Monday, October 30, 2017

10-29-17 “A Way Out of No Way: Blessing”

10-29-17  “A Way Out of No Way: Blessing”

   We are only introduced to Abram and Sarai in the last couple of verses of the preceding chapter. Abram is one of three sons of Terah, and Sarai, the wife of Abram, we are told is barren. The fact that this bit of information is shared with us before we know anything else about this couple signals to us its importance.  
Barrenness, or infertility, in the patriarchal culture and thinking of that day was not the fault of the men, it had to be something wrong, a withholding of blessing or even a curse, accorded to the women. 
This is important to how the larger story will play out. 
That introductory section at the end of chapter 11 tells us that Terah, Abram, Sarai, and Terah’s grandson Lot, had all previously left the place known as Ur of the Chaldeans, in what we now know as Iraq, and traveled to a place called Haran, on the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. 
And it is here, then, that the message in chapter 12 is given to Abram.

   “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.” 
Notice, this statement is not phrased in the form of a request. God doesn’t say, “Would you please leave your land, your family, etc.,” or, “I’d like you to consider leaving your land…” No, this is neither a request nor an invitation, but a command? Much as God didn’t suggest to Noah six chapters earlier that he might want to consider building a boat, God doesn’t suggest to Abram he might want to think about moving. I suppose it’s kind of like when the Bishop calls and tells a pastor that he or she is moving from Toledo to Marietta. While it doesn’t actually carry the same weight as a command from God, although it certainly feels that way, it doesn’t really come in the form of a request or an invitation either.

   “Leave your appointment, your church family, and your friends, neighbors, and community, for the new appointment that I will show you.”

   As an itinerant elder in the United Methodist Church we serve at the pleasure of the Bishop, so if the Bishop and the Cabinet feel a pastor is needed somewhere else, off you go. When I was with Kmart they didn’t call it itineracy, they referred to it as being relocatable, but it amounted to the same thing. In my 19 years with Kmart I served in 13 stores in 3 states, but only relocated 3 times - from Bloomington, IN back to Terre Haute where I had attended college; from Terre Haute to Princeton, IN; and from Princeton to Columbus, OH in 1985. 
I was almost sent from Columbus to West Branch, MI at one point, but I did tell them “no way,” and we worked it out. 

   Leaving everything we know can be unsettling. 
Packing up, physically moving to a new city, finding a place to live,  childcare in a new place where you don’t know anyone - it’s really hard. I was in my 20s when all of this moving was going on - in our scripture passage today Abram is 75 when his “itineracy” begins. 
Think about that, those of you are who are not too far either side of 75 - if God commanded, didn’t invite or request but commanded, you to pack up and move to Whoop-ti-do, KS or Hole-in-the-wall, AK, what would you do? Would you dare tell God “no way?” Abram, at least as the story is told in Genesis, didn’t bat an eye. He packed up, trusting in what God had told him, and moved on.
   As theologian Daniel Clendenin considered it, 
   “[Abram] left in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why he was going, except that God had commanded him. He defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity that call us in the opposite direction. 
We like to journey from the unknown to the known. 
We want to move from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, away from the strange and the unpredictable and toward the safe and the secure. Unsatisfied with mere promises, we demand absolute guarantees. While we demand clarity and act timidly, [Abram] acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty.”

   Rather than certainty, though, this passage generates questions for us. Why did God choose Abram? 
And why did God command Abram to pack up everything and go to a new place so far away? Why not pick someone closer? To answer these questions we must 
first consider what had gone on up to this point. 
You’ll remember that last week we considered all that had happened in Genesis 3-11 - from Adam and Eve in the garden to the Tower of Babel - through the lens of how sin and evil had spread. 

We looked most closely at the story of Noah and the Flood, but we considered in all of these stories how the prior pattern of humanity’s sinful act (A) being met with a speech from God (B), followed by some sort of punishment (C), and then God’s showing mercy to them (D) had not stemmed the flow or expansion of sin, that the people soon fell into their same sinful ways once again. 

And as theologian Mark Throntveit points out,   
“We [see] how ineffective punishment was. 
Even after the destruction of the flood, the people responded to their second chance by falling into the same old sinful patterns . . . except, in the last story [the tower of Babel] (11:1-9) where there is no concluding act of mercy. The previous stories had ended with a description of God's dealing with the fear of the protagonists. Adam and Eve were ashamed, not because they had disobeyed, but because they were naked (3:7), so God clothed them (3:21)… [But] at the end of the Tower of Babel story, the people, who feared being scattered . . . are scattered by God (11:4, 9)!”

