faith in, and be imitators of, Jesus Christ, it means cultivating trust, not only in each other, but especially in this God who has an uncanny knack for being present when it is the absolutely last thing we expect. For my friend Rachel, it probably won’t cure her cancer. What it has done instead is helped those she’s invited to walk with her to learn how we can best be there with her and with each other. It starts with simply showing up and listening, instead of speaking all the unhelpful platitudes our own anxiety about losing her pushes to the surface. It’s even made us stop to count the number of stars in the sky along the way. That infinity is what we’re promised – and it goes well beyond what we have in front of us right now.
4 Sara Koenig, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1 6.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730.
5 Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2006), 47.