A sermon preached on February 24, 2013 – Lent 2 – based upon Genesis 15:1 – 12, 17 -18.
Abraham is possibly the most revered man in western religion. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their roots back to this man who lived over four thousand years ago.
I must admit though that there has always been a part of me that felt Abraham didn’t deserve such an esteemed place in religious history. I mean, when I look for a religious hero, I like there to be stories about the person doing the kinds of good and noble things Jesus did – you know, feeding the hungry, standing up for the little guy, speaking the truth even when it’s hard – that sort of thing. I want the person to be a model of how a “good” person lives.
But you don’t really get that in the stories about Abraham. He is good and loyal to his nephew Lot, but beyond that, there’s nothing especially commendable about him in the morality department.
In fact, you get a couple of stories that make him look anything but exemplary. Apparently his wife Sarah was quite a good-looking woman, and Abraham knew that, and on two different occasions on his travels he makes his wife pretend to be his sister so that men won’t kill him in order to get their hands on her. In both instances, God has to step in to straighten out the mess his cowardice and dishonesty creates.
I’ve known, of course, that Christianity has always pointed to Abraham as an example of faith: Paul latches on to a verse in our reading: “6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
He trusts God. But even this he does rather imperfectly. His trust falters at times.
So all in all, Abraham never really struck me as someone deserving of such an esteemed place in religious tradition. He’s kind of ordinary.
But one of the remarkable things about the scriptures is that you can read these stories all of your adult life as I have – literally hundreds of times – and one day you hear it speaking to you in a whole new way, illuminating your life, and that’s been the case this week with me and the story of Abraham.
The thing about Abraham is that where we’re constantly tempted to leave our humanity behind, he shows us the essence of what it means to be a human being. Although he trusts imperfectly, he trusts enough so that when he hears God calling him to leave behind his homeland to go onto a journey into the unknown, he does exactly that. He leaves behind everything that is familiar and reliable and secure in order to go on a journey to an unseen promised land. His capacity for trust goes hand in hand with a capacity to embrace vulnerability and risk-taking. Trust doesn’t really mean anything unless you are willing to make yourself vulnerable enough to take a risk. And conversely, vulnerability and risk-taking aren’t possible without some degree of trust.
Abraham is the poster-child of embracing one’s vulnerability.
Although we human beings, made from the dust of the earth, are inherently vulnerable, like Adam and Eve we constantly try to lose our vulnerability in a lame attempt to become gods. But the very best things we human beings are capable of require us to embrace our vulnerability and take risks, and you can’t do that without trust.
Here’s what I mean. We were put here on earth to do two things: to love, and to create. Love requires risk-taking and vulnerability. Care about somebody, and you run the risk they will either let you down, leave you, or even die on you. You risk having your heart-broken. If you try to make yourself invulnerable to such pain, you will close yourself off from being deeply connected to other human beings through love.
Try and create something – anything – and this, too involves a risk. Tell a joke and you run the risk that nobody will laugh. Stand up and sing a song and there’s the possibility those who hear your song will grimace. Simply put forth an idea and it may be shot down. Attempt to make a change in a system in hopes of improving it, and you run the risk of making things worse. Give birth to a child, and well, the risks involve are legion.
I’ve been thinking about these things in part because of a book I am reading entitled “Daring Greatly” with the subtitle of “How Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” It’s by a Brene Brown a social scientist who you can find online with a couple of extremely popular TED talks.
She takes her title, “Daring Greatly” from a speech she quotes of Teddy Roosevelt that includes these words:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
Before I go on with the quote I want to pause to say that line reminded me of the comments you see online discussions say, with local Patch articles. Often the comments posted demonstrates some of the worst aspects of humanity – the critics hiding in anonymity whipping off mean-spirited criticisms of whoever happens to be in the news at a given moment – posts that involve no risk at all on their part.
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
The book got me thinking about the story of Adam and Eve in a new way. Usually when we hear this story we focus on the moment when they reach out to eat the forbidden fruit. That was the moment when everything went wrong. We think, “too bad they couldn’t have followed orders and held onto the perfection of the garden.”
But there’s always been this strand of thought in Christian theology that says “the Fall” was necessary. In the Garden there was no real freedom. It was necessary for them to become conscious of their freedom, even if it meant using their freedom unwisely. Sooner or later, they were going to screw up and sin.
So what now catches my attention is what happens immediately afterwards — how they respond to their screw-up.
First though, I want to talk the fact that there is a big difference between the meaning of two words that we often use interchangeably: “guilt” and “shame.”
If we put the experience of guilt into words it would come out like this: “I did something bad; I did something I now realize was cruel. I did something I that was dumb.”
The experience of shame, however, goes well beyond guilt. It would be expressed like this. “I am bad. I am cruel. I am dumb. At my essence, that is what I am. I am unworthy of relationship with anybody.” Shame casts a person into a deep, dark, isolation.
And it is shame that keeps us from loving and creating – the best things humans do.
Using this distinction, let’s look at what happens after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. They did something bad and are guilty, that’s for sure. The question is, what will they do with their guilt? Ideally they would go to God and fess up. Apologize. Learn from their mistake.
