Sermon Seeds: Always Close
Second Sunday in Lent Year B
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Additional reflection on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 for One Great Hour of Sharing
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
This wasn’t the first (or the last) time God and Abram had a conversation; in fact, the Book of Genesis is regularly punctuated with the words, “The Lord said to Abram….” It isn’t even the first time that God “made a covenant” with Abram and promised him lots of descendants, as numerous as the stars in the night sky (15:5). Still, it must have been something of a balancing act for Abram. On the one hand, it had to be impressive to be seeing God, and actually hearing God’s voice. Surely, that would never get old, and who among us doesn’t yearn for such clarity? And yet, the things that God was saying to Abram during these visits really tested the limits of a person’s imagination. Not just one child, but a multitude of descendants, for two people past ninety years of age? Could it possibly be true that old Sarah would not just produce one child but would “give rise to nations,” to “kings of people”?
It was one thing to be told to pull up stakes and leave Haran, to set out for a new home and a new future. However, the promise of a baby, at their age, made both Abraham and Sarah laugh. The lectionary reading this week stops just short of Abraham’s response in verse 17: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.” Sarah wasn’t around to hear directly from God about her impending pregnancy (or, for that matter, her name change), but we find out in the next chapter how she reacted when she finally got the news: “Sarah laughed to herself” (18:12).
That’s not all that the carefully chosen verses of the lectionary reading leave out: the rest of this 17th chapter tells us that the gift of “the land” is an important part of the promise, “for a perpetual holding,” and then spends a good amount of time on the sign of this covenant, circumcision. W. Sibley Towner acknowledges that Christians may find these themes “relatively uncongenial”: the promise of the land (which continues to be the source of great controversy today), circumcision (think of the struggle in the early church about its necessity), and finally, “doubt, manifested in laughter” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). Great ancestors in the faith don’t doubt or question, right? We certainly don’t want them to fall off their pedestals.
There was of course an earlier covenant, the one between God and Noah, with a rainbow as its sign, a universal covenant that included not just all of humankind but all of creation, the living things that God had made. No more wholesale destruction, God promised, offering the earth and its inhabitants a future once again. But this covenant with Abraham is more focused; it applies to “the nations” that will descend from these two very old ancestors-to-be. (Later, the covenant will narrow even more, at Sinai, to include only Israel.)
It helps us understand what’s happening underneath this story if we think about how it was written. The Book of Genesis, scholars generally agree, brings together the work of several writers who in turn brought together ancient traditions about the origins of the people of God (which sheds light on why some things, and some stories, are repeated). Consider the biblical narrative so far, as it has gone from the vastness of creation, separating light from darkness, to the story of the beginning of all humankind, to this story of Abraham and Sarah. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are called the “Primeval Saga,” the story of the human family in the earliest age. Today we might call these chapters the “prequel” to the story of the people of Israel, whose saga begins with Abraham and Sarah in Chapter 12.
Scholars think that today’s story was probably written by the Priestly Writer, during the time of the exile in Babylon. It makes a world of difference to read the story through this lens. In the sixth century before Christ, the people of Israel were devastated by the destruction of their city and its temple, the center of their life, both political and religious (which were not separate). The leadership, the flower of their society, had been carried off to Babylon, and we couldn’t blame the people of God for wondering just what had happened to the promises God made so long ago. Were they still valid? Did they still “count”?
Yes, the Priestly Writer says, and listen now to the story one more time, about something William Willimon calls “the great originating promise” of the covenant God made so long. Remember that God said that these promises were an “everlasting” covenant with the people, no matter what. “What do a people do,” Willimon asks, “when they are strangers in a strange land, uprooted, aliens? One thing they do is remember,” and remind one another of the promises, and of the faithfulness of the One who made them: “Israel, now persecuted and laid waste by the nations, is destined to be the family above all families, the nation before all nations” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). As we consider “the multitude of nations” that will descend from Abraham, it is poignant, as John H. Hayes notes, that the Priestly Writer “and his contemporaries have experienced persecution and destruction at the hand of some of those very nations” (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
It is, of course, God who is at work in this story. It’s God’s initiative, and God’s plan in motion. God is shaping a family, and commits to be at the heart of that family’s story, to travel with that family when they wander and dwell with them when they reach their home. This covenant and its blessings aren’t just for the sake of Israel, however, because God intends, through Israel, to restore all of humanity. But it starts here, with a man and woman who leave home and all that is familiar, including its security and its gods, to set out in response to the irresistible call of this “God Almighty.” Thus begins a relationship, at times beautiful and at times troubled, between the children of Israel and their one God, whom they trust to be with them always. In fact, Mark Husbands claims that Israel’s monotheistic faith was born from this kind of relationship, not from “philosophical reflection” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). We could say then that this faith is a thing of the heart, not simply the head.
