The headlines from Ukraine were so unsettling this week that Greg suggested we resolve to stop doomscrolling for the rest of Lent. Is that even possible? There is no easy way to evade the grief and turmoil generated by war, and the ripples of loss and anguish have worked their way around the world. Dealing with our own struggles more locally, some have responded by subtly shaming the alarm our neighbors are expressing over inflation, fuel and utility costs, food shortages. Instead of quantifying loss, perhaps it is more important to ask: How do we, as people of faith, respond to disruption and tragedy?
Thinking about this in theological terms, love, tragedy, and grace are co-mingled in life. In the Episcopal tradition we believe that our human condition is created as good, and at the same time we are fallible and very fragile. All human beings fall short of the glory of God, and yet the Holy One seems to respond consistently to our tragedy with love, grace, and forgiveness. God invites us to know this in our hearts, to experience this in our worship, to share it through our work. We believe that Jesus invites us to extend love and grace to others, praying Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. This is not easy.
The lessons for today teach us that God’s love for human beings is boundless. In Genesis, God has great plans for Abram. Remember, Abram left his home in Ur and brought his entire household to Canaan. YHWH promised Abram land and offspring as a reward for his faithfulness, and he is the father of Judaism as well as Islam and Christianity. Let us also remember that this patriarch was a consistent example of moral failure. Twice he tried to sell his wife Sarai/Sarah to another man, and he made money doing it. The story of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac does not portray him as a good father, earning him the condemnation of the rabbis who wrote the Mishna. His treatment of Ishmael (his other son) and Hagar (Ishmael’s mother) is terrifying and cruel. Abram is a mess.
What happens in today’s passage reveals God’s sincere love for sinful, broken humanity in Abram. In the form of smoke and fire, God walks between the split bodies of the sacrificial animals. This was an ancient practice. When kings made treaties in 2000 BC, they sealed their covenant by walking together between pieces of sacrificed animals. This symbolized their willingness to accept death as a punishment if they violated the agreement. YHWH made a sacred, unilateral covenant with Abram. Notice that God did not ask Abram to walk between the animals. This is the most important part of the passage. God is taking full and unilateral responsibility, offering the divine life in order to seal the covenant. That is what love and grace look like.
Why would God do this? Because in the big picture, Abram the troubled soul was also an essential character in the history of human salvation. The story is about God’s will, not Abram’s flaws.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus routinely works to share the generous love of God for people identified as sinners, casting out their demons and performing many miraculous cures. When the Pharisees warn Jesus of Herod’s murderous intentions, he rebuffs them, saying that he still has God’s work to fulfill, and that they will find him in Jerusalem. It is very clear that Jesus knows that he will be killed when he gets there. Jesus’ work is always and in every way all about God. Herod’s corrupt empire and the threats of violence have no power over the redemptive work of Jesus. That is what love and grace look like.
When covenants of human relationship are ruptured, when the demons of violence are unleashed with immeasurably tragic consequences, God’s love has not evaporated. God does not control human action, and human action often reflects nothing divine. I am convinced that God expects faithful people to be the eyes, ears, and hands of compassion. The Love that created us invites us to go to work in the world. That means we cannot turn away. We are compelled to act, to protect the vulnerable and the suffering, and to comfort the injured.
It is natural to react with shock, fear, and anger when acts of intentional violence impact our global community. It is natural to be anxious when we are stressed. Our emotions are normal. They bubble up without volition. And they point us to a deeper truth. War and violence, evil and suffering are not private matters. We are all connected, and we feel that connection most acutely when our neighbors suffer.
Still we are not God. We can not know the minds and hearts of others. We can only know ourselves, and even then often imperfectly. We can and must call out violence and cruelty for what they are. We can not judge others’ brokenness. That is only for God.
In the meanwhile, Lent offers an eminently valuable opportunity to return to the remedy for our human tragedy, which is the love of God. Lent invites us to remember our identity. We are holy people who err and sin, and who are invited to reach into God’s deep forgiveness, most especially when we struggle to offer forgiveness of our own. We are all part of a people whom God loves, with the deepest and most tender devotion. The Holy One is among us in good times and in bad times.
Whether we witness unjustifiable and destructive instances of aggression and violence, or the simple fear and frustration of our neighbors in a challenging season, let us commit ourselves to listening for ways to share grace with the many who are in need. Above all else, love and care for one another and our neighbors.