Archive for August, 2013

Genesis 23:1-4, 17-20

August 28, 2013

Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.  Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight…”


So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.  Genesis 23:1-4, 17-20


So now we draw near to the end of the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Sarah is the first to go.  After a long life, after mothering the child of the promise, after following Abraham far from the land of their birth, it is over for Sarah.  Abraham purchases his first little corner in the promised land.  A burial cave.


As we have walked through this story over the past month, we’ve done so by dancing within the tension of “what it says” and “how it says it”, between “what it meant” and “what it means.”  We pay attention to both our head and our guts, to what we read, and to how we react to what we read.  I think this is a faithful way of listening to the Bible.


Today we read of the death of a beloved life-long spouse.  Even apart from the narrative of the Bible, following the promise, we still hear this as a love story.


Earlier this month, Harold and Ruth Knapke died in the room they shared in a nursing home in Dayton, OH.  Harold went first, less than 11 hours later, she joined him.  August 11th was just days before their 66th anniversary.  Harold was 91; Ruth was 89.  They had known one another since childhood and shared a beautiful life together.


There is something in that story, as there is at the end of Sarah’s life, that resonates within us.  That is as good as it gets.  Lives well lived.  Abraham mourns and he takes care of business, as we all do when we lose someone close.

Abraham negotiated the price of the cave.  What is priceless is the assurance that, even as Sarah, Harold, and Ruth drew their last breathes, they did so remembering the promise that guided and sustained them throughout their lives – “I am the Lord your God, who drew you out of the wilderness, to bring you to the Promised Land.”


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, thank you for the promises that sustain us in this life and give us hope for the life to come.  Thank you for those relationships in our lives which model your steadfast love and devotion.  Thank you for making a place for us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Genesis 22:9-14

August 27, 2013

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:9-14

My little boy isn’t so little anymore. I can just close my eyes and see him when he was. Bright eyed, eager, curious, energetic, stubborn. Nothing is said in this story about Isaac’s age or his reactions as his father builds an altar and sets him upon it. So we fill in the blanks with our imagination. We too see our little boys and girls and we see how much seems wrong with this picture.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

Up to this point the entire story is but a prelude to this moment. Until now, Abraham has taken Isaac camping. Until now, following God’s commands has been easy. Maybe a little inconvenient if Abraham had other plans, but taking a little trip is no big deal. Until the moment he picks up the knife to do the unthinkable. That is the test.

In the nick of time, an angel intervenes and saves the day. For Isaac if not for the ram. Abraham has proven his faithfulness. Finally the story is revealed for what it is – a legend carrying a closely held value. Abraham on the mountain with Isaac is about God’s providential care as much as it is about Abraham’s faithfulness, willingness, obedience, and reverence. This story takes its place beside David proving his courage in protecting his sheep or battling Goliath; Solomon exhibiting great wisdom in handling the question of “which woman is the mother?”; or Elijah challenging the prophets to a fiery duel.

We breathe a sigh of relief as Abraham heads for home (and yes, I know it says that Abraham meets the young men who came with him without mentioning Isaac…Isaac came too.)

But then, after that sigh, we look back again. This is a powerful story. It isn’t one that simply slips out of our minds.

It works on us. It invites us to look at our own conception of God – do we trust God or not? Even when God feels remote, uncaring, disconnected, even cruel – do we trust God? What is of such great value to us that we shrink from the thought of letting it go? What do we hold back? How can we let go?

This story is serious business. It attacks our self centeredness. It challenges our apathy. And most of all, more than anything else, it reminds us of the heart of our faith – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we believe, help us in our unbelief. Help us let go of anything that prevents us from holding tightly to you. Thank you for inviting us into a life of following the One who gave his life for us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Genesis 22:1-8

August 26, 2013

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”


So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.  Genesis 22:1-8


This is really a tough passage.  Yesterday in worship I asked if anyone present had heard this story before.  Virtually every hand went up.  It isn’t the kind of story that one forgets once one has heard it.  I have no doubt it was even more known among Jesus’ contemporaries.  Perhaps the biggest difference today is how we hear it.


