This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. When Steve told me that you have spent a good portion of this summer on a ‘globe trekking’ theme I was excited that this story might fit somewhere within that context. This passage is often referred to as “The Call of Abram.” One point of clarification, before we read the passage, is that the Abram and Sarai that we will read about are the same Abraham and Sarah that we may be more familiar with. They don’t get the name change until chapter 17, twenty-four years after our current story, when God follows up on the promise made in our text this morning. If you’re interested in that you’ll have to read it on your own, preferably after the service.
Let us now listen to the Word of God found in Genesis chapter 12, verses 1-9.
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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I 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. 5Abram 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. 7Then 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. 8From 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. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
I often wonder if I like this passage so much because I love to travel and I think this give me a biblical justification for it. It says it right here in the bible, go, leave, venture out into the world. What other justification do you need? If anyone questions you all you have to say is, I take the Bible very seriously and it told me to go. Granted, you might want to be careful lest the other person know scripture well and quote back to you the passage which follows this one where Abram pretends that his wife is his sister and gives her to Pharaoh…
Have you ever been at the airport, looking up at the screen filled with departures, and just had that urge to play a sort of pin the tail on the donkey? Eyes closed, spinning around, you reach out and point to one of the destinations and then just go there. I realize, it’s a bit more complicated now than it may have been in the past, but I still have that vision, every time I see the departure board. I also have this vision of buying a pair of those pants that zip off into shorts and wearing those on a backpacking trip around the world….
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 can just hear them getting ready for the trip, packing up their possessions and the persons they had acquired—yes, that is troubling—and their nephew Lot, and Sarai saying to Abram, where exactly are we going? “Actually I’m not sure honey, but God will show us on the way.” Right.
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…
Somehow this doesn’t sound so much like my vision of the lone backpacker, traveling the world in her pants that zip into shorts. Abram and Sarah hardly traveled light. And Abram did not go out on the journey alone. In so much of our American mythology we have the idea of the cowboy riding off into the sunset (think Marlboro man) or the lone hero, with a bit of help from supporting characters, but still basically alone like Jason Bourne in the Bourne Identity trilogy. Abram and Sarai were not going out on a mission trip with some old clothes that they didn’t mind getting paint on.
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.
One August I was in the Sacramento area for friends wedding. After the wedding I headed toward Lake Tahoe and needed a place to stay. Without a reservation I went from hotel to hotel, all of which continued to tell me that they were booked up because of the Hot August Nights. It had been fairly hot that weekend, and it was August. But I couldn’t figure out why that meant everyone would go stay in hotels. It was not until the following day when someone mentioned the car festival in town that I realized that Hot August Nights was the name of an event, not just a description of the temperature.
After traveling close to 500 miles from Haran to Shechem, can you just hear the question that must have been on Abram and Sarai’s minds? We left everything, we’ve traveled all this way, and now the land that you have showed us has a big No Vacancy sign hanging outside. The text does not record what they were thinking, but I wonder if at this point they began to question the entire journey. You sent us out, you made us leave, but the place where you sent us doesn’t want or need us—it’s already full. What now?
Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
Yeah, and the check’s in the mail, right? You see, Abram and Sarai had no offspring.
So Abram built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
Often it is assumed that Abram’s building of an altar was an act of worship, or devotion to God. But I wonder also if it was not a sort of documenting of this promise? Okay, God, here is the spot where you made this promise, here is where it was said that my offspring, which I don’t have, will be given this land.
And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
Toward the south. Toward the desert. Beyond the destination. Further from being settled. Thrust back into the journey just when the destination had been in sight.
I heard a story a couple of months ago about a caravan of travelers. The inevitable question came from somewhere in the group, Are We There Yet? The answer came back, Of course not, we’re nomads!
We are living in the midst of an interesting time. It is a time of great change in the culture as a whole, but also within the church. The church in the West (and by this I don’t just mean California, but the Western world of the US, Canada, the UK and Europe) is declining in numbers, while the church in what has come to be referred to as the global south is growing rapidly. As one example, there are now more Presbyterians in Ghana than there are in the United States and Scotland combined. The church in America no longer has the center stage it once did, though Rick Warren’s forum last night at Saddleback church with Barrack Obama and John McCain is an interesting exception.
It is from within this context that we read and hear this story of Abram. Professor and Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman suggests that this idea of journey that we hear in Abram’s story is a radical one. “It is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of our time which yearn for settlement, security and placement.” But such departure from securities, says Brueggeman, is the only way out of barrenness. The call to Abram is a call to abandonment, renunciation, and relinquishment. It is a call for a dangerous departure from the world of security. But to remain in that safety and security is to remain barren. To leave in risk is to have hope.
I’m guessing that you’ve heard the phrase ‘the missional church’ especially since I see that Steve has spent time studying it. For the past three days I attended the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in Long Beach. There was a lot of talk there about being missional. It seems as though it is the new catch all phrase. Tired of boring session meetings? Make them missional session meetings! Not getting good attendance at your verse by verse daily study of the book of Leviticus? Call it a missional study!