   So in Genesis 12, God changes course, moving from punishing all the earth for sin, to establishing a relationship with one individual to see if that might work better. That individual is Abram. 
Where in Babel “the people had sought to make a name for themselves (11:4), God chooses Abram and promises to make his name great (12:2), thereby dealing with the people's fear but redirecting the action so that the emphasis falls upon God's gift rather than human accomplishment.” God’s gift.
   So God chooses Abram and Sarai, a childless couple who are not spring chickens as we would say today. 
Why choose them? Well, working with a young couple hadn’t worked out so well in Genesis 3 had it, so why not go for a more mature pair?  Is Abram somehow "special," or "better," or "more religious" than other people? 
No, there’s nothing in the story to indicate that. 
While Israel, the eventual descendants of Abram and Sarai, at times did understand God's choice in this way, the prophets regularly push back against and reject this understanding, pointing out that God tells Israel that they are not the only recipients of God’s gift of divine grace. 

The prophet Amos writes
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7) 

   Amos is saying that Israel, and thus Abram, is not superior to other peoples; God has granted salvation, has “brought up,” the prophet says, other peoples and nations as well.But they are loved by God - as others are loved by God - and like them are given a gift.
   And Amos is not the only prophet to make this point. 
In Deuteronomy, Moses attributes God's choice of Israel solely to God's love, not to Israel's worthiness:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you -- for you were the fewest of all peoples. 
It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut 7:7-8).

   And Throntveit continues, “God chose Abram, and thus, Israel, to be the way God would bring all people back into relationship, all those who had been so rebellious in Genesis 3 through 11, as God says in 12:3: ‘in you all 
the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” 
Thought of another way, Israel is set apart from, not set above, the other nations in order to fulfill this particular calling of God. 
And Throntveit continued, “This quest for relationship is the purpose that drives God's choice, God has called Abram into service, and he will become the means by which God's ultimate purpose for the salvation of all will be realized.”
   This is the new way that God is creating a way out of no way; or in the case of what we witnessed in Genesis 3-11, out of humanity’s having said, “no way!” God begins by calling Abram. 

But it’s important to understand the nature of this calling. 
It begins with a command: 
“Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. “

Then it moves to a promise, a two-fold promise actually, a promise to Abram and a promise about others:
“I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. 
I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. 
I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.”

So, it’s a calling, followed by a command, but it’s not yet a covenant. A covenant is like an agreement, or a treaty, or even a contract. In a marriage covenant, spouses promise to be faithful to each other. If you take out a loan, the bank gives you money and you promise to repay them. When you buy a house, the mortgage is a contract and becomes your responsibility. 
In Genesis 12:1-3, God began a relationship with Abram, promising him that he would become a great nation, that he would be blessed, and that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants; but the relationship is not yet a contract, treaty, agreement, or covenant - it’s a promise. The unusual part of this relationship is that God doesn’t ask or require anything of Abram in return! No obligations are placed upon him because this relationship emphasizes God's commitment and promise to Abram, not Abram's promise or commitment to God. The pattern presented here (command, promise, and response) shapes the rest of Genesis. God's promises will be repeated in fuller detail throughout Genesis, to the soon-to-be renamed Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, but they are first presented here.And if we notice nothing else in this passage, it’s important to notice the ordering of what takes place here: command, promise, then response. The whole intent would be altered if the response came before the promise. Then the promise would be a reward, something Abram earned for something Abram did. But here we see how the promise is something God will do for Abram, there are no conditions placed on Abram, no agreement, no reciprocity. The major theme of Genesis 12-50 is how God overcomes obstacles (usually Abraham if you remember the details of his longer story!) in order to keep these promises. Abram doesn't make promises to God, God makes promises to Abram... and God keeps them! This emphasis on God's promise, however, does not eliminate Abram's response. 

   In the second half of our text (12:4-9) we read that Abram "went, as the LORD had told him... and journeyed on by stages toward [Canaan].” In undertaking this journey, Abram demonstrated his trust in the God who had made such wonderful promises to him, without a shred of assurance or negotiation, other than God's word alone.  
  And as Clendenin suggests, 
  “The story of God's call upon [Abram’s] life is one that's repeated to each one of us today. It’s a call from God that subverts conventional wisdom, though, and so it can feel counter-intuitive. It's a call to move beyond three deeply human and unusually powerful fears: ignorance, the fear of the unknown that we can't control; inclusion, the fear of others who are different from us; and impotence, and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities.”

   First, God called Abram to leave everything familiar: "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (12:1). So that’s what Abram did. But this is about more than a change of scenery, “for the longest and hardest journey is not the journey without but the journey within. However daunting and strange Abram found the geography of ancient Canaan, it paled in comparison to the geography of his human heart.”
   In leaving Haran, Abram left behind all that was familiar, all that he knew, retaining only his memories. 
All that he knew, all certainty, he left behind for a future of “genuine and profound ignorance. Abram journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange. Thus the New Testament commends his subversive obedience to God: ‘By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country’ (Hebrews 11:8–9).” As Clendenin describes this decision, this transformation, 
 “In his journey into the unknown, Abram embraced his ignorance. He relinquished control. He chose to trust God's promise to bless him in a new and strange place. But this required a second choice on his part. 
He had to leave not only his geographic home, he had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger. God gave a staggering promise to this obscure nomad: God would make him the patriarch of all the world.”