As a Christian, the symbolism of this story is obvious. Abraham is God and Isaac is Jesus.  They have a donkey.  Isaac carries the wood on his back.  They head to a mountain.  We see the connections.


But that isn’t all we see.  We also hear this text as parents, as children, and as followers of God.  It is not a comfortable story.


It is an abhorrent story when viewed through the eyes of parents.  I can’t imagine that any sane parent would take one step toward the ritual sacrifice of their child, no matter who told them to do it.  Even Abraham’s evasive answer to Isaac’s question – where is the lamb for a burnt offering? – comes to us as cruel rather than comforting.


We see the story through Isaac’s eyes and we remember the day when our parents could do no wrong, when we trusted completely.  Those days ended at some point for us as the innocence of childhood passed by under our feet.  But still we cling to the fading memory.  How can our hearts not break at the thought that Isaac’s joy at being included by his father in such a trip had such a dark purpose?


And then we see God, making this request.  As a test.  God looks cruel, manipulative.  I once heard Rabbi Harold Kushner, when asked to describe God, say, “We know God by what He asks us to do.”  I doubt he was thinking of this story.


This story is troubling.  Let it trouble us.  We’ll hear more of this journey tomorrow.


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, this is a hard passage for us to hear.  It attacks us.  It seems so heartless, so cruel, so dark.  How could you ever ask a father to sacrifice his own son?  We pray this line aloud and then we know…for it is exactly what we asked of you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 19:1-11

August 23, 2013

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.


But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.  Genesis 19:1-11


Now we reach the hideous scene from Sodom.  Although much was made of Abraham’s plea for mercy and his offer to find ten righteous people in Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, not mention is made that he even went there to look.  Which might suggest something to us – the quest for righteous people wasn’t the point.


What IS the point of this story? 


For a long time now, this story, along with the other six references in the Bible to same gender sexual behaviors, has to used to vilify homosexuality.  Some claim homosexuality to be unnatural.  That it is a sign of the sinful fallenness of creation.  That it is a sad flaw, like blindness.  That it is a sickness to be rejected and recovered from, like alcoholism.  That it is a mental illness that can be reversed with the proper behavioral modification therapy.   That it is perverse and maybe even contagious, thus Russia’s new laws prohibiting public displays or adoptions by same sex couples.


You’ve heard all the arguments.  I have too.  You have seen the emotional responses and the heard the tone of voice this topic invites.  You’ve heard the slurs and the one liners and watched the votes that mean freedom to some and moral degradation to others.


Is that really the point of this story?  Inviting all of that?  Is this story the last word on the subject or is it possibly beside the point?


Beside the point?  How could it be BESIDE the point of homosexuality?


Because it isn’t about homosexuality at all.


The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story designed to the smallest detail to make us cringe in revulsion at the hideous treatment that the two angelic visitors receive.  It pulls out all the stops.  Although Lot receives the visitors warmly and offers the appropriate kind of desert hospitality, the local townspeople are painted in the darkest colors of evil. 


Every single male in the town, young and old, to the last man – suggesting that there isn’t a single righteous man in the whole village – surround Lot’s house and demand that he let them have the visitors.  This isn’t about same sex attraction, this is about vicious violence.  This is about sexual violence, about debasement, about cruelty.  This is about what happens when men use rape as an instrument of terror.  This is about the horrible stories we have read about the civil wars in Africa, the horrible abuses of men and women in World War II, the pictures from Abu Ghraib.


Why this portrait of Sodom?  Perhaps that is just the way it was.  It had earned its reputation.  It was a “scapegoat city”, a refuge for indecent behavior.  I guess there are modern Americans who would like Sodom to our favorite scapegoat cities – Las Vegas, San Franciso, New Orleans, and Washington, DC.  There is something in us that wants to “localize” misbehavior.  “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” when the dirty little secret is that what happens in Vegas happens everywhere.


