Passage: Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:13-25
Date: June 08, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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This collection of writings we call "holy" never ceases to amaze me. I am so thankful that we are people of the book, texts to which we bring our best minds and experiences, seeking to be open to God's word to us. Indeed, sometimes that word hurts, judges, challenges. Sometimes it comforts, heals, inspires. And sometimes it befuddles. Written by humans during more than a thousand years, we believe it is holy, because through it God's lively Spirit still speaks to us where we live. Today's lectionary brings two texts. Each is worth exploring, and permitting to explore us, long after this service.
The first, in Genesis, forms one of those critical pivotal points in all of scripture. The first eleven chapters spell out our understanding of beginnings, mythic, pre-history. Moving from the breadth of humankind, chapter twelve zeroes in on one man, one woman. This couple changed the course of human history. Moslems, Jews, and Christians trace their origins back to these two people, and to their radical decision to go. Listen with expectation: 1-9.
We will get back to them, but first, we need to hear the apostle Paul writing to Christians in Rome, people he had not met. Two themes emerge in these paragraphs: God's promise, and faith. Both relate to the God "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist." Listen to how Paul uses Abraham as an example of living by faith. Let us be open to God's challenging and enduring word to us. 4:13-25.
Oops, when we were in Genesis, I forgot to back up. Chapter 11 concludes with a short genealogy. Hidden sort of matter-of-factly in the names, a bit of crucial information. V. 30: "Now Sarai was barren; she had no child." Whereas in our day, couples can choose not to have children, in the ancient world, the announcement of childlessness would have been an excruciating burden for the woman and a public dishonor for the man. Without children, there was no future, no one to carry on the family line, to inherit the family goods and honor, no one to take care of parents in their old age, should they live so long. Both Abram and Sarai, later to become Abraham and Sarah, were beyond child-begetting age as well. If they thought about their condition at all, they would have sensed a deep sadness and hopelessness.
Sort of out of the blue, at least as the narrator tells the story, one day Yahweh God commanded Abram: lek leka, "get going!" "Go from your country, your kindred, and your father's house to a land I will show you." In many cultures, people experience God speaking to them. I suspect some of us have heard such holy messages. Responding to a word like this, we immediately picture loading up the U-Haul and heading out to that new job, to school, to the retirement community nearer family. In their day, nuclear families did not exist. People lived in extended interdependent families, deeply rooted in land and place. In fact, family, land and place were what gave people identity, a moral compass, and hope for the future. Therefore, such a divine word should have struck fear and conflict into Abraham's heart. It immediately implied the radical cutting off of all of their roots, something nearly inconceivable. Moreover, a U-Haul would never do. The text says they took with them all of their possessions, all of the people that were of their part of the clan or who had joined with them, and his nephew Lot and his family and possessions. Possessions, of course, meant all household goods, tents, and livestock. And all on foot. Moving was a huge deal. In the text, amazingly, Abram raises no questions.
Moving, and for what? For the promise of some land somewhere, and for descendants, and for blessing. I wonder how Abraham and Sarah explained that to their family and friends. The narrator announces that they went on faith, as God had told them: lek lekah, get going.
In Romans, Paul holds this Abraham up as the model of faith: "Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become the ‘father of many nations'... He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body...or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God..." He sounds perfect, doesn't he, like some spiritual over-achiever, a super star. Never weakening in faith, never wavering in his trust of God? Is that a goal for us in our own faith journeys?
Perhaps Paul was not familiar with the next 13 chapters of Genesis, as one would say, with "the rest of the story." Perhaps he needed a rhetorical ideal to inspire Christians in Rome not to weaken. But, if we continue reading this wonderful Genesis narrative, Abraham's believing does not occur in some religious vacuum. Later, he deceives Pharaoh and passes his wife off as his sister just to get into Egypt, to save his own skin. The complicating factor is that Pharaoh then decides Sarah should be added to his harem. Still years later, Abraham's faith in God's promise of offspring wavers a whole lot, and he takes matters into his own hands, so to speak. He has a child by another woman, just for insurance sake. And later yet, he clings to that child, to Ishmael, even when God has Isaac in mind as the successor. What we know is that Abraham's faith in the promising God was not so easy, nor without anguish. God issued a call and made a promise against the barrenness and landlessness of this family, and Abraham said yes. They went, not smoothly, but in fits and starts, as best they knew how.
It seems to me that that is more true to our own faith experiences. Let's be honest with ourselves. In the best sense, faith includes wavering at times. When God's radical demands clash with our culture's, our family's, our friends', we do take matters into our own hands. In critical places, in deep crises, in the face of wonderful successes even, we encounter darkness, loss of vision, hopelessness. It does not matter whether we are ministers or spiritual directors or electricians or students or business executives or teachers or unemployed or retired. Life circumstance is no determiner of faithfulness. Sometimes even our best intentions don't make it. And friends, that is OK. Notice, when they did not trust, God did not drop Sarah and Abraham and go looking for another couple, another clan. God's commitment was to them in all of their humanity, in their willingness to go. God simply renewed the connection. Actually, it was not all that simple, but you get what I mean. Like it is not so simple with us. Even people of great faith experience spiritual dead ends, deserts instead of oases, disconnects instead of communion with the Holy One, silenced instead of message. In the midst of our struggles, the Promising One is faithful, whether we know it or not. The Abraham/Sarah story is about God as initiator and sustainer.
Brueggemann says that barrenness is the way of human history. It is an effective metaphor for hopelessness. There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future. In biblical faith, barrenness becomes an arena for God's life-giving action. (Genesis, p. 116) In recent years, I have from time to time asked people what keeps them going, particularly people in difficult, seemingly hopeless situations. What about their faith? Beleaguered Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Dr. Munib Younan spoke to a group of us in Jerusalem last October. He said,
You-we are all-called to be witnesses for peace, justice, reconciliation, and-perhaps most difficult-witnesses of hope. I must confess to you that it is even hard for me. What do I say when my people come to me and wonder why God doesn't hear the prayers of the Palestinians?....What do I say to one of my teachers who said, ‘God is biased, because he doesn't listen to Palestinians...' How can we be witnesses when we feel like God has forsaken us? For us Palestinian Christians, it is a continuous tension. ...It is a spiritual crisis. And in the midst of this spiritual crisis, we are called to be witnesses....Very simply, we do not have the luxury of hopelessness.
Let us all become allies for justice and humanity...And when we feel we are losing hope, let us support one another.., committed to the Light that the darkness cannot and shall not overcome. When we live in darkness, let us not be blinded, but live toward the light of the resurrection. (Sermon, Oct. 07)
These were not pep talk words to us, nor were they whistling in the dark. Rather, Bishop Younan speaks from faith to faith. He heard the voice of God, and he went in faith to serve his people. In Genesis, the barren one is moved and comes to life. Death and hopelessness are replaced with possibility in the promising God. They went. We claim them as ancestors in faith because of that promise. We and Jews and Moslems would not exist except for it. They went. Paul says this whole thing is about the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (V. 17) Radical departure, new hope: Our God. Think only Easter: where there had been only death, fear, hopelessness, barrenness-Good Friday-- transformed by this God into life, possibility.
They went, as best they could, Sarah and Abraham, believing, not knowing, hoping against hope. They went into the future, God's future. So it is with the life of faith. And so do we, every moment of every day, in Christ Jesus our Lord.