Texts: Genesis 17:1-8; Mark 8:31-38
1.) Promised land
When Abram was 99 years old, he was old. The first time Al Bauman had a birthday when I was in Columbus I asked him how old he was, and he said, “Almost 100,” after which he went off somewhere to climb a ladder and fix something. Al was joking, of course, but for Abram, this was no joke. He was almost 100, the end more in sight than it had ever been.
You learn to let go of a lot of things by that age, I suppose. A lot of friends and family you’ve outlived. A lot of unfulfilled hopes. If you don’t learn to let go, likely you don’t reach that age. But Abram still hung on to one haunting concern, unresolved and now all but impossible to be fulfilled. At a time when children, and sons specifically, were how you lived on after death – not just in perpetuating your own DNA but in whether or not your name was remembered and honored and carried forward – Abram and his wife Sarai were childless. The entire story of the Jewish people, the foundation of the Christian narrative, is initiated by an impossible promise made to an aging couple – a covenant between Yahweh, Abram and Sarai, who are renamed Abraham and Sarah to reflect the new future opening up in front of them. They will have a son. And not only that, but they will have land on which to grow. God Almighty says, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now a migrant, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8).
2.) Our land
There’s something empowering about having access to land, even in small amounts. Recently my mom noted to me how expensive land is getting to be, selling in their part of Ohio for around $6000 an acre. I replied that this still sounds like a pretty good deal seeing as how we paid 10’s of thousands of dollars for the 50×150 ft. plot of land our house sits on.
As much as we shelled out for that, I seem to have a major internal hang-up for paying for much of anything when it comes to caring for our little piece of land. Trying to convert a patch of yard into a garden takes lots of extra nutrients. Having grown up on a farm, surrounded by an excess of cow manure, I still can’t bring myself to buy the stuff dried and neatly packaged at Lowes. On more than one occasion we have sacrificed our vehicles smelling poorly for several days by hauling the stuff in garbage bags back from Mom and Dad’s. This past fall I gathered about 30 bags of leaves from neighbors’ curbs to mulch and spread over the garden space. Supposedly, under the snow, the soil is slowly getting richer as we speak, which is a nice thought on a winter day. For a while in the fall we extended the area that our backyard chickens could roam and forage so they could tear up some of the sod where the bigger garden will be. Not only is this a free service, but it’s better than free, since the grass and bugs they eat reduce the amount of supplemental grain they need. Leaving little nitrogen droppings wherever they roam is another bonus. But this meant we had to come up with a bigger fence to contain them. Seeing no other way around it, we paid money for some fencing. For someone who grew up with a big barn full of all kinds of discarded wonders, it seems like anything you need should just be lying around somewhere, or growing on trees, which, as it turns out, in some cases, it is.
3.) Not your land
There’s no direct reference to land in the Mark 8 reading, but it’s right there, just behind the text. Jesus tells those around him that if they want to be his followers, they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross. This must have been a startling thing to hear. Crucifixion was a common – and public – spectacle in the Roman world. Various ancient historians record incidents of mass crucifixions before and after the time of Jesus around Rome and Jerusalem. It was so common and widespread that the vertical part of the crosses were almost certainly permanent fixtures planted in the ground. The one carrying their cross on their way to that site would have carried the horizontal beam. To say that crucifixion was excruciating would be redundant as that very word derives from the practice. Dying on a cross was usually a matter of days rather than hours. But the real purpose of the practice wasn’t for the one on the cross, but for those who witnessed it. It was explicitly designed as a public deterrent against anyone who might be entertaining thoughts of following in the same way as the one up there. It was visible and publicly known. Its message was clear. “Don’t let this happen to you.” Rome had amazing accomplishments in architecture and culture and connecting disparate parts of the world through its roads, but it maintained control of the land by this reign of terror. Every cross that lined those roads sang the same song: “This land is our land. This land aint your land. Don’t cause us problems. And all will be grand.”
4.) Promised land II + a cute kitten
One can now hardly hear the story of Abraham being promised the land as a perpetual holding without pondering the turmoil of the last century that has taken place on that land. It is now occupied by two peoples, both carrying deep wounds and trauma from violence directed against them: The Holocaust for the Jews, with centuries of marginalization and oppression before that. And for the Palestinian Arabs, the forced evacuation and continued occupation and destruction of ancestral land.
