This is a reflection on three words that describe the whole world as we are currently experiencing it, with particular reference to the conflict in Ukraine, suggesting how a story from Genesis points towards the hope for all humankind.
This is the first word that describes the world as we experience it.
Scarred means not as good as it should be: damaged, destroyed, demolished, devastated. Our world is scarred and many (if not most) of those scars have been produced by our human inclination to look out for ourselves and to reject others, especially those who are different from us.
The effect on the world of humans being more committed to self-protection than self-sacrifice has been wars, land grab, oppression, iron curtains, ethnic cleansing, and consumption of the world’s resources for our own gain not for the conservation of creation.
And lest we are guilty of simply blaming others we need to acknowledge that this tendency towards self-protection and away from self-sacrifice is found inside your heart and it is inside mine. Someone wiser than I has said, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart”. (Oswald J. Smith)
It’s worth noting that the world has always been SCARRED, it is not any more so now, the reason we are more shaken by the current crisis is that this scarred effect threatens us much more closely. Our everyday hopes and dreams are under threat, not ‘just’ those of people in a different culture, on a different continent.
But SCARRED is not the only word that describes the world or us.
The world is also SACRED. It is holy, good, precious, priceless and beautiful. And humans, each of us, also have this same trait in our hearts – we believe we were made for more, we have a sense of the holiness of our lives whenever we encounter love, tenderness, whenever we participate in creation by bringing our own children into the world or whenever we hold the hand of another as they passed from life to death. We are aware of sacred moments. Life is sacred.
The Bible expresses it this way: “He has set eternity in the hearts of men”
Once we are aware of these two words SCARRED and SACRED we begin to see these two qualities playing out everywhere we look but most particularly at the moment in the news on the TV, radio, and social media.
We see how scarred our world is. We are bewildered and shocked by the violence, aggression, the depravity of bombing maternity hospitals, of gunning down families, of destroying homes, livelihoods, of starving whole cities. The fact that these atrocities are so recent might lead us to say they are wounds rather than scars. It is time and history that will turn them into scars.
And yet, and yet, even in the midst of such a time we can still sense the sacred aspect of life has not gone away. The sacred potential of human beings is still being expressed. It is being expressed in the outrage and cry for justice, but it is also expressed by every act of kindness, every gentle or generous hand that reaches out to receive, comfort or welcome those in need whether it is handing out food and water, clean clothes, the sacred is expressed in every act of self-sacrifice. Not for nothing did Jesus promise that “the gift of a cup of cold water” would not be overlooked.
The presence of the sacred in our world is not just expressed in small ways but also in incredible acts of courage and compassion. The doctor who stayed in Afghanistan and is paying his staff at his hospital from his own fun so that the sick can still be tended, babies be delivered, broken bodies fixed. The sacred quality in humanity is expressed when people receive, accept, budge up, make room for the other, the refugee who has fled in fear for their lives. Perhaps most especially when that refugee is of a creed and colour different from our own because it is the thread of common humanity that motivates us and not merely the instinct to look after our own.
Don’t be misled and don’t be utterly disheartened: the world may be scarred but the sacred is still here.
So what does this have to do with the rather messy, obscure story from the book of Genesis which was the set reading for Sunday 13th March? What has a peculiar and quite frankly rather revolting ritual from ancient history have to do with our world today? (Genesis 15: 1-18 you can read it here)
Answer: it has EVERYTHING to do with finding a sense of hope in the world.
At the point in history from which this story is taken people who could not read or write still needed to form contracts with one another. How do you “sign a contract” when you can neither read nor write? A covenant was simply another way or name for a solemnly binding promise that we might call a ‘contract’.
This is how you did it: you took some animals and you chopped most of them in half (yuck) and then both you and the other party with whom you are entering into a covenant walked together down the path in the middle of the split animals and what you were saying by your actions as you did this solemn ritual was “if I break this promise to you (not to steal your wife/take your land/kill your flocks or babies) if I break this promise, may I become like these animals, slain, dead.
So that is how you “cut a deal” in the ancient world.
But hang on a minute – the Genesis story didn’t quite play out in the way that way.
The deal that was meant to be sealed between God and Abram, was meant to be when both parties walked between the dead animals. But instead Abram fell asleep. Abram was utterly passive. He saw but he did not, could not, take part.
Instead, in what the imagery helps us to understand is a profoundly holy moment (darkness, smoke) Abram sees a blazing pot and a flaming torch passing between the animals. These two symbols emphasise the invisible presence of God.
