October 18, 2015

 

Chapter 6 We Make the Way by Walking

“Draw the Circle Wider”

 

Rev. Pam Serdar

 

 

So. What is God up to in Genesis 12: 1-9? And what is Abram’s part? So far in our story, there have been some ups and some downs in creation. Creation was glorious, but things have quickly fallen apart. Human is as human does, and the humans haven’t done so well. God is trying to continue to bless creation, but so far, humanity has rather unsuccessfully gone its own way—following the path of murder and hubris and jealousy rather than blessing. So what is God to do?

And God calls to Abram, “Brother Abram! I need you! I know you are seventy-five, and your wife Sarai is also aged and barren, and you were thinking about a nice, quiet retirement where you can kick back and relax, but I have an idea. 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.” Truth be told, if Abram is like most of us, he probably stopped listening after the third phrase, and was daydreaming about his new great name when God said that God was doing this so that Abram would be a blessing. Abram, who had not yet had his 15 minutes of fame, thinks, “Gee, dad thought I would never amount to anything, and now God is going to make me a great nation. It’s a bit late in the game, but I’m in!” We don’t hear what Sarai thought about the idea of giving up her friends and home, or what the “persons whom they had acquired in Haran” thought about packing up all the stuff and carrying it wherever their master Abram was wandering, but off they all went, grumbling a bit, but really with no choice. (By the way, what I just did there is called midrash—the time-honored tradition of filling in the gaps in scripture as you tell the story.)

Given Abram’s actions over the next several chapters, we have to wonder whether Abram did hear the part about being a blessing to all the families of the earth, because he sure doesn’t act like a blessing to the people around him, most notably Hagar and Ishmael, Sarai and Isaac. But for now, let’s go with it—God is still working within the created order to make things once again healed, whole and blessed. And Abram, whatever the motivation, did say “Yes” to God’s call.

It seems like, as before the story of the flood, humankind has once again messed up. The story immediately preceding that of Abram and Sarai is the story of the tower of Babel. Humans, in their hubris, decide to build a tower up to the heavens, and “create a name for themselves.” I’m not sure who they are trying to impress, because the story says that all the people were part of this task. Anyhow, God gets wind of it, and in the story, gets a bit hot under the collar because the humans, all speaking the same language, can cause incredible mischief together. So God knocks the tower over and muddles their language to slow them down a bit. Generations pass, God watches, considers, and decides a on new tactic for blessing creation. “Maybe this time, things will go better.” God says. “Instead of working on all of the people at once, I’ll work with just one, Abram, and see how it goes.” (Midrash again.)

As we talked last week, if we know how to look, we can see the people’s understanding of who God is and who we are, grow.  People in the Ancient Near East thought that there were several gods—besides Yahweh, remember Baal, Asherah, Chemosh, Moloch (particularly nasty), just to name a few mentioned in the Older Testament. These gods were thought to be tied to regions, and protected their territory and all within it if the people were faithful to them. It’s a very human image—human but bigger, with all of our boundaries and prejudices intact. The thought that a god would bless all people, or that there was only one god was completely foreign to Abram, and to all people. Abram would have understood the notion of God giving his heirs land and protecting the land and the people. The notion of God blessing all of the people of the earth, however, would not be part of Abram’s thought pattern. I don’t know if we have come much farther at times today, when we sing “God Bless America,” or “God Bless the USA,” while waving our flags, or when we think that God only loves and blesses those who call themselves Christians. Even followers of Jesus don’t think other followers of Jesus are loved unless we all follow the same rules.  The temptation, just as it was for Abram and the Israelites, is the same as it is for us: to keep God’s blessing for ourselves. We are adept at thwarting God’s blessings.

In these few short paragraphs, we also realize that Abram and Sarai don’t really know who this God is, beyond the promise to make of them a great nation, to bless them to be a blessing. God has very little history with humanity at this point. There is no Bible, there are no ten commandments, there is no Messiah nor any thought of one. Why do I think they didn’t know God very well? Because Abram and Sarai keep trying to push the plotline—they are fully aware that Sarai’s biological clock is ticking—and they are either trying to get Sarai pregnant by another man, or getting another woman pregnant by Abram. They are willing to do about anything to achieve the blessing that God has freely offered, except to wait for God to act. And no, that is not Midrash—that is in the text.

