As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram,
and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
The book of Genesis, from which this morning’s Old Testament lesson is taken, though perhaps best known as a book about creation, is also a book of “dismemberment;” in Genesis, much is broken. Look no further than chapter three and Adam and Eve taking the apple to see how quickly we humans began to rend God’s world. Then Cain killed Abel. Then the Lord is so sorry that he made humankind that he sent the flood. Then there is strife – a tearing at the family fabric – between Abraham and his nephew Lot, between Abraham’s wife (Sarah) and her maid (Hagar), between Abraham’s son Isaac and Isaac’s uncle Laban, between Isaac’s twins Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and his brothers. Indeed, the stories of the patriarchs are so full of dismembering that appropriately the sign of God’s covenant with them is circumcision, a cutting. Genesis does include the story of creation, but… it is also a book of dismemberment and brokenness.
Further, in spite of “Let there by light,” Genesis is a book about darkness. “In the beginning… darkness covered the face of the deep.” In today’s lesson it was dark when God took Abram outside to see the stars. Isaac was blind – in the dark – when Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. It was dark when Jacob dreamed about angels ascending and descending. It was dark when Jacob wrestled with the angel at Peniel. For three whole chapters, Joseph’s brothers were “in the dark” as to Joseph’s identity, not recognizing their brother as lord of Egypt.
Though Genesis presents as a book of creation and light, it is in many ways a book of dismemberment and darkness. In today’s lesson from chapter 15, the two come together. Darkness, because today’s story takes place as the sun is going down, and a “deep and terrifying darkness descended upon [Abram.]” Dismemberment: “’Bring me a heifer… a goat… a ram…’ He… cut them in two, laying each half over against the other.” In today’s reading from Genesis – and throughout Genesis; indeed, throughout all of Scripture – God uses darkness and dismemberment to work abundant life: “Look toward heaven and count the stars,” God says to Abram in the darkness, amidst the pieces. “So shall your descendants be.” In the darkness, in the midst of dismemberment, God works abundant life.
It may seem strange that darkness could lead to abundant life, but time and again in the Scriptures, darkness does. Nicodemus comes to know Jesus at night. The apostle Peter is set free from prison at night. Paul and Silas are freed from prison at night. Paul raised the young man Eutychus from the dead in the middle of the night. Jesus was raised from the dead while it was yet night.
In the Scriptures dismemberment, too, leads to abundant life. God used a bitter rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, Abram’s wife and her maid, to raise up not one but two mighty nations. God used Joseph’s being sold into slavery to save the entire family from famine. Even though he denied Jesus three times, yet Peter was the rock on whom Christ built his church. Even though at first he persecuted the Church, yet Paul was called by God to be an apostle. In a strange way dismemberment, like darkness, opens the way for God to give greater life.
Today’s story – the so-called “Covenant Between the Pieces” – reminds us of what God can do in darkness and dismemberment. Where we humans cannot see, where we are “in the dark;” and when life around us seems in pieces, where we don’t “have it all together;” it is there that God is able to enter in. Where our human attempts to make whole have been completely upended, there God is able to act. In the places where we have no choice but to “let go, and let God,” there is the door through which God can most readily enter and do things beyond what we can ask or imagine.
Several summers ago, a colleague’s 28 year-old son dropped dead of a heart attack while canoeing in New Hampshire. He was an avid outdoorsman and in excellent health; his fiancée was in the boat with him. My colleague tells how difficult it was in the weeks and months after his son’s death. He says a turning point came one day during the Eucharist. While standing and waiting at the altar for the gifts to be brought forward, he suddenly had a vision of his son’s dead body spread out across the altar. “OMG!” he exclaimed (to himself). “Lord, I don’t know what to do with this.” Then he said, “Here, you do something with this.”
I hope that this Lenten season we might be in touch with the darkness and brokenness in our lives. And not just to be in touch, but to recognize that it is there, where we are most broken, where things seem darkest, that – if we let God – God will “re-member” our lives, and bring us wholeness and healing.
The Eucharist that we are about to celebrate is a “re-membering.” In the Eucharist we remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us – a sacrifice of spilled blood and his broken body laid on the altar – and we offer it up to God. This morning, I invite you to get in touch with the darkness and brokenness in your life. (All of us have darkness and brokenness in our lives!) Maybe imagine your darkness gathered up in the chalice with Christ’s blood. Maybe imagine your brokenness alongside Christ’s broken body in the bread. Maybe you could say at the Eucharist as did my colleague, “Lord, I don’t know what to do with this. Here, you do something with this.” Say it, and then get out of the way. Get out of the way so that God can can more readily enter your darkness and brokenness, so that God can touch it, hold it, feel it. So that God can heal it! And then do with it – do with you – more than you could ever ask or imagine.