Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may there be peace.
I think given the state of the world and the zeitgeist of our time, we might stop and wonder what it might mean to be “righteous.” We might see ourselves as righteous because we “Stand with Ukraine” against Putin, or we see the convoy of last month as a group of privileged people, and we are not them. We are righteous, they are not. But is that how the wisdom sees being “righteous” or even “right”?
“And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6)
We were out running errands last week, and someone cut us off in traffic. I got so angry, and so loud about it, my partner was actually concerned. She had never seen me react with such rage. I wonder if I was feeling a kind of righteous indignation? Importantly, as we continued to drive up Cambie, Olivia said to me, “its really important that we love one another in these difficult times.”
I replied with an articulate “harumph” and continued with my “righteous” steaming. And Olivia was right. I know that this outburst is a lot more about my own stress about war, pandemic, my own aging, and exhaustion than it was about the other driver. I wonder, how many of you have noticed in yourself or in loved ones, behaviours that are out of the usual boundaries in recent months?
Well, I think there is an interesting lesson for me, and I assume for each of us in this Hebrew Text this evening. So Abram (he is not Abraham yet) is complaining to God about how he does not have any children of his own. And in the midst of the conversation God brings Abram outside. In some way its what Olivia did, she brought me outside of my story, to a new, a bigger perspective. “Its really important that we love one another in these difficult times.” And in that moment outside, under the stars, while I said ‘harumph’ and continued steaming, Abram’s reaction is different; Abram ‘believes.’ Now why would I put air quotes around this word believes? Because as we know from linguist Sarah Ruden’s brilliant book “The Face of Water” https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/226191/the-face-of-water-by-sarah-ruden/ “in a typical important word in Hebrew...[meanings are] there all at once, effortlessly: the obvious meaning on the surface and some other, altogether different meaning that nevertheless resonates in the context; often something plodding and prosaic that’s inextricable from metaphysics.” (p. 39). The Hebrew word here is ‘aman’ which means firm (prosaically like a tent peg), as well as believe, trust, and it is the word from which we derive “amen.”
So, Abram’s reaction is that he can firmly trust/believe God. And note, there is no article here, this is not believing in God, this is believing God, trusting God. God as the firm tent peg, that I trust and believe holds fast. And that is when God sees Abram as ‘righteous.’ (More air quotes!)
So for help with this word “righteous” we turn to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.)
The word we translate into righteous is tzedakah. Rabbi Hoffman writes, “[t]he thing about tzedakah is that one never finishes it .... With tzedek (or tzedakah), striving is everything. So, too, with faith. Faith is not an all or nothing thing. It is a lifelong habit that we strive to develop. All of this runs contrary to the popular notion of Abraham’s faith being a daring leap from nothing to something —
Nothing could be farther from the Jewish point of view, which sees ... tzedakah as a quality into which we grow by practice. Abraham sometimes has it, sometimes not.”(https://www.jta.org/2012/10/23/ny/the-essence-of-faith)
In that moment under the stars Abram trusts, believes God. He is not perfect, he is just a human with many more mistakes and adventures still to come, but in this moment, he trusts God. And God sees Abram then as righteous. Being righteous is not you are righteous and will be for life; rather you may be fleetingly righteous when you trust God. And this raises the question for me, what do I trust? What is the tent peg for me? What was my tent peg in that moment of road rage? In the midst of war? in the midst of pandemic? In what or whom do I trust. My life’s journey is linked inextricably to this question. And the answer for me, stripped of too often confusing theological gymnastics is “Its really important that we love one another in these difficult times.” Even people who cut us off in traffic. Even politicians who bomb civilians, where ever that may happen on the planet. Even privileged people who don’t see the world the way I do. “Its really important that we love one another in these difficult times.”
And the good news is that God does not expect perfection. But God, especially in these dangerous times needs you and I to trust and to then act. When we trust God, when we have listened to God with our hearts, and are able to love even our enemies, then we might be that much more righteous in that moment. I was not righteous with the other driver. I am not righteous when I call for Putin’s death. I am not righteous when I laugh at, or ridicule privilege in a convoy. I am righteous when I trust God; when I trust that there are as many possibilities as there are stars in the universe that are outside of my knowledge, outside of my control. I am righteous when I see “both and” and not just the binary yes or no. That does not mean I don’t hold myself and others accountable for behaviour, but they, like me, are human beings. I make mistakes, you make mistakes, we all make mistakes. Our baptismal covenant demands that we “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” I am called to search for love, search compassion in myself and everyone else. Anglican priest and theologian, Wil Gafney writes, “Listen for the voice of God with your heart. Follow the voice of God with your behind, hands, feet and mouth....Believe God. Believe God about you. Believe God about the world. ... Trust God’s yesses and amens. I don’t know about you, but I have a personal soundtrack: I believe I can fly… And, I believe that God used R. Kelly in spite of the horrific violence and degradation he rained down on God’s daughters. And I believe we need to tell the truth and hold folk accountable at all times. And I believe that none of us is all good or all bad.” https://www.wilgafney.com/2013/08/11/believe-god-listen-to-the-voices-in-your-heart-head/
And hear a few more words from Rabbi Hoffman, “...this journey we call life has purpose, pattern and hope; that in our own way, we are called, as Abraham and Sarah were, to take up residence in a world of wonder and of woe, but overall, of mystery and of majesty. Faith is the habit of seeing purpose and meaning where others see emptiness and chaos. .... What Abraham’s faith provided is the quintessential Jewish attitude toward existence. Life is good; life has promise; we persevere through the bad believing that eventually, good will follow. To life! L’chaim! https://www.jta.org/2012/10/23/ny/the-essence-of-faith
My mother, herself like the rest of us a tangled knot of contradictions, used to quietly speak these words in difficult times;
“There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it ill behooves anyone of us
From finding fault with the rest of us.”
And perhaps in the end that is what Abram saw when he looked into the stars. Perhaps that is what I am called to remind myself of the next time I’m cut off in traffic, wish Putin were dead, or judge others online or in person. I am called to trust that God sees it all, and to trust that in the end, even though I may not get everything I want, life is good, life has more promise than I can possibly imagine. And that when I “get” that, even fleetingly, I am that much closer to what wisdom teaches us about being “righteous.”
“Its really important that we love one another in these difficult times.”