Sermon Seeds: The Blessing of Generations
Second Sunday in Lent Year B
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9
Worship resources for the Second Sunday in Lent Year B are at Worship Ways
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Additional reflection on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4:13-25 by Mary Schaller Blaufuss for One Great Hour of Sharing
The Blessing of Generations
by Kathryn Matthews
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”?
They laughed at the news
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).
Doubt intertwined with faith
Great ancestors in the faith don’t doubt or question, right? We certainly don’t want them to fall off their pedestals. How do you experience doubt intertwined with faith?
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, and instead offered 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.)
How the story was written
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.
The voice of the Priestly writer
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).
What is God doing here?
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, a family of many generations, 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.
The role of names in the story
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).
Not your typical heroes
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).
Lent is a long journey
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.
A time for examination, a time for repentance
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.
Even that phrase, “God’s people,” has been at times the source of much heartache and, ironically, division. 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, the blessing that 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).
A family story
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? What do families need most 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 from the lectionary. How do you reconcile the claims of grace and the requirements of covenant, which sometimes seem to compete against each other?
How can we be “pure of heart”?
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.” 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?
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 M. Matthews retired after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
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.”
Additional reflection on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4:13-25 for One Great Hour of Sharing
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss
“God’s Promise of Presence”
God’s promises are more than Abram and Sarai can imagine. In their aging and childless years, God approaches them with a promise that becomes more bountiful as the passage in Genesis 17 deepens. “I will make you exceedingly numerous,” says God. Sarai and Abram will be connected. “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” They will be remembered. “And kings will come from you.” They will have influence to shape societies.
These promises of God change their whole lives. Abram falls on his face and worships as God gives this new identity, eventually changing their names to signify their new relationship to God. To Abraham and Sarah God says, “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.”
This is a beautiful promise, but in its implementation, not without difficulty. This Genesis passage continues with verse 8 (that is not included in the suggested lectionary passage). It says, “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.” The problem? Other people already live in the Land of Canaan. This also is a troublesome passage for the people of Palestine today as the nation-state of Israel uses this passage to justify removing contemporary Palestinians from their land. So, even as the promise that “I will be their God” is full of grace and possibility, the danger of mis-appropriating the promise is with us as well.
The Christians in Rome who hear Romans 4: 13-25 also must have been mis-appropriating the promises they heard. Paul revisits the story of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, emphasizing that they received these promises of abundance in the context of relationship, not legalities. This promise became Abraham’s reason for being. “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 had been promised. Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, with the Romans and with us, are a move from relationship into deeper right relationship. The promise that “I will be their God” reaches unimaginable depth in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Interacting with the Story
Viewing this passage from the perspective of the human rights advocacy made possible through the UCC’s One Great Hour of Sharing Offering, I am drawn into a deeper connection with the emerging story of the people of Colombia, South America. That promise, “I will be their God,” takes on deeper meaning than I could imagine before.
For five decades, civil war in Colombia has killed almost 250,000 people and displaced another 8 million. Violence by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and by the Colombian national military has destroyed the lives of people and disrupted families beyond comprehension. No one could imagine how peace might come. But Christian organizations, including JUSTAPAZ and the CEDECOL Peace Commission, continued to be present and active with the people. The people were remembered. JUSTAPAZ and CEDECOL documented heart-breaking human rights abuses and communicated with partners such as the UCC/Disciples’ Global Ministries and other churches to create an accountability through international awareness. The people were connected.
And, when an opening for peace negotiations presented itself, leaders in these organizations worked skillfully to facilitate conversations supported by the United Nations between rebel groups and the Colombian government. The Peace Commission was vital in passing along information about the peacemaking process to local communities and churches affected by the negotiations, as well as promoting peace in discussions with congregations and pastoral associations. JUSTAPAZ established humanitarian houses as safe havens for designing proposals addressed scenarios involving the end of the armed conflict, responding to cease-fire conditions, and handling hostile situations. The people were influential in shaping society.
Of course, this is a tenuous peace. There have been many tragedies and much hurt. The mis-appropriation of the gift of cease-fire and the disruption of peace is an ever-present danger. The gift could well be mis-used for the gain of one side or another.
But the promise of God’s presence and the gift of peace remain. On October 1, 2017, the first day of the negotiated bilateral cease-fire, church leaders from all parts of Colombia communicated to their people, “Peace requires generosity with the nation, leaving aside the pettiness of economic and political calculations; giving an opportunity for the life that comes from the communities to be freely expressed through their initiatives, proposals, and hopes at this moment when weapons are finally being silenced. This will clear the way so that finally, after this long confrontation in Colombia, as the psalmist says, justice and peace will kiss (Psalm 85:10). We reiterate again our celebration of the ceasefire, our willingness to serve as observers and our commitment to continue to accompany the communities in this hopeful phase of Colombia’s history.”
The Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, Ph.D., serves as Team Leader for Humanitarian and Development Ministries at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (BlaufusM@ucc.org).
One Great Hour of Sharing resources are found at: www.ucc.org/oghs_resources.
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 bow down;
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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!