Tagged with Lent 2019

Bargaining with God

Genesis 15:1-18

When Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, they get amazing news from God. This aging, childless couple is going to become the source of a great nation, in a land that God will show them. Through them, God will bless all the families of the earth.

Abram and Sarai carry this incredible promise with them as they follow God’s call on a big adventure, travelling from their homeland to Bethel, and from Bethel to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Bethel. They hold onto this promise as they establish a home in Bethel, building their wealth, and waiting. They treasure this promise year after year after year after year, and still: no baby. No nation. No blessings.

Then the word of God comes to Abram in a vision, as we heard in the reading this morning. God says: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But by this time, Abram has a question. “God, what will you give me, for I continue childless… You have given me no offspring.”  God reassures Abram that he will have a child, and tells him: “Look towards heaven and count the stars… so shall your descendants be.” Apparently, looking up at all the stars God created is persuasive, for the scriptures tell us that Abram believes God; and that God reckons it to him as righteousness.

As the story continues, God goes on to reassure Abram about the second part of the original promise: the land Abram’s people will live in. God says, “I am the one who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”  But again, Abram has a question. “O God,” Abram asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”  God explains that Abram’s offspring will be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years, but later come to claim the land. Then God establishes a covenant with Abram, that his ancestors will inherit the land.

I wonder how Abram feels, after this second encounter with God, about the bargain he has made. 

Abram does not seem to hesitate at all, if you go back to chapter 12, when God first makes grand promises and asks great things of him.  But by the time God checks back in, in the scriptures today, many years later, things have changed. Abram’s simple trust and absolute faithfulness to God’s call have been strained. It has been so long. So, Abram dares to ask questions. “What will you give me, for I remain childless?”  “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God reassures Abram that the promises She gave him are true. And, according to our biblical text, those promises ARE true. And yet, the promises are not true in quite the way that Abram probably assumed. Abram and Sarai will bear a child – but only after years of uncertainty, conflict, and grief. Their descendants will inhabit a great land – but only after hundreds of years of slavery. 

Abram and Sarai receive great promises, they embark on a journey with God. But God’s point of view, God’s sense of time, are so much grander than Abram’s.  Abram has an awful lot of waiting to do, before the promises are fulfilled.

Have you ever felt that something was owed to you? Something promised, and not yet fulfilled? Something delayed, perhaps beyond your lifetime? 

This week the news broke about a college admissions scandal. Extremely wealthy parents have been paying to cheat the system, so that their children might enter elite institutions. Of course, as many folks point out, this is only part of a much larger problem. Wealthy parents have always used money to gain access for their children in schools and beyond.  Most of the ways we do it are even legal: extensive and expensive preparation, massive donations, and personal connections.  What’s more, most of the kids who receive this kind of boost already have other unfair advantages, like white privilege.

It’s easy to look at this admissions scandal and wonder: what could these parents have been thinking? I can’t imagine bribing my kid into college (maybe I’ll change my mind about that in 10 years or so). But if I’m honest, I’m familiar with the very seductive feeling of wanting my kid to have the best. I want my children to have every good thing. I am thrilled by the quality of daycare and public education available here in Concord, even as my conscience struggles with the imbalance between opportunities here, and elsewhere.  I don’t really know what I’d be capable of, if they had a need I couldn’t meet legally, and ethically.

There are some things we want so much that logic, and even ethics, do not always have the final call in our reasoning. The things we want may be good things, or bad things, or somewhere in between.  They may be things we want for ourselves, or things we want for those we love. Regardless, sometimes our desire is so fierce that we are overcome by a sense of personal entitlement.  It seems like the world owes this thing to us in particular, or even, that God owes it to us. This conviction leads, sometimes, to crime; sometimes, to perfectly legal manipulations of the system; and sometimes simply to a corrosive conviction that we are being cheated out of something we deserve.

Most of us know this experience on some level: unfulfilled desire, ambition, longing. It’s a more complicated question, though, to ask what we really deserve, or what we’ve really been promised, by God or by anyone else. That requires teasing apart layers of harmful privilege and entitlement or personal desire from more admirable longings that are often tied up in the same issues: longings to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with justice, and to protect ourselves and those we care for.

I’m not sure it’s wise to make bargains with God. If I do this, then you’ll do that. If you’ll do that, then I’ll do this. God’s so much bigger than us, so hard for us to understand.  Would we really get what we expected out of the deal? I’m not even sure that God does make bargains; maybe we just sometimes think that we’ve made them with her.

Putting our trust in God, as Abram did, is not so much about striking a bargain. It’s more like participating in a relationship. When we’re in a relationship, we sometimes need to clarify expectations, and renegotiate responsibilities. Sometimes we even get really mad, or need to take a time-out. The important thing is staying in conversation, as long as we can be safe doing so. Most of the adult people of faith I know have had to have some serious talks with God, somewhere along the way.

Abram, who we come to know as Abraham, is a hero in at least four faith traditions. He’s an example of what it means to trust God.  He keeps following God, even though he’s not really sure what God’s promises will mean for him or his descendants. There’s room in his relationship with God for disappointment and pain, wonder and awe, trust and doubt. Abram just stays in the conversation with God, no matter what happens.  He sticks with God, as God sticks with him.  Abram teaches us that faith in God can bless a life, and that God’s blessing can passed along, again and again, generation after generation, even amidst the great injustices and uncertainties of life.

