Again I want to say what a joy it is to be with you in worship this morning. I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with some of you, and I do look forward to the opportunity to get to know you all in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I look forward and am honored for the opportunity to be your pastor.
It’s been only two months since I received the phone call from my district superintendent letting me know of this change in my pastoral appointment. Since that time I have been anxiously awaiting this day – the day when I would get to join and celebrate the love and work of God in worship with you. I have prayed for God’s guidance in this transitional time, both for me and for the life of the church, and I know many of you have been praying as well. I would ask that you don’t stop – keep praying. Pray for me that I may be the kind of pastor God wants at Washington Street; and pray for this body – pray that we all may embody the community of faith God needs in this day, in this space, in this community of Alexandria. And please bear with me as your pastor. I am going to make mistakes, and I’ll do my best to admit when I’m wrong. As we learn to grow together in our faith and in our ministry as a church, pray that we may continue to learn from one another and to focus on God’s call for us as a church.
As I was thinking and preparing for this morning, wondering what God may have to offer as a word for God’s people, I found myself encouraged to go back to Abraham’s call found in this passage in Genesis 12. These first few verses, verses one through three, provide the foundation for the rest of Genesis and in large part for the first few books of the Bible.
As chapter 11 finishes, we are given a lineage of descendants – geographical and genealogical notes leading all the way to Abram. Abram won’t be given the name Abraham until chapter 17.
Chapter 12 begins quite abruptly. Out of the listing of genealogical descent, the Lord’s voice rings out as chapter 12 begins, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘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.’”
It is intriguing to me that the Lord comes to Abram after all that we have heard has happened to Abram. Again, backing up a chapter or two is helpful to grasp the contextual situation Abram is called out of.
Chapter 9 tells us of the flood and how all of creation was wiped from the face of the earth. Chapter 10 tells us of Noah’s many descendants. And then as chapter 11 begins we read about the Tower of Babel when the world was scattered because of their longing to be equal to the Creator God. Following the scattering of the people, the scriptural story follows the lineage of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. By the time we get to Abram, we learn a few more discouraging facts.
One of Abram’s brothers, Haran, has already died. Abram’s wife, Sarai, is barren. Together, the family, meaning Terah – the patriarch, Abram’s father, and Abram, Sarai, and Lot (one of Terah’s grandsons, Abram’s nephew) – all travel to the land of Canaan. They are now in a land that is not their own – they are immigrants in this community. And once there, Terah dies.
So God comes to Abram, a person who has no spectacular life. In a foreign land, an alien to the culture, Abram finds himself with no family other than a nephew and a wife still living with him. And this story line – the lineage of Noah – seems destitute to end with Abram’s wife Sarai being unable to have a child. They had no protection and no security with no surrounding family or friends.
“Walter Bruggemann reminds us that [Sarai’s] barrenness symbolizes a people without promise … barrenness is the way of human history, an effective metaphor for hopelessness; but in the arena of barrenness, God’s life-giving action takes place.”[i] And in this time, in this space of brokenness and feared emptiness, God comes and speaks.
When God speaks, God is not asking for Abram to follow. Walter Bruggemann in his commentary on this text reminds us that God, in speaking to Abram here in verses one through three, is not postulating a truth, he is naming an imperative – albeit a imperative invitation.[ii] God is not suggesting that if Abram follows, God will bless him and his descendants – God is not asking if Abram minds being the father of a great nation – God is not suggesting that things would be better if Abram would only agree. In these statements, God is making a promise. In these imperatives, God is naming the gift of God to God’s creation. The gift – the promise made by God is threefold – God promises descendants (a great nation), land and blessing.
This morning I want to focus on how God’s promise to Abram of descendants, land and blessing still convey upon us as disciples of the risen Christ.
God promises Abram that out of Abram would be made a great nation. I haven’t found a person, commentary or footnote that suggests anything other than this promise being a promise that from Abram there would be many descendants. Many people – in truth, the full nation of Israel would come from the direct genealogical line of Abram.
When we think of Abram as patriarch of such a great nation, the question that comes to mind for me is, does God have no intention of blessing any others outside of the nation of Israel? Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley, a professor of Old Testament at Princeton, asks these questions, is God choosing Israel as distinctive as we think it? Is this not like a parent choosing one favorite child over another?[iii]
My children are very similar. They are, for all my wife and I know, identical twins. If you haven’t gotten a good look at them yet, take a look later on. There are times – a lot of times – when I can hardly tell them apart. Yet, if you were to ask me if I had a favorite – if you were to ask me to choose one over the other, I would look at you like you were crazy. I love my boys. Each is special to me. I love each one very dearly.
If my love for my children runs that deep, as I suggest it does for so many of you in your relationship with your children – if my love is so deep that I could not choose between the two and God’s love is so much greater than my own, how could I expect God to choose one nation, one subset of created humanity over another – much less, all the rest?