But joking aside, the importance of this focus on being missional, being the missional church, is an understanding that fundamentally, in our core, not as an accident but the very nature of our DNA as followers of Jesus, we are ones who are sent. We are on a journey. And we are not there yet. As with Abram, we may never get there.
We aren’t sent out into the world on our own, with just a backpack and pants zipped into shorts. We are sent as a community. We are taking this journey together. And we are never ‘there yet.’ The journey is the destination. We are meant to be sent.
It is at the same time, much easier, and much more difficult than we may imagine. Does this call mean that we have to take a mission trip to Africa? Does being sent mean that we literally have to leave our country and our kindred and our family and go…somewhere? For some of us, it might. Some of us may be called to a literally nomadic life. But for some of us being sent out might be to our next door neighbors, down the block, or at Starbucks…even before we’ve gotten our coffee. Being sent means that as followers of the God who sent out Abram, and of Jesus who was sent into the world, we are always bearers of the blessing.
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…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
The Hebrew word for earth is adam…it is the same word used in the creation story for the creation of humans, formed out of the earth. It is the basis for our word Adam, who was formed out of the earth to become man. And it is also the same word that was used, after the temptation in the garden and the fall, to refer to the curse that Adam and Eve had brought upon themselves by eating the forbidden fruit. Cursed will be the ground. So this blessing that is to enter into being through Abram and Sarai is not just for them, but for the redeeming and reforming of all of creation. It is a blessing for all of the families of the earth. They are chosen not to be special, but to be of service. Blessing does not reach a dead end with them. They are called to be the conduits and vehicles for that blessing to reach all of humanity.
Walter Brueggeman also notes that “God does not depend on any potentiality in the one addressed.” It’s a good thing, since the first thing Abram does after this story is pretend his wife is his sister to save his own skin while offering her to the Pharaoh to take for himself. Think about that for a moment. It is hardly an example of good moral family values. Later on, since God doesn’t seem to be following through with the promise of offspring, Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar. He does—and we don’t know if he put up a fight—and when Hagar becomes pregnant she looks down on the barren Sarah who, understandably, becomes jealous, gets mad at Abraham, and drives the pregnant Hagar away into the wilderness. It sounds a lot more like Desperate Housewives than upstanding pillars of the church.
Being a blessing clearly does not mean that Abram is perfect, and does not require us to be perfect. Notice, it also does not, in this story, have anything to do with doing something for or to the families of the earth, or even converting them. It is about being sent out among them and as Brueggeman says “Abram’s task is not to impress or even bear witness to God, but simply to permit the reality of blessing to be at work. It is neither to destroy or to convert, but to mobilize the power of life on behalf of the others.”
I think that the word Evangelism has become weighed down with a lot of extra baggage. We are often, truth be told, offended by it. I don’t want to seem like one of THOSE PEOPLE who stand on the corner holding a sign saying something about burning in hell while yelling at passerby through a megaphone that God loves them. It’s just a bit too awkward for me, thanks, I’ll pass.
Or else we are afraid of it. I don’t know how to defend what I believe? What if someone asks me a question I don’t know? What if I can’t explain how the earth was created in 7 days, or give firm evidence for Jesus having been raised from the dead?
One of the speaker’s at this Presbyterian Global Fellowship Conference was Dr. John Azumah, a phd and Presbyterian Minister in Ghana. He spoke of a family within his church that had been invited to Muslim friends house for dinner. “What scripture texts should we be prepared to share?” They asked Pastor Azumah. “Just go eat dinner!” was his response.
Just go eat dinner! Go, be in the world, and by your presence living your daily life, knowing that you are sent by God to be a blessing, bless those around you. Peter Nielsen is a man in charge of what is called New Charge Development in Scotland. We would call it new church development. He is known to say that as the church we are called to go out into the world and be prepared to stay there. It is not about bringing people back here, it is about being with them out there. That is one of the exciting things about what you all are doing here at Village Pres, seeing yourselves as called to this community and sent out into it.
One of the things that I like about preaching is that it gives me the excuse, and it forces me really, to spend time in a particular text. It forces me to pay attention, to ponder, and to, if you will, marinade in the text for a while. It’s not that I couldn’t do this otherwise, but preaching has the very real consequence if I allow myself to get distracted and move on to other texts. One of the questions that continues to rise to the surface for me is this. Why did God send Abram? Not why did God send ABRAM? But, why did God SEND Abram? Why couldn’t he have been a blessing right there where he was? Didn’t his country and his kindred and his father’s house need blessing too? Why did he have to be sent?
Recently I read the book the Alchemist. It is the story of a shepherd boy in Spain who sets out on a journey to find a treasure. His journey leads him back to the very place from which he initially departed. But though he returns to the same place, he is no longer the same person after having set out on the journey.
We are all sent out on a journey. For some of us it will be an outward literal, physical and geographical one. For others it will be a more inward journey of seeking and understanding. But we are all sent. We are sent out, to be salt and light, to be yeast—they are not meant to stand alone, you know. Salt is meant to go with food. Light is meant to illuminate darkness. Yeast is meant to leaven bread. We are sent into the world, to the other, in order that we might be transformed. Through that transformation we will be a blessing to the world.
We do so as we follow the very one who was himself sent into the world, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.