Homily for Sunday, March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1–12, 16–17
“[The Lord] said to [Abram], ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ [Abram] brought [the Lord] all these…” — Gen 15:9–10a
can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes… lighters, matches, sewing kits [and] two or three canteens of water…
They carried chess sets, basketballs [and] Vietnamese-English dictionaries…
They carried… safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire… fingernail clippers… bush hats, bolos, and much more.
Some of that “much more” included things like
The shared weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak… They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil… They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons… all of it, they carried gravity.
These are the things the soldiers carried in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But—as those of you who have read it will know—The Things They Carried is not so much about the tangibles the soldiers carried; it’s about the trauma:
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing [shameful memories]—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.
To help let go of that weight is why O’Brien, in the late 1980s and by then in his early ’40s, wrote The Things They Carried. “That’s what stories are for,” he wrote:
Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for… when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are…
In today’s reading from Genesis, Abram likewise carried things. As a nomadic herdsman, Abram carried things like:
Tents, tent poles, tent stakes, blankets, bedding, water skins, ewers, basins, buckets, bridles, saddles, rope, flint stones, kindling, firewood, candles and torches.
knives for cooking, knives for shearing, knives for butchering, extra clothing, herbs for cooking, herbs for medicine, oils for cooking, oils for medicine, flour, meal, a kneading bowl, a money pouch, coins for trading, and much more.
Abram’s “much more” probably included thing like:
The weight of responsibility to provide for his family and servants; the weight of decision as to when to set up camp and when to break it; the weight of decision as to where to travel; the weight of anxiety over finding water and food; the weight of negotiating the complex web of Near Eastern relationships, of families, tribes, friends and enemies.
And, given that he and Sarai were childless, Abram’s “much more,” also would have included
not merely a weight but a longing to produce an heir; and no doubt disappointment and grief at not having done so already.
These are the things Abram carried in Genesis. But—as those of you who have read it will know—Genesis is not so much about the tangibles Abram carried, it’s about the trauma. Abram would also have carried the weight of
trauma over separation from God—what the Tradition calls “sin”—a weight that the patriarchs, indeed all humans, have carried since Adam.
In a few passages—a very few—the author of Genesis specifies exactly what Abram carried, and, curiously, with each subsequent story the author becomes more and more precise as to what Abram, and then Abraham, carried:
The first place in Genesis that tells exactly what Abram carried is in today’s lesson, from Genesis 15. The Lord said to Abram:
“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle dove and a young pigeon.” [Abram] brought [the Lord] all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other.
The second place in Genesis that tells exactly what Abram, now Abraham, carried is in chapter 18. Abraham, seated by the entrance to his tent, looked up and saw three men standing near him.
He ran… to meet them… He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by… Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet… Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves…” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good… Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them.
Lastly, in chapter 22
Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son…
Abram carried the halves of a heifer, a goat, and a ram. Abraham carried water and bread, and curds and milk, “and the calf that he had prepared.” Abraham carried the wood, the fire and the knife, and then his son, and then again the knife. And it is here at the end of this third story of “the things Abraham carried”—after taking up all these things—that Abraham finds resolution; it is here that Abraham finally is able to put all these things down. For as you may recall, the angel of the Lord called from heaven and said
“Abraham, Abraham!… Do not lay your hands on the boy or do anything to him…” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
The author never again specifies the things Abraham carried. As if to say, “Abraham now has put everything down, and instead lets God carry.”
These three stories of “The Things Abram Carried” are in the end resurrection stories. Not just Abram’s “resurrection,” not just Jesus’ resurrection, but our resurrection. For as we allow ourselves like Abram to enter the darkness—to enter our own places of separation, where things have been severed and cut and it’s not pretty—and as we allow ourselves like Abram to “dream” of smoke and fire—of cleansing and light; and as we like Genesis grow more and more adept at naming the things we carry, then maybe we—like Abraham—can begin to put down our “knife,” to let go of the things that cut and sever us; then maybe we—like Abraham—can put everything down and let God carry.
Each week in the Eucharist, we tell the story of putting down the things we carry. And we tell this story not just with words but in our bodies. For each week we come to the altar with empty hands. If only for a moment, if only in symbolic gesture, for a moment at the altar we carry nothing. And in our empty hands we receive the one who, by his Passion and death, has taken up all so that we might put all down. In this sacrament Jesus takes up our darknesses; he takes up the ways in which we have been severed or cut; he takes up our brokenness, our traumas, our sin; and he passes among them like a smoking fire pot and a torch to purify and to shed light so that, in our own time and when we are ready, we might put everything down and instead let God carry.
In The Things They Carried O’Brien wrote that
But this, too, is true: stories can save us…
I wonder if this Lent we might allow ourselves to more fully enter the story we tell in the Eucharist—maybe even become this story— by practicing putting down the things we carry. No matter how heavy the things we carry—no matter how dark, no matter how severed—in Jesus it is possible to put them down, to let this story save us. Why not this Lent come here each week to Eucharist, and to the altar with empty hands? Why not this Lent come here each week and, if only for a moment, put everything down and let God carry? Why not this Lent ask God for the grace to put everything down and to take up instead what Jesus offers in his resurrection: freedom, peace and joy?