Sermon: The Blessing of Abraham and Mission of G-d

[Sermon delivered on Sunday, February 21, 2016 (Lent II at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church– Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

“He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15.5-6 (NRSV)

Grace and peace be unto you from G-d our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible details a vivid, albeit bizarre, encounter between G-d and Abram. As the story is told, G-d chose to reveal G-dself to a man named Abram who lived in Haran in modern day Iraq. G-d told Abram to leave everything he had ever known to go to a land that G-d would show him in due season. So armed with that promise Abram went, with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and their possessions, to follow G-d on an epic journey of blessing that would change the world.

Beloved, that is why G-d chose Abram to begin this epic journey and that is why G-d promised to bless him. If you remember, G-d had spent the first chapters of the book of Genesