Sermon Seeds: Called to Go
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Second Sunday in Lent | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Violet)
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Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
Genesis 12:1-4a in conversation with John 3:1-17
Give Us Water
Rend Our Hearts (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
What is a blessing? What does it mean to receive a blessing or to be one? Could it be as simple as being the opposite of cursed? And, if so, are those the only options? How does our understanding of God impact our perspective on blessings and cursing…and vice versa?
If we state that we are blessed to wake up this morning, does that mean that those who did not are cursed…keeping in mind that all who live must one day die? If we believe we are blessed with children, does that make those who do not have children cursed by extension? Is there also another option beyond being blessed and cursed that just is. Where there is no value judgment; the condition itself is neutral, but the response to the condition or the purpose underlying the condition that renders the result, or even the process, a blessing or a curse.
Our conditioning to believe that there are binary choices or to turn every encounter into a competition hinders our ability to have a holistic and healthy perspective on blessing. Recently, the National Football League’s season concluded with the Superbowl. My team did not win the game, but they had a terrific regular season, played a lot of spectacular football, and played with honor against another very strong team. That’s a lot to celebrate, but football fans know that one loss will likely plague those players and coaching staff until the next season begins.
When the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was first coined, it was immediately countered with the words “all lives matter” as if affirming black life by definition excluded everyone else from mattering. A lot undergirds that response, but it is, in part, a reaction based on the hyper-competitive sensibility that permeates society and culture. What if there is another way?
In the Genesis narrative, there is a progression from the creation stories (cosmic) to the formation of a family (Israel). The transition from the universality of the stories of the first humans even to the creation restart found in the narrative of The Flood and Noah’s family to the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs hinges on the introduction of Abram/Abraham. Through the lens of hindsight, we can affirm that three major world religions trace their roots through the Abrahamic tradition–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While adherents to those traditions comprise more than fifty percent of the world’s population today, that means that nearly half of the planet does not hold the Abrahamic connection. The narrative has narrowed and become particular.
Genesis 12 follows the story of the Tower of Babel, which provides a narrative explanation for the introduction of diversity of language and the geographical dispersal of humanity after the receding waters of The Flood. Abram’s story chronicles his journey and that of his and Sarai’s progeny. The focus passage introduces Abram’s story with a call and a promise that will form the basis of the covenant that will be continually renewed. It is not the first formal covenant, God had already established a covenant with Noah, his family, and their descendants…symbolized by the rainbow. That covenant was universal (cosmic) in nature. With Abram, the covenant becomes particular and forms a people group (nation) that will impact other nations.
Diversity, according to the Babel story, ensures that humanity, which is capable of functioning independently, will rely upon God.
The call of Abraham is the antithesis of what transpired at Babel. Instead of seeking security through his own autonomous efforts in his native locale, he is summoned to journey into the unknown, to find a future by renouncing his past. Instead of seeking his own name (cf. 11: 4) he is offered one by God (12: 2). In Islam he is given the epithet El Khalil, “the Friend” (of God). We have now entered a new stage of the relationship between God and humanity.
The covenant that the Holy One offers Abram is one of mutual, if unequal, relationship. Abram is called to go from the territory and comfort of his family. It would not be unusual for an adult child, even married, to live under the confines and protection of his family unit. The Holy One calls Abram with a simple and seemingly incomplete instruction. He is to go from his parents’ household, yet his destination remains unidentified. God will show him, presumably along the way. The length of the journey is unknown, but the purpose is clear. Abram is called to go in order to be blessed and to be a blessing.
The structure of this narrative is instructive. Genesis 12: 2 and 12: 3 both begin by discussing the impact of the blessing on Abram and end by discussing blessings that attend to others. Abram is blessed by God, but he is not the end of this action; the end is a global blessing for “all the families of the earth.” Walter Brueggemann says that “most likely the meaning of the phrase is not that Israel has a direct responsibility to do something for others, but that the life of Israel under the promise will energize and model a way for the other nations also to receive a blessing from this God” (Brueggemann, 120). Others have seen a much more active role for Abram and his descendants in God’s blessing of others. For example, Gerhard von Rad suggests that “Abraham is assigned the role of a mediator of blessing in God’s saving plan, for ‘all the families of the earth’ ” (von Rad, 160). Still, others note the apparent shift in emphasis that seems a part of God’s work here. So Terence Fretheim reads verse 3b as “an initially exclusive move for the sake of a maximally inclusive end. Election serves mission” (Fretheim, 424). This passage shows that God does not choose Abram to elevate him for his own sake, but to use him to be a blessing to others; though God may use an individual and even bless him, the ultimate goal involves a universal blessing that encompasses the whole world. The blessing of Abram will be the catalyst for others being blessed. The clear implication from this is that blessing is a transitory concept; it is intended to multiply and impact others.
Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.