Here’s what I think the point really is:  The story doesn’t end here, even after Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the crowd and after the crowd is struck with blindness.  The story doesn’t end with fire and brimstone raining down upon the city, with Lot and his family fleeing, even with Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment for looking back at the action. 


No, the story doesn’t end until Genesis 19:30-38.  Go ahead, read it for yourself.  The story ends with Lot’s two daughters getting him drunk, sleeping with him, getting pregnant, and becoming the mothers of the two tribes, the Ammonites and the Moabites.  Two tribes, by the way, that were enemies of Israel, tribes which Israel contended against time after time after time.


The whole story is written as a justification for tribal animosity, through demonization of a particular bloodline.


This human tendency, these dividing lines, this kind of dehumanization, is what happened when Roman soldiers callously hung Jesus of Nazareth on a cross.  He wasn’t human, he was a Jew.  I still follow Jesus because of his words while he suffered, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”


Let us pray:  Forgive us Father, for we still know not what we do.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 18:22-26, 32-33

August 22, 2013

So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.


Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”…


Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.  Genesis 18:22-26, 32-33


Yesterday we heard God sharing the news with Abraham that God intended to investigate the great wickedness, the lack of justice and righteousness, God had heard about in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Today we hear Abraham’s response.


We already know that Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family have settled in Sodom.  We know Lot has a special place in Abraham’s heart.  Abraham took Lot under his wing after the death of his father and grandfather.  Abraham brought Lot on this journey toward a new land.  Abraham gave Lot first choice on where Lot would settle.  And Abraham sent his warriors to rescue Lot when Lot had been kidnapped during a raid by another tribal king.  So it is no surprise that Abraham would speak up in order to defend Lot.


What is surprising is how Abraham negotiates with God.  He appeals to God for fairness – Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? – and then he talks God down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 10.  If there are just 10 righteous persons to be found, then the cities will be spared.


My sense is that few among us haven’t prayed at least a few such negotiation prayers in our lives.  “God, if you just do this for me, then I’ll do this for you…”  Such prayers usually come out of situations of grief, fear, and potential loss.  In such times, our prayers feel like casting words into the wind, seldom the dialogue with God that is described here with Abraham.


And sometimes we find ourselves defending what we clearly know is indefensible.  We’re taught to see the good in everyone and everything.  We harbor deep hope in righting wrongs and second chances and the possibilities of future change.  So we align here with Abraham.  We join him in seeking God’s mercy.


Either way, we also wonder in such moments if we are wasting our time.  So it is here.  Abraham can appeal all that he wants but it seems that the outcome is inevitable.  It doesn’t look good for Sodom and Gomorrah…and Lot.


Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, you have taught us to pray that your will be done.  Your good and gracious will be done.  Not what we want, but what you want for us.  Not what we want in our limited capacity to see and to know what is good and right and best, but your will be done.  Oh that we might trust your good and gracious will.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 18:16-21

August 21, 2013

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”  Genesis 18:16-21


I know what I am going to say next will get me into a lot of hot water from a lot of circles of people but…that hasn’t stopped me before….


I think we need to read everything in the Bible where the writers put words into God’s mouths with a grain of salt.  We need to be careful and discerning with such passages.  I’m not saying we should summarily dismiss them, but we do need to listen carefully.


As we have walked through the Abraham and Sarah stories this month, I’ve noted the places where it is evident that later editorial stitching has shaped the texts as we now read them.  At the same time, in the back of my mind, I keep reminding myself that the literary genre we are looking at in these stories is “legend”.  Realizing that is helpful in listening to the texts with a discerning ear.


