Below is my sermon manuscript for Sept. 23, 2012. It was a rewarding preparation time and felt good to share. It should get posted online soon.
Sermon – Smoke: Genesis 15:1-19
Have you ever sat around a campfire? One short month ago in the deluge that drenched the region I sat around wet wood, wet ashes, wet fire pit, wet youth, wet youth leaders, wet starter logs and a small amount of dry wood that no matter how you presented it to the fire pit the offering was rejected. It would not stay lit. Then my friend and new youth leader, Andrew So says, I have an idea. It was like the great scene in Lord of the Rings where all hope has faded from the mad Steward of Gondor’s life and preparing to engulf himself in flame he shouts to his soldiers, “Bring wood and Oil!” Only this time, with all hope lost in getting a fire started and the middle schoolers fed, Andrew So says, “Bring paper towels and lighter fluid can!” He proceeds to make a brilliant torch thrusting it into the fire pit and the forces of wetness are defeated in one fell swoop as flames burst forth. We would have or hobo packs. We would enjoy our roasted mallows! Isn’t it amazing how all of your senses come to life around a campfire? The heat of the fire glances off your skin intensely warming you in some spots and leaving bitter cold to touch those parts of you outside its sphere of influence. The sound of the snap, crackle and pop dance with the babble of the brook near by. A log rolls echoing deeply off of the silence of the night. The sight of the swaying, flittering flames cast shadows that appear to move with trees. The taste of the smoke as it permeates the tasty beef frank roasting over the open flame. The smell of the smoke as it seeps into your clothing permeating every pore of your skin. All of your senses amplified by the fire and smoke, shouting in chorus at the top of their lungs, “I am alive.”
The story that was read earlier from the book of Genesis tells of this campfire story. Abram, after butchering a number of animals, emerges from gruesome and cursed death into the brilliant depths of life. A place where the five senses are permeated with smoke. A place where one shouts, “I am alive.” The ancient Hebrews called this life giving promise, “berit.” “Covenant.” Apart from berit the senses are laid waste. Life is a shadow. The Lord’s face is hidden. He stands far off. The Valley of the Shadow of Death looms forever in view. Republicans or Democrats, pick your poison, are forever in the White House.
The Romans understood berit to mean a contractual pledge or testament. We, like the Romans before us, have adopted a more business like language and a legal framework. We understand berit to be covenant. We, along with many theologians use the language saying covenant is a contract. Yet, in scripture, though berit appears in many forms, it is always in the context of the life giving promise that God will be with us. It is a relationship. It is more than contract. It is more than business. It is more than law. God promises berit with Abram for 1,000s of generations. Berit will be with his offspring that will be as plentiful as the stars. Berit is life and it is death to Abram. It is the smoke that permeates every part of our being so that we know we are alive.
Are we alive?
In the story, “dread darkness” or “terror” falls over Abram as he slides into deep dark sleep. The curse of death surrounds him in the form of animal carcasses and fading light. In his dream, a firepot and torch appear; Moving slowly through the middle of the dismembered and disconnected pieces of animal. The firepot was a tool of nomads that could be the difference between life and death. It was used to cook, clean, transport, and sit upon. It made life possible. Later it was used as a weapon of war. Having one or not having one could be the difference between life and death. The smoke from the firepot and torch must seep into everything around Abram. Life pours forth in the midst of divided death. The firepot and torch, a symbolic image for God, permeates Abram, commanding a berit. A covenant. A relationship that would make humans whole. To break it would mean death. To keep it would mean restoration of life with the true God.
Are we alive? Have we kept our berit with each other and with God or has “dread darkness” fallen over us leaving us divided in the midst of failed observance? My friend and author, Joshua Hayden, has recently proclaimed the prophets, conservative progressives. They continually call on their people to honor and observe the very traditional covenants of their people. But, by doing so, the prophets are the progressives of the day. Was Jesus not the same? He called the people to return to the promises made with God and his chosen people. He called them to observe their covenant. He called them to live in berit with God and each other. At one point he is questioned about the great commands and responds that we should love God and love each other.