Conceptually, the terms of the covenant seem simple, but the reality then and now reveal the challenge of moving from your place of security and comfort with limited information, relying on God alone for direction and guidance, and giving rise to a new people is more than a notion. Clare Amos articulates a principle question raised by this text:
Does this new focus on a “chosen” individual and his family suggest that God is no longer interested in other human beings and peoples? Hardly. However, we understand the third of the blessings offered to Abraham (” in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed, 12: 3c; Bible translations vary considerably), it is clear that Abraham’s role is linked to the blessing of others beyond himself. And yet this is the figure whose tomb in Hebron has become such a focus of conflict and bloodshed. Surely Abraham, by definition, cannot be the exclusive possession of any one of the Abrahamic faiths! The portrayal of Abraham in both Christianity and Islam emphazises that he was a “god-fearer” (in Arabic, hanif), someone who instinctively worshipped the One God before the establishment of a specific religious creed or system. The Qur’an’s comment is remarkable: “Ye People of the Book! Why dispute ye about Abraham, when the Law and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Have ye no understanding? . . . Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was truth in Faith and bowed his will to God’s . . . and joined not gods with God” (Surah 3.65, 67).”
The call to go is a call to faith. In the gospel account, Jesus has an encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was a ruler in the faith community but afraid to express his curiosity and question his faith publicly. In this interchange, Jesus offers new life as the path to the kindom of God. Just as Abram was called to start a new life, followers of Jesus are invited to a journey where the only certainty is the covenant commitment of God. Most notably, the end of this passage reminds and reorients us to the cosmic reach, care, and commitment of the divine. God’s view is always long, broad, inclusive and universal, God’s plan is rooted in abundant and radical love, full of grace and redemption, and life-giving.
Abram demonstrated the faith to answer his call. His journey was not perfect and his trust had its limits, but throughout, he continued to move forward into the new life that God offered…where he was called to go…to be blessed by God…to be a blessing to others.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
In the fifties, when I was a student, the embarrassment of being called a politically minded writer was so acute, the fear of critical derision for channeling one’s creativity toward the state of social affairs so profound, it made me wonder: Why the panic? … What could be so bad about being socially astute, politically aware in literature? Conventional wisdom agrees that political fiction is not art; that such work is less likely to have aesthetic value because politics—all politics—is agenda and therefore its presence taints aesthetic production.
That wisdom, which seems to have been unavailable to Chaucer, or Dante, or Catullus, or Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or Dickens, is still with us, and, in 1969 it placed an inordinate burden on African American writers. Whether they were wholly uninterested in politics of any sort, or whether they were politically inclined, aware, or aggressive, the fact of their race or the race of their characters doomed them to a “political-only” analysis of their worth. If Phillis Wheatley wrote “The sky is blue,” the critical question was what could blue sky mean to a black slave woman? If Jean Toomer wrote “The iron is hot,” the question was how accurately or poorly he expressed chains of servitude. This burden rested not only on the critics, but also on the reader. How does a reader of any race situate herself or himself in order to approach the world of a black writer? Won’t there always be apprehension about what may be revealed, exposed about the reader?
In 1970, when I began writing Sula, I had already had the depressing experience of reading commentary on my first novel, The Bluest Eye, by both black and white reviewers that—with two exceptions—had little merit since the evaluation ignored precisely the “aesthetics only” criteria it championed. If the novel was good, it was because it was faithful to a certain kind of politics; if it was bad, it was because it was faithless to them. The judgment was based on whether “Black people are—or are not—like this.” This time out, I returned the compliment and ignored the shallowness of such views and, again, rooted the narrative in a landscape already tainted by the fact that it existed. Only a few people would be interested, I thought, in any wider approach….. But the act of writing was too personally important for me to abandon it just because the prospects of my being taken seriously were bleak. It may be difficult now to imagine how it felt to be seen as a problem to be solved rather than a writer to be read. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston—all had been called upon to write an essay addressing the “problem” of being a “Negro” writer. In that no-win situation—inauthentic, even irresponsible, to those looking for a politically representative canvas; marginalized by those assessing value by how “moral” the characters were—my only option was fidelity to my own sensibility. Further exploration of my own interests, questions, challenges. And since my sensibility was highly political and passionately aesthetic, it would unapologetically inform the work I did. I refused to explain, or even acknowledge, the “problem” as anything other than an artistic one.
—Toni Morrison, Sula (Introduction)
For further reflection
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too. No, I think there was too rigid a pattern. You came out of an education and are supposed to know your vocation. Your vocation is fixed, and maybe ten years later you find you are not a teacher anymore or you’re not a painter anymore. It may happen. It has happened. I mean Gauguin decided at a certain point he wasn’t a banker anymore; he was a painter. And so he walked away from banking. I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.” ― Anaïs Nin
“On the other side of graduation was her actual life, the slow narrowing of possibilities that would catch her and freeze her in a vocation, a relationship, a life. She intended to avoid that slow calcification for as long as possible—if only by refraining from making any crucial choices. In other words, she was moving back home.” ― Ling Ma
Amos, Clare. “Genesis.” Patte, Daniel, Ed. et al. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.
Sadler, Jr., Rodney S. “Genesis.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Engage the gathered assembly in Join the Movement’s Courageous Conversations: A Lenten Antiracism Journey
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=25