Wednesday, July 20, 2011
The context for this sermon is an ecumenical Christian service of the word in the chapel of a large, high-acuity teaching hospital.
The Scripture is: Genesis 12:1-9
Today’s reading from Genesis is the story of the call of Abram and Sarai But, in pulling the story out of the bible as we do when we use passages for worship, we’re missing something important in this story. And that important thing is the context.
And I want to begin today’s reflection by reminding you of the context. Because this story of Abram’s and Sarai’s calling starts very abruptly with the words “God said to Abram, Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your parents’ house to a land that I will show you.” In the narrative as it’s presented in Genesis, there isn’t any preliminary build-up to this story.
Directly before God calls Abram and Sarai, we have the story of the Tower of Babel, Then a list of the descendents of Shem, of whom Abram is one of those descendents.
We have no other background information about Abram other than this genealogy. And, of course, we have no information about Sarai other than that she is Abram’s wife. And we have no previous information about Abram’s relationship with God, either. All we know is that, suddenly, God appears and tells Abram to get up and go from his parents’ house to an unknown land.
And I think that, because we are so used to hearing the story of Abram and his relationship with God and we know the end of the story…and because this verse is written poetically, it all sounds great and good and positive.
“Wow! God is going to make Abram and Sarai the Patriarch and Matriarch of God’s chosen people! Fantastic! Lucky Abram! Lucky Sarai”
But what would happen if we heard the story of today’s reading something like this: (Please excuse a bit of literary license)
"Suddenly, Abram heard a voice that he had never heard before claiming to be the God of all creation. He was afraid and thought he might be going crazy.
And the voice said to him, “You and your wife have got a pretty nice life here among your people, don’t you? You know everyone, your parents are here and life is pretty good, except that you have no children.
But if you and Sarai want to have children, if you want to leave behind your state of barrenness, you both are going to have to leave this land and this comfortable life and go to an unknown place that I’m going to direct you to.
I will give you descendents who will eventually become a great people. But you will also eventually despair of having an heir and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.
I will make your name great and your descendents will be a blessing to the world, but you personally won’t see any of the greatest blessings that I’m going to give them and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.
I will curse those who curse you, but the vindication you desire isn’t going to come in your lifetime and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.”
If we read the text in this way, it takes on a whole different slant. We see Abram and Sarai not as some lucky lottery winners who were unexpectedly and inexplicably given a jackpot. Rather, we see them as risk-takers who trusted in God. And we also see that some might call them fools. Maybe we would call someone a fool who behaves as Abram and Sarai did.
Call and Response
There is an ironic twist to this story because if Abram and Sarai stay in the safety of all that is familiar they will remain barren. In order to bear children and become the parents of God’s Chosen People, they have to step outside their comfort zone and take a risk in their old age.
If you wanted to translate this story into 21st century America, I could see one rendition of it where there is a con-artist somewhere in the background hoping to take advantage of a couple of senior citizens who she hopes might be befuddled.
After all, who ever heard of a couple starting a great dynasty when the woman is 65 and the man 75? And those who are familiar with Scripture know that Sarah (as she will then be known) won’t get pregnant until her 90th year.
Abram and Sarai are being called to abandon their families of origin, to renounce their former way of life and to set out on a journey that will be physically dangerous and to aim for a future that is logically impossible. But unless they take a risk and step out in faith, they will not bear fruit. God initiates the promise that God makes to them, but the choice as to whether or not to act on God’s promise is up to them.
And for me as a Methodist, that’s a great metaphor for what a life of faith is all about: God initiates and human beings respond to God’s plan. The life of faith, although initiated by God, is always a two-way street that requires the participation of both parties. True faith is not a matter of “cheap grace” where we accuse anyone who responds to God’s plan and calling as trying to earn God’s favor by human works.
Rather, faith acknowledges that everything in life is a gift from God, and that these gifts are given to us out of love in order that we might respond to them.
At the end of the day, faith is call-and-response. God calls and we respond.
God is Faithful
So - the story tells us - Abram and Sarai set out for the land of Canaan.
They set out in order that their descendents should become God’s chosen people……so that all nations and races and peoples would be blessed by them, and would be blessed as they were blessed.
But, for me, the most amazing and difficult part of this faith-journey was that neither Abram nor Sarai were going to live to see the fulfilling of the promise that God made to them. They were not going to see their descendents become a great nation. They were not going to see Isaac give birth to Jacob who was to become Israel and the father of God’s Chosen People through whom all peoples of the earth would be blessed.
At the end of the journey, at the end of their lives, Abraham and Sarah were still walking by faith rather than by sight. By rights, each of them could have gone to their grave saying something like: “God gave us something but God didn’t give us what we had been promised.”
But those of us who know the entire story know that God did, in fact, fulfill the promise made to Abram and Sarai. God remained faithful to Abraham and Sarah (as they would become), and through them to the people of Israel and through them, God remained faithful to all of humanity.
Even though Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to perceive the fulfillment of the blessing, it doesn’t diminish the fact that God came through as promised.
By responding to God’s call, Abram and Sarai stepped out of their barrenness and into a new future. And I find that both an inspiration and a challenge. Because it’s not always easy to have that kind of faith. It’s not always easy to trust in God’s faithfulness when events do not unfold as we expect and maybe when it even looks like God didn’t fulfill the promises that were made. It’s easy enough to say the words “God has the situation mapped out” but it’s not always easy to walk into the future when you feel that God has not given you a glimpse of that map.
And so, to encourage one another, we tell stories like this one of God’s faithfulness in the past and we remind each other that God continues to be faithful to us today. As people of faith, we remember that – as the author of Hebrews said – “we desire a better country”. Not just in “heaven” but also in the here and now.
For me, it is Good News that God is faithful and keeps God’s promises, even if I can’t perceive right now that those promises are being kept.
For me, it is Good News that other people of faith struggle with difficulties along their journey with God.
And for me, it is Good News that, as we step out in faith, that we are in a very real sense co-creators with God in the divine unfolding of history.
As we go from this place, I pray that the God of Abram and Sarai will bless each one of us as we take those initial steps out of our barren places into the unfolding of God’s creative endeavor.
I pray that we will be able to encourage other people of faith and to be encouraged by them.
And I pray that, whether or not we see the final result of God’s blessing on our lives that we will nevertheless be able to embrace God’s mysterious peace which surpasses all of our own human understanding. May the peace of God be with us always. Amen