How Can the Creature Say…? (6/25/2017)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Text: Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39 (NRSV)

God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise

When I was growing up, I remember being taught that God was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent – all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present. I don’t intend to do a word study on those terms this morning, but they did have an effect on my young faith, an effect that, in retrospect, was not altogether beneficial. I know that the inner conflict of these qualities, combined with the inevitability of judgment and the threat of heaven or hell, was, at times, terrifying. God, who held the whole world in his hand, could destroy any part, or all of it, at any time, if we didn’t straighten up and fly right. I’m not sure what that might mean for sparrows, but it surely was not good news for me.

Continue reading How Can the Creature Say…? (6/25/2017)

Finding Our Place (4/17/2016)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Text: Genesis 1:26-2:4; Psalm 8

Today let’s move directly to the heart of the conflict. How do we find our place in the order of creation? For a very long time – perhaps, since the beginning – humans have heard “dominion,” “subdue,” “control” as invitation, if not mandate, to treat the earth as we will. Increasingly this perspective has been called into question. Many have come to see stewardship as our rightful place in the order of creation while others have argued that we are of the earth and not over it. The gifts with which God has graced human being are part of an intricate web of related being in which we take a significant but not superior place.

In Bible study Tuesday Phil suggested that without human intervention the rest of creation would have gotten along just fine. Perhaps human being has had a largely deleterious effect on creation from the beginning, given the struggle we have had to find our place within inherent limitations. Phil answered his own question by also suggesting that we might have been given a certain sort of intelligence that, when operative, has functioned in creative ways to advance the creative process and enhance life on the planet.

However, this theological debate is a different one than the current debate over the effects of human being on the environment. Some will argue that the place of domination that humans have occupied for too long threatens to destroy the earth. Others will argue that earth was created for humankind, for the comfort, convenience and well-being of humans as the obviously superior creatures. Some see the results of human encroachment on the natural order and the pollution of the environment as the inevitable result of human progress, which is privileged above all other dimensions of the natural order. Some see creation as infinitely adaptable or believe that human ingenuity is capable of repairing whatever damage we do to the earth.

Patrick Allitt, historian and author of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, which is our Senior Connections Book Group book for this month, argues that, though humans have done real damage to the earth, we have also learned to take steps to correct much of the damage done. As science, technology, and economic prosperity have developed in the past couple of centuries, there have been serious environmental consequences; at the same time, humans have developed a concern for correcting our mistakes and a will to do what is necessary to right our wrongs. He argues, “I make no secret of the fact that I consider industrial civilization a superb accomplishment, very much worth protecting and improving. Industrialization has harmed the environment while improving life for almost everyone. We have the resources to remedy this harm (Patrick Allitt, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, p. 13). Allitt believes that environmental alarmists have done a disservice to their cause by overstating their case and inciting fear instead of leading people to take seriously their concerns in ways that would lead to fixing problems and cultivating environmental well-being.

By contrast, poet, essayist and farmer, Wendell Berry, argues that “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it” (Wendell BerryThe Long-Legged House).   He says, “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” These are complicated concerns and complex arguments. We will not resolve this debate this morning or any time soon.

It’s my belief that, as Christians, we have work to do on our theological and spiritual perspectives before we even come to the political, scientific and cultural arguments. Finding our place in the God’s created order will help us understand how we see and approach environmental concerns.

I am sure that this morning’s passage, over time, has helped to anchor the belief systems of those who privilege human being and see our place as dominating the rest of creation. In addition, there is the religious perspective that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” In this hallowed perspective, there is no need to care for the planet as God will one day gather the select into heaven and to hell with the rest.  In either case, it is all about human being and little about the rest of creation.

It is difficult to ignore that a text, written by human beings, is likely to privilege human being by seeing it as unique and special. We are created in the image and likeness of God. God has made us a “little lower than God and crowned us with glory and honor.” It’s hard to be humble when we start with this understanding of our place. Of course, it doesn’t help that the English translations on which we have depended are grounded in the tradition of kingly power and rule. This language itself has helped to shape worldviews. Who hasn’t harbored a dream of being king or queen of all they see? Most of us, at one time or another, have dreamed of ruling, at least, our own backyard.

