So if the covenant with Noah is the
rainbow covenant, then the covenant with Abraham . . . well, what do we
call it? When we have Sunday-school classes and we're telling the story
of Noah and the flood and we give them paper and crayons and they draw
rainbows and nice pictures of animals:
What do they draw for the story
of Abraham? Do we call this the covenant of the scalpel?
Once again, as we saw last week, there are some issues with the story,
some problems for modern minds. Last Sunday, I mentioned a couple of
those with that Noah story, the whole physical improbability of the
flood, 375 days they spent on the ark, there's that genocide thing, etc.
Do we really think God would wipe out all of humanity like that, and all
the animals, save for the few? And all of that is compounded by the fact
that the wickedness of humanity is the same after the flood as it is
before. So what's the whole point of it?
So if you missed my sermon last week and how I worked that all out, well
tough! You should have been here!
By taking it seriously, I do not mean
working out the physics of it, I mean working out the meaning. And I
found that meaning in the one change that does occur, and I used this
painting that my mother created. The symbol of that covenant, of that
rainbow, is of the grace of God, the love of God. The one change
recorded in the story is not in humanity, the change is in the heart of
God, who says 'never again'. And so the rainbow becomes a symbol of
God's grace and goodness.
I discovered this week how truly good God is, I shared this picture of
our family at the Rose Bowl back in January. Well, unbeknownst to me,
someone, somehow, snuck into my office and got that picture off of my
computer and made it into a full-sized poster:
I mean is that cool, or what? And not
only that, but up in the corner:
Whoa! Yeah! Chip Kelly's signature!
Is God good, or what?! Or at least some member of the church, still
unknown to me, so far remains anonymous. Certainly good to me, I do
deeply appreciate that, very sweet.
Back to the text. So, the obvious problem, then, for modern, enlightened
minds of the 21st century, is what do you do with a religious ritual
that excludes one half of humanity? This circumcision thing is
kind of a male thing, right? Fortunately, we don't have any modern-day
rituals like that.
Wait a minute, how did that picture
get in here? :)
A covenant that seems to justify the exclusive claims to the land,
denying not just the rights of ancient people who lived there before
Abraham & company, but is still being used now 4,000 years later to
prevent Palestinians from having a homeland of their own.
Now, consider this little irony of the text: the covenant of Abraham is
actually told twice. Its told first in Genesis 15, after which Abraham
receives a son through Hagar, who is of course the Egyptian handmaid of
Sarah, and Ishmael, then, becomes the patriarch of Arabic Muslims. And
after the second account of the covenant in Genesis 17, Isaac is born
through Sarah. And Isaac, of course, is then one of the patriarchs of
the Hebrew people.
And ever since, the descendents of these two siblings have been at each
other's throats. And this is a gift from God?
favorite musical theologian, Bono, from the band U2, sings in a song:
"Lay down, lay down your guns
All you daughters of Zion
All you Abraham's sons
I don't know if I can make it
I'm not good on my knees
Here's my heart, I'll let you break it
I need some release, release, release
We need love and peace"
So again, we are challenged by the
text to take it serious. Thoughtfully, without necessarily taking it
literally -- you know, 'God says it's their land, case-closed'. That
kind of non-thinking theology will get us all killed. Seriously. It is
the ultimate hubris of humanity that makes divine privilege a right that
I possess and you do not. Be that coming from Muslims or Christians or
Jews or Baha'is or Buddhist, Hindus or any other. Such a perspective is
morally, ethically, theologically, not acceptable any more. Did I
mention that I'm opposed to the whole idea?
So, how do we take a story like this seriously without taking it as that
literal guarantee of God for the absolute right of exclusive possession
of the land to the exclusion of all others?
week, I ended with the beginning of the Wizard of Oz. Before Dorothy is
taken to the land of Oz, and she sings that wonderful song.
This week I want to start with the
ending of the Wizard of Oz, before Dorothy returns to Kansas. I need to
stop for second. . . . . spoiler alert, I just want to make sure if I
reveal the end of the story that I'm not spoiling it for anyone :)
that Dorothy is in Emerald City with all of her friends, after the
Wizard has taken off in a hot-air balloon because he doesn't know how to
work the thing, and Glenda, the good witch of the North, she comes to
reveal to Dorothy (who thinks she's now stuck in Oz forever) that she
has the ability to go home. She's had it all the time. It's been with
her the whole time -- the magic slippers. All she has to do is tap them
together three times and say "There's no place like home, there's no
place like home, there's no place like home".
See, this is the image, then, that I want to use for understanding this
text this morning. If I keep this going, it's either going to be lions,
tigers, and bears, or flying monkeys :)
Here's why the Wizard of Oz works for understanding this story. Dorothy
is having a bad day, right -- speaking of tornadoes. That wicked woman
wants to take Toto from her, and nobody is paying any attention to her,
she's feeling neglected, so she runs away from home, and then comes back
and the tornado takes her to the land of Oz. Not exactly a hospitable
place for a girl from Kansas, and she's got to find her way back home.
And of course she has all kinds of adventure along the way, she's going
to need some help from some friends, it's going to take some brains,
it's going to take some courage, it's going to take some heart.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of ancient Israel. Seriously.
They're having more than a bad day, of course, they've had a back
decade, they've had a bad century, right? Things are not going well for
the country, the nation has turned away from God, they've run away from
home, so to speak. And along comes the big storm and whisks them away to
Oz, right? Babylon -- they're taken into captivity, the period of exile.
