My Old Testament professor during seminary was the Reverend Doctor Rebecca Abts Wright. She is an ordained Methodist minister, earned her PhD from Yale Divinity School and is the author of several books and other publications. You can Google her, if you want. Despite her credentials, however, Professor Wright does not fit the stereotype of the “academic elite.” In fact, quite the opposite: she speaks softly, dresses plainly and normally goes about her work with an air of quiet purpose and humility. Which is not to say that she won’t occasionally get up on a soapbox to opine about issues that are important to her… particularly those concerning social justice and ecology. She has quite a lot to say about those sorts of things, believe me!
Unless the weather is inclement, Professor Wright regularly “commutes” between her home and the seminary (and everywhere else on campus) on foot, and it’s not uncommon to see her out on the side of the main highway that runs beside the campus picking up trash and recyclables. She often volunteers at St. Mary’s Convent and Conference Center near the University, where she works in the scullery washing dishes. If you didn’t know her, you’d think she was just a local woman trying to earn some extra money. One might be forgiven for underestimating Professor Wright… and one would be mistaken in doing so. In her humbleness and determination to “walk the walk” of Christian discipleship, she has forever altered my understanding of the “God of the Old Testament”—if there is such. I’m pretty sure that God is… and always has been… God, and that it is only our understanding of God that has changed.
Professor Wright likes to tell stories, and she is good at it. One day she told us a funny story about something that happened while she was working at the Conference Center dining room. Maybe I’ve told it to you before: as she was bussing tables one afternoon, she happened to overhear a bit of conversation between two diners, one a successful-looking gentleman in his fifties and the other a young man in his late teens. To all appearances, they were father and son. The younger was telling the elder that he really wasn’t “into being in college” right now, and that he was thinking about taking a break… to maybe just get a job somewhere for a while. The father was having none of it! he made his case forcefully: “You need to keep at it, son… finishing college will be key to your future success… if you drop out now, you’ll just waste time… get yourself stuck in a dead end job… and maybe never get back on track…” and on and on. And, the young man was beginning to show signs of capitulation. Professor Wright felt a little bit of pity for him, I think—going to college because your family wants you to go to college isn’t always the right choice for a young person. Intending to buttress his point with an object lesson, the father called out to the older, plainly dressed women clearing up other people’s messes: “Tell me, ma’am, he asked kindly (and maybe just a wee bit patronizingly), “how many years of school did you complete?” Did I mention Professor Wright is humble? And that she is, but she’s also pretty honest and straightforward, and I’m not sure her truthful response met the needs of a dad trying to keep his son in school. But I digress.
During class, Professor Wright would often sit on the corner of her desk, facing us with the Hebrew Bible in her lap, and simply read to us from Scripture, pausing often to acquaint us with cultural and linguistic nuances contained in the Hebrew that we might otherwise have missed. We called it, “story time with Becky,” and we learned a lot about the relationship God wanted to have with the people in Old Testament times: one based on submission and trust in God’s righteousness. And we learned how such a relationship with God might inform relationships between people in our own time—with our neighbors—if we’ll let it. How might the world change if we tried a little harder to emulate God’s righteousness in our relationships with others? Isn’t that, after all, one of the things we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Professor Wright always encouraged us to dig deep into the socio/historical context of Hebrew Scripture before settling on an interpretation.
I remember in particular what she taught us about the passage from Genesis we read in our lesson from Hebrew Scripture today. God was speaking to Abram, telling him about all the good things that were in store for him. But Abram (perhaps lulled by the informality of his conversation with the Almighty) was hesitant, unable to believe that God would, or could, do everything that he was promising. Does that ever happen to you? It does to me, sometimes. So, God said to Abram: “OK, I get it. You seem to be having trouble believing what I’m telling you, so we’ll seal the deal in a way you can understand.” Four thousand years ago in Canaan, blood rituals known as “suzerainty treaties” between a king and an inferior subject involved the sacrifice of a number of animals. The greater the status of the overlord… the greater the value of the animals and the solemnity of the occasion. After the animals were slaughtered, the lesser party to the ritual would process through the midst of the carnage, reciting oaths that spelled out his obligations to his master. Sounds pretty gruesome, huh? But blood was the most precious commodity there was back in the day, and that’s why it was used to formalize the most important relationships. And I suppose that there was some sign value to the lesser party standing in the middle of a bunch of animal carcasses. Maybe it served to remind him of where he ranked in the grand scheme of things. But here’s what made this suzerainty treaty different from the others: it was not the lesser party passing through the bloody remains of sacrificed animals. It was God. It was the Creator of everything that is… promising Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven, and that they would be given a great land in which they could live and thrive… if they would only be faithful. This was God demonstrating that there was nothing he could not do—and that he was willing to meet his people halfway, and more than halfway—in order to be in relationship with them.
Sadly, this would not be the last time that God would have to show his power and goodness in this fashion… stooping to redeem his stubborn, stiff-necked people from the consequences of their disbelief. It would happen again and again: through the covenant “set in stone” with Moses, later reaffirmed with David and, finally, through the New Covenant—the Incarnation—the Word made flesh: Jesus, the Christ. Fully divine, yet fully human, God in Christ met us halfway on the road that spans the distance between heaven and earth, so that we could be more-fully in relationship with him… at-one… healed. I find it instructive, as well as poignant, that Jesus uses the implicit analogy of fox and chickens in today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:31-35) to remind us that God’s arms are always open to us. God wants to gather us to himself as a hen gathers her chicks… to save us from the predations of the Evil One and lead us on the path of righteousness. But we balk! Sometimes, like Jonah (and most two-year-olds), we run as fast as we can in the opposite direction God is calling us to go… and then watch, with sadness and disbelief, as our protector and sustainer, our Messiah, is torn for our sake… all because we were unwilling to meet the Creator of the Universe halfway. That thought gives me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. How about you? But God never wastes anything. You’ve heard the phrase, “in for a penny, in for a pound?” It means that once you’ve started something worth doing, you don’t give up on it. And despite all of our stubbornness and disbelief… despite all of the promises we’ve broken, God won’t give up on us.
During this season of Lent, I challenge you to open your eyes to the goodness and mercy that God shows you every day. And I’m not just talking about “happy stuff.” You know… things that we really want… and then when they work out we say, “It was just a God thing.” No… some of God’s goodness and mercy is hard. It stretches us… and molds us to the limits of our endurance in order that we may become the creatures that God created us to be… so that we can be bringers of the Kingdom. I challenge you to open your heart to the movement and purpose of God in your life and in the world around you, the opportunities that God is giving you to be the Body of Christ to a world in need of hope! And, finally, I challenge you to think… to open your mind… and figure out what it is that is separating you from God. What is it that is preventing you from meeting God halfway? It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, or what you’ve done. Love awaits… arms open and outstretched. Step into that Almighty embrace… and be healed.