By contrast, Berry argues that “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it” (Wendell Berry, What Are People For?) In this sense, there may be a sovereign but it is not us.

If we take the notion of dominion, of being made in God’s image and likeness, to mean service then our attitude toward the rest of creation will be altered radically. Then Nan Merrill is on to something when she writes, “O Love, my Beloved, how powerful is Your Name in all the earth!” (Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying) rather than “O Lord, our Sovereign…”

In fact, Jesus seems to challenge this notion of sovereignty altogether, at least in any dominating sense. Jesus appears to find his place as the servant of all and even implies that serving is critical to God’s nature. With great irony, he pictures the “Kingdom of God” as a place that welcomes the least of these, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, and the stigmatized. Hardly a royal assemblage!

In his commentary on Genesis 1, Walter Brueggemann argues that “The text is revolutionary. It presents an inverted view of God, not as the one who reigns by fiat and remoteness, but as the one who governs by gracious self-giving.” He continues, “It also presents an inverted view of humanness. This man and woman are not the chattel and servants of God, but the agents of God to whom much is given and of whom much is expected” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Genesis, p. 33). So, we may be elevated but that also means we are challenged and blessed with co-creative responsibility

Another Christian scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, John Holbert, writes, “In Genesis 2:15 we read ‘YHWH God took the ‘adam and placed it in the garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it.’’ In light of this mandate, he argues, “…we are partners with God and with God’s creation, not masters, not dominators, not even stewards. We are finally no more important in God’s world than are the ravens, the lions, the mountain goats, even the ostriches…” Still, he concludes, ”The  image of servant of God’s world has the possibility to make us new creatures, helping us see our rightful place as God’s servants for the world. In short, we need conversion to a new way of thinking about the creation, the environment. The world, the cosmos, is not our oyster. Rather it is God’s pearl, and we are assigned the twin tasks of serving this pearl and protecting it from all abuse, especially abuse from ourselves” (John C. Holbert, “A Needed Climate Crisis Conversion: Reflections on Genesis 1:1-2:4a,” June 5, 2014, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com).

Last week we spoke of the interconnection of all creation, even the ways that God is interwoven into all being, including human being. In commenting on Psalm 8, Elizabeth Webb writes, “All creatures, including human beings, live in interdependence with one another. As much as we have dominion over creation, we are also dependent upon it for our well-being. Our sovereignty can never mean that we place ourselves over-against the creation. As ‘lords’ over creation, we are in fact servants of it” (Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Psalm 8, June 15, 2014,” workingpreacher.org). And in today’s Words of Preparation, Maya Angelou declares, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”

If, among other things, God is love, as we often claim, then to be created in the image and likeness of God is to be infused thoroughly with love as our source of power, as the shaping spirit of our humanity, as the place where we live and move and have our being. It seems to me that before we enter into any battles over climate change or fossil fuels or pollution or endangered species or the fate of the planet, we need to make sure we find our place as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. At the same time, we need to see and understand that the God in whose image and likeness we are made is a lover and not a king. God is self-giving and invites us to that same sort of self-giving love and concern for all that is. Human being is meant to be compassionate and caring. Rather than subdue we are to serve. Rather than rule we are meant to revel in the wonder of it all. Rather than dominate we are meant to delight in the goodness of what that God has created. To find our place is to look around, carefully, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel what God has made and blessed and called “very good” and then to say “yes!” to it all. Amen.

Eco-Education

candle and globeBy now we are well into Earth Month. On Sunday, we celebrated the God of creation in music and word. The big collage of “interconnection” that we started during worship is completed and hung on the hall wall. By all accounts the conversation with Elizabeth Singleton went well during the Eco-Education Hour. We might even look at the beginning and call it “good.”

