Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lent 2C

I remember as a child going with Mum and Dad to see a circus.  Back then, of course, the entertainment options were a bit more limited - when the circus came to town, that was a big deal.   Everything about the circus was larger than life, fascinating and scary and exciting all at the same time.  I was spellbound by the clowns, amazed by their disruptiveness - the clowns respected nothing and nobody, creating mischief and wreaking petty vengeance on one another.  The lion tamer was impossibly brave, even putting his head right inside one of the lions mouths.  But for sheer terror, for raw, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat fear, nothing beat the tight-rope and the flying trapeze.  Way up in the air, stretched between the great poles that supported the big top, the tight-rope and the swings, the little platforms where the acrobats waited to catch each others hands and swing out over the sickening nothingness below them.  Of course the clowns had no fear, climbing up with their ridiculous little mono-cycles and actually riding along the tightrope, even going backwards, piggy-back, standing on each other’s shoulders.  While the proper trapeze artists actually flung themselves into space, calculating precisely that their partner would be at the right point of the long swing to catch them.  Right down below, it seemed hundreds of feet below, was of course the safety net.  I’ll never forget seeing one of the clowns fall, landing on his back in the net, being flung up into space again, making a big deal of it. 

It was many years later, as an adult I think, that I first saw acrobats performing all this horrifying stuff without a safety net.  And two questions occurred to me - one - why would anybody in their right mind do this for a living? - and two - how much courage would it take to do it for the first time, say, when you’re an apprentice trapeze artist, and the Great Waldo saunters past and says “hey you kid! - grab hold of that swing and just fling yourself out there and let go and stretch out your hands.  Just trust me - I’ll be there to catch you”. 

And it strikes me that sometimes we need that sort of courage just in our everyday lives.  That every now and then we find ourselves having to launch out into space, to strike out in a totally new direction, take on new responsibilities, to trust in the goodwill and competence of others, or else to be the one who calms the anxieties of others so they can take that first big step into the unknown.  The essence, it seems to me, of being a good trapeze artist is to be able to predict the future, to be able to see the trajectory before you commit yourself to it and to be able to predict where you’re going to end up.  And to be able to lean into the future, to trust it enough to be able to let go of the safety platform.

Yes, I’m talking about Sarah and Abraham, but I’m also talking about times of decision and times of utter dependence that every one of us faces from time to time.  Abraham and Sarah are already up there on the flying trapeze, they’ve already flung themselves off the platform and there’s no safety net, no Plan B.  Abraham had a nice little life happening back there in Ur of the Chaldeans, somewhere in Mesopotamia, he is married to Sarah, or Sarai, who apparently is also his half-sister, and everything is going along just fine until Abraham’s brother Haran dies and his father Terah apparently goes a bit potty with grief and decides to take the whole family to Canaan.  They only get a little way down the road, however, to a place coincidentally enough also called Haran - I’m not making this up, the whole family ends up in a town that has the same name as the deceased, where old Terah calls it a day and dies. [1]  Maybe the point is that it’s confused little family stories like this one that can also be a part of God’s creative purposes.

And then God speaks to Abraham - or as he is then called - Abram - for the first time.  Sarah, we’ve already been told, is unable to have children.  This is a poignant, human tragedy, the writer of Genesis doesn’t spell it out because in ancient society it’s all too obvious.  Not having children means having no future, not experiencing God’s blessing.  This is way before the people of Israel started believing in an afterlife, also way before age pensions and Medicare.  If you got old without children, your life was precarious; if you died without children, you were forgotten as though you had never existed.  Having children meant your family would continue, your name would be remembered and you would die surrounded by God’s blessings.  When we hear that Sarah and Abraham can’t have children we need to imagine not just disappointment but real anxiety and fear - this couple stand to disappear without a trace.  And God says - this is the beginning of chapter 12 – just trust me.  Go to Canaan, an unthinkably remote place, more or less the Wild West of the ancient world - don’t go back, go forward, keep going the way mad old Terah started out on.  Trust me, I will bless you, and through you the peoples of the whole world are also going to blessed.  In other words, close your eyes, let go of the flying trapeze and jump – and I, the Great Waldo, will catch you. 