Yes, I learned as a child that Davy Crockett fought a bear when he was three and that he could grin a raccoon out of a tree.  Those are legends.  Memorable stories that carry a culture’s value system.  Davy Crockett was a pioneer, a real character, who ultimately died at the Alamo.  The legends of Davy Crockett carry values of fierce independence, courage, resourcefulness, loyalty, and even good humor.  The factuality of a toddler bear fight isn’t the point.


So in this text for today, immediately after confirming the wonderful promise to Abraham and Sarah that they can anticipate the birth of a child in less than a year, God starts talking to himself about whether or not it is wise for God to let Abraham in on his little secret plans to destroy two cities and all who live in them.  Finally God decides that, since Abraham is his chosen guy, then Abraham needs to be brought into the inner circle of God’s plans for destruction.


Honestly, this is the kind of story that fuels the worst of our character defects.  If only we believe that we are righteous and that God is on our side, then we are free to do virtually anything we want to destroy anyone who stands in our way.  That is a problem. 


Not only does such thinking fuel modern day religious terrorists, it also deafens the ears of the spiritual seekers who read such stories literally and reject the image of a God who plays favorites, heartlessly destroys cities and towns, and commands, rather than simply encourages, such dominance and violence.


So how do we listen to it with discernment?  First, I think we let go of the idea that there is a “once and for all time” meaning hidden within it.  The story lives on forever and people will continue to engage it in the context of their lives.  Today I’m reading it as I’m also watching the devastation in Egypt, Syria, and Africa, all fueled by the manipulation of “God is on our side” thinking.


Second, we pay attention to the words themselves.  God’s soliloquy is coming at the beginning of what looks like a fact-finding mission.  God wants to go and see whether or not the evil he has heard about is true.  Such is the effect of legend – it invites us to let go of critical thinking like “can raccoons really be smiled out of a tree?” or “is it really possible than an omniscient God wouldn’t already know everything?”  What is left is the new possibility that God, rather than having a PLAN, might in fact have an infinite number of contingency plans, each having something to do with human activity.


And finally, God’s values are shining through here – that justice and righteousness are the core values of what God expects to see from Abraham and his line.  Justice, right relationships among people, and righteousness, a right relationship with God.


Those values invite a new question.  Not “is God on our side?” but “Are we on God’s side which is always for the good of all people?”


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we wonder so much about you, we live in mystery.  So often we are tempted to reject mystery and create our own certainty.  But faith is not about certainty, it is about openness, about trust, about self giving love.  Inspire faith in us, that we might be faithful.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 18:9-15

August 20, 2013

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”  Genesis 18:9-15


Now it’s time for the big news.  Abraham and Sarah are to have a child within a year.  Against all odds, having long since let go of the hope, suddenly they are surprised by the promise that it is going to happen.


They laugh.  (I laugh a little too at this story as it ends with Sarah and Abraham arguing about whether or not Sarah laughed.  They must be in love.)


I wonder how much hope this little story has brought to people through the years.  Not simply those hoping one day to have a child but to all who find themselves up against incredible odds, clinging to the possibility that God might have a good surprise in store for them.


This promise, by the way, comes straight from the top.   One of the three strangers delivering the news comes out of hiding in the narration – The Lord said to Abraham…


Christians have often read back into this story, seeing the three strangers as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Of course we would see that as our conception of God is the mystery of the Trinity.  Far more likely, this seems to follow the tradition that something isn’t true unless backed up by the evidence of two or three witnesses.


How ever we see this story, can’t we just for a second take off our critical thinking caps and just enjoy the image of an overwhelmed couple, long past the age for having children, laughing with joy at the possibility?


Are we willing to believe that God could do something marvelous and unexpected in our lives?


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we celebrate this morning the joy and expectancy that is ours as we seek to see you in the normalcy of our lives.  Keep us open to being surprised.  Give us hope where there is no hope.  Let our prayer be laughter.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 18:1-8

August 19, 2013

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.  Genesis 18:1-8


This chapter is a turning point in the Abraham/Sarah narrative.  At first glance it seems a simple encounter of desert hospitality.  (The first of two such encounters.  We will get to the other on Friday.)


