Covenant – comedy and cost
Based on Genesis 17: 1-8. 15-26, & Mark 8:31-38
“We’re the proof of God’s good humour, we’re the twinkle in God’s eye…” Not your traditional Lenten song of reflecting on our sinful nature, is it? But here in verse 17 we find old Abraham falling on his face in laughter at the prospect of he and Sarah doin’ the wild thing, and begetting a son way past the nick of time.
Laughing in the face of a covenant with the Almighty God? Apparently; and in the next chapter we have the same story told from a little different angle – this time God sends messengers to tell the news, and it’s Sarah, snorting and giggling behind the tent flap. The comedy and covenant of God is further reflected as they name their little bundle of joy Isaac, which means `laughter.’
Our faith is too important to take seriously all the time. When we feel overwhelmed and inadequate in light of what God calls us to do individually and as a community of faith, it may help to look at our faith ancestors, enjoy a good belly laugh, and say `You want me to do what?’ It sounds crazy God, but I’ll give it my best shot.
There is surprising joy and comedy in this story, but it is a story that has a cost as well. Abraham appreciates God’s promise that he and Sarah will have a son, but adds `What about Ishmael?’ Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden. Ishmael means `God hears my need.’ The assurance that Abram, now Abraham hears is “I will make you the Father of many nations, and Ishmael shall be blessed as well, but this covenant is through Isaac, the son Sarah will bear. What do we do when covenants are used to exclude? The Muslim faith also claims Abraham as father through his son Ishmael. Still today, the conflict continues in the realm of politics, geography and faith, as verse 8 is quoted to justify dispossessing Palestinians of their homeland. Verse 8 says, “…and I will give to you and all your descendants the land of Canaan.
How do we counter the rhetoric that God gave this land exclusively to Israel, when God made this covenant with Abraham long before the term Israelite was used?
The sign of the covenant with Abraham was through circumcision. Abraham circumcised Ishmael that day, along with all the other males in his clan – so again, is he part of the covenant or not? And how much weight do we give these ancient stories?
We talked about this at the Sabeel conference I attended in Jerusalem, and though I took copious notes, I see a book has been written on this issue, coming out of that Conference. I’ll be buying it at the end of April, as my next continuing education event will be a Sabeel sponsored conference in Vancouver.
In the meantime it’s helpful to remind ourselves that although the Bible is a foundational document for us, it is a library of people’s experiences and interpretations of divine revelation over the years; we are just going to get a particular view of history by reading it, or select parts of it. If we hold to the more ancient story that God’s covenant is with all living beings, we need to be open to other understandings.
We know that 1500 years later, Paul, an early leader in the church, refuted circumcision as a requirement for being part of God’s covenant. Where his intention was to say that Gentiles were also included in the covenant, the church through history has twisted that tragically and perversely to exclude and persecute Jews and Muslims – witness the Spanish inquisition, the Crusades, where Christians killed Christians too, justifying it by saying any dead Christians would be fast-tracked to heaven anyway; the murder of countless women burned as witches, and of course in living memory, we have the atrocity of the Holocaust of WW 2.
Now radical Muslim groups are persecuting everyone, including moderate Muslims. How can we fall any further from what the Creator intended; the Holy One who covenants with all living beings, as we read last week in the Noah narrative? Covenant is beautiful and can be dangerous when we take it to mean we are the only special ones in the world.
Well, I’ve sort of taken that moment of joyful comedy in the Genesis reading and then followed its dangerous and destructive side… sorry about that! So let’s look at the gospel.
Just after Jesus has asked the disciples what rumours were going around about his identity, and Peter proclaims him to be the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples about his impending arrest, suffering, death, and triumph over death. Perhaps they are waiting for him to say, `Just kidding.’
I can just imagine the confusion that is reigning in the disciples’ minds. I’m sure they thought, `There is something terribly wrong with this picture.’ It’s Peter who gives voice to what the rest are thinking. He takes Jesus aside and basically says, `Are you crazy? Don’t be talking like this. This is no way to build up the flock. You’re on a roll, here. This is not what we signed up for!’ Jesus rebukes him, with that famous line `Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human.’ I expect Peter’s words were very tempting for Jesus. Who willingly signs up for suffering?
His next words are not ones the disciples then or now want to hear. ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Good News, will save it.’ This is the point in the Lenten journey when we start to look over our shoulder, where our enthusiasm begins to wane, and we wonder if we shouldn’t be following someone else.
I am sometimes amazed that anyone comes to church. Do you hear what he’s saying about picking up our own cross to follow him? It’s just vague enough that we’re not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound good.
It has something to do with diving into a wild and dangerous adventure of loving people that we were taught to disapprove of. It has to do with letting go of personal agendas, and ego, and maybe even life, to be faithful to the deeper calling of God.
In a poem by U.A. Fanthorpe, Jesus speaks of envying Moses who could write on stone, even if he did break the tablets. Or” the prophets too, however luckless their lives and instructions, inscribed on wood, papyrus, and walls…” Fanthorpe writes of Jesus tender and frightening responsibility of writing on flesh, by way of his disciples. If you can imagine Jesus writing a journal, he describes them as such:
“Pete, with his headband stuffed with fishhooks, his gift for rushing in where angels wouldn’t…
James and John who want the room at the top, – these numbskulls are my medium. I called them.
I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives, my Keystone Cops of disciples, always running absurdly away, or lying ineptly, cutting off ears and falling into the water…dying ridiculous and undignified…they are the dear, the human, the dense, for whom my message is. That might, had I not touched them, have died decent and respectable upright deaths in bed.”
Personally, I’m sort of hoping for the decent and dignified respectable death, preferably painless and not for many years to come. But the small brave part of me hopes that in the meantime I have the courage to be somewhat scandalous for the sake of the gospel, somewhat ridiculed for loving too widely, maybe edgy enough that that I get on the federal government list of undesirables, somehow strong enough to carry a corner of the cross which Jesus drags through the city streets.
In our corner of the world, there is a corner of the cross…
Dear fellow pilgrims, perhaps we can lift it together. Amen