Sunday, September 16, 2012

Now What??? Sermon on Genesis 15:1-6

Scripture can be found here...

Have you ever heard of a BHAG? A BHAG is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It’s usually generated by a business, a kind of mission statement, if we want to translate it into church-language. BHAG’s are supposed to be just what they sound like—the kinds of goals set by companies when they want to challenge themselves to rise to unprecedented levels of greatness. Amazon Booksellers have the following BHAG: “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.” And Disney’s BHAG is this: “Be the best company in the world for all fields of family entertainment.” I think my favorite is Ford Motor Company’s: “Democratize the automobile.”
When an individual sets a BHAG, she sees a future for herself in which she accomplishes something she never imagined she could. I have a friend who, after losing a significant amount of weight with the help of diet and exercise, has set herself the goal of competing in a marathon next year.  For some of us a BHAG might be to get rid of our credit cards, or to pay them off in full every single month. For others, it might be to grow the perfect rose or orchid.
By embarking on the Narrative Lectionary this fall, we as a church have set ourselves an audacious goal: to read across the entire bible in the space of nine short months. In just thirty-seven Sundays plus Christmas Eve we will familiarize ourselves with the whole, big story of scripture. Not every book, mind you—there are sixty-six books in the Bible, so, as you can tell with the help of math, that won’t be possible. This starts to feel a little like what a seminary professor of mine used to call “roller-skating through the Louvre.” (“Look at that! Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!”)
And we’ll be doing a little of that this morning, since we have skipped all the way from the very beginning, the creation stories, and are now, not even at the beginning of the Abraham and Sarah story, but already a few chapters in.
When we started our Monday evening bible study four and a half years ago, we took note: the first eleven chapters of Genesis are the history of the whole cosmos, and then, of the whole of humanity. These are the chapters that include the story of the first murder, one son of Adam and Eve killing another, Cain killing Abel. God says to Cain, “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:11). But God deals with the murderer Cain by protecting him—God doesn’t want him to be killed.
And these are the chapters that include the story of, not an angry God, but a God who “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6). That God decides to send devastating floods upon the earth, though he provides a way to survive for a faithful fragment of the human race, and of the animal kingdom as well. This is a troubling story, a story we tend to domesticate in our Sunday school so that it appears to be about a wonderful watery adventure for Noah and the animals. But it is a story of a God who has had it and, for a time, who seems to give up on his own creation.
But God changes his mind. This happens from time to time in scripture, so we shouldn’t be surprised or scandalized when it does. God relents, God repents. And instead of utterly destroying creation, God re-creates, and gives the sign of the rainbow to humans as a reminder of God’s new intention:
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood… I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:11,13).
These are also the chapters that include the story of the tower of Babel, a story about human beings arrogant enough to believe they could literally get to heaven with enough brick and mortar, which turns into a “just-so” story. God thwarts the arrogant humans by creating different languages, so that they can’t understand one another to cooperate.
These are just a few of the stories in the chapters between last week and this. “Look at that, look at that!” And then we come to the end of chapter 11. Do any of you remember the beginning of the movie, “The Sound of Music”? It starts with a bird’s eye view of the Austrian Alps—snow capped mountains, breathtaking landscapes. Slowly we descend to the green slopes below. And then, the camera swoops in towards what is, at first a dot, which is gradually revealed to be a woman, and, once in close-up, she throws wide her arms and sings. This is what happens in chapter 12. The story swoops in on one man and one woman and their one family.
Here is the problem: God has created a universe, and a world and inhabitants of that world. And the human inhabitants have been created in God’s image. God has called all this creation “Good.” But God is still faced with the reality of brokenness in creation. Humans are prone to wander. Humans are prone to fail. Humans are prone to hurting one another and killing one another and trying to get to heaven on their own steam. And so, at this point, the story is faced with the real question: Now what?? How shall God respond to this problem?
The answer to “Now what???” is what happens at the end of Genesis 11.  God tries something new. God focuses in on one man and one woman and their one family. God enters a second covenant, this time, with Abraham and his family.
When we meet him, Abraham is seventy-five years old. His name is Abram; the change comes later. ‘Now the Lord says 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”’ (Genesis 12:1-3).
Abram and his family become God’s BHAG—God’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Humanity has not, so far, been able to perceive itself as a good and blessed part of God’s creation, ready to work in partnership with God. So God creates this partnership, and makes its specific. God enters into this covenant, a covenant promising three things: land, children, and blessing.