This past week a pastor friend who recently visited Israel/Palestine posted a picture on Facebook by the artist Banksy. Banksy is a mysterious British graffiti artist, whose work has shown up in various public spaces, usually using dark humor to make a political point. This particular image shows a neighborhood in Gaza reduced to rubble by Israeli bombing. One of the few standing walls has a huge graffiti painting of a cute kitten with a pink bow around its neck, giving an adorable gaze to onlookers. Banksy’s caption to the image says, “I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza–but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.” Maybe it will take the creativity of playful artists to redeem our lands.
5) You are land
Along with water, which we considered last week, the Hebrews considered earth itself to be an essential part of what makes us human. In Genesis 2 it is the ground, the Adamah in Hebrew, that is the raw material out of which the Creator forms the human, the Adam. Adam, comes from, is inseparable from, the Adamah. Lest humans ever think too highly of themselves, this reminds us that we are nothing more than a Hebrew pun. Latin keeps the same connection. “Humus” is rich earth, and we are humanus, human ones. And we’re not the only dust creatures. Animals of the field and birds of the air are also formed out of the same ground. Lest we forget, our Ash Wednesday liturgy is an annual reminded to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The mythologist Joseph Campbell has said, “If we think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, we see that we are the earth; we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.”
6) Not your land II – the cross as a rope
Three weeks ago the Dispatch carried an article with this opening sentence: “The number of African-Americans lynched in Southern states in the 19th and 20th centuries is significantly higher than previously detailed, according to a new report.”
Other excerpts from the article: “Researchers said they determined that 3,959 black people were killed in ‘racial terror lynchings’ in the 12 Southern states with the most reported incidents between 1877 and 1950. The new number includes 700 people who were not named in previous works seeking to comprehensively document the toll, the authors wrote.”
“To be an effective mechanism for social control, lynchings had to be visible, with the killing being publicly known, especially to the target population.”
“It took little more than an allegation or a perceived insult to spark a lynching in some cases…and the lynchings themselves drew large crowds. James Cameron, who survived being lynched as a teenager and later founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, said he remembered seeing 2,000 white people gathered at his lynching, some with their children.”
7.) This land is your land, this land is my land
In Mark 8, Jesus claims for himself the title of Son of Man, better translated The Human One. The Human One invites those who would follow to carry their cross. There’s a way of reading this that can lead to a form of self-annihilation. Reducing one’s worth and value to nothing, forfeiting the goodness of life for some kind of sacrificial ideal. But what is said alongside this seems to indicate that Jesus isn’t so much interested in those who die for their faith as those who live for their faith. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for the sake of the Human One will save it.” The point is to save life. To move beyond an existence centered on self-preservation. To finally come to see oneself as a part of something much bigger than oneself, caught up not in the ways of Rome or ethnic or national supremacy, but caught up in the very public and visible process of humanity, the earth-creatures – becoming more fully human through the way of the Human One.
Old Abraham knows he is about to return to the dust, and so becomes free to be utterly dependent on the promises of the Holy One, who declares that there will be a future. Life and generations will go on, even if it is in a way the he can’t envision or imagine.
8.) Promised land III; Our land II; Not your land III; You are land II; This land is your land, this land is my land II
One of the most important things the Bible says about land occurs in one of the least read books, Leviticus. There in the mix of instructions for ritual purity and priestly process, it has these words, proclaimed from the mouth of the Lord: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but migrants and tenants.” This occurs within the laws of the Jubilee, designed to prevent land from becoming concentrated in the hands of too few, commanding that the land be redistributed every 50 years. It would certainly be an interesting experiment in biblical literalism. Simply put, the land belonging to the Lord means it doesn’t belong to us. We can care for it, but, in the long view, we are migratory. Jesus alluded to Jubilee multiple times in his ministry. The underlying message is that the land is too valuable, too rich, too much a vessel of the kingdom of God, to be in the hands of only a few, whether defended by crosses or nooses or economic policy. The land is the basis of wealth, and it continually produces things outside of the money economy. Free leaves, and grass for grazing, that becomes manure that becomes all variety of trees and plants for food, and beauty, and the unmeasurable enjoyment of life for the human ones, the birds, and other creatures.