You go to sell your car on Trademe. You take some nice pictures and enter all the details and a guy calls up to come and view it. He seems a good guy when he knocks at your door and you wander around the car and poke around under the bonnet together. When you suggest he takes it for a drive he agrees and you give him the keys and sit down to wait. You can probably guess where this is going.
Half an hour later and the guy isn’t back and you are beginning to get a little nervous. He must be a thorough sort of fellow you reassure yourself, but an hour later you aren’t so sure. You have a look on the street and there is no other car there. You are nervous. At the two hour mark you look up the number for the police and report that you think your car has been stolen. They are very good about it and once they have all the particulars they inform you that they will immediately put out a stolen car report.
You are in luck. You car is spotted at Countdown at Ferrymead. But this is where it gets interesting. According to the police when they confronted the driver he said you gave him the keys. According to the police the driver said, “the nice guy gave me the keys to the car and told me to take it for a drive. I thought he was giving me the car.”
“What!”, you respond. “But I was selling the car and he didn’t give me any money.” When the police explained that to the driver and confronted him with the lack of payment he simply replied, “I never thought of that. What a great idea.” Which planet was he from?
Yes it is a strange story and there is inherently something fishy because we all know how this sort of deal works. You examine the product, decide whether you want to buy and then agree on the purchase price. The cash is handed over or nowadays transferred to your bank account and that’s how the deal is sealed.
You pay your $4.50 at the counter and the barista makes you a nice cup of coffee. You pull into the petrol station and fill up the car with petrol and then pay the attendant what it says on the pump readout. You even get a receipt to say you paid. And if you fail to pay there are legal consequences. It’s a fundamental part of our culture that all the time we are making contracts and deals, and just about all the time it works sweetly because we all know how it works. Get on the bus pay the fare, get your ticket, and get to your destination. Bigger deals may require a signature, or the affixing of a seal of some sort. I don’t much about really big deals. But most of the time it happens seamlessly – and if it doesn’t there are ways and means to sort things out. The police, small claims tribunal, lawyers. It can get messy.
That’s now, but what about then. What about 5,000 years ago when Abraham was alive. Police, bank transfers, receipts, didn’t exist. How did people do deals, because it’s simply part of living in human community that deals are done all the time.
There’s a word that is central in this story and central to all deal making. Covenant.
In the world of Abraham when you entered into a deal you made a covenant. It’s actually at the heart of what we still do with deals when you think about it. Small deals I imagine were done much as we do them. A handshake, or just a word. But big deals were done differently. First you’d get an animal, like a cow or a goat or maybe just a bird. Then you chop them in half and lay out the halves with space between them forming an alleyway. The parties to the deal would stand side by side and recite the deal or covenant being made as they walked between the halves of the animals and then something like this might be said: “I undertake to purchase 10 bags of your wheat.” And the other guy says, “ I undertake to provide 10 full bags of top quality grain.” Both then say, “may I become like these animals if I fail to uphold my end of the covenant.”
Literally they cut a deal. Yes the phrases we use come from somewhere. With a little ritual of cutting an animal in half a covenant is made. Rituals like this were the glue that held their society together, and if you search the scriptures you’ll find reference to other rituals like taking off a sandal and giving it to the other party. Sounds strange to us just as our way of doing deals might seem very strange to them.
So that’s a rather long lead in to our reading in Genesis 15. Cutting a deal.
Abraham had felt called by this mysterious presence to journey to this new land. The journey had plenty of ups and downs but Abraham and his wife Sarah had faithfully hung in there. There was the promise of descendants, but no children came. There was the promise of new land where Abraham and Sarah would be at home. But there were others occupying the land and life was perilous as a nomadic herdsman.
Through it all Abraham continued to trust and continued to experience connection with this mysterious presence. There was a vision and the affirming message to not be afraid for this presence was like a shield. Abraham had learned that he was finally to be a father, but not with Sarah, but through his slave girl Hagar. We won’t go into detail of how that could be but Abraham was deeply questioning whether this child was to be the one. But in the vision Abraham is led out under the clear desert night sky and and in his vision he experiences God doing a deal. God making a covenant with him He’s told to count the millions of stars with the promise that his descendants would come through Sarah and number more than these. The promise of the new land was also reaffirmed despite the pesky Amorites who already lived there. To top it off there was a symbolic sealing of the deal and it wasn’t a handshake or a symbolic signature but you guessed it… a heifer and a goat were cut in half and with the addition of a few birds the carcasses were laid out for this was a very special deal and covenant.
And a smoking firepot and blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
These are symbols for God, so where was Abraham in the cutting of this deal. Both parties should be there to promise their part, to keep the deal. Is God saying that it’s not conditional, it’s not dependent on the human keeping their end of the covenant….being faithful always. Even if Abraham fails to do his part, God will not give up. The deal it turns out is remarkably like the deal I started this little sermon with which isn’t so strange in God’s eyes.
Unconditional love. We don’t have to be good enough, we don’t have to measure up for the deal to be operative. God promises to lead to a future, God is for us, God is unrelentingly faithful, even if we make a mess of things God will not give up.
And it’s not just literally about having children, I know that. It’s about an enduring future and a sense that our lives matter. We, none of us, will disappear into timeless sands of nothingness. I also know for Jewish folk it’s about a homeland, a piece of dirt called Palestine, but actually the new land is about something much more… new relationships, justice, and a whole new way of being community. A community where we all belong and there are no insiders and outsiders, members of the club and those who don’t fit. A community of listening and forgiveness, affirmation and belonging. A community for everyone. We’ve been affirming that here in Christchurch but our words and outpouring of love now needs to find roots.
A community that includes Jews and Muslims, and Sikhs, and Buddhists, and ….the deal is that God wants to shape a new community that encapsulates us all, and maybe our little backwater can show the way. Too often this deal has been interpreted by those who claim Abraham as their forefather as giving privilege and power. Some are intrinsically better than others. Jews, Christians, and Muslims make exclusive claims about their particular faiths. The better way is to live out our faith with passion but also to respect the journey of others. Our rivers in this part of the world are braided, but they all travel to the great wide encompassing ocean.
This was not an exclusive deal.
Abraham forefather of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths has something to teach us all. He believed God made a sacred promise, a deal, a covenant. God promised to keep leading he and Sarah to find life. This deal, this covenant applies to us. Trust, know we are held in a love that does not let go. Trust that God is leading us to find new life: that forgiveness is important, that honesty and grace and kindness matters, that sorting our relationship issues is important, that justice and caring for creation isn’t a nice afterthought. God is committed to leading us to a new land, and a new future where the fences are no longer high but where our common humanity is taking down the palings of separation one by one.
I pray this community and this place of worship will live out this invitation.
Dugald Wilson 24 March 2019