So last night I spent the final hours of the day pounding my head against a sermon that WOULD. NOT. BE. WRITTEN. It happens like that sometimes. It's no crime to admit you can't bring a new word every single week, particularly if you've got something in the hopper that folks where you're at haven't heard before. That was the case this morning.
In the interest of full disclosure, my last paragraph was new, inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor. Would that I could preach like that once in a while!
These are your words, Lord. Your word is truth. Lead us into the truth. Amen.
Question 1: share with your neighbor about a time in your life when you were absolutely certain about something and you were wrong. What was it like?
Question 2: share with another neighbor about a time in your life when you had to trust that something was going to be okay, even though you were really anxious about it. How did things turn out? Did you survive that experience, or is it still haunting you?
The story of Abram and Sarai is a story of a family that learned to trust God in the midst of great anxiety about what God was doing. In Genesis 12, God spoke to Abram and asked him to leave his father’s land and family in the land of Ur and move to the land of Canaan. This move is most easily described today as a move from Baghdad to Jerusalem – a 400 mile journey, on foot, following the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the northwest, then coming down the land of Palestine with flocks and servants and their own families. It is the story of a move away from safety and the certainty of Abram’s inheritance to an unknown land where Abram would be a sojourner, surrounded by strangers and constantly dealing with different tribes, kings and other nomads. The story of the move by itself is astounding – the fact that Abram’s family worshiped the territorial gods of the Ancient Near East until God called Abram is even more astonishing.
Abram’s story of trust and anxiety doesn’t end in Genesis 12. In our reading today from Genesis 15, Abram confronted God with this fact: Abram had no heir to his flocks and possessions, and the great blessings God had promised Abram would go to a slave if Abram were to die at that moment. In Abram’s time, your legacy after your death came through your children; with no children, Abram and Sarai’s legacy would be poor at best. But God confirmed the earlier promises to Abram. When God instructed Abram to sacrifice the animals in the way Genesis describes, God was making a covenant with Abram. God was saying, in essence, “if I do not keep my promises, may I become like these animals, dead and torn to pieces.” It was common for both parties to pass between the animals as a sign of their covenant, but in this story God was the only one bound by the covenant: Abram was only asked to trust that the promises would be fulfilled.
The story of Abram & Sarai went through many more twists and turns before they died. They changed their names: “Abram,” meaning “he is exalted,” became “Abraham,” meaning “Father of a multitude.” Sarai also changed her name to Sarah, bearing evidence that God’s covenant will indeed change the both of them.They tried to take the matter of an heir into their own hands; Sarah made her slave, Hagar, sleep with Abraham, and that son, Ishmael, is commonly known as the father of the Arabic peoples of the world. But God insisted: they were promised a legitimate heir, and they would have a legitimate heir. Sarah laughed at the thought of becoming pregnant at age 90, so when Sarah bore Abraham a son, God instructed them to name the child “Isaac,” meaning “She laughs.” Abraham & Sarah lived long lives and only began to see the beginnings of the blessings God promised to them. Their whole story is marked by anxiety and trust: anxiety because they didn’t understand the situations in which they often found themselves, and trust that somehow God would accomplish God’s goals, even when Abraham and Sarah got in the way by attempting to protect God and themselves by their own deeds.
Come forward in time, then, around 2,000 years. Jesus was preaching and teaching throughout Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. He was beginning to develop a great following: people came to be healed by his touch, to learn from his wisdom and to be his disciples. Even some of the Pharisees were amazed and intrigued by this roaming teacher from Nazareth. So when those Pharisees heard that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus, they grew anxious. “Jesus, get out of here,” they said. “Protect yourself,” they said. “Take the safe road,” they said. These Pharisees knew that Jesus was some kind of great blessing from God, but they weren’t confident that God would protect their blessing. So they warned Jesus to try and protect him – even though Jesus knew that protection and safety wasn’t where he was going.
It’s not an easy thing, to trust when you’re anxious. In fact, we’re not very good at it. The thing is, neither was Abraham, or any of the Old Testament heroes, for that matter. Abraham’s greatest mistakes were made when he didn’t have faith in God’s promises and tried to guarantee his own safety and security by himself. When King Saul was focused on God’s word, he was a good king, but when Saul tried to improve on God’s promises through his own work, he lost God’s favor. King David, Solomon, Moses – all of them are lifted up to us in our childhood as heroes of faith. But in reality these heroes struggled with trust and anxiety as much as anyone else in the Bible. The same goes for Peter, James, John, Matthew, Andrew, Judas and all the other apostles and disciples in the New Testament. They knew that in Jesus they’d found something incredible, and they wanted, naturally, to protect this great blessing. But Jesus wasn’t born to be protected; he was born to reveal the kingdom of God, and if I might paraphrase C.S. Lewis here, the kingdom of God “isn’t safe, but it is good.”
