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Thursday
Mar212019

The Second Sunday in Lent - March 17, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

This immigrant was presumptuous. He believed God told him to uproot his family and move to another land. It doesn’t seem like he had good reason to move. Now he had a reasonably good and safe life. He had financial security. But still he chose to emigrate. Still he believed God was calling him to be an immigrant. And maybe Abraham the immigrant wasn’t crazy given that Judaism, and Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins to his decision to leave southern Iraq and head to the promised land of Canaan.


Later on today, after our worship, our Caritas discussion group will be led by Jeanne Gallo, Sunny Robinson, and Sister Linda Bessom. They recently returned from the US/Mexico border and will be sharing with us about the often horrifying experience there of immigrants coming to this country from Central America. And those immigrants DID have economic and safety reasons to emigrate to escape brutal poverty and violence.


Obviously, it’s because of this discussion group that I am choosing to focus in on Abraham as an immigrant… or Abram as he’s still known as in today’s first reading.  And you know, there are implications that this great patriarch of our tradition is an immigrant that seem almost too obvious to require articulation. But, in our current political climate, where racism and xenophobia, and its promulgation, has made it to the highest seats and tweets of power in our country; and, across our whole world, where it feels to me like there has been an unleashing of a truly demonic level of hatred-- most recently seen in the shootings in mosques in New Zealand.  We’ve come to a time when preaching the obvious is sadly necessary.


So, God loves Muslims and immigrants every bit as much as everyone else. If God chose to bring three major world religions out of the travels of a wandering Aramean, then Muslims are to be valued and loved every bit as much as Christians, and immigrants are every bit to be valued as those that remain in the country of their origin. If God tells Abraham that he can take up residence in this foreign land of milk and honey, then we see that those who are born outside wealthier countries have every bit as much right to take advantage of the prosperity of those countries as those that are born in them… because the whole world is God’s. Citizenship is not ownership.


And, of course, if God loves and cares deeply for the immigrant, we should do. If God loves and cares deeply for the immigrant, then compassion and welcome not hatred and exclusion should be our ethic as a people and as a country.


But further I want to dig back into that Hebrew Scriptures reading because it’s interesting and, frankly, kind of weird. So, a little setting of the stage for the story. A few chapters earlier in Genesis is where Abram follows God’s call to leave Haran and travel to the land of Canaan. And he actually travels around a lot.

He makes it to Canaan but then has to leave and go to Egypt because of a famine. He then returns with his brother Lot but they have a disagreement, and so they each move to another part of the country. Abram is all over the place. And it is, at this moment, that today’s story picks up. Abram has this mystical vision where he hears God. And God promises that Abram will have a long line of descendents and will take up residence in this land. Abram does have faith but this still does not make any sense to him as he has no children and his life has been so nomadic. And here is where the story takes what is, to us, a bizarre turn. God tells Abram to get animals, cut them in two, and lay their halves out  separated. Abram does this and then falls into a deep, mystical sleep. And then, while Abram is some ambiguous state of consciousness, a fiery pot and torch appear and somehow pass between the pieces of the sacrificed animals.


Making sense of this is one of those things that you can’t really do without some study. So, what seems to be going on here is that there was this ancient near Eastern practice for making contracts between two parties. They would sacrifice animals, separate their parts, and then both parties, after making an agreement, would walk between the divided animals. And the purpose of this ritual was to say, “If either of us renege on our promise, may what happened to these animals happen to us.” From our modern vantage point this seems needlessly violent and abhorrent. But in an era when written contracts weren’t possible, it was the practice.


So, with this backdrop, God seems to be setting up Abram to do the same thing. To enter into a binding and conditional agreement with God to receive this blessing of descendents and land. But then Abram falls into the sleep and it is only the fiery pot and torch, which are symbols of God and God’s presence, that pass through the ritual space.  What looks like it’s going to be a conditional relationship becomes an unconditional one. God will bless Abraham no matter what.


Now, this is good Protestant theology. Martin Luther would be happy here. Grace not works. That sort of thing. Blessing comes to us not because we earn it or deserve it but simply because it is in God’s loving nature to give it.


But I do find it interesting that Abram has this mystical moment of clarity that God loves him and God will bless him only after he has gone out on his journey. After he has committed to this life as a wandering immigrant. I say this as someone who is a bit of homebody. I joke that, for my four years as an undergraduate, I lived out in the midwest in Amherst, Massachusetts and, for three years of my seminary, I lived in the deep south… that is Manhattan. Beyond that, the other 40ish years of my life have all been in eastern Massachusetts. I’m no wandering immigrant. But even with that, I know that the little bit of travel I’ve done awakens things in me. For centuries, folks have gone on pilgrimages to open themselves to God. More recently, mission trips have been crucial piece in the spiritual lives of both youth and adults. There’s something about going, about being a pilgrim, about being a wanderer, about being an immigrant, that opens us or shakes something loose in us or gives us new eyes to see how God is pouring out blessing, how God is there with us, how God is inviting us into relationship, how God is loving us.

And so, I think every time we build a new wall it is not only a limitation on our ability to be in relationship with others. It is not only a limitation on our ability to give and experience hospitality and compassion. It is, further, a limitation on our ability to engage in that deeply human practice we need to travel, to move, to go to new places where we know further God’s love.

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We now will spend five minutes in quiet reflection as part of our Lenten practice of listening to God in silence. There are lots of ways you can use this time. You could seek, in a more meditative way, to empty your mind of thoughts and distractions. Or, if you want, you can use the time in a more reflective way to consider how God is calling you to be an immigrant and a traveler or to be part of making the world better for others who are immigrants and travelers.