The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd |:| February 24, 2013
Audio from 11:30a service here.
Welcome, on this second Sunday in Lent. The season of Lent is one I have come to enjoy, all the while getting frustrated by, too. It’s a time when we take on disciplines or fast from various things in our lives. I don’t know about you but I don’t believe I can earnestly say I have completed every Lent I have observed perfectly; that’s where the frustrating piece comes in. I like to know I have achieved or completed something set before me and when it comes to Spiritual disciples if I cannot seem to achieve or complete those I observe during the few weeks in Lent then how can I know if I am right with God the remainder of the year.
It’s nice to know that Lent comes every year because it is a fresh start to achieve or complete this Lent more so than the year prior. Growing up I was never a fan of when Lent fell in the calendar year because it always fell a week or two before my birthday; which meant if I had given up sweets or coke or junk food my birthday was a bit pathetic or I would find a loop hole and tell God I would give up those things, except on my birthday.
Lent for me can be the time when I see how I am doing with God. Am I doing the right things. Do I pray enough. Do I live a good enough life. Have a cared for the least of these every chance I have been given. Have I checked off all the things I have placed on the good believer in Jesus list I have created in my head. Then, once I have answered these questions, I’ll know how I’m doing with God.
It can be daunting and taxing this spiritual checklist examination. I mean the areas where I fall short as a human being are endless and change from day to day, moment to moment. Good thing God knows all things so God is able to keep track of all these things I fall short on.
I’ll never forget the Lent where I fasted on Fridays. It was my first year of Seminary and I had not practiced fasting since my first year of college and I thought I must be better at it this time since I was in the holy seminary and all.
I cannot recall my scorecard at the end of that Lent but what I do know is my Friday fasts would get changed to whatever day of the week it was easier to fast so that I was able to keep it or if I slipped in the morning forgetting it was Friday and would have breakfast there was this guilt that hovered over me the rest of the day. So much for being better at it in holy seminary. It was only my first year, perhaps there wasn’t enough holiness on me at that point.
Lent can be a very daunting time in the church calendar when used as I have just illustrated. Keeping the scorecards accurate. Checking to see if all the behaviors we hold, consciously or unconsciously, in our minds for what makes a good church member, a good Christian are checked off our list.
To do all of these things during Lent or at any given time in our life can be exhausting because the list of where we fall short as human beings can seem never ending. The work to check of a seemingly never ending list is too much for any person, no matter how holy they might be.
This work would be too much ever for my remarkable grandmother who is almost 100 years old, who has never said an unkind word about another person, who knows Scripture inside and out, whose prayer life would make the Pope jealous, and who loves people so incredibly well. Even for my wonderful grandmother this work of checking off the “good works” list to be in good standing with God would be too much for her.
It is a good thing Lent is not meant to be a scorecard of how we are doing with our spiritual practices or ensuring we check off a few more items on the “I’m good with God” list. Lent is a time when we can look inwardly at ourselves and see what is holding us back from believing we are already atoned with God, that forgiveness abounds for each of us, and that we have the freedom to live as the beloved children God has created us to be.
This inward looking is not about naming all the bad things we do in life and being shackled to the guilt, burden, or shame that can accompany those areas of our life. The inward looking is to examine where we have bought into the lies that our wounded-ness is too big for God’s forgiveness, too much for God’s grace, too imperfect for the Spirit to move and transform. It is within this inward looking that God calls us to have faith that God keeps his promise of atonement with his. That we are already made at one with God when we have faith that it is true.
Having faith can be even more scary than the endless checklists I mentioned earlier. That might be why we have seen people, even ourselves maybe, turn to the scorecard or checklist because it gives us specifics to how to know we are moving towards living as God intended us to live, more so than we can observe with faith as the measure of that.
This is where the text in Genesis gives us wisdom. In Genesis we see Abram and God having dialogue around the promises God has made to Abram and Abram wondering how God will fulfill those promises.
The portion of the text we are gaining a closer look at today is verses 12 – 18. Beginning in verse 12 God tells Abram to take a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram took the animals, minus the birds, and cut them in two, laying one half to either side of him, creating a pathway between the torn animals.
In ancient times this practice was not uncommon. It was one of the unconditional covenants, particularly known as the cutting covenant. What would happen was, the two parties partaking in the covenantal promise would start at either end of the path and walk through the torn animals passing each other until they were at the other side from where they started. The purpose of this practice was to say to those in the covenantal promise, if I break this promise may I end up like the animals we are walking through. Essentially saying, if I break this promise may I die.
Abram prepared the animals for his covenant with God but before he could walk through the animals a deep sleep falls upon him; resulting in Abram witnessing the remainder of the covenant promise in a vision or dream.
In verses 17 and 18 we are told a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces of animal. The smoking fire pot and the flaming torch represent the Spirit of God.
It is only God who walks through this covenantal practice, meaning the responsibility of upholding the covenant was solely upon God and if God broke it the fate of the animals would be the fate of God.
This is huge! God knew there was no way for Abram to live up to the covenantal promise of giving his descendants the promise land. God knew there was no scorecard large enough or checklist long enough to achieve or complete to live up to this covenantal promise. Therefore, God took the full responsibility upon Himself and asks for Abram to have faith in Him to complete the promise.
We are told in verse 6 of this chapter, along with other dialogues between Abram and God in chapters 12, 14 & 17, that Abram does have faith in God’s promise to uphold their covenant.
This story of Abram’s covenant with God comes at a great time on this second Sunday of Lent because it reminds us that just like God knew Abram could not hold the weight of the covenantal promise, so too does God know we are unable to perfectly live as members of a church community, followers of Christ, or as the beloveds of God.
God has already made our being at one with Him a reality from the beginning by placing the covenant responsibility upon Himself. From the beginning of creation God has been calling us back to the reality of being in right relationship with Him. Calling us to remember that we are His beloveds. Showing us with patience as we forget or doubt God’s promises, just as we see he did with Abram.
The covenants made between God and humanity weighs disproportionately upon God. God is the one who initiates. God is the one who sets the terms. God is the one who makes the promises. God is the one who decides how the covenant will be sealed. God is the one who acts out the covenant agreement.
God has done the work. We are called to have faith that this is truth. We are to have faith that God does not wish us to live our lives by spiritual scorecards or “I’m good with God” checklists. We are to have faith that it is by the grace of God alone we are able to live into the reality of who God has created us to be.
Abram’s covenant with God was not without Abram questioning God’s presence in how God would fulfill the promises he made. Abram questions God’s activity. His questioning faith takes seriously God’s presence and power in his life and challenges us to be open to God’s work in our lives. Abram questions God because he deeply believes God can do something about it. Such questions about God can also help us take the next steps of our journey of faith.
On this second Sunday in Lent let us use the remainder of this season of looking inward to see where we are being kept from believing in the reality that we are at one with God and may it allow us to hear the beckoning of God to live a faithful life — one that is leaning forward into the vision of God for the world, knowing full well that such a vision may extend to a horizon far beyond our own lives.
May you go in peace this Sunday free to let go of the spiritual scorecards or checklists that might accompany Lent or any other time in life. God has done the work to make us right with God. May each one of us have faith to believe this to be so and then with the grace and love of God live into this reality, allowing each of us to live each day more truly as the people God has created us to be and knows us to be.