And now they have to find their way back home. And that's going to
require a change of heart. It's going to require some some rethinking of
their relationship with God. It's going to require some courage to
unbeknownst to them, you see, they have been magic slippers, they've had
them all along. It took them a while, it took them the exile experience
to discover that they've got them. So what are those magic slippers?
Now, keep in mind this is metaphor, right? What I want to suggest to you
is that the magic slippers that they've had all along is the covenant
with Abraham. Now, if you say 'Wait a second Dan, I know that the
covenant with Abraham his way back there before the time of Moses,
that's 1,400 years', before the period of the exile. Yeah, right, that's
precisely the point, they had it all along, just didn't know it.
So, hang on to that thought for a moment while I take you to another
foreign land full of frightful creatures worse than flying monkeys --
German biblical scholarship of the 19th century :) Truly a scary place.
And a couple of German scholars in the mid-19th century discovered that
there are two primary names of God used throughout the Old Testament.
One is Elohim, the other Yahweh. Actually, if you look at that song we
just did, you can see the difference. In verse 1, "My God, My God", with
God written a big capital G and then small letters. That's most likely
Elohim. But Yahweh, verse 28: "For dominion belongs to the Lord", "LORD"
written in all capital letters, that's how we write in English the name
of Yahweh, to distinguish the difference.
So what these scholars noticed is that these uses for the name of God
often are in entire sections. In other words, there will be a whole
section with just one name, then they'll be another section with the
other name. And sometimes it's the same story. The creation story,
Genesis 1: "God looked over the face of earth . . .". That's a big G,
small 'od'. That's Elohim, all throughout Genesis 1. There's another
creation story that begins with Genesis 2, verse 4, and if you look at
that verse, second half of verse 4, it says "The Lord God. . ", "LORD"
in capital letters, that's Yahweh, uses the name of Yahweh in that
second creation story. These are two different stories, and what these
scholars suggest is they are two different traditions that evolved over
the history, not just about creation but the whole story of the Hebrew
people. These two different traditions, likely north and south, northern
Israel and Southern Judah, are merged into one to become what we now
know as the Torah. Probably taking its final shape about 400 years
before the birth of Jesus.
And one of those traditions, one of those sources, is known as the
'priestly source', or just "P" for short, and was likely composed during
the period of the exile. One of the marks of the priestly tradition is a
major concern with religious rituals, with things like building the
temple, rules for priests and, guess what? Circumcision.
In other words, the story of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17
comes from that tradition composed during the time of exile. Now, maybe
there's some oral tradition floating along before it comes into its
final form, but the point is this final form as we now have it comes
during that time of the exile.
Now, if you read the story of Abraham and the covenant with God from the
perspective of a defeated people living in a foreign land looking back,
rather than a nomadic people (the tribe of Abraham) in a future homeland
looking forward, it gives you a whole new understanding of the story.
Here are a people in exile, to whom this covenant is addressed, about
the promise of a homeland that would be theirs forever. And here they
are in a strange land.
I mean, either you would have to see this as a cruel joke, or as a
source of hope and inspiration to hang on. That there will be a way back
home. We just can't see it yet. In exile, in other words, the story of
Abraham is the story of Dorothy, who knows there is no place like home,
where one finds one's family and friends:
Now, one footnote to this story: I confess I don't know what to do with
this whole male circumcision thing. Except just to note that it is a
reflection of a patriarchal society, which does not always translate
well into our modern world. Unless of course maybe you live in the world
of Rush Limbaugh, but don't get me started on that topic :)
What is most striking is the
inclusion of foreign slaves in this story, in the circumcision ritual.
Now, sure, we reject slavery now as completely contrary to everything we
know about God and God's vision for our world. But do you get how
radical it would be to include a foreign-born slave in one's most sacred
ritual of identity? And here we see the seeds of a future equality in
Christ where there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and
female, all are one in Christ". Which in turn would be the seeds for the
end of slavery altogether, the equality of all people in God. The same
equality we see in a Tin Man, a Scarecrow, and a Lion -- all farmhands,
remember, they're not part of the family, are they? Well, yeah, they
are, aren't they? Who link up with Dorothy, arm-in-arm, on the way to
see the Wizard:
So then, back to the big idea the covenant: it's all about the
relationship. In the covenant with Abraham, we see that relationship is
rooted in a specific location, that place we call home.
Now, the biblical story is about how God continually is at work to
restore that relationship, to bring people back home. From the ancient
Hebrews living in exile to that prodigal son, living literally amongst
the pigs -- it's about finding our way back home.
Historically for Jews, that relationship with God is tied very closely
to the land of Israel as their home. Paul makes very clear in Romans
that Gentiles are now included in that relationship with God through
Christ, so that the exclusive covenant is now an inclusive one. And if
that covenantal relationship with God is now possible for us in Christ,
then can we see the covenant of Abraham not as an exclusive relationship
for some, but as a model for everyone?
A model that says God has a home, a place for all people.
A model that says every nation, be it Native Americans in this country
or Palestinians and Jews in the holy land, need a place they can call
A model that says the condition of homelessness itself is an insult
A model that calls for every home to be a place where every child is
safe and free from harm.
A model that reminds us there is no place like home. Especially that
place where we are at home with God.