In our gospel reading today, Jesus took the role of a prophet to God’s people. When he cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” Jesus was remembering the long history of Jerusalem’s pursuit of safety through other means. Israel was supposed to be God’s people, but even in the days after God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, the people’s anxiety kept them from trusting God first for their well-being. The world around them was an uncertain place, but rather than trusting in the certainty of God’s protection, Israel pursued money, political power and other idols to ensure their safety and protection. They did it so often that God was forced to walk out on them altogether to remind them that only God can provide what they need.Ezekiel 10-11 tells the story of God leaving the temple as the Babylonian armies gather outside the walls of Jerusalem. God will not be just another good-luck charm in our spiritual charm-bracelets: it is all or nothing with our passionate, recklessly-loving God.
Jesus himself, in today’s gospel reading, became an idol to be protected instead of a teacher to be followed, much less a Messiah to be worshiped. Imagine that: a people dedicated to God protecting that God too much! But just like Abraham, just like King David, just like the disciples and just like us today, the people who wanted to protect Jesus didn’t understand that God is not concerned with protection: God is concerned with faith; God is concerned with truth; God is concerned with life. There is no faith without fear, there is no truth without consequences, and there is no life without risk, vulnerability, and trust in anxious times. As “Some Kid” in the novel IT by Stephen King says, “You can’t be careful on a skateboard, man.”
A few years ago there was a show on the Discovery Channel that claimed archaeologists had found the tomb of Jesus’ family, that the bones of Jesus himself have been found and the resurrection is a hoax. I remember this only because it’s in my notes from the last time we all read this text in our lectionary: the show itself seems to have passed into the void, while Jesus and the church are still here. But you and I know that every once in a while, a movie or show or speaker comes around that gets the church worked up because it feels like God is “under attack.” To my mind, there are two problems with the way we go about handling these things. First, God doesn’t need our protection. Second, it’s good for the church to be challenged and reminded where our faith and trust should ultimately land: on God and God alone. Usually, when the church appears anxious about God, the church is really anxious about the church. We are not called to defend the church against every threat, real or imagined. As a pastor I know put it, “I’m far too concerned with what Christ means to me today to worry about the distant past or the distant future.” Our business is trusting in God in today’s circumstances, living between that trust and the anxiety that surrounds us and can drive us away from our trust in God.
Sometimes our desire for safety and certainty can be opposed to God’s will. When that happens, God’s words to us turn into lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” That isn’t a critique of one group of people or another rejecting Jesus – it’s a lament that rises out of God’s heartbreak over our rejection of God throughout history. The greatest errors of the church have often been made in an attempt to guarantee safety and certainty. The Crusades, the forces working against the Reformation, the split between Roman & Eastern churches in 1100 A.D., slavery, civil rights, the fierce debate over evolution; all these are moments when the church was more concerned with protection and certainty than faith and truth. The Pharisees in today’s gospel reading weren’t the only ones guilty of protecting God too much – it’s happened before, and it will happen again, and we will be the ones guilty of that over-protection.
The point of Christian living is not certainty: it is faith. Certainty requires proof before a relationship of any consequence is granted. The walls of certainty may offer protection, but they also prevent any genuine interaction with the rest of the world. Absolute certainty eliminates all vulnerability, and without vulnerability no relationship is ever genuine and no love is ever authentic. Being vulnerable brings about anxiety, for we leave ourselves unprotected, but being vulnerable also allows us to learn to trust one another as real persons who follow Jesus. The point of Christian living is faith, and faith is what happens when we learn to live between trust and anxiety. “The picture [of] faith painted here is one that denies any surety of belief, other than that which comes from the relationship with the One who stands behind the promise. All ultimately depends on the faithfulness of the Lord. This passage does not portray doubt or anxiety as something foreign to the person of faith. Quite the contrary! We see in Abraham one who lives in the tension between trust and anxiety. Faith, which is reckoned to be righteousness, is precisely that.”
Even the mother hen cannot protect the mission of God's love. She will die for her babies, wings outstretched, brought down by the fox. But protection was never what God was about. The resurrection was the overcoming of protection - the overwhelming of certainty - the rebuttal to the fox's insistence that death is the final word. The hen will arise to cover her chicks once more. May Christ shelter you under His wings and keep you safe, brothers and sisters, and give you the faith you need – the faith to live between trust and anxiety. Amen.