God alone makes this covenant. God alone promises his faithfulness to carry out his plan. God enacts it. It rests on God’s shoulders not on human faithfulness. It’s as if God knows humans cannot keep their side of a deal.
Why does this matter?
And how is this relevant to our scarred yet sacred world today?
It is telling us in vivid picture language that God has made a promise to humankind which is so BIG but that God takes on his own shoulders the responsibility of carrying out that promise. And the promise is no less than the promise to rescue human beings from the mess they have made of the world.
The good news that is so relevant from this story is “IT’S ALL GOD” God has promised to put the world right and God will carry out this promise by himself.
We don’t get to play a part which means we also don’t get to screw it up!
The huge story of the redemption of humanity has been planned and executed by God and will take full effect not because of anything we do but because of who God is.
I use the word executed deliberately, a plan executed, but ‘executed’ is another of those visceral and visual words.
So where is God in our scarred and sacred world? He is with us right here in the midst of it and right now because God has summed up in his very being those two qualities of life as we experience it. God has executed his plan and that plan involved him being executed.
And so God is scarred. God himself, in the person of Jesus, took on all the depravity and cruelty that human beings could throw at him. God is scarred. Jesus whipped nailed crucified executed.
God himself is in our world wounded in the same way as many lie wounded Ukraine. Our God did not see our scarred world and remain in differently beyond it. God is the God who came into the world, rolled up his sleeves got along with the mess and the violence and the hatred and showed us the way of self-sacrifice, got executed for it and yet overcame.
But God still bears the scars.
In every act of sharing the bread and the wine we remember this God who asks us to take his body and his blood as symbols of his scarred brokenness, as pledges of his presence with us in our scarred yet sacred world. And as a reminder of his promise that he alone has planned and enacted salvation for humankind, and he alone has carried it out and he will carry it out. This story is not over yet.
That is why we can still worship and praise in the midst of this scarred, messy world because we believe that God is with us and will carry out his promises.
Meanwhile, there is still one last word that describes our experience of this world and it describes how we feel living in such a messed up world and that word is
Of course, we are scared. It would be odd were we not.
As I thought about these three words I realised that scared is actually the word scarred with one less R.
The next time we are threatened by ‘an enemy’ it might actually help us to remember that there is only one letter difference between scarred and scared. Hurt people hurt people – not always but quite often that’s how it goes. Scars lead to retribution, which lead to more scars, which leads to escalation, which leads to revenge. And so it goes on.
Acknowledging we are scared is not weakness, it is honesty and it might actually help us stand a little more humbly before God. The fewer R’s (resistance, rebellion, rejection) that are in us, the better).
If we try to live without resistance to God or resistance to other people, we are more likely to be able to live with our fear, without retaliating in a way that escalates and simply creates more scars.
Scared is when we say “I can’t do anything about this Lord” when we admit to God that we are afraid. And God says to us, “you are right when you say you can do nothing for I have planned and promised and sent the Saviour in fact I myself came as that saviour to do something. I bled and died and as I stuttered out the words “it is finished” and it was finished God says ‘I have done all that is necessary for humankind to be restored to being the people I created them to be. The covenant I made still stands and it stands on Christ’s death and resurrection. We may be scared but because of Christ’s death and his overcoming of death we are promised an ending that is good, a restoration, a remaking of the world. And this is not all about booking some private passage to paradise beyond death, instead it is all about participating with God in his big plan of restoration: “behold I make all things new”. All things. A promise so huge we can barely comprehend it just like Abraham being promised descendants as numerous as the stars when he didn’t even have one child could barely comprehend the immensity of God’s plan. And yet he believed and it was his belief (trust, faith) that God accepted. It was all Abram could offer. He couldn’t contribute to the covenant in any other way.
So there is a way in which we participate, there is something for us to do and it is to believe, to trust, to have faith in this huge promise of God? To take the symbols of bread and wine as reminders of our God who allowed himself to be broken on our behalf and to trust fearlessly in the one who said, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age”.
Our calling is also, by the grace (power) of God to be those who follow God’s example of self-sacrifice and in spite of our fears, live out of the same generosity and compassion.
The world is scarred, it has always been so.
The world is sacred, it has always been so.
But we worship the God who is both scarred and sacred, a God who is in the midst of all this mess with us. The God who says he will make wars to cease to the ends of the earth and the God who says he will judge the nations justly. We do not know how this current crisis will turn out but we know these promises stand, the presence of God is real, we know how we are to pray (‘your kingdom come’) and we know how we are to behave (‘love your neighbour’ AND ‘love your enemies’).
Nobody said it would be easy.