Abraham is surprised by the visit of three strangers.  He welcomes them.  Provides for them.  Serves them.


I know there are people who roll their eyes when they hear mention of “desert hospitality.”  The Bedouin caricatures of which we have become familiar have been stripped of honor and dignity, degraded to men with head scarves riding with machine guns in the back of pickup trucks.  But such is both a modern minority and a modern invention.


In the desert culture, honor and hospitality were linked.  In a fierce, wide open land, travel is dangerous.  Food and water are scarce.  Even the poorest of the poor will make room and whatever provisions they have to provide lodging and help to travelers.  The early Christian leader in the monastic movement, John Cassian, wrote:  “We came to another hermit and he invited us to eat, and though we had eaten he urged us to eat more. I said I could not. He replied, ‘I have already given meals to six different visitors, and have eaten with each of them, and I am still hungry. And you who have only eaten once are so full that you cannot eat with me now?‘”


So we look again at Abraham’s visitors and we see that Abraham did no more, and no less, than what honor and hospitality required of him.  He had no idea who these three strangers were, or what their business might be, he just did the right thing.


Just yesterday, a man came into our church between services looking for the pastor.  This isn’t unusual for a church right on the main bus line.  It happens with regularity.  He was well aware of the services available to him through our cooperative social ministry but what he wanted was money and I didn’t want to give him any.  Sometimes I do.  Yesterday I didn’t.  I showed him the food that we had available.  I invited him to stay for worship. He didn’t stay.


I don’t blame him for trying nor do I feel guilty for making a judgment call that his was not a situation where the help we could offer would be really helpful.  But it was still a painful encounter.  Even as I talked to him I thought about how many more spare bedrooms there are in Houston than there are homeless people. 


We try to be a congregation that practices radical hospitality.  But do we really?  The irony here is that we had “greeter training” after worship.  Is that what the world really needs?


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, we face many challenges in life but none more difficult than the tensions between those who have and those who don’t.  We divide people into categories and launch our verbal bombs over the dividing walls.  Resentment, entitlement, jealousy, deprivation – so much acid eats away at human community.  Maybe we don’t have easy answers, but continue to inspire us to ask the right questions.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 17:1-8

August 16, 2013

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,


“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.


I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”  Genesis 17:1-8


We all probably find it hard to believe that at one time everyone in the world thought that the earth was flat.  Further, they believed that if you tried to sail to the edges of the earth, if you made it past the huge sea monsters waiting to gobble you up, you risked falling off the edge into the eternal abyss of…well, I’m not sure what they thought was out there, down there.


But now that we know that the earth is round (OK, slightly oblong), we can’t go back to that previous worldview and be taken seriously by anyone.  Yet there still is a marginally active group called “The Flat Earth Society” who firmly believe the earth is flat because the Bible says so.  They even, I believe, have a Facebook site and a Twitter account.  Personally, I think they’ve fallen off the deep end.


It isn’t easy to let go what we once not only strongly believed but what we also saw as an important brick in the wall of our faith.


I say all of that to say this:  At some point along the way, I was taught that, when God moved in a fresh new way in someone’s life in the Bible, that movement could result in the person being given a new name. I was taught that God when God gave someone a new mission, they also got a new identity, and thus a new name.


That was always attractive to me, still seething that my parents settled on “Kerry” and sentenced me to a lifetime of being very much a boy cursed with a girl’s name.


I was taught that was why Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and why Saul became Paul. 


I don’t believe that anymore. Much of what was so simple to me as a child became increasingly complex.  Just as it was inconceivable to me as a kid in North Dakota that some people lived all year long without seeing snow, I had absolutely no appreciation that people really did speak very different languages that rendered them unintelligible to one another.  I must have known that in theory but I never thought through its implications.  So when I came to more deeply study the Bible, I came to see that shifts from various lost dialects to Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin really made a difference.  Even in the Bible.  Its origins and its transmission through the centuries.