Names play an important role in this story, and not just for Sarah and Abraham. The different writers used different names for God throughout the Book of Genesis. In this text, God is El Shaddai, translated here as “God Almighty,” but more accurately, Valerie Bridgeman Davis writes, as “God of the mountains,” or “God with (many) breasts,” which is significant, she says, “given that Sarah’s breasts are dry from never having a child, and she and Abraham are about to be promised prolific progeny” (New Proclamation Year B 2009). Undoubtedly there are good church people who would be scandalized to think of God as “The Many-Breasted One.” However, Terence Fretheim suggests that we open ourselves to new names for God “that may be more congruent with the life experiences of people in new times and places” (Genesis, The New Interpeter’s Bible). Think of Hagar, for example, in the chapter before this one, lost out there in the wilderness and feeling forgotten, who dares to name God as “the One who sees me” (16:13). What is a new name for God that “may be more congruent with the life experiences of people” in your time and place?
Walter Brueggemann describes what is happening here with elegance and clarity when he claims that “God’s good self, God’s name, God’s identity” are “enough to override the body-given despair of this old couple.” Brueggemann goes on to describe God’s “summons” to Abraham to live “completely devoted, in unqualified loyalty” to God. And then, God changes Abraham’s name and gives him a new life and “a wondrous, limitless future of power and well-being.” This future, Brueggemann says, embraces us today, as we participate in the transformation God promises: “Those barren at the beginning are fruitful at the end. Those abandoned have become cared for. Those displaced have become royal. Those alone have come to covenant” (Texts for Preaching Year B).
Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “The Late Bloomer,” makes Abraham and Sarah feel like people we know, and the covenant something that lives in our hearts, too. These two old people are not really typical heroes, and yet they live on and their memory is powerful today, and so is the covenant, “a living thing, as surely as if it had a beating heart and blood flowing in its veins. Its life thrives on its revival, and every time it is uttered the promise is renewed.” But it’s difficult to keep believing the promise, “to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name and see it again in your lover’s eyes….a promise with no power to make it come true….And yet. What better way to live than in the grip of a promise, and a divine one at that?” (Gospel Medicine).
We are early in Lent, a long way from Easter, whether the world wants to acknowledge that or not. Elsewhere, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “We do not head straight to Easter from the spa or the shopping mall.” Lent, she reminds us, is a time for reflection on (and perhaps even wrestling with?) our relationship with God: “Upon what does that relationship depend? What do we trust to give us life? What concrete practices allow us to become bodily involved with God?” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). Taylor has also provided a beautiful book, An Altar in the World, that is a fine resource for just such examination, for rich reflection, no, better, for spiritual formation through our Lenten practices. Maybe, if we get in the habit during Lent of practicing, for example, how to “encounter others,” we will find ourselves wanting to continue spiritual practices year-round.
Lent is a time for repentance, of course, for facing the ways we are broken and have broken others and the world. The world, our culture, may not like the word “sin,” but it is very much marked by it, and so are our own lives. Still, the promises are everlasting, and God is with us, always, calling us to be God’s people. Willimon asks, “Is it possible for there to be a family of God, gathered not the way the world gathers (by class, race, status, etc.) but rather by the promises of God?” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). When we hear about the tragic conflicts between and among the descendants of Abraham, we know that we have a long, long way to go toward that dream of God. That blessing lies out there, in the future. Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely reflection on living in the meantime calls us “to live reverently, deliberately, and fully awake — that is what it means to live in the promise, where the wait itself is as rich as its end.” Of course, in these Lenten lectionary texts, we hear the reminders that we, as humans, need, that “the promise is alive, as vivid as a rainbow, as real as the million stars overhead” (“The Late Bloomer,” Gospel Medicine).
This is a family story, and it is poignant that the families descended from Abraham have struggled for centuries with each other, like so many family stories today. Still, the story of Abraham and Sarah can inspire hope in every family, every congregation, every community, no matter what appearances may insist to the contrary. What unseen possibilities, beneath those appearances, can God use to produce marvelous and amazing results, a multitude of blessings for the entire human family? In what ways is the Stillspeaking God acting and initiating wonderful things, including surprising and seemingly impossible ones, in the life of your church today?