This Sunday we will return to the first creation story of Genesis 1-2 to consider the place of human being in creation. Sometimes we take the instructions to have dominion, to rule and to subdue too literally. We think we are little gods and do with creation whatever we want. But the psalmist marvels at creation and asks just who are we that the creating God would consider us at all. What if God has crafted human being for loving, caring, co-creative relationship? We are not to be “over creation” as much as we are to be “of” it, recognizing God’s presence in every atom and wave. To have dominion is to respond to what is by affirming its goodness and embracing it with joy.

Eco-education will be incorporated into the “Every Day – Earth Day Potluck” right after Worship and Sunday School. Everyone is encouraged to bring vegetarian or vegan fare to share. Hopefully this will be an interesting and fun experiment for us all. After dinner, we will share a taped conversation that Pastor Gregory had with Tripp Fuller, entertaining theologian and Program Director for the Hatchery in Los Angeles. Their conversation is about how we might entertain a more creative imagination in considering how we as Christians live in and care for this world.

Come Sunday morning at 10:00 AM for worship, study and shared community. Invite your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to join us in the joy of this Earth Month Sunday.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Come Together! (4/10/2016)

Watery Earth NASA photoA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Text: Genesis 1                        Genesis 1: Beginningness               Paraphrase by Timothy Wayne Good

Before the beginning of time was the eternal God. Our beginning was God’s creation of   space and a nascent mass we would someday call home. The earth was an assemblage of primordial solids, liquids, gases and plasmas still without form; still unlit. God’s Spirit    moved across its face as God said: “Here is light. So be it.” The light’s embracing and     warming of the cold dark world pleased God. God spun the planet to separate the hours   into days and nights. The first day came to a close.

The next day, God separated the waters above and below: “So be it.” God called the moisture above “sky”, and the sunset and dawn of the second day in this primeval atmosphere created a global rainbow.

On the third day, God next separated the solid particles from water below to create land and sea.  “So be it” God said, and it was pleasing. But land needs roots to bind it together and make it alive, so God caused plants of all kinds to spring forth from the once       sterile ground. Fertile soil was created. “So be it.” God was pleased as another evening and morning brought an end to the third day.

On the fourth, God separated the nebulous glow of light by allowing celestial bodies to   shine through the clearing atmosphere. It was as it was willed. The cosmos danced across the heavens, and the sun and the moon raced. God was pleased.

The next day, God made the waters below and above alive with new life: leviathans; bugs; whales; bats; birds; and fish. They all pleased God, and God blessed them with the fruitfulness of ongoing creation. Evening passed and then the dawn; fifth day done.

God continued populating the planet by introducing land animals into the green paradise; and it pleased God. God said: “This next creature I will make in My own image with My own essence so that it may be able to rule over my earthly kingdom with wisdom and compassion.” So God formed humanity in all its many visages in God’s image, in the image of God made them all; God made them like Godself, male and female. God blessed them, too, with fruitfulness, and gave them responsibility for the care of   creation. “See,” God said, “I’ve given you everything you need to thrive, and abundance to sustain you and give you joy.”

God looked at the intricate relatedness of each of the worlds God created. We too see the intricate intimacies of life on earth – the chains, webs and circles of mutualism and dependence. God was pleased with His work; it was bustling, teeming, complete and whole – perfect. So God finished and took the final day off. God blessed this seventh day and made it a holy day to enjoy creation and to remember the Creator.

            These are the generations of God’s creation of all.

(Timothy Wayne Good, “Beginningness,” June 15, 2011, thenakedalien.blogspot.com)

Interconnection is not a particularly pretty word. It doesn’t really roll off the tongue. It’s difficult to imagine a poet using it to shape a phrase or complete a rhyme. Nor has it been a common concept in theological work, though we may find it moreso with the “greening” of theology. What today’s text teaches us is that God has carefully and lovingly interwoven the elements of creation into a grand and sacred whole, an entity that God shapes and calls “good.” There is much to explore, to understand, to embrace, to enjoy and, yes, to love in the intricate interconnectedness of creation.

