February 24, 2013
We begin today with Abram at the earliest part of his journey with the Lord. Remember that Abram’s name is later changed by God to Abraham “the father of many nations.” Abram is to lead his people to a new land, but the journey is hard, even harsh. Abram knows he needs a male heir to continue his line, but he is distraught when the only heir apparent is the child of a slave.
Then one night the Lord takes him out to look at the stars – a sight too many of us never see due to light pollution. The Lord dispels everything in Abram’s doubts when the Lord tells him his descendants will be in number like the stars of heaven.
Next, Abram undergoes what seems to be some kind of vision or trance that is terrifying, in which the Lord, depicted as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passes between Abram and the sacrifices he has made. It all sounds primitive, evocative of something primal, strange and perplexing. It is a covenant assuring Abram the land he was promised would belong to him and his descendants.
It is hard for 21st century Christians to grasp the depth of this story. We cannot readily appreciate how land and descendants were primal forces that created identity in the ancient world. However, if you visit a farm or a ranch in rural America today, you can find vestiges of that primal concept. A rancher will defend her land as if it were part of her, because it is. The land shapes the people who live and work on it. Without it, their identity is compromised. The land itself defines their mission.
Farmers and ranchers today lament the fact that often their children don’t want to stay on the land, or are forced to leave it for economic reasons. The whole enterprise of farming and ranching is a family mission, and when there are no heirs who wish to continue, the mission seems lost. A rancher may grieve over this more than anyone.
So far we have looked at Abram’s encounter with the Lord from an agrarian point of view. The thing to remember is that land and heirs are the foundation for a mission, a journey that Abram and Sarah will take together. This mission ties directly with today’s gospel and Jesus’ mission that leads to the cross.
The season of Lent doesn’t mean much for us until we can view our mission as part of Christ’s mission, until we can see that our denial, fasting and prayer are ways to return to the journey that the Lord leads us on. How does that happen?
Many of us have had the experience of seeing a vision of what could be, working toward accomplishing it, often with a clear sense we were partners with God, only to have that “mission” taken away, radically changed or corrupted by others.
We are in good company. That is what happens to Jesus. His mission, his passion to heal, forgive and reconcile, ends up in betrayal and crucifixion. The very city, Jerusalem, that stands for God’s mercy and reconciliation ends up turning against him.
So if you are struggling with what the Lord seems to have promised you, if you feel your mission is declining toward failure, if your church seems to have lost members and energy, if your work seems to be undermined by opportunists and betrayers, you are not alone. Abram struggled with these same challenges, and so does Jesus.
An interim pastor found himself in the middle of a conflict between less-than-candid leaders, the diocese and his own hopes for turning the church around. For nine months he felt the sting of ridicule from every direction. Even the bishop suggested he might be in the wrong place. One night in his prayers he simply said to Jesus, “Show me where to go.” In his prayer he saw a vision of the cross, the plain wooden cross above the altar at the church he served.
He reports that vision changed everything. He stayed as interim, he rode out the conflict, and in the end those who were his enemies left and others came forward as honest leaders. The church began to grow both in numbers and giving.
Our Lenten journey is no journey if we don’t experience the cross, that symbol of what stands between the Lord and us. If we are unwilling to be challenged with change, or fearful that nothing can be different, then we will turn away from the journey Jesus leads us on to the cross. We will hide out in Lent. “I’m not making any changes this year.” “I’m going to lose weight by going to the gym.” And so on.
Instead, follow the path of Abram; ask Jesus what he wants you to do with this holy time. Watch for signs in your waking and sleeping. Each of us has our own journey, and it is one that will not only transform us but encourage others as well if we allow the Lord to lead, now, in this time and place where we are called by God.
— Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island, Ark.