Tuesday, 26 February 2013 00:00

"Predators and Prey", February 24, 2013

“Predators and Prey”
Genesis 15:1-21
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 24, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Who has played the game “Predators and Prey”?  I learned this game a few years ago when I was chaperoning my daughter’s 5th grade classes at the Laurentian Environmental center in northern Minnesota.  You split the group up into four groups.  You give them strips of cloth to identify themselves.  The mice, at the bottom of the food chain wear cloth on their ankles.  Snakes, a little higher on the food chain, put the cloth on their legs.  Minks, still higher on the food chain put the cloth on their arms.  Finally the wolves swagger around with the cloth strips on their heads.  The higher up the food chain you are, you are the predators.  Those below you are either predators or prey, except for the poor mice who are always the prey.  The goal, if you are a prey, is to not get eaten and find enough water, shelter and food to survive.  The goal of the predators is to eat enough prey to survive while not getting run over by a car or stricken with disease or killed by a hunter—I mean we have to make the game competitive.  It’s a good game to play on the first day to run off some steam and get to know the grounds a bit.

For some reason that game came to mind as I considered the lectionary text from Genesis 15.  The story has two parts to it, deliverance and conquest.  The lectionary gives us the deliverance part because it’s so darn inspiring, but leaves out the conquest part.  I think an honest reading of scripture, especially during Lent and especially during Black history month merits us looking at both parts of the story.

The relationship between God and Abram which begins in chapter 11 goes predictably.  God speaks, Abram listens.  God promises, Abram believes.  God commands, Abram obeys.  But here, Abram finally says, “um, wait a minute.”  We love his ability to question God.  It’s something the prophets have done, it’s something we do all of the time. H Richard Niebuhr said that humanity’s nature is to distrust God.  God has to be proved trustworthy, not the other way around.

 

God had done a lot to earn Abram’s trust.  Abram was led out of Ur during a famine.  He was led to Egypt, where he prospered.  The Bible says he was rich in cattle, gold and silver. Abram was told, walk through the land and I’ll give it to you.  He then rescued his brother Lot who was a prisoner of war and then Abram gave king Mechizadech a tithe of the spoils of war.  Abram is a good and faithful servant. All he needs to do is trust God.

Lailah said a few weeks ago she was feeling tested by God.  She kept saying “Okay God, I trust you, just show me what to do.”  We thank you for your faith, sister.
In the story God tells Abram not to worry about his future, because his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars.  Abram, an old man with a post-menapausal spouse had reason to question God about this promise.

While this is billed as a covenant between God and Abram, it’s not.  A covenant needs two consenting parties.  God is the only one who promises anything.  Abram just complains, “I don’t have a descendant. My land will go to Eliazar of Damascus,” whoever he is.

Abram does not earn his righteousness by anything he has done.  His righteousness comes from believing/trusting in God, or so goes the lectionary text.

We even get an image of Abram making a sacrifice to God to mark the covenant God made with Abram.  He slaughters and divides the carcasses of a heifer, a female goat, a ram a turtle dove and a pigeon.  He even shoos away the birds of prey that come to devour the meat.  I can just see him waving his arms all day long.  Finally, he has a vision of his people’s exile into Egypt, and a reassurance that though it seems all is lost, God will deliver the people and give them land at long last.

The odd ritual of passing through the halves of sacrificed carcasses invokes the solemnity of the oath:  If I don’t do what I say I will do, then my fate will be like these slain animals.  What’s fascinating is that it’s not Abram who walks through the sacrifice, but the burning pot, representing YHWH.

All Abram can do is trust in God to be true to the Divine word.

It’s all a wonderful story of deliverance that generations can hearken back to, to remember how they have been blessed by this loving and patient God.

The scripture then tells of the promised conquest.

“I give you…the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hitites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”  Are the Hebrew people the predators and the other nations the prey?  How do we reconcile the desire to conquer another with a loving God?  What makes a country worthy of God’s blessing?  How might we not be predatory and protect the prey from other predators?  I’m not going to tackle all of those questions in this sermon, but let them percolate in your souls.

I think of the way such scripture is used to justify taking land from others.  Think of the struggles in present day Israel and Palestine.  The Palestinian lands might well be the land of the Canaanits, the Jebusites, the Hitites, and so on.  Think of the land controlled by the first settlers in this country.  Their names were as hard to pronounce as those other ancient names. Names like Lakota, Saciug, Choctaw, Ojibwe, Shakopee Medawakatin, Comanche.  Folks who are used to being predators go back to ancient scripture to justify their taking of land.  I mean, we can’t argue with scripture, can we?

Don’t we want to stand up like Abram of old and shoo away those birds of prey?  Don’t we want to say, in the name of the most loving God, do not hurt these my people?

And yet Genesis says, I give you predators, the following prey: “the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hitites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

I went to Seminary with a Robert Allen Warrior.  He is now an author and professor. He stood up in chapel one day back in 1989 and said that he could not identify with the story of the exodus.  As a member of the Osage nation, he said that he had a lot more in common with the Canaanite people who were conquered in the name of God.  The scripture is written from the perspective of the predator.  With God sanctioning the way of the wild.  What might be the perspective of the prey, those forced off their lands, those without a voice, those shipped across the great sea when they sing true to our God, true to our native land?

Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan gave a 2002 lecture at Lancaster Theological Seminary entitled, “Reading with New Eyes Social Location and the Bible”.  Here’s a part of what he said:

With what voice will we, the Canaanites of the world, say, “Let my people go and leave my people alone?” And, with what ears will followers of alien gods who have wooed us (Christians, Jews, Marxists, capitalists), listen to us? The indigenous people of this hemisphere have endured a subjugation now a hundred years longer than the sojourn of Israel in Egypt. Is there a god, a spirit, who will hear us and stand with us in the Amazon, Osage County, and Wounded Knee? Is there a god, a spirit, able to move among the pain and anger of the Nablus, Gaza, and Soweto of 1989? Perhaps. But we, the wretched of the earth, may be well advised this time not to listen to outsiders with their promises of liberation and deliverance. We will perhaps do better to look elsewhere for our vision of justice, peace and political sanity—a vision through which we escape not only our oppressors, but our oppression as well. Maybe, for once, we will just have to listen to ourselves, leaving the gods of this continent’s real strangers to do battle among themselves.

When we played predators and prey, I was on the mouse team.  I was given a little token that I was told to put in my pocket but not to tell anyone about it.  Of course, I was captured as were most of our mouse friends, by minks and snakes and wolves.  But what I held in my pocket was a virus.  A genetic mutation that was passed from the prey to the predators, an unknown seed of discord in the way of the survival of the fittest.

Nature makes a way.  There is something in the prey that never settles for such status.  There is a grain of liberation that breaks through.  Mice are resilient, as most of us know.  Predators get arrogan and expect prey to act like prey.  But liberation and freedom happen when the former prey assert themselves and don’t settle for the status quo.  We love underdogs.  They are motivated.

A month ago, Matty Strickler preached a sermon invoking Les Mis.  So, now that you have established precedent.  I guess it’s my turn:

Gavroche, a young street person, personifies the resilience of the mouse-like prey. Unfortunately, this song was not included in the movie version of the play. He sings:

They laugh at me, these fellows, just because I am small.
They laugh at me because I`m not a hundred feet tall.
I tell `em there`s a lot to learn down here on the ground.
The world is big but lil` people turn it around.

Chorus
A worm can roll a stone.
A bee can sting a bear.
A fly can fly around versailles `cos flies don`t care
A sparrow in a hat, can make a happy home.
A flea can bite the bottom of the pope in rome

Goliath was a bruiser who was as tall as the sky.
But David threw a right, and gave him one in the eye.
I never read the Bible but I know that it`s true.
It only goes to show what little people can do.

be careful as you go
cos little people grow
and little people know
when little people fight,
we may look easy pickings
but we got some bite!
so never kick a dog
because it`s just a pup
you`d better run for cover when the pup grows up

and we`ll fight like twenty armies
and we won`t give up

The seed of liberation breaks through and can’t be kept down forever.  We saw it in the Arab spring.

It breaks through as people take to the streets or the state capital.

It breaks through when people find their voices and tell the truth of their lives and their struggles.

It breaks through when people organize and bring about an end to slavery. This marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the emancipation proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington.  Both were moments when that seed of freedom took root and grew.

It took root and grew when the voters of Minnesota chose not to limit the freedom to marry.

It took root when the voters said we want everyone to have the right to vote.

It took root this past week when lobbyists took to the state capital to advocate for comprehensive sex education, reproductive services to everyone regardless of their ability to pay, a fair tax system, support for homeless people, a responsible reaction to gun violence and so on.

It takes root when people of faith say not in my name shall you invade another country.

Not in my name shall you send drones to kill innocents.

Not in my name will you rob from the poor and give to the rich.

The roots of freedom take root and we make ourselves worthy of calling our nation a home.

Because it is a welcome place to be and live and grow and thrive.

So we stand like Abram of old, we shoo away the birds of prey.  We wave our hands.  We stomp our feet.  We clap our hands and we ensure that we will be a land that is worthy of God’s favor.  We will not be predatory.  We will live alongside the prey.

That’s the cosmic image.  Isaiah prophesied in God’s day “the wolf (the predator) shall lie down with the lamb (the prey) the leopard (predator) shall lie down with the kid (prey), the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”(Isaiah 11:6-9)

The predators will lie down with the prey.  That’s the vision of God.  That’s what makes us worthy.

Today’s scripture us about deliverance and conquest.  The Biblical arc from the prophets to Jesus is to make people worthy of deliverance, worthy of freedom, worthy of salvation.  I think that happens when we, like Abram of old trust God.  But we trust God to give us the strength to overcome the odds.  We trust God to give us the strength to liberate the people.  We trust God to lead us to freedom and transform our enemies into friends—to make sure that no one preys on another.  That’s what we proclaim when we sing the words of the African American National Anthem:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.