The promise of land is a complicated one. The claim on the land for God’s people is one that is reasserted and lost again and again throughout the Old Testament. The promise of being a blessing—“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—is one that, perhaps no one who lived these stories saw realized in their lifetime, though we know it is true today. As for the promise of children: we are told at the outset that the promise is doomed to failure. In keeping with the primitive understanding of biology and all things scientific in biblical times, the lack of offspring is inevitably blamed on the woman: Sarah is said to be “barren.”
And so we come to chapter 15. You can tell right away that something is amiss, because the very first words God speaks are words of reassurance. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” You see, between chapter 11 and chapter 15, the promise of children has been put in serious peril. At one point Sarah has been taken into the harem of a king. At another point Abram has become enmeshed in a battle involving the hostage taking of his nephew and no fewer than nine kings.
Thus God’s words of reassurance. Abram responds, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2). Abram is a practical man. He has selected one of his slaves to be his heir. He knows that God has promised him offspring, but… he’s willing to help the promise along, right? What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t the Lord help those who help themselves?
Well, no. That is not, in fact, a scriptural sentiment. There is no bible citation for that very American-sounding proverb. In fact, that quote is almost the exact opposite of what is going on here. What is going on here is grace, a one-way promise of blessing. Abram did nothing to earn it. Abram needs to do very little to keep it. And God is quick to correct his misguided attempt to hedge his bets.
No, God says. That man will not be your heir. Your very own flesh and blood will be your heir, just as I promised. And then… this happens sometimes, early in Genesis especially: the character of God is described much as any other character. God plays with mud. God walks in gardens. God blows a puff of breath into people. And now, God takes Abram outside, just as if that were the most normal thing in the world. A startling, very human-like God a very anthropomorphized God, pops up now and then in the bible. This is one of those moments.
God takes Abram outside. I like to imagine them lying down in a field, or maybe on a sand dune. There is absolutely no light pollution where they are. They look up, and the stars are so thick, it’s like the stars themselves form a blanket across the heavens. You and I will never see with our bare eyes the number of stars they see.
Look at that, God says. Will you just look at that. That is how many children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren… and so on and so on and so on… that is how many you will have. Beyond your ability to count.
And Abram, perhaps chastened, perhaps with his seventy-five-year-old, maybe at this point eighty-year-old eyes full of tears, nods. And he believes. And that makes both God and Abram feel better.
So, three things about this man, and about us. First: God’s promises can be a long-term proposition. This is a lesson Abram learns over and over again. This is a lesson we learn over and over again. Have any of you ever had a Big Hairy Audacious Goal—a goal like, say, losing a bunch of weight, or starting your own business, or starting a family—and you realized, one day, that it just wasn’t going to be as simple and straightforward as you had originally imagined? The promises of God are like that. They can be believed. But you will have time for stargazing while you wait for them.
And second: being a faithful man or woman, being a righteous one, does not mean silent acquiescence during your long wait. Sometimes being faithful means voicing our complaints to God in loud and clear tones. I learned this at a young age by means of a book in which a young girl began her prayers, “Are you there God?” In times of duress, in times of trial, in times of disappointment, and long-term waiting, when we are not sure any more just what God’s promises for us are, a shout out—a hearty “Are you there God?” may just be the most true, most profound, most holy and righteous and faithful prayer we can pray.
And third: we are blessed so that we will be a blessing. Blessing is not something we accrue, like coins in a piggy bank. Blessing is something that passes through us, like the air that fills our lungs and then becomes a part of the life cycle of plants, or the food that strengthens our bodies and then becomes energy for our living. We are not receptacles for blessing, we are conduits. We are vessels. The blessings are meant to flow through us and on to the rest of God’s beautiful and broken world.
The promise of children for Abram will come true, but it will take a long time. There will be more false starts, more attempts for the humans involved to take matters into their own hands, more time for the promise to be in jeopardy, and just more all-around bad behavior. And in his lifetime, Abram will see, not a sky full of children, just two, Isaac and Ishmael, whom tradition believes to be the fathers, respectively, of today’s Jews and Muslims. Abraham will end his days, perhaps, gazing at the stars in wonder and realizing: faith, trust  in the promise might just be enough.
And we, perhaps, can draw from his story the lessons of trusting in God, and of voicing our complaints in faithful relationship, and of being a blessing where we can. And, maybe, of the holy act of simply looking up and out at something infinite, mysterious, and beautiful. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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