Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dark Night of Abram's Soul - Genesis 15

The Dark Night of Abram’s Soul

Genesis 15:1-21
I am told the words, Do not be afraid, appear some 365 times in the Bible (R.Rohr). That is one reminder for each and everyday of the year, except when we have a leap one day this year, this month in fact, you can fear. The rest of the days, do not be afraid!!   

Slide: I like how F. Buechner says it: "Here is the world, terrible and beautiful things will happen. Don’t be afraid."
Easier said than done.

As we continue along our Lenten journey, I have encouraged members of my household, especially the two little ones and myself to give up for lent: Freaking out!

It’s funny the images and especially the songs which come to mind as I cobble together my sermons. Last week, It was devil went down to Georgia.
This week: Aw Freak out:
"All that pressure, Got you down.
Has your head spinning all around"
"Freak out."

No, this Lent I tell the kids and myself Don’t Freak Out! Lent is a period where we recognize our need for God, and in new ways discover how we might become closer to God and to others.
By not Freaking out! we are more pleasant to be around so others might care to be around us. And we are demonstrating a dependence on God, again, easier said than done...
Because we "aww freak out!"  

Why do we freak out?
Any number of reasons: In Star Wars: the Force Awakens, Kylo Ren kind of freaked out on several occasions when he received bad news! I freak out when I’m hungry--hangry moments?  And when I’m tired, and when I’m not getting my way, and when I’m disappointed. when I’m afraid, when I’m  fill in the blank:
In our passage from Genesis 15 we catch Abram, soon to be father of our faith Abraham, is kind of freaking out.
Why? He’s disappointed. He fears for his future.  He's losing his patience.

We can probably relate to this, but if we’re honest many,  if not most of our disappointments have come from unrealistic expectations we’ve set for ourselves. Why were we hoping for that outcome in the first place?  Had we consulted God before we set that expectation? or was it something we just felt like we deserved?

But for Abram, it was different than from most of us, because, at least according to the story in the bible, his expectation had actually been promised to him by the LORD--directly.
In Genesis chapter 12, the Lord tells him countless offspring!
Yet, many years pass and as Abram sees it,
he had been given no offspring---....except for his child born of his slave and foreigner--
Side note: here we see evidence of the prejudice of our forefathers all the way back to father Abram.  A sin we’re still trying to overcome...
So, because the Lord had promised and not yet fulfilled:
Slide: On a starry evening
Star, Sky, Graphic, Night,
Abram kind of freaks out.
Using his personal direct line to God--
which most clergy have of course --
He has this conversation, if we can call it that.
Abram questions…
God responds: “Do not be afraid!”
But, promised!
“Here we go again,” says the patient Lord.  
Abram, go outside and count the stars, that’s how many your offspring will be…..
I wonder if this was kind of a trick God used to get Abram to fall asleep when Abram started freaking out. Like counting sheep.

And so he does count, and just gets more tired,
but still not falling asleep

He starts whining and questioning,
“What will you give me? Show me you mean it this time!”
Can any of you relate to this? Pleading with God? I can.

Have any of you had those nights when you just cannot fall asleep because you’re just so upset?
Depressed? Lonely? Disappointed? Wondering - what is my life all about? Why has this happened to me? What is the point of it all? Don’t we all go through this..these nights of struggle
struggle with ourselves, with God, with life... not sure if we are going to make it out.

St. John of the Cross in the 16th century identified these dreadful nights as dark nights of the soul. The darkness represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets
With it can come detachment from the world
This detachment comes in the form of suffering--the painful experiences that people endure--
but, if we are willing to allow that pain and suffering to become our teachers, they will teach us, and as a result we will come to find spiritual maturity and intimate union with God like we had never experienced. From darkness we will reach the light of the union with the Creator as John of the Cross puts it.
Abram is about to experience union with God as he never has before...

SLide: images of the action
In his darkness, the lord instructs Abram to get into his butcher mode and he begins cutting in half all these animals, and I’m sure his tools were quite primitive. A Gruesome scene really.

Then He counts more stars, and a deep sleep falls upon him - terrifying darkness.

If Abram was scared before about his future, the vision he receives during his dark night is not really very comforting. It is a dreadful nightmare:

Yes, his descendants will be as many as the stars Abram can count in the sky. But a deeper truth is revealed to him...
a dreadful truth...these  descendants will be slaves, and suffer oppression for 400 years... A terrible revelation!

At that point, why bother? Were I Abram I might have said, thanks but no thanks... and get fixed right then and there! snip snip.
No more kids for me, thanks God :) have a nice day
No wonder he thought of sacrificing Isaac, as he carried the burden of that bleak future of the people.

But the vision of the dream doesn’t end... there will be liberation of the people, and they shall have freedom.
It’s a powerful image of the reality of suffering...
It will come, and when it comes, what choice do we have but to endure?
Endure what? For Abram’s people: 400 years of slavery.
Generations endured... trusting that one day justice would take place. That is taking the long view,

What was it like for African Americans who had endured 400 years of slavery to finally experience liberation?
What was it like for Nelson Mandela in South Africa to be jailed and abused... To see the end of apartheid and to become President of the nation. Endure the suffering.

We are told here in this passage, that through the suffering, God is there, and through enduring, there is a future--it may not be the future we envision, but do not be afraid.
I will be with you, says the Lord
How do we know for sure? Now we come to the most fascinating aspect of this story to me. The mysterious powerful yet gruesome ritual - like none other we find in the Bible.
The animals carcasses split in two, except the birds, laying out across the ground marking a path...

SLIDE: the stage is set for a ritual of self-obligation;
In which the one passing between the halves of the animals is the one taking a solemn oath, making the solemn promise, and if that promise is not kept by the one passing through..
he would experience a fate similar to that of the slain animals.
What passes between the carcasses? the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch
Kind of strange the smoking fire pot and flaming torch are undertaking the obligation of the ritual.
Who do these represent? The smoking fire pot and flaming torch is the LORD God.
Through this solemn ritual Abram is told very clearly and powerfully… God is a God who keeps promises. [3 - Richard A Puckett, “Genesis 15” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. p. 55 ]

And as heirs of Abram, which we claim through faith we are recipients of that promise as well - God is with us... god will never leave us...God promises a future... God keeps God’s promises.
Slide Stars again
What have been your deepest darkest nights of struggle? Perhaps they have yet to come?
Look to the heavens, count the stars.  Do not fear.  
When those dark nights come you can see the stars all the better…
when those dark nights come what is revealed to you may not be what you would expect or ever hope for.
But you emerge with a deeper sense of who you are, a deeper spirituality.  You emerge willing to face your fears and instead of allowing them to possess you, you can now overcome them.

Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you gain when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover you can endure them (adapted from Malcolm Gladwell David and Goliath)
When we are able to see that this life is not about what we want, but about what God wants for us, that can be quite scary.  
But that’s exactly what the fast in the wilderness is all about.  Leaving behind our own expectations, desires, cravings, ambitions, all the things we feel like life is supposed to be about, which leads to fear when its not turning out the way we had hoped and planned for, and seeing, actually, from God’s perspective, count the stars.  We are so small.   And yet, God still claims us and loves us.  What is the point of freaking out anyway?
So we seek to live life free from fear and live in humility, gratitude, and in service to others, because those are the things that really lead to life in the end.
I am told the words, Do not be afraid, appear some 365 times in the Bible (R.Rohr). That is one reminder for each and everyday of the year, except when we have a leap one day this year, you can fear.
The rest of the days, do not be afraid!!   
That is what the shield allows us to do.

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