Please pray with me.

Holy God, help me sift through the longings of my heart, the desires of my mind, to better distinguish what yearnings lead me towards you, towards justice, peace, and healing for all of your creation. Where beautiful longings cannot be met, grant me comfort. Where good yearnings must wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, stay with me. Where my desires can prompt actions towards positive change, empower me. Where my desires are instead graspings for power, privilege, security, only for me and mine: teach me to let go, and put my trust in you instead. Amen.

A Community Garden

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

Gnarled Tree Roots — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Our human bodies, in other words, are earth; as we know also from the second story of Creation, in which God forms us by hand from clay.

We are dust; we are earth; we are clay. Our bodies are like little plots of land, temporarily assigned to us by the organizer of an enormous community garden.

Have you ever spent time in a community garden, one of the ones divided into little individual plots? In warmer weather, I often walk through the one on the side of Cousins’ field, a few blocks away from here. I love seeing how different each section of the garden is. Some folks have elaborate fencing, while others seem unconcerned with protecting their borders. Some folks lay down straw between their plantings, others woodchips. Some use black plastic to keep down the weeds. Some folks fill their whole plot with tomato plants, so that by August there are an unbelievable number of heavy, red tomatoes sagging on the vine; almost too many to pick, even on a few square yards of land. Other folks plant a great variety of things: eggplants and zuchinnis and pumpkins, several kinds of lettuce, a selection of herbs, borders of colorful flowers, and accents of whimsical garden decor. Some plots show the marks of a meticulously ordered mind, and dedicated daily care, while others are beautiful in their wildness.

I wonder: what kind of garden are you growing, on your little plot of God’s green earth?

Our scriptures are full of plants, both literal and symbolic. Our first scripture this morning, from Deuteronomy, works on both levels. It speaks of the importance of bringing the first fruits of our harvest to God. God has done so much for us, and for our ancestors, the scripture argues, that it is only right that our very first fruits should be shared with God and with God’s people. “You shall set [your offering] down before God and bow down. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that God has given to you.” (Deut. 26:11)

Our second scripture passage speaks not of abundance, but the lack of it. Out in the bleakness of the wilderness, far from water, and without any food at all, Jesus contends with the devil. What will he do, what will he say, while deprived and depleted in the desert?

The Hebrew scriptures describe how God nourishes us with water, so that our leaves will never wilt (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8).  God sometimes destroys plants in scripture, ripping them out of the ground or even burning their roots.  Other roots, like the root of Jesse, are miraculously preserved.

In the Greek scriptures, Jesus uses parables about seeds to describe how the good news of the gospel grows, or fails to grow, in the soil of our lives.  He curses a fig tree that does not bear fruit (Matthew 21:19). Jesus also says, “I am the true vine.. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (John 15:1, 5)

The letters of the early Church in our scriptures are surprisingly full of plant imagery as they describe the identity and spiritual health of new Christian communities. We are compared to a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the existing plant of faith (Romans 11). We are instructed that the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10) and warned of the danger of a root of bitterness in our communities (Hebrews 12:15). We are told that we are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17). And in the letter to the Colossians, we hear: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

At the very end of our bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2), and just a few verses later, Jesus proclaims: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16

In all this rich plant imagery, it’s hard to pick a favorite text, but I am particularly drawn to a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon that I hadn’t remembered (7:15, 17-22):

May God grant me to speak with judgement,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for God is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise…
For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits* and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

O to know the virtues of roots!
Imagine that your body is a small plot of land, a temporary assignment in a community garden as large as the universe. There’s a lot we can’t control about the plot of land we are given. We can’t change the kind of soil we have, the sun exposure, the natural rainfall, which plots border ours. But there’s many variables we do have a choice about: what we plant, and what we pull up. How we employ mulch, and manure, and irrigation.  Whether we undertake staking and pest control.

What kind of garden are you growing, with the plot of land you were given?  Is there anything about your gardening habits that you’d like to change?

As we start this season, I encourage all of you to consider claiming a Lenten practice: something you will intentionally do or not do, this season. It may be that you have too much of something in your garden right now: aphids, or acidity, or technology, or plastic, or self-criticism.  It may be that you have too little of something in your garden right now: nutrients, or water, or movement, or meaningful human connection.

Come see our strips of soil and add your own!

Let’s take a moment now to consider at least one thing that you could do, if only for these forty days of Lent, that would bring greater health to your garden. If you are moved, and if you have not already done so, please write down your commitment (anonymously) on a brown strip of paper, to be dedicated here today, and to encourage and inspire others here.

On Ash Wednesday, those who were here started some new roots, by placing plant cuttings in water, in the jars that are now in our entryway. As the season starts, we’re also enriching our soil, with these pieces of paper, these commitments to ourselves, and our community, and to our world.  Who knows what could grow, if we only grant ourselves what we truly need?

Please pray with me: Holy God, I am a humble little plot in your great creation, dust and dirt, earth and clay, seeded by your Spirit. Please forgive my inexpert gardening, and grant me the grace to keep on trying, while I learn from you about the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. Build up my soil, and establish my soul until it grows strong, flourishing in all seasons. May I bear abundant fruit, offering my first fruits to you, sharing my bounty with neighbors and strangers, and in good time, returning my plot to your careful stewardship. Amen.