Delivered 24 February 2013, the 2nd Sunday in Lent (Year C) by the Rev. Mary Slenski.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34, nrsv)
This phrase of lament is the source text for the blessing I’m going to use at the end of our worship today. I just wanted to let you know that first in case it catches you by surprise:
May the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jesus Christ, born of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.”
Jerusalem. George and I have had the privilege of spending time there in two different trips. We spent two weeks at St. George’s College in 2009, just before I was ordained a priest. Then last Lent we went back to Israel with a group of friends and spent another two weeks at the college.
As much as I value having walked the land that Jesus walked, touched the waters of the Galilee and seen the same landscape that he did, I found Jerusalem a very difficult place to be, especially the Old City and the West Bank. It’s complicated. It’s a place filled with prayer: Jews praying at the Western Wall, the Muslim calls to prayer, and Christian pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa. It’s also a place of fear. I heard fear in the stories of Israelis and Palestinians we talked with. I saw it in the constant presence of weapons and walls and fences.
On both trips, I visited what might be called ground zero for the three so-called “religions of the Book” (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity): the Temple Mount aka Haram Al-Sharif aka the Dome of the Rock. Solomon built there. Jesus prayed there and taught there. Jesus got angry enough to cause a demonstration up there. Mohammed rode to heaven from there. Tradition and history add even more layers to the holy weight of this piece of land. And along with the weight comes conflict and discomfort.
Everyone asks why—why is it like this? The best way I’ve found to come to grips with it is based in the nature of holiness itself. The more holy something or someone or some place is believed to be, the deeper the contrast between it—the sacred—and everything else—the profane. Think of Jesus’ encounters with evil spirits. They were the first to name Jesus as the Holy One of God.
One of my Old Testament professors used to say that the border between sacred and profane is like the stuff that causes nuclear reactions. Without careful handling, uncontrolled explosion erupts.
I can at least understand the fear of the people because it’s based in the deep memory of near-genocide on both sides. But the hopes of all of the people of the land are, at least from the ones I’ve talked to, the same as any of us: peace, hope, life, a future and a blessing from the one God we all share.
Jesus’ lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” voices a desire that rings as true today as it did then for safety and security and care of all the people of that land. Perhaps Jesus understood better than anyone that this is the place of relationship. This is not only the spot where it’s possible to connect with God. It’s the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another.1
Our offering during Holy Week will be sent to the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The schools and hospitals working under the diocese’s umbrella work admirably to educate and heal without regard to religious identity or passport, one of the few agencies to do so.
The three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all lay claim to the Holy Land and to Abram as their ancestor. Bruce Feiler, who wrote Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths wrote:
He is the figure that stands at the dawn of every subsequent endeavor. He holds the breadth of the past—and perhaps the dimensions of the future—in his life story.
The great patriarch of the Hebrew Bible is also the spiritual forefather of the New Testament and the grand holy architect of the Koran….He is the linchpin of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the
centerpiece of the battle between the West and Islamic extremists. He is the father—in many cases, the purported biological father—of 12 million Jews, 2 billion Christians, and 1 billion Muslims around the world. He is history’s first monotheist.
And he is largely unknown.2
When we first meet Abram in the Bible, he is like the desert where he lives. The desert doesn’t have any water; it’s a barren place. And Abram doesn’t have any children; he and his wife are barren too. This nomad and his wife and servants are wandering in the desert because God told Abram to go there with a promise that a great nation of blessing would come from him. And time goes on, they get older, and still no children. No future. In a word, barrenness. Abram goes to battle to rescue his nephew. He establishes a relationship with King Melchizedek of Salem (Salem—think Jerusalem) and they share a meal of bread and wine and blessing. All this and still no children, no future—barrenness. And then Abram has a vision, which is today’s reading.
In his dream, Abram laments the emptiness of their life and pushes back. You could even say he argues with God. And somehow he knows. The word of the Lord comes to him and he is reminded in the overwhelming expansiveness of a cloudless desert night sky that his descendants will outnumber the stars. Abram receives the stars as a sign of the power of God in his life. He connects the visible with his unseen future.3 There’s no rational reason for this leap. It is a leap of faith. He is connected to it all.
We read the verse that is the core of the Abram saga: “And he believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” To be righteous is to trust in God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present. There will be a new Genesis.4
And Abram questions the Lord right back. How? How am to know? He doubts. Faith and doubt, hand in hand. The messiness that follows in our reading of a goat and a heifer and birds being cut in two and piled up is really a description of an ancient Middle Eastern covenant ceremony—except this one’s one-sided. God, symbolized by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that passes between the halves of the animals, God is the one taking on the promise, told to Abram in the vivid dream. Abram, whose name means “Father is exalted,” will be renamed as Abraham, “Father of a Multitude.” In the barren desert, a people will be created.
Now Abraham may be the Father of the Multitude and the great ancestor of three great religions, but he’s far from perfect in his actions. To read the whole saga in a sitting is to sometimes wonder how this story made it into our sacred writings. God’s promise manifested itself in a very messy human being.
There’s more barrenness around us than we choose to acknowledge. For some it literally is childlessness. For some children—anyone who can’t read, for that matter—the future is barren of opportunity. For many of our young adults, the desert is underemployment. For others it’s retirement or loss of independence or drought-stricken fields. For some—and I hear this one incredibly often—it’s the empty pews in our churches that once were full. One might say there’s a barrenness of cooperation in Washington. For some, it’s just this mid-February time of winter. But amid the barrenness of winter, the snowdrops in the garden bloomed last week.
The faith of Abraham is in the word which will overcome the barrenness of the world. In signs and visions and thoughts and dreams and deep knowing and even in our sacred story, that Word is still speaking. Let our faith be as Abraham’s. He or she who has eyes to see and ears to hear, look and listen. The Word IS still speaking. Amen.
1. Bruce Feller, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, 14.
2. Ibid., 9.
3. Walter Breuggemann, Genesis, Interpretation series, 145.
4. Ibid., 146.