Perhaps this question is a good question for us to ponder in a weekend when we celebrate our own foundation as a nation here in America. If we read the text in its entirety, if we continue to read the story, we find time and time again that God is not simply lifting Israel as the only nation he loves, but is calling on Israel to be a nation that reflects God’s love for all. In multiple locations in Isaiah’s text, Israel is called to be a light to the nations – a light for all nations. Israel is not just blessed by God as a great nation of Abram’s descendants, but is a nation whose call by God is to bless the world – to share God’s blessing with all humanity.
And this functionality of God, working through the one for the good of the whole, is the ‘modus operandi’ of God.[iv] Israel, the one nation, is called to be a blessing for all nations in the same one the one Christ, the Emmanuel, is called to sacrifice for the benefit of all persons.
Thus today, as one church, as one people, as one subset of God’s created humanity, we too should see our calling not as one nation or one church favored by God over another, but as part of God’s humanity who has the mission of sharing God’s love that all may know and be blessed by God’s work in and through us.
And that leads us to the second promise – a promise for land. “Go from your father’s house to the land I will show you.” God leads Abram and his descendants – just as many years later God will lead Moses and the people of Israel – to a promised land. Yet the land they go to occupy isn’t their land. Others occupied the land and God called them to live in and among the others in that land.
Abram and Sarai were led by God into a land ruled by the Canaanites. The people of Israel would go in and out of exile many times in the region. And yet, the question is rarely asked, what happened to the Canaanites whose land had foreigners moving in? Should we care nothing about the Canaanites who had previously maintained ownership of the land where God led the Israelites? Walter Bruggemann offers this insight, “If Israel is understood as a desperate, displaced community, then to ask about the legitimacy of the Canaanites is a luxury that cannot be afforded, any more than any oppressed people can first ask about the well-being of the oppressors.”[v]
God didn’t lead Abram into the land of Canaan to overtake the people or destroy them. There is never an indication that Abram was to stand against the Canaanites. Abram was called to live among them, “to practice and believe the promise [of God.]”[vi] Yet, the people of Israel would continue to be a people who are a desperate and displaced community.
It should then come as no surprise that over forty texts throughout the story of the people Israel offer instructions of what it means to welcome the foreigner.[vii] God instructs time and time again for God’s people to not oppress or mistreat those who are from other lands. And this is not just a call by God through the prophets in the days of Israel going in and out exile – even Christ calls upon the faithful to welcome the stranger. Bear in mind the story of the good Samaritan – when have you welcomed or offered love to someone seen as different than yourself? Christ says in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Truly as you have done it to any of the least of these, you have done it to me.’[viii]
I find the promise of God to offer land not to be a promise to own land, or be lords over land, but a promise to lead us into opportunity to witness to and share the love of God with all – those similar and dissimilar to ourselves.
And this promise leads us to the third gift of God – a promise to blessing.
God says, “I will bless you, make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you.”
Abram was not made great so that he could tout his greatness – Abram was made great so that God may receive glory. The imperative of God upon the life of Abram was not contingent on Abram’s worthiness or faithfulness – we know that Abram was indeed quite unworthy – he would fail at upholding God’s will multiple times. Abram exiled one of his sons and he gave his wife to another man, just to name a couple. God’s blessing upon Abram was not contingent on what Abram did – it was not contingent on his worthiness – the blessing was instead contingent on what God did and God’s worthiness – because God’s love offered a blessing and worth where there was none. Abram’s responsibility was not to “impress or even bear witness to God, but simply to permit the reality of blessing to be at work.”[ix]
And this is our call today – this is the blessing that remains part of God’s assurance to us today – a promise that if we are open to hear Gods call, we can honor the past faith of Abram and all who have followed, and even in our unworthiness we too may be blessed by God. Our ability to receive God’s blessing is not contingent on our capability to be faithful to God, it is dependent on God’s willingness to be faithful to us – and we know God is faithful to us – we know because of the witness of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
And so, as we begin a new chapter in the ministry of Washington Street together, it is my hope and prayer that we may hold these three promises to still be true. That God is not done working here, in this community, and in this world. But that God’s love extends to all, a promise we must exemplify in our interaction with all of God’s creation. That God calls us still to welcome the stranger as one of God’s own. And that God needs us not be perfect to use us as a blessing, but for us to simply acknowledge God’s faithfulness and be open to God using us that all may know the love and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Miguel A. De La Torre. Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Genesis. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.[ii] Walter Bruggemann. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982.
[iii] Jacqueline E. Lapsley. http://workingpreacher.org. Retrieved 6-4-15.
[iv] Jacqueline E. Lapsley.
[v] Walter Bruggemann.
[vi] Walter Bruggemann.
[vii] Miguel A. De La Torre.
[viii] Matthew 25:31-49. NRSV.
[ix] Walter Bruggemann.