For God’s own reasons and purposes, She sings out, “Come together!” And from every atomic particle, from the “primordial solids, gases and plasmas still without form,” God begins to create. Or, in the words of James Weldon Johnson (from “The Creation” in God’s Trombones),

AND God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.”

To show off, to cure loneliness, for the sheer delight of it all, just because She could, God sang out, “Come together!” Things began to coalesce all around her and universe upon universe came into being. All that came into being was interconnected in and through the Creator, who saw it and said it was “good.”

When we talked about this creation story in Bible Study, I said it sounded to me as if God created from a sort of “roiling cauldron of stuff” rather than from nothing. As is often the case, Alan raised the challenging question, “But where did the ‘stuff’ come from, if God didn’t create it?” Of course, it’s a good question. The best response my little mind could come up with is that it pre-existed along with God. In actuality, it may be part of God, inextricably interconnected with the Holy One. To the degree we can visualize infinity, God and the “stuff” of God have always existed and always will. Alright, my head is starting to hurt. As we sometimes like to affirm, God is always the ”More.”

In a blog entitled, “The ‘Not-nothingess’ of Space,” Russ Dean writes, “I was surprised when I learned that outer space wasn’t made up of nothing. ‘What do you mean, it’s not ‘nothing’ out there? What’s out there?’” he asked. “I wasn’t talking about stars and planets, moons and asteroids, but about all the nothingness of space between them. I was told that that’s not nothing, either.” With the recent observation of “gravitational waves,” Russ says, “it reminds us that across the sea of whirling galaxies, the energy and the matter, the space and the time are really the same stuff, and the quarks and the stars, the waves and the wind — even the ‘red and yellow, black and white’ — are all part of One grand and unifying Spirit” (Russ Dean, “The ‘Not-nothingess’ of Space,” 4-4-2016, baptistnews.com). One grand and unifying Spirit that we call God, the One in whom we live and move have our being. Interconnection!

A couple of other things we considered as we studied this ancient word is how compatible it is with other current scientific thought. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not in any way suggesting that Genesis is or was ever meant to be a scientific text, but read it carefully and see if you don’t hear echoes of evolution in its poetry. And then, Alan, again, suggested that that first act of creation, that sudden separation of light from dark sounded a lot like the “big bang” theory. God sang out and suddenly, “boom,” things started to happen.

Part of the genius of this ancient explanatory myth is the way in which God carefully crafts each element and then gives it its appropriate place in a magnificent whole. To each lovingly shaped dimension of creation, She sings, “Come together!” and then she delights in the intricate beauty of her handiwork – “oh, that’s good.” In today’s Words of Preparation, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit).  Interconnection!

Dan and Afan and I are in the midst of a set of concerts with The Choral Project, so you can imagine that singing in the choir has been on my mind this week. As I thought about today’s theme, it struck me that choirs and choral music are wonderful images for coming together and interconnection. In fact, a choir is interconnection by definition. If we practice long enough and hard enough we may create something of great beauty, infused by one great and unifying spirit.

But here’s the thing, you might not appreciate immediately all the different sounds the choir makes. This wondrous entity that is the music may sound strange to your ear or be alien to your experience. Our choir sings a lot of contemporary classical music, which is not to everyone’s taste. Sometimes you may have to work to understand, if not embrace, the genius of the composer.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a beautiful chorale that sounds like this. [Jan plays on the organ.]  He wrote this almost 300 years ago. In the 20th century, a fine Norwegian composer, Knut Nystedt, took this excerpt from the chorale and re-arranged it as a tribute to Bach’s genius. In his version, entitled, “Immortal Bach,” Nystedt divides the choir into five smaller choirs. Each small choir, in turn, sings the excerpt from the chorale, only each choir sings it at a different tempo. Now you might imagine that sounds like cacophony or chaos, and, frankly, to me it does, but Nystedt, the creator, heard something in that configuration that shaped the old elements of the chorale into a new sound, one that may come close to capturing the music of the spheres, which often sound beyond our easy listening.