How do we do that today? Think of those people who have made a name for themselves, rather than relying in God to make of them a great nation: Bernie Madoff, Leona  Helmsley, Donald Sterling, Bill Cosby, Tom Petters, Denny Hecker, just to name a few. They were thinking only of themselves rather that drawing the circle wider. God is trying to draw the circle of blessing much wider than Abram and his brothers and sisters in the ancient near east think it is. This story isn’t about God just protecting Abram and his progeny, but Abram and all families of the earth. This isn’t about God only protecting the chosen people, whether we call the chosen people Christians or Jews or anyone esle, it is about God blessing all of the families of the earth. God isn’t for an individual or a family or a faith community or a nation rising to the top of the pyramid, economic or political or spiritual, but for all to be caught up in the net of the blessings of God. Too often, we grasp our own goodies so tightly to ourselves we have no arms left to reach out to embrace the other or to share what we have.

I often hear folks complain that we focus too much on growing the church. The implication is that the only reason numbers matter is so that we can make a great name for ourselves, and who needs that, especially in Minnesota where we are all above average and that is just fine. I do want us to have a name for ourselves, but not for 15 minutes of fame. I think we live in a hurting world, a world that doesn’t know that there are places where they will be loved and accepted, a place where they can know and experience the blessings of God and community, a place where they can find healing, a place where they can find hope, a place where they too can come together with others to be a blessing to all the families in the neighborhood and the world. Growth isn’t growth for its own sake. Blessing isn’t blessing for its own sake. We are, right here at Richfield United Methodist Church, blessed to be a  blessing. God uses us to make a difference in people’s lives every day, and while what we do is very, very good, we know, looking around us, that there is room for more folks in worship, there are more needs that can be met in the community and the world, there are people who are hungry, there are people in our neighborhood who would love to find a place of community and blessing. They are eager to make a difference in the world—they are eager to be a blessing, eager to draw the circle wider.

I was listening to one of the presidential candidate debates this last week, and I found myself going back to this week’s lesson on “Plotting Goodness.” I wondered if those running for office had heard God say, “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.” I wondered if they had heard only the part about having a great name, but had missed the part about being the one through whom all the families of the earth shall be blessed. It happened to be the Democratic candidates for president, but I wondered if all the candidates of all the races in all the world heard that same call, and actually heeded it, how different the world might be. When God blesses us with anything, whether it is wealth, or leadership ability, or healing ability, or music ability, or nurturing ability, or anything other talent, it is so that we can bless others, not for our own personal satisfaction. We are each blessed to be a blessing—that is how we love our neighbors. This isn’t about heaven or hell, this is about making each moment of our lives and that of others, right here and right now, a little better.

           You have probably heard the story from World War II of a group of American soldiers who lost their buddy in battle. They carried his body to the only cemetery in the area, which happened to be Catholic. When the priest was told that the dead man was not Catholic he said, "I am sorry, but he cannot be buried here"
          The disheartened and discouraged soldiers decided to do what they thought was next best, and during the night they buried their comrade just outside the cemetery fence. They returned the next morning to pay their last respects, but they could not find a grave outside the fence.
          When they told the priest of their quandary, he said, "The first part of the night I stayed awake sorry for what I told you. And the second part of the night I spent moving the fence." (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, (c) Moody Press and John MacArthur, Jr., 1983-2002.) Any fence, any barrier, anywhere is not part of God’s vision of abundant life for us, no matter what border we want to convince ourselves needs on.

            This week, consider the ways you have been blessed in your life. How are you using those gifts to be a blessing to others? How has this church been blessed? How can we use our blessings in even more ways to bless the world? As long as our hearts are beating, as long as our doors are open, we are called by the blessings of God to bless the world. Amen. Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genesis 12:1-9New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 

The Call of Abram

12 Now 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.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.