The lectionary has included the promise to Sarah, an important part of the story, but has omitted the verses about circumcision: “Any uncircumcised male…shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Given the enormously significant issue in the early Christian community of whether or not to require circumcision of Gentile converts, this is an interesting omission today. How do you reconcile the competing claims of grace and the requirements of covenant? Abraham and Sarah were told to be “blameless,” that is, completely loyal to God; perhaps that reminds us of Jesus’ own words about being “pure of heart.” Like the words of Micah, so simple and clear, about what the Lord requires (“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”), these requirements of Abraham by God sound simple: “Walk before me, and be blameless.” What does it mean to you to “walk with God”? How do you and your congregation experience yourselves as included in this covenant? Who else is included, perhaps in spite of our own expectations and desires?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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For Further Reflection
Blaise Pascal, 17th century
“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”
Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
“God will recruit as necessary from the human cast in order to reorder human history.”
Khalil Gibran, 20th century
“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
Walter Ong, 20th century
“In an oral world, you must think memorable thoughts.”
Augustine, 5th century
“Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
Statistics: Since fighting broke out in the Sudan’s western region of Darfur more than a decade ago, millions of people have been driven from their homes. A range of rebel movements, government-backed militias and the Sudanese armed forces have resulted in at least 300,000 deaths and a major humanitarian emergency in Darfur. Today, violence continues to make it impossible for people to return to their land or rebuild their villages. Nearly 3.4 million people still depend on humanitarian aid, including 1.7 million people still living in camps. People continue to arrive in the camps today. The United Nations estimates that during the first half of 2014, 390,000 people were newly displaced – the largest number since the height of the violence in 2004. That is the equal to the number of people in the whole of Honolulu, Hawaii or of Wichita, Kansas, or of Cleveland, Ohio. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W7moseOBnA)
These numbers and the individual stories that accompany each statistic are beyond my comprehension. It seems impossible for so many to be so affected, so deeply, with little constructive hope in sight. The world’s media no longer bring attention to the situation. Most of us just go on with our daily lives.
I suppose that Abram and Sarai also had carved out for themselves normal daily lives. Everyone had plenty of work to do, I’m sure. And by the time they reached elder status, neither Abram nor Sarai ever dreamed that children could be in their future, let alone that they may become ancestors to a multitude of nations and their rulers. Impossible. But that’s just what God promises with this covenant as told in Genesis 19. Abram falls on his knees and God says, “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 Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations for 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.… As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
This is a covenant God makes that extends beyond the land of Abram and Sarai to a multitude of nations and beyond the current generation to offspring of a multitude of generations. It is the fulfillment of a promise that makes the impossible possible.
In Darfur, most international organizations have left seeing no conclusion in sight, while two main international church-based networks remain, Caritas Internationalis (Catholic) and Action by Churches Together Alliance (Protestant and Orthodox). These church networks (of which the United Church of Christ is part through One Great Hour of Sharing) provide clean water and sanitation through boreholes and solar powered water systems, health clinics and health training, treatment for malnutrition, schools, seeds, tools and training, support for people in making a living so that families can be self-sufficient, and peace-building initiatives between communities. Signs are everywhere in the camps that people are making the space and place their own. People practice cooperative farming and irrigation. Small shacks contain basic supplies for sale. Women decorate their hands and feet with henna for weddings. Mothers take their children to clinics for check-ups. And people hold on to their dreams. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfLwLiSxKHU&x-yt-ts=1422579428&x-yt-cl=85114404)
When Abram and Sarai take seriously God’s promise that they are to be the ancestors of a multitude of nations, their very identities change – as symbolized in the new names they embrace of Abraham and Sarah. When we too take seriously that the people of Darfur are not nameless statistics, but mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, then our own families suddenly expand. We are part of God’s promise of fulfilled promises that extend through a multitude of nations and through layers of generations. The response with refugees in Darfur is long-term and steadfast. And our family becomes so large, that our identities can no longer remain the same. We realize that we are God’s family – no longer Sarai and Abram but Sarah and Abraham – with a part to play in God’s fulfilled promises.
The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader and Executive for Volunteer Ministries in Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
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.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
You who fear God,
All you offspring of Jacob,
stand in awe of God,
all you offspring of Israel!
For God did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
God did not hide God’s face from me,
but heard when I cried to God.
From you comes my praise
in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay
before those who fear God.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek God shall praise God.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to God;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before God.
For dominion belongs to God,
and God rules over the nations.
To God, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth
before God shall bow all
who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for God.
Posterity will serve God;
future generations will be told about God,
and proclaim God’s deliverance
to a people yet unborn,
saying that God has done it.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.
There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.