Or as another example, we sing some music in which the choir divides into six or eight or twelve or sixteen parts. In this music, each part may sing its own note, creating a “sound cluster.” [Jan plays.] Again, you may not find the sound exactly beautiful, but in the context of a given work of music, this cluster may be a powerful way for the individual elements of the choir to come together in a new and exciting way. It is challenging to sing and challenging to hear but it also invites us to join with the creator who is constantly creating and drawing us into new and exciting configurations. Interconnection!

As we celebrate this earth month and beyond, we are likely to come up against ideas and images that are not easy to see or hear or necessarily to our liking. We can argue about the details of science and technology until the cows come home or the sun burns out. But there is a theological and spiritual underpinning for our conversation in the recognition of the interconnectedness of creation. It is all God’s doing. And God has blessed it and called it good. As God called creation to come together, the same God calls us to come together in appreciation, in love and care for what God has brought in to being. It is both a responsibility and great gift that calls us into a co-creative process of stewardship of creation. We may find it difficult at times to see with God’s eyes, to hear with God’s ears, to feel with God’s heart, or to reason with God’s mind, which is why we need to come together – to hear the beauty in the tone cluster, to admire the creative genius of gravitational waves, to discover the web-like intricacies that make up the earth, and to wonder at the constant shaping and re-shaping of creation.

“’See,’ God said, ‘I’ve given you everything you need to thrive, and abundance to sustain you and give you joy.’” Then, “God looked at the intricate relatedness of each of the worlds God created. We too see the intricate intimacies of life on earth – the chains, webs and circles of mutualism and dependence. God was pleased with this work; it was bustling, teeming, complete and whole – perfect.” And God sang out, “Come together! See how good it is. Share with me the delight of its existence and the joy of caring for it all.” Interconnection! Amen.

Earth Month

Earth in your handsEarth Month started off with a “big bang” last Sunday thanks to Pastor Gregory’s passionate leadership. His sermon focused on an “Easter Ecology,” making connections between John’s account of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples and the indomitable spirit that infuses all creation with life. Thanks also to Greg Griffey who led our “Eco-Education” hour by asking as to consider the significance of place in our lives. As a child of Appalachia, Greg has a particular attachment to the “hills of home.” Some of what he shared was grounded in Wendell Berry’s love for place. Each person present shared where he or she was from, giving us snapshots of the diversity of place that is possible on this planet.

Wednesday evening we will be showing a film, “The Story of the Universe.” This will be a great opportunity for us to gather, share and learn together. I urge you to come and join in the experience as part of our project to learn to love and care for creation.

Sunday we will spend time re-visiting the familiar words of the the first chapter of Genesis, “When, in the beginning, God was creating…” What is creation for you and me? How do we see it? How are we part of its fundamentally interconnected reality and not some entity over against? God seems to love the earth and care deeply for creation. If we are made in God’s image and likeness, how are we to love the earth and care for creation with that same God-infused spirit?

This week’s Eco Education Hour will feature an on-line conversation with Elizabeth Singleton, eco-theologian and graduate of Claremont School of Theology. Dr. Singleton is a mentor of friend and mentor of Pastor Gregory. She is taking time from a busy schedule to spend time in conversation with us. I hope we will take advantage of her generosity.

Come Sunday morning at 10:00 AM for worship, study and shared community. Invite your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to join us in the joy of this Earth Month Sunday.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Palm Sunday to Easter

This Sunday will be filled with all the drama of the Passion of the Christ as we look forward to Holy Week. We will begin with the traditional procession of palms and end at the foot of the cross. It is a lot to cover in one service but it is not good for us to skip directly from Palm Sunday to Easter without remembering the pain and struggle of the week between. The service will be for the whole family as we remember together.

