Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Abram, God, and the Night Sky

(A sermon on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 2/28/2010)

It is my opinion that Episcopalians, and most likely Christians as a whole, have failed to give the Hebrew Scriptures there due. That’s not an observation specific to being here at All Saints’. Instead, it’s an informed observation made from growing up in the Episcopal Church, despite the inclusion of a Hebrew Scripture and Psalm reading in every service. The number of sermons or educational opportunities devoted to the Hebrew Scriptures is few and far between. When Christians do look at these Scriptures, it is often limited to attempts to bring a specific rule or way of life out of its context into our modern world (hear Leviticus and homosexuality), or it is using the Hebrew Scriptures to enlighten the words or actions of Jesus, which is the way most of us come into contact with the Book of Isaiah.

Now, I’m no exception to the trend not to focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. In my first year plus here, we can count the number of sermons I’ve focused on the Hebrew Scriptures on one hand. I’m not going to apologize for this: I usually have a compelling desire to address, embrace, or confront the Gospel text the lectionary gives us. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus are full of words and actions that have a great deal to say not only about the life of the one we follow, but about our individual lives and our communal living in today’s world. Ultimately, our lives are informed by knowing the Gospel stories.

This week, however, I am reminded that Jesus was formed by the stories of the Hebrew Scripture. They were his texts and accounts to be examined, wrestled with, internalized, and made sense of. Jesus would have been compelled to grapple with these stories: imagining not only what they meant when they were written, but what meaning they had on his life. What was the faithful relationship with God in the past, and what new vision of the Kingdom of God did they point to?

This morning shows us Abraham, even before he had received the name we know him by. Before he became “Father Abraham,” the ancestor of Christians, Muslims and Jews, he was Abram: barren and landless.

At this time, to be without children and without land was thought to mean to have no relationship with God.

Our account this morning begins with the famous “After these things” line. What has already happened? Well, mostly land conflicts: scheming, bargaining, and fighting. The quick summary is that Abram left his father’s homeland as commanded by God, had opportunity to acquire land and people for himself, but chose not to because of the promises he had made to God.

Twice before, God had told Abram that he will be blessed:

Chapter 12, verses 1-4: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And Chapter 13, verses 14-17: “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”

Both times, Abram responded with action, doing whatever God tells him to do, not unlike Noah from a few chapters before.

So now God comes to Abram again and says “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

Poor Abram must have been so confused! Here is a man who hears God on a regular basis, and yet he lacks the things that signify right relationship with God. Abram now does something without precedence in the Bible: he dares to talk back to God.

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)

Abram responds with anxiety and doubt, saying to God “what exactly are you doing to me?”

The YHWH we are accustomed to at this point of Genesis is likely to respond with anger and a swift jolt. Instead, God brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

A look into the night sky, at the beautiful stars, helps Abram. This does not surprise me...after all; it does wonders for me anytime I’m unsure or anxious. One might think in theory that looking up at the stars, into the vastness of the night, would not be balm to the nerves, for it’s likely to make one feel small. I’ve found that, in reality, the night sky has this way of connecting people to the world, rather than a feeling of isolation.

We are told that this has great affect on Abram, and on God as well: “And (Abram) believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

It is important to note two things here. First, that this is a shared experience between God and Abram. This is unlike anything else seen in Genesis since the creation of humankind. One gets the sense that this moment with Abram, looking up at the stars, is what God had in mind at Creation for the being made in God’s own image.

The second thing to note is that believing in God does not keep Abram from questioning further. When God says that Abram will be given this land to possess, he responds, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

The desire to know, and the accompanied doubt that goes with it, does not impair the relationship of God and Abram. Abram seeks clarity. Daniel DeBevoise, a Presbyterian pastor at Park Lake, Orlando, writes “Abram questions God’s activity. His questioning faith takes seriously God’s presence and power in his life and challenges us to be open to God’s work in our lives. Abram questions God because he deeply believes God can do something about it.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 54) There is a sense of honesty to it, as well as a sense that Abram has moved humanity forward in relating with God in a way that Noah before him was not capable of.

I believe that this is the reward to find in our re-acquaintance with our spiritual ancestors. Engaging the Hebrew Scriptures, learning or relearning the stories of old, is a Lenten calling and discipline that can enrich our lives. DeBevoise suggests:

“Lent offers us an opportunity to think about our discipleship in light of how others have lived in response to God’s call and command. What are the costs and demands they faced as they walked the way of discipleship? Like Abram, we also have questions that will not be silenced as we try to walk in faithfulness to God. Like Abram, we can question God as part of our faithfulness and trust. We also live expectantly that God’s promises of life, hope, and future are extended to us in Jesus Christ, who defines faithfulness by the character of his own life and death, and who calls us to take the next step and follow him.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 54)

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