In another story Jesus breaks bread, presumably in half, saying this is my body broken for you. Take and eat. He follows this by calling on the disciples to drink from the cup of his blood the covenant. He lays before the disciples a gruesome scene not seen in many years. He is the smoking firepot and torch passing through the broken body and spilled blood. He is the smoke that permeates all of who we are. He is life. He is what makes us whole. In John’s account he tells the disciples that now that they’ve seen him they’ve seen the Father. Simply because he is present in the covenant. There with the disciples and here with us God’s covenant is fulfilled. Berit permeates all that we do and who we are in Christ.
Why do we covenant with each other? It is like asking, “Are we alive?” Berit with each other gives shape to our relationship with God. It is God’s promise. It is the fire that burns us up so that we may give off smoke permeating everything around us with life. Why do we covenant with each other? To understand whether or not we have fulfilled our obligations to each other like a contract but, more to the point we covenant with each other to give expression to the wholeness we find in God. In Christ Jesus. How are we doing with our covenant to each other before God? Did we know we had a covenant with each other? Do we sound too much like people in the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, that need a prophet to call them back into a right relationship with God? Yes. I think we do.
But…there is good news. The grace of Jesus abounds. He continues his rescue mission of all creation and has invited us to join him in that Kingdom work. It is because of this great invitation that we can say with immense hope that the Kingdom of God is at hand!
I urge all of us to repent and believe! Join in the story that God has blessed us to be a part of in this time and this place. If you don’t know how to do it we’re really fortunate. Those that came before us put together a really great covenant that is both our history and our present. It is where we have arrived today.
Last week Pastor Trish unpacked point 1 of our covenant with each other. “To strive to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, diligent in prayer and the study of the bible, earnestly seeking to know and to do his will.” This week we spend a few moments immersing in point 2.
“To walk together in love as member of Christ’s family, forgiving each other as God has forgiven us” – Think to yourself of different hurts we might have caused each other as a community or to an individual. Have you sought forgiveness from the other party for your part in the brokenness of that relationship? Forgiveness will lead to healing and life. It is part of our berit with God and each other.
“Forgiving each other as God has forgiven us, bearing each other’s burdens” – when one of us is broken do we share it with the church or close brother’s and sisters in Christ at MBC so that we can fulfill our promise to each other and share new life? Imagine the amount of trust it takes to do such a thing.
“Bearing each others burdens, sharing each other’s joys” – Are we good at celebrating with each other? Some would say, “Yes” and others, “No.” Lore’s great grandmother lived a hard life. She grew up in a siberian prison camp and later lived life on the run from Nazis and Soviets. She told me before she died, “Make sure you celebrate every chance you get. There aren’t a lot of chances to celebrate so make sure you do.” We try to practice Joy in our house. There is this great Italian restaurant in Arlington called, Tuto Bene. One day Lore, Joe and I walk in and are seated. Lore and Joe are in great moods. I remember being tired because it was October and June through October are long months for this youth pastor. We begin to enjoy an appetizer. Joe starts to fidget so I get up with him and begin to walk around the restaurant. Now I’m really blurry as to exactly what happened. But, I remember hugging my son back at the table or I was supposed to, it is amazing what you get when you’re over joyed. I can’t remember my engagement either. I patted Joe’s shirt and felt something strange. I recall a scramble and Lore and I talking trying to get this thing out of his shirt. Inside is a paper. I unfold it and written there are the words, “I’m going to be a big brother.” Lore shared her news about being pregnant with Evelyn with pizzaz. I fully shared in her joy.
“Sharing each other’s joys and supporting each other in prayer.” Do you pray for me? You might be right now think I’ve gone off my rocker. Do you pray for the person next to you? I want everyone to take a moment to be a bit uncomfortable. To take a small risk. Learn the person’s name on your right and on your left. Pray with each of them. Take a short moment to say, whatever blessing or prayer you might have for them. Let’s be observant and make sure no one is left out. (Pause for prayers)
May your lives be permeated by the smoke of the promise of the God of the universe. May you be in berit with each other and God. May you grant grace when those promises are broken in the way the Lord of all creation has granted grace to each of you. Amen.