The Second Sunday of Lent
Today’s reading is Chapter 15 of the book of Genesis, from the New Revised Standard Version.
Genesis 15 (NRSV)
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.
A favorite teaching concept of Zen Master Seung Sahn is “checking mind.” Checking mind is the mind that compares and contrasts, which measures “me” or “I” against something or someone else, which is endlessly competitive, which always wants something else. Checking mind is the mind which looks in the mirror in the morning and wishes for less gray and fewer wrinkles. Checking mind is the mind which makes judgements about other people to make itself feel better. Checking mind is the mind which thinks “if only I had that, then I’d be happy.” Checking mind is the mind of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. Of course, seductive as it is, it’s almost never true. Happiness rarely comes while walking that road.
In my experience Zen is a form of “theological anthropology,” a way of understanding humanity in the context of the divine. In this case I understand “divinity” to refer to God, Buddha nature or just the existence of the universe. Zen teaching helps me understand myself in relation to God. Because it helps me understand myself in relation to God, it also helps me understand ancestors in Christian faith who appear in scripture. This week I read Abram has being trapped by checking mind. In the very first verse of the chapter God (GOD!) promises Abram his reward will be very great. Abram isn’t satisfied with this, so he checks it. “You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” God makes another promise, more specific this time, that Abram’s descendants will number greater than the stars in the sky. It appears Abram believes this about his descendants. God continues with yet another grand promise – land for these descendants! Checking mind is difficult to put down, and Abram checks God again. “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall posses it?” God, probably tired of Abram’s constant checking, then makes his covenant with the man. Abram’s checking subsides.
This is just one example in the Bible of a human being with a checking mind. Scripture is full of people with checking mind, which to me is comforting. King David wanted another man’s wife so badly he sent the man to die in battle (2 Samuel 11). “Doubting” Thomas would only believe in the resurrection if he saw the wounds in Jesus’ side (John 20:24-29). Jesus himself, in the garden, asked that the cup of his suffering be taken away (Matthew 26:39, Luke 22:42). As I wrestle with my own wants and desires, my inability to refrain from following my checking mind, it’s helpful to see that such pillars of the faith as Abram, David, and Jesus had this “checking” mind as well. If they managed to be faithful and live faithful lives, perhaps it’s just possible that I might be able to as well.
As I enter the second week of Lent this year I’m very aware of my checking mind. My thinking is an endless stream of desire and wanting, of wishing for things to be other than they are. Lent originated as a season of preparation for converts to the Christian faith leading, up to the celebration of Easter and their first experience of the Eucharist. Of course Easter was that moment when Jesus gave all that is humanly possible and continued to be faithful even through his checking, through the doubts of his friends, through what seemed to all to be the crushing defeat of the cross. If Jesus managed to get his job done in the midst of all that checking, perhaps I can too.
Note: The Revised Common Lectionary indicates the passage today as Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18. This official lection leaves omits verses 13-17 and 19-21. Verses 13-15 foreshadow the Exodus. Verses 16 and 19-21 say that the land Abram’s descendants are to inherit is actually another tribe’s land. This convenient omission by the modern readers who compiled the lectionary is to me another example of checking mind. Why not just offer the entire chapter and let the faithful wrestle with it? Because they are difficult and challenge many narratives of global power. These omitted verses make clear that Abram’s progeny will colonize the land of other nations, that God is punishing another nation by taking their land and giving it to the Israelites. This text is uncomfortable to those of us like me who benefit from colonization. As I write this in Northern California I am a direct beneficiary of just such a practice. And yet the lectionary leaves it out of the weekly reading. Avoiding difficult situations and conversations is another way checking mind makes itself known. I encourage those who will preach on this text to include the omitted verses and wrestle with them.