I came to see how strands of very different authors, with very different agendas, could retell the same stories for very different contemporary purposes.  Today’s text, for example, falls on the fault line where the Elohist narrative is interrupted by the Priestly narrative.  They don’t merely use different names for Abraham, they also use different names for God.  Even in our English translations, notice how God has been named “the Lord” through most of the story reaching back to Genesis 12, but now in this brief part, God is referred to as “God”.


Does that matter?  Of course it does.  It helps explain why the new covenant promise with Abraham from chapter 12 is being repeated here in chapter 17.  It helps explain why the Priestly strand of narrative is called the “Priestly” strand – because here in chapter 17, in the Priestly account, the practice of circumcision is explained.  That is how the Priestly school of thought worked, laying down the ritual laws, justifying its existence.


But here is what is amazing to me – at the end of the final editing process, whenever that was, maybe even as late as somewhere between 500-300 BCE, they kept ALL OF THE STRANDS and just sort of wove them together.  THAT I find amazing.  It tells me that people do have the capacity, even in matters of faith, to live with diversity of thought, opinion, and practice.  There is value in preserving even what challenges us rather than cutting out everything we disagree with, preserving only what justifies our contemporary, and fleeting, and ever-changing, ideas of what constitutes reality.


Because what really matters is what still lasts – Abraham trusted God.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, against the grain of everything that seemed practical, likely, even imaginable, Abraham trusted God.  He would be a blessing.


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, sometimes the gift of discernment seems to be what is so lacking in our lives today.  Information floods us, discernment cuts to what is important.  Gift us with the ability to hear your call in our lives today, to hear your promises, to hear our marching orders, to see you in surprising places, to follow as we’re led.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Genesis 16:1-7

August 15, 2013

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.


He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.  The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.  Genesis 16:1-7


And now we come to this text.  This is one of the stories of Abraham and Sarah that has lurked back in my mind, knowing it was coming around the bend, and not knowing what I could say about it.  I hear this text at too many levels.


Growing up in a border town meant that I felt an innate animosity toward those kids who grew up “over there.”  Since my own mother grew up “over there”, and my grandmother and a few other relatives lived “over there”, I somehow exempted them from my distaste.  To this day I refuse to wear green (their high school color).  It runs deep.  So I know that issues of future tribal animosities run through this story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael.


The text tells us that Hagar was an Egyptian and, by the end of this passage, was cast away into the wilderness by Sarah’s cruelty. Now it is Sarah’s turn to invite us to look poorly upon her – just as we lost respect for Abraham when he handed Sarah to the Egyptians.


We worry again about the promise to Abraham but then remember that God didn’t say anything thus far about the maternity side of the promise of a great nation.


We feel for Abraham and Sarah, still barren after all these years.  And yet how painful for Sarah to share her husband with her slave girl.  Even though it is painful for me to type the words “slave girl” as it reminds me of our capacity to dehumanize and exploit other people.  While we frown upon polygamy, exploitation of other people still happens today, around the world and in our own backyards.


And then I think of this child.  An innocent child.  Carried in his mother’s womb as she runs from the cruelty of Sarah, the sexual entitlement of Abraham, the oppression of slavery, into an equally cruel wilderness.  What are his prospects going to be?  Before he was even born his destiny was shaped by the circumstances of his birth.


So this whole story is painful for me.  It is confusing, disheartening.  Frankly, I wish it hadn’t been told.  But then I realize that it isn’t a story about the broken characters in it – it is a story about the God who brings healing and hope.  And thus this story is interrupted… The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 


Let us pray:  Dear Lord, find us in the brokenness of our lives.  Find us in our pain, in our limitations, in our regrets, in our failures, in our cruelties.  Find us when we’ve been cast into the wilderness or when we’ve simply wandered and gotten lost.  Find us and lead us home.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.