But instead they descend into shame. They suddenly realize they’re naked, and when they look at themselves, they find what they see despicable, so much so that they immediately make cloths with which to cover up their now-repulsive bodies. And then they go hide from God.
Shame lives inside of every one of us. It is our inheritance from Adam and Eve, so to speak. And full-on experience of shame is very painful.
If you’re saying to yourself, “Shame is no big deal in my life,” this might be because you’ve managed to avoid a direct confrontation with your shame. Brene Brown identifies three ways we try to do this.
One she calls “moving away,” to withdraw — to not anybody get close enough to know the real me, because if they did, they wouldn’t like what they saw, and in seeing me they would trigger that awful sense of shame that need to avoid at all costs. It involves keeping people at a distance so they can’t really get to know me. It’s expressed in Adam and Eve hiding out.
A second strategy is “moving towards.” It involves bending over backwards to keep everybody around me happy, avoiding all conflicts, so as to avoid situations where people might get mad at me, because if they do I’ll descend into that feeling of shame – the feeling of “I’m no good.” I become a slave to anxiety, losing touch with who I really am because I’m so busy trying to keep everybody else happy.
The third strategy is called “moving against.” We don’t usually think of it this way, but sometimes we run from our own shame by going on the offensive and shaming others. You can see a bit of this when Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. It can include a compulsion to be perfect – creating an appearance of perfection that leaves others acutely aware of their imperfections.
Oftentimes, religion turns into perfectionism. That’s what the Pharisees were about in Jesus’ day — trying to do it perfectly and condemning those who fell short in an attempt to keep their shame at bay,
The thing the three strategies have in common is that they all are attempts at making ourselves invulnerable in order to avoiding feeling shame, because shame feels awful. But they only work to a point. Shame hides out in the dark corners of our souls, and the fear of bringing it out into the light keeps us crippled – not the whole persons God wants us to be.
So returning now to our story this morning, it is important to realize that shame lurks in the background of this story. Sarah has not been able to give birth to a child, and in those days that was the essence of what a woman was about – to bring forth children into this world. Her barren womb was considered a curse by God. Sarah – and Abraham with her – carries deep sense of shame. Under this weight, Abraham’s trust is faltering. God has promised that they will be the grandparents of a great nation, but they’re getting old, and Abraham’s tempted to give up.
The Lord speaks to him. “Fear not; I am your shield.” At first glance these words suggests God is offering Abraham invulnerability – an impenetrable fortress against the dangers of this world. The Lord will keep them safe.
And yet this Lord that Abraham is being asked to trust is invisible, as is the shield he offers. The temptation Abraham is up against is the same one we talked about last week with Jesus in the desert: refusing to trust God, and instead taking up his own shield. Abraham’s own shield would involve playing it safe and forgoing risk-taking.
But that is precisely the shield that the Lord is asking Abraham to forgo.
The Lord takes Abraham out under the night sky and tells him to number the stars. “Your descendents will be more than the number of those stars.” The Lord is promising to take away the shame that Sarah and Abraham bear.
It’s at this point that the story gets truly bizarre. In those days when two parties would make a covenant between them, they would sacrifice animals, and then lay out the halves of each of the animals on either side of a pathway. In a solemn covenant making ceremony, the two people would each walk down the path and back between the split animal carcasses. The message expressed in the ceremony was this: may it be to me as it is with these animals if I fail to keep my side of the covenant.
In this case, Abraham is a totally passive participant in the ceremony. As night falls and the ceremony begins, Abraham falls asleep. A “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon him.
If you understand what I’ve been talking about when I’ve spoken of shame… then you know that when shame comes upon you full throttle, this is a pretty apt description of what it feels like.
At this point, a fire pot – representing the presence of the Lord – floats down the pathway that separates the carcass halves. The Lord seals the covenant. Abraham isn’t even required to take that walk. This is a covenant of grace. Even if Abraham falters in his side of keeping the covenant; the Lord will always keep the covenant.
The same shield is offered to us. It will not protect us from ever having bad things happening to us. You only need to look at Jesus getting nailed to his cross to recognize this.
What this shield will do is protect us from the slings and arrows of the shame that lurks within us. When in the normal course of our lives the slings and arrows of shame begin to assault us, the shield of God’s grace will claim us as the beloved child of God. This shield will allow us to “dare greatly” knowing that should our daring lead to failure or rejection, nothing can happen that will separate us from the love of God.
I can look at and own my sins, my failures, my weaknesses and not have the very core of my being shaken. I can apologize, trusting in forgiveness.
There is an underlying essence – a trusting in the love of God — that isn’t threatened by this.
Sometimes to access this shield we need someone “with skin on,” some trusted person or persons who can be bearers of grace for us in those times when shame threatens to take us down. It can make all the difference in the world to tell another of our confrontation with shame and have them say they too have felt the same way – suddenly the power of the shaming is broken. This is what the church should be – the body of Christ – a community that does not shame. We hold one another accountable while witnessing to a God we know in Jesus who is forgiving and merciful.
This shield allows us to make the Lenten journey. We can own up to our sins, our failures, our flaws and not have our very core shaken. We can own up to the fact that there are ways in which we need to change how we live without is casting us down into the pit of shame.