Incidentally, Abraham and Sarah put paid to the idea that God never expects anything new from old people.  Abraham is seventy five when he starts his great journey.  Maybe Sarah’s about sixty.  This couple should be the patron saints of grey nomads everywhere.  You can do it.

And in the text we read this morning, God speaks to Abraham and Sarah again, saying to them, ‘don’t be afraid’.  By my count this is now the fourth time God has repeated his promise of blessing – Abraham has grown in power and prestige, down in Egypt in chapter 12 he comes off looking shifty and dishonest, trying to pass Sarai off as just his sister backfires when Pharaoh takes a bit of a shine to her himself, then in chapters 13 and 14, after separating from his nephew Lot, Abram shows that he has learned a few ethical lessons, allying himself with the local Canaanite kings to defeat a common enemy.  And now God speaks to Abraham again, repeating the promise of blessing and making it more specific – descendents more numerous than the stars, and the land in which you now live as a resident alien will be your own possession.  And when Abraham points out the improbable-ness of all this, God raises the stakes – binding the pledge in a covenant ritual of a sort that would have been common enough between ancient warlords.  The animals are cut in two and at twilight, in the form of smoke and fire, God passes between the remains.  It’s an extreme form of oath that, when it sealed a promise between two rival warlords means, “if I don’t do what I promise, may I be cut in two like these animals”.  A lot now rides on this promise – for God, for Abraham, and for all Abraham and Sarah’s descendents, including us. 

How much power, I wonder, does this story that comes to us from an ancient nomadic people still have to help us understand what God’s promises mean to us today?  The promise to Abraham will become a central fixed point in the self-understanding of Israel, central also to the Christian understanding of what it means to live in Christ.  All through the history of God’s people we hear the same words, “do not be afraid” – and the reason why – because God is in charge, God has promised to be with us, and God is at work underneath everything. So no matter what things may look like, we can be assured that whatever happens, God is good and God is to be trusted.

It might be easy to dismiss this as “feel-good” theology, too bright and optimistic to be of any use in a world where millions are displaced by war or famine, where millions die every year from preventable childhood diseases or HIV/AIDS, where hundreds of thousands die in a single earthquake, where every one of us lives with limitation and failure and regret, not to mention the certainty of our own mortality.  But as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman points out, God’s promise is not just an assurance to a childless old couple but a fundamental definition of the relationship between God and God’s people, a defining hope in a world of danger and uncertainty.  In the verses today’s lectionary reading inexplicably left out, God mentions to Abraham that 400 years of exile and slavery would pass before his descendents would even see the land of God’s promise.  And yet – it’s an invitation to the future – an invitation to lean forward into the future that God imagines for us, even when the horizon of God’s promise is far more distant than the horizon of our own lives.  An invitation, in other words, to see the world as God sees it, to trust God’s promises with our lives, even when we are unable to see the outcome of those promises.  The promise to Abraham establishes that God, first and foremost, is oriented toward the future, that the intention of God is for Abraham and Sarah, and all their descendents including we ourselves – to be a blessing to the world around us.  God’s fundamental promise to Abraham establishes us as a people oriented toward the future, and toward others.

The world we live in is fearful.  The geography and climate of our planet are unstable, and threaten our confidence in the future.  Global power relationships are unstable and violent, and we respond by investing billions of dollars in military equipment, placing the lives of young people on the line but failing to make ourselves feel secure.  Fragile water and energy resources and global financial instability shake our complacency.  And we are overwhelmed by the fragility and impermanence of our own lives, the weakness and the mortality of our own bodies.  In an age of individualism, an age where anxiety reigns supreme as never before, how do we trust?

Theologian Timothy Shapiro calls us to reflect on the power of covenant to draw us in to awareness of God’s presence and God’s purpose in our lives, a covenant that both signifies God’s promise and calls for our response - like any potentially life-changing relationship, he says, it only works if you work at it.  The power of covenant is that it transforms us from being passive recipients to being participants or partners in God's creative promise.  Ultimately, when the Great Waldo beckons us from the flying trapeze from the other end of the big top, we are being challenged to redraw the horizons of our own expectations.

Trust me.  Trust that the future is defined, not by chaos or chance but by the word of God.  Trust that in you, and in the children of the covenant, the people of the world will be blessed.


[1] Gen 11.28-32; 20.12