   So God’s attempts in the opening chapters to work with all of humanity are reversed. God engages an individual, Abram, and through that one moves to the universal, promising the one that he would be the blessing to all, the father of all nations. From the particular to the universal, God’s promise progressively expands. In this one individual person God embraces all of humanity. 
   While God embraces inclusion, as humans we tend to go in the opposite direction, to fear the other, to suspect and marginalize the strange, to dismiss all that's different from who and what we know. 
Clendenin though, suggests that God is having nothing to do with this kind of segregation, saying,  
   “God called Abraham and now us to a universal and inclusive embrace of everyone and ‘all peoples on earth.’ In Romans 3:29 Paul asked a provocative rhetorical question: is God the God of Jews only? Jews, of course, identify Abraham as their founding father, Christians trace the lineage of Jesus Christ back to him, and Muslims revere him as a friend of God, a father of the prophets, and an ancestor of Mohammed (Koran 37:109). In his singular journey, then, Abram instigated blessings to the world.”

   And in the journey, with God’s help, Abram overcame a fear of ignorance as well as of inclusion, but what of impotence - both literal as well as metaphorical. 
You see, Abram and Sarai were well past child-bearing years. To be more than just a symbolic father and mother of all nations was going to require something more, something they were powerless to change. But God rebuked them: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" (18:14). And so Abram made a counter-intuitive choice; he believed. He believed that God had the power to do what God had promised. He trusted that God is, as the apostle Paul would later write, “a God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Romans 4:17, 21). That is to say, Abraham moved beyond his fear of powerlessness, of impotence, to trust that God could, quite literally, make something out of nothing.

And Clendenin concludes from all this, that 
“When God called him, Abram subverted conventional wisdom and moved beyond understandable human fears — ignorance, inclusion, and impotence. 
Instead of lamenting his ignorance and the loss of control, he embarked upon a journey into the unknown. Instead of fearing inclusion of the strange and the outsider, he gave himself to God's promise of a universal blessings for the whole earth. In the face of his own profound impotence, he believed that God could do the impossible.” 

   Abram believed the promises of God, not because they made sense to him, but because he trusted his heart when it came to God. His response to God’s command and God’s promise came, not as a result of a bargain, or an attempt to negotiate or earn a blessing, his response to follow God’s command was born of a heartfelt love and trust for God. We follow God’s commands to give, to pray, to serve, not in order to earn God’s love - we cannot earn what is freely given. No, we give of ourselves, our gifts, our time in response to God’s love. And that response begins in our hearts. It begins when we turn our hearts to God, accepting the love of God’s grace that is freely given; when we trust in God’s promise that God will provide a way out of whatever burdens or imprisons us, even when every sign seems to indicate that there is no way out. God keeps God’s promise. The blessedness that God promises to Abram and for his descendants comes to us not because of who we are, or what we’ve done, or whether we believe this doctrine or that dogma, but because God’s love knows no boundaries. 
It is a blessing given for all peoples. 
God’s love called Israel up out of Egypt, the Philistines up out of Caphtor, and the Arameans up out of Kir; and likewise it calls us, as well, to make the journey that Abram made. Maybe that’s not an physical relocation as was the case with Abram and Sarai, but as Marcia McFee reminds us,   
“We take the first significant step on our journey with God when we accept a blessing that we believe is too large for us to deserve, and a responsibility that we feel is too large for us to fulfill.”

   Our responsibility, like God’s promise, is two-fold. 
First, in response to the love God has given us as revealed in Jesus Christ, is to live a Christ-like life, what we referred to in other series as a cross-shaped life. 
It’s no easy thing to do, but as Scripture reminds us, all things are possible through Christ who strengthens us. And that means loving one another as Christ loved. It means being a forgiving person and a generous person. It means loving God, loving neighbor, and even loving enemies. No easy task. 
And second, our responsibility is to share God’s love with others, to be a witness to God’s love in our lives by how we share God’s love with others. Whether that witness is given in word or deed, it is our responsibility to share God’s love with all God’s children, in all times, in all places. 

   In the midst of his journey, Abram receives yet one more promise from God: "To your offspring I will give this land" (12:7). God's original purpose for all is now focused in this one individual who willingly trusts himself to the uncharted waters of God's future. Next week we will explore how that promise plays out in Israel’s future. Amen.


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