In Adult Spiritual formation we will continue our exploration of “Who Jesus Was,” following the video series Saving Jesus Redux. This material has generated lively and meaningful discussion. We’d love to have you be part of it if you aren’t already.

The other events of Holy Week include a simple soup supper on Maundy Thursday followed by communion around the tables and extinguishing the last of the Tenebrae candles. Our tradition on Good Friday is to open the sanctuary from Noon to 3:00 PM with recorded music and written resources for contemplation. It may also be a good day to walk our labyrinth. We will gather at 10:00 AM on Saturday to set up for Easter service and brunch. Your assistance would be much appreciated. Then, of course, Easter Sunday will be a celebration of the Resurrection with extra music and the creation of the flower cross.

Join us Sunday at 10:00 AM for worship, study and the sharing of community. Bring someone along share in the experiences of the day.

Together, let us strive…to know God’s love!

Pastor Rick

Traveling in the Dark (3/13/2016)

SermonsA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Text: Genesis 15:1-18

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to drive at night. Even before my eyesight began any significant aging, I was not crazy about driving after the sun disappeared. Maybe it’s related to all those weary trips of my childhood when my father would drive late into the night to avoid the searing heat of the August days as we drove from southern California to Louisiana. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really enjoy the challenge of trying to find my way in the dark, especially when piloting a powerful machine along an unfamiliar and unlit highway.

The irony is that I may be a better driver after dark because I am more alert. Since I am less of sure of what is going on around me, I tend to pay more careful attention to conditions and surroundings. My eyes may get tired more quickly because I am exercising them to a fuller capacity, trying to see in the dark. It is a stressful situation, so I am always happy to come to my stopping place to await the morning’s light.

As we have been learning in this Lenten journey, darkness has its assets as well as its liabilities. It will not do to label the darkness bad and the light good. The very fact that darkness invites a heightened awareness and more careful reading of our surroundings is a valuable thing. There are lessons to be learned in the dark, lessons that may save our lives, literally as well as spiritually. There are also lessons that might help us lessen the load for others. Traveling in the dark can be a journey inward but it may also be a journey outward, one we share with others along the way.

Today’s Song of Praise tells us that “Some have fled from terror by night, hiding from bullets by day.” For them, darkness provides life-saving shelter. I had a different hymn in mind for today, but I kept thinking about the reality of refugees, those who leave home and everything they hold dear in hopes of finding a better life or of just saving their lives. I was thinking of this partly because some of the America for Christ offering goes to support American Baptist Immigration and Refugee Services. And I also remembered that we have some in our congregation who know first-hand what seeking refuge is like. Talk about traveling in the dark – to be uprooted and flee to God only knows what future, if any, has to be terrifying at the same time it may be fueled by hope.

On the other hand, Joan Chittister observes that “Darkness is a very spiritual thing.” She says, “Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see. It creates the depressions that, once faced, teach us to trust. It gives us the sensitivity it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. It seeds in us the humility it takes to learn to live gently with the rest of the universe. It opens us to new possibilities within ourselves” (Joan Chittister, “A Walk into the Dark,” 2-22-2016, visionviewpoint@benetvision.org).

Does this ring true for you? Can you think of times when darkness has been your way to see? A place in which you’ve learned to trust? A time when you have cultivated compassion? A lesson you’ve learned about living? An opening to new possibilities? A life-saving opportunity?

There are many aspects of today’s text which we might explore, but I’m guessing our guides have chosen it because of what it teaches us about traveling in the dark. Abram here is confronted with both literal and metaphorical darkness. Neither is easily handled.

In the preceding chapter of Genesis, in a bit of convoluted military history, Abram, now a wealthy, powerful patriarch has won a great victory over an alliance of kingdoms that have conquered some other city-states and captured his nephew, Lot, with all his wealth. In an interesting footnote, the text says Abram’s successful military strategy is to divide his forces and attack the enemy under the cover of darkness – “He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them…” (Genesis 14:15). Darkness is their friend.

After the battle, when it comes time to divide up the spoils, the king of Sodom urges Abram to return his subjects to him but to keep all the goods. Abram refuses. He tells the king, “I have sworn to The Holy One, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me…” (Genesis 14:22-24).

Fresh from his victory and his righteous refusal of plunder, Abram finds himself alone before God. “Do not be afraid, Abram…” We hear the classic words, uttered so often when a human encounters the holy, even in a vision. “Do not be afraid.” That is so easy for the Holy One to say and so hard for humans to live into when face-to- face with the living God. It is an inherently frightening thing to encounter God, even when the word comes in a still small, voice. For the truth is that whenever we allow ourselves to explore deeply the realm of the holy, we are in unfamiliar territory. Holy ground is likely to be shaky ground for us. The invitation not to be afraid will increase anxiety at the same time it reassures. Who can explain such a mysterious paradox?

It is time for God and Abram to talk. Has Abram summoned God or has God come unbidden? The text doesn’t tell us, but the word is clear – “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Obviously there is a link to the events of the previous chapter. Abram was right to refuse plunder. God will take care of him, provide all that he needs. Abram believes God, but…there is this business of the heir. How can Abram be patriarch of a great people and inhabit the land of promise without an heir? The family tree will perish unless it bears some fruit, and, frankly, Abram and Sarai are beyond their prime, far beyond.

Haltingly, traveling in the dark, Abram decides to take God on. It is a measure of his great faith, his trust in God to keep God’s word, that emboldens him to question just when and how this promise will be fulfilled. God takes the old man outdoors to show him the midnight sky. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” Well, it’s a beautiful, powerful image. It moves Abram deeply but it doesn’t really answer his question. He is left to travel in the darkness. In fact, the text tells us that as he sleeps “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon him. He really is in unfamiliar territory, questioning the Creator. This intimacy with God is not an easy place to find one’s self. Though driven by love, Aslan is no tame lion. And this fierce God is about to do a remarkable thing.

In the story God enacts an ancient ritual of covenant. In the original version of the ritual, the two parties entering into covenant would begin at opposite ends of a path between the split carcasses, walking toward each other, meeting in the middle and continuing to the other end as a means of sealing the covenant between them. The pledge they made was that they would be cut in half, like the sacrificial animals, if they failed to keep the covenant. But what is remarkable in this story is that it is God alone, in the form of the smoking pot and flaming torch, who walks the path, sealing the covenant.

In the end, it is not really a covenant that is created. God uses the ritual to show Abram how serious God is about keeping what God’s promises. God’s action is a gift of grace. God owes Abram nothing but God has said…and God will keep God’s word. In the end, still traveling in the dark, Abram accepts God’s word and comes to trust the promise. It is not a direct answer to his question and it is enough.

Traveling in the dark we find fear and blessing, terror and salvation. Richard Rohr writes, “God teaches the soul most profoundly through darkness–and not just light! We only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. Trials and darkness teach us how to trust in a very practical way that a good God is guiding us. I don’t need to be perfectly certain before I take the next step. Now I can trust that even my mistakes will be used in my favor, if I allow them to be” (Richard Rohr, “Order, Disorder, Reorder,” 2-23-2016, cac.org).

So, here is the final word for today. God comes to Abram directly, according to the text. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes God needs us to act with God as agents of faith, hope and love. Sometimes God needs us to be trustworthy and keep promises of compassion and care on God’s behalf. Sometimes we must learn to walk in the darkness for ourselves so that we might also travel in the dark with others in need of a “friendly face,” a helping hand. Since we have each been a stranger, have had to find our way when the way was not clear, have had to learn to put our trust in the Holy One, we can also try to understand what it is like for others. There may be times when we feel we must travel the dark hills alone. Still, God says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, if it is so for us, is this not good news we can share, indeed live out, with others who also travel in the dark? Traveling in the dark is a journey inward and a journey outward.

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton).