June 26 Sermon

“Land promised”

A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower

For June 26 2016, the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Based on Gen 13:14-20

Our scripture this morning is Genesis 13:14-20. Last week we heard God calling Abram to go to a new land. In getting to this morning’s story, we have skipped a few details. There’s a story about Abram and Sarai in Egypt lying about their relationship. Then we learn that Abram’s people have become prosperous nomads, but prosperity had brought division. Abram and Lot decide to split apart. Lot goes East toward the Jordan river. Abram remains at Bethel – where he built his first altar. The scripture we are about to hear describes Abram standing near that altar.

 What is the most exciting place in the world? What would you expect to find & do there?

Where in the world could you go and expect to meet God? Why would God be at that place? What would you do there in order to meet God?

We say God is everywhere, and yet we meet God in some very special places.

In our scripture we heard God promise to Abram that everything he could see from north to south, east to west, was promised to the descendants of Abram. And in response, Abram built an altar to mark the special place where he encountered God and learned of God’s promise. As I said last week, a sense of place is very important to our spirituality.

During the week a couple of questions were posed that I want to address. Why do so many pastors preach about Abram? Well, Abram is a core character of the bible. He is referenced in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, held up as an example of faithfulness. Understanding the story arc of scripture requires at some point making sense of Abram’s role.

Part of what makes Abram’s role so central is two of the covenants God makes with him. These are covenants that establish Israel as the people of God. After Adam and Eve, God makes a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth with a flood. As you heard in this morning’s scripture, Abram is promised all the land he can see from the Oaks of Mamre. Abram is also promised descendants: here as numerous as the bits of dust, elsewhere as numerous as grains of sand or the stars in the sky. God will make a covenant with Moses, which includes the giving of the Ten Commandments. God will also make a covenant with David to establish Israel as a nation-state, a government that exhibits God’s holiness. And through Jesus we proclaim a new covenant between God and humanity has been created. Many biblical scholars state covenantal relationship is the key story arc of the bible, and to understand covenant we have to understand the people whom God worked through to establish covenants.

Let me ask you: Who have been the key characters in your story of faith? Who has helped you understand God? Who has helped you identify God’s presence in your life? Who helped you understand the blessed relationship between God and humanity?

A second question has been “How did Abram get to be so old?” Last week’s scripture that stated Abram was 75 when he was called to leave Chaldea for a new land. This is a variation of the question “Why did people in the Old Testament live so long?” According to Genesis, Adam lived to be 930, Methuselah to 969, Noah 950, Abram 175, Isaac 180. Did they really live that long?

Here’s my answer: we don’t know. We don’t have birth certificates or death certificates for these folk. What we have are stories that were told by generations before they were written down. We have to ask “Why would the story teller tell this story in that way?” and also “When the story moved from being told to being written, why did the writer include specific details?” But I think we have to take the details with a grain of salt. Sometimes the important part is the story, not the details of the story.

For me, the issue is not that Abram lived to be 175 or even that he was called when he was 75. The point for me is that Abram was called while he was late in life: after he was established in a place as a reputable member of the community, God told him to be uprooted and go to another place, go to another country, go to another culture, and establish a new way of being in relationship with God. Just as other stories in the bible will show that some people are young when they are called, Abram’s story tell us that sometimes God’s call comes when we are old. Age does not seem to be a factor for God’s calling to be issued. The writers of Genesis lived in a culture that valued growing old – because it was a rare event. And so told stories that emphasized these paragons of faith lived extremely long lives.

Our culture has three great mythologies of faith, narrative patterns that expose our values: the innocent child who naturally perceives great supernatural mysteries; the rebellious teenager who is somehow in touch with a greater social and spiritual forces and calls us to peace and justice; and the hard-living man or woman who experiences a radical conversion from a life of destructive self-indulging behaviors to a life of compassion and care-filled living. We expect narratives of faith to follow these kinds of story patterns, and in so doing assume they are normal for how faith is expressed.

But maybe your story of faith follows a different story arc. How old where you when you became aware of God’s presence? How do you tell the story of coming to know God? Why is our age important in telling the story of our relationship to God?

A third question asked about Abram: why does he keep building altars? Between the scripture we heard last week and the one we heard this morning, Abram has built three altars, and we will hear of more. Building an altar is not the same as building a church; these were not necessarily meant to be permanent sites of worship, but rather a temporary marker: at this moment, in this place, we thank God for what God has done to bring us to this time and place. To me, that temporary nature is important. How we encounter God today may be different than the way we encounter God in a year or a decade from now. That’s partly why I sometimes ask you in worship to write things down on pieces of paper:  it is a marker for this time and place, but the paper is rather disposable – not like carving into stone. These altars are meant to help focus our attention for the time being, but they are not meant to become shrines or places for ongoing worship. They acknowledge that God’s presence is everywhere, but in some places God is more forcefully encountered.

In our own culture we have a confusing relationship with place. On the one hand, we expect people – especially responsible adults – to settle down someplace and invest in the community. In fact, our credit scores and our professional resumes are expected to demonstrate the ability to settle in a place. On the other hand, we also expect adults to be able to relocate for professional advancement. It is not unusual to learn someone has moved from Boston or Seattle to take a job here in Chicago. And once profession and career are ended, we expect most people to relocate in order to retire.

We value place, and among European-Americans we assume valuing place means claiming exclusive use. We have been guilty of drawing boundary lines and employing surveyors to help us maintain those artificial boundaries. We have displaced entire nations of peoples from lands we wished to claim for ourselves. We denigrate other cultures who value flexible space: we look at a home that is also a workplace and a place for worship and scornfully suggest that violates zoning laws and good health, unable to see how work, family, and faith are more holistically integrated.

Here let me ask you: What places have been holy for you? In what places other than this building have you encountered God’s presence most fully? How did you mark that place? How difficult was it to leave that place? What did you expect when you returned to that place? What are the aspects of this building that remind you of holy encounters here? How do we claim a sense of spiritual place in a such a way that encourages unity?

I realize I have answered questions with questions, which is considered impolite. Nevertheless, it is the way that I know to propel the conversation into deeper examination of what it means to be God-lover’s and disciples of Christ. In addition to posing questions, you know I like humor, and that at times I am wry and ironic. I like when things are placed in contrast with one another. So while God tells Abram to look North, South, East and West to see the land which is promised to Abram’s descendants, ironically I hear the hymn “In Christ there is no east or west.” While I know the story of Abram’s descendants will displace the people already living in the place God identified, I hear the call of Christ to seek to live in unity. I think these kinds of contrasts challenge us to refine our sense of being faithful in the world. Let us consider our call from God as we sing our reflection hymn: In Christ there is No East or West

Morning Prayer

You have been given a place card. [i]

Hold it in your hand.

Imagine your name written on this card.

It can be your given name or a nick name or perhaps a title you would like: Professor, CEO, treasured one, gentle heart, cherished lover, beloved child.

Imagine this card set on an altar:

Your place at God’s table has been designated, and you are invited to take your place.

Lord, may we accept your invitation to be your people, to sit at your altar, your table, to walk on the earth with the assurance that this is your land, your water, your sky, your fire.

 

Look at this place card again.

A new name is forming on this card, the name of someone whom you love, someone who has helped you be more aware of God’s presence.

Maybe you have not seen this person for a long time, or maybe they are sitting in this room now.

Imagine this card set on an altar.

We are thankful, God, for the people who have helped us understand you. You are grateful for individuals who have embodied your promises in our lives, who have helped us live covenants of live.

Look at this place card again.

A new name is forming on this card, the name of someone who is hurting, who is suffering, who is healing.

Imagine this card set on an altar.

What will help them come to God’s place with greater ease?

Lord, may your healing presence move out from this place into the wide world where many people are hurting. Let your spirit provide healing for people’s bodies, for people’s minds, for people’s spirits. Through healing may your graciousness be better known.

Look at this place card again.

A new name is forming on this card, this time the name of a place of trouble. Maybe it is a natural disaster, maybe it is a place where hatred has been expressed, maybe it is a place where disrespect has been a way of life.

Imagine this card set on an altar.

We call to your attention, Divine One, these places where you are needed. End our ways of warring and strife so that we may life peaceably with our neighbors, no matter how different they are from us.

Look at this place card again.

See your name forming once again on this card. You are being called to a new way of living in the world.

Imagine this card set on an altar.

Notice all the other cards set upon this altar. Notice the names of the people of Lyonsville Congregational Church.

O God, we are on a journey to a new way of being in relationship with others. You are the one who is setting the itinerary of this journey. You have promised a new place to live. You have promised a blessing that will be known by the generations that follow. Help us to discern how to follow you as a community of faith, as disciples of Christ we pray. Amen.

[i] The idea for place cards as a focus for prayer comes from Andra Moran & Suzanne Castle, Brim: Creative Overflow in Worship Design, (Chalice: St. Louis, 2013), 55.

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