Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Welcome to our first attempt at a Celtic Eucharistic liturgy. You may already have an inkling its spirituality sets a different tone from what we normally encounter on a Sunday morning. It is more Trinitarian and focused on God’s guidance, God’s protection, and God’s mercy. The God meet through Western Christianity has taken on a therapeutic persona. Our God is there when needed, available for council and comfort, wise but not meddling, and encouraging of all our good endeavors. God, as made known through Celtic spirituality, is engaged in a cosmic struggle while remaining unimaginably close to us. This closeness is manifested through companionship and connection to the mystical beauty of the countryside. Today we encounter the God of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, rather than the God of Jan Karon’s Mitford series.
Our reading from the Book of Genesis blends comfortably with Celtic spirituality. It is concerned with one of the most basic functions of all living organisms – the need to propagate. It finds spiritual truth and hope in the stars of the night sky. And it presents us with an image of God far different than a white-bearded, grandfatherly figure sitting on a golden throne floating on a billowy cloud.
God and Abraham engage in the ritual of an ancient Middle-Eastern covenant ceremony. Today, when two country’s leaders sign a treaty, they exchange pens. In Abraham’s day the ceremony was much more graphic. Various animals, both large and small, are gathered, killed, and their carcasses cut in half. The halves are pulled apart to create a bloody path in between, which those entering into the covenant walk barefoot between, their feet and clothing becoming stained in the process. As they walk they recite a series of blessings and curses – the conditions of the covenant and what will follow based on adherence or disregard. In essence, each party expresses a willingness to be like the slaughtered beasts through which they walk if they prove unfaithful. (And you thought getting a mortgage was an undertaking!)
God promises to provide Abraham with a son, and even more, that his offspring will be as innumerable as the stars. Abraham wants to believe, but needs a sign. God directs him to lay out what is necessary for a covenant ceremony. As night approaches Abraham falls into a fitful, trancelike sleep. The text tells us a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the animal pieces. These two symbols – perhaps related to how God protects the Israelites fleeing from Egypt as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – stand for God in the ritual. Abraham himself does not enter into the gruesome walk; indicating God already deems his faith sufficient to seal the covenant and God assumes all the consequences for failure by Abraham or his offspring.
Middle-Eastern covenants bind behavior by defining how each party will and will not act and what each party will offer and receive from the relationship. The bible tells us God enters into covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel (through the ceremony we read about in last week’s Old Testament lesson). As we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ we remember we have entered into a new covenant with God made possible through the work Jesus our Savior.
Each of the biblical figures who enters into a covenant with God does so freely. The same is true for us. We are neither forced nor coerced. We can follow or we can forge different path. We can act with affection towards others or we can be alienated one from another. We can be like chicks huddling under the protective wings of the mother hen or we can run amuck in the world. The choice is ours. God gives us the freedom to choose. But why? Why does God allow us to obey or to disobey? Why does God assume the consequences of our unfaithfulness? Why did God create a world where things can go so wrong?
I just finished reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, which I quoted in a sermon last fall and then received as a gift for Christmas. It has been a wonderful devotional-type read that has helped me to feel closer to our natural world. Kimmerer describes the interconnectedness of every aspect of forest life. Every organism, great or small, has a role to play. It finds its niche in greater community – taking what it needs, giving what it doesn’t, doing something that is necessary for others. For instance, did you know that a slug moving over moss picks up spores on its slimy underside and carries them several inches, thus providing the possibility the moss will reproduce in a new location?
Within the vast network of a forest there is little freedom. Yes, the slug may turn this way or that. A bird may choose to float on the wind or to work against it. A falling leaf may or may not be carried off by the breeze. Still, all things great and small are predisposed to do their particular part. So why are we humans so different? Why can’t we be a part of the bigger system without having the possibility of doing so much damage to it? Why, at times, do was take more than we need, refuse to give what we have, and neglect to do our part for the common good?
In one chapter of her book Kimmerer describes a time she was hired to consult on a private development. An extremely wealthy individual building a mansion on a huge expanse of property wanted to recreate an authentic Appalachian forest on the site. No expense was spared in this effort and Kimmerer was called in to consult on the mosses involved, which hints at the scope of the undertaking.
Well, it turns out you can’t just pick up a clump of moss from one place, put it down in another, keep it moist, and expect it to survive. Moss, in all its varieties, is delicately situated in a place with specific kinds of nutrients, air-quality, sunlight/shade, partnering organisms, and a host of other factors. You can’t just pick it up and move it. Kimmerer notes the owner behind the project really did want to want to recreate an authentic ecosystem and took elaborate steps to make it happen, but his desire to control the process of growth ruined what he hoped to create.
She then quotes Barbara Kingsolver who wrote, “It’s going to take the most selfless kind of love to do right by what we cherish and give it the protection to flourish outside our possessive embrace.” I have read and reread this quote nearly a dozen times and there is so much in it I still can’t quite get my head around.
It’s going to take the most selfless kind of love to do right by what we cherish and give it the protection to flourish outside our possessive embrace.
Celtic spirituality is grounded in creation as the Creator had made it. God has created the forest to be a dynamic, interconnected ecosystem that, while random, lacks the freedom of choice. God created the human family desiring we each have freedom. While God could force each person to be like a brood finding love, protection, and comfort under divine wings, our response means more when it is entered into freely. God’s selfless love eschews the possibility of a smothering, possessive embrace. Our free will, our faithful response, elicits God’s deep joy.
We see so much in our world which must please the One who created all things and we so much which must not. Our own lives are no different. We choose at times to be faithful and we choose at times to forsake the terms of the covenant we have embraced. But through it all we are free. The choice is always ours. Today, through our Celtic liturgy, we bind ourselves again to the strong name of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. May we know God close enough to be a companion and source of strength and may we sense the restraint of God’s selfless love which invites our faithful response without smothering us in a possessive embrace.