Rector's Blog: Practicing Promise
The first five books of the Bible, the Torah, comprise the narrative that shapes and defines the people called Israel. The other books of what we Christians call the Old Testament are all in active dialogue with the Torah, and are pointing towards its authority in their shared life. That means that these are the books that helped shape and define Jesus. As a Jew, Jesus’ culture, the lens through which he understood life, the world, and its relationship with God was all inextricably linked to the Torah. As Christians, then, we have some responsibility in recognizing how these books shape us as well.
The Torah begins at the beginning of all things, with the creation of the world and all its inhabitants, then narrows its focus to the creation and formation of God’s people – first through the lives of Abraham and Sarah, and then through their offspring. This narrative details the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, as well as their miraculous redemption by God, who liberates them from slavery, and then guides them through the wilderness into a new way of living, into a new identity and sense of purpose in the world.
From the moment Abraham arrives on the scene, there is a very important thread that is woven throughout the narrative – and that is God’s Promise. God makes a covenant agreement with Abraham, and in that covenant, God promises to bless Abraham, to protect him, and to give him offspring, a heritage, and a land his people can call their own. The phrase Promised Land has passed into our common vernacular so much so that it needs almost no explanation. It is, in fact, aptly named: Land is promised to God’s people, and at the same time, the land contains within it promise, a hope for new and abundant life.
And while much of the Old Testament is concerned with how God’s people live once they are in the Promised Land, there is a detail of the story that we are capable of casually overlooking: The Torah does not conclude with God’s people happily resting in the Promised Land. No, at the close of this utterly central story, the people forged in covenant relationship with God find themselves standing just outside the Promised Land, preparing to enter.
If you had not thought about that before, please take a moment simply to sit with it. Attainment of God’s promise is not found in the central narrative of God’s people. The bulk of the story is located in the wilderness - wandering, wrestling, and wrangling.
In this moment, it might be tempting for us as Christians to differentiate ourselves from the Israelites. But we’d be kidding ourselves. Even if we ignore for a moment the centrality of the Torah in Jesus’ life, we’d have to admit that our New Testament leaves us here on earth waiting on a promise. No, this Torah is our story, and we would be wise to locate ourselves within it.
We would be doubly wise to find ourselves in the wilderness alongside the Israelites, because it is in that wilderness that God’s people most consistently recognize God’s presence and power. While they, like us, are attracted to stability and seduced by certainty, they cannot deny that their most potent experience of God’s loving kindness comes to them in the wilderness of struggle and uncertainty. To take the narrative of the Torah seriously is to recognize where God shows up – and it’s not in the perfect places. Far from it.
Your life is not defined by the attainment of all your dreams. Your life is not shaped by the consummation of all your desires. Your life is composed of uncertainty and struggle. While the last two years have fed us an overwhelming amount of difficulty, they are not truly unprecedented. The pandemic, the grievous economic inequity, the racial injustice, the threat of devastating war – these things are all unbearable. And at the same time, they have not introduced any new information about what it means to be us – they have mostly just laid bare the things we already knew in our bones about our selves and our world.
But I don’t consider this bad news. Because according to our story, this is exactly where God shows up. This is exactly where we find redemption, liberation, and love. Love does not make its home in the idealized past or the unrealized future: Real Love is found here and now, in the wilderness. Love is not a fanciful idea or a lofty ideal, it is the source of all life. Love is the most practical reality we know. It gives us hope in the face of hopelessness. And where there is Love, there is God.
To be shaped by the wilderness – and God’s presence in uncertainty – to be defined by God’s liberation in great difficulty rather than by your own prosperity, success, or fulfillment of the promise – this is the true embracing of our story, the true acknowledgment of our heritage.
This Lent we are continuing in the work of Becoming Beloved Community – our long term commitment to racial justice, healing, and reconciliation. Each year we focus on a specific pillar of that Commitment, and this year we pay particular attention to Practicing the Way of Love. Practicing the way of love is an embodied acknowledgment of God’s presence in the wilderness of now. It’s a recognition that love is not something we attain or achieve someday when we get to the Promised Land. Love is the thing we practice here and now. And that practice of Love is the thing that leads us to the heart of the Promise.
God’s promise is important – the promise of redemption, of peace: The promise is essential, actually. Because it is the genesis of our hope. But if we wait to be in the Promised Land before we see God, we will never see God. If we wait for things to be the way we want them to be in order to Love, we will never love. Meanwhile, God is magnificently present in the wilderness, on the journey, The Love of God is not a reward for reaching the Promised Land. The Love of God, as we learn to recognize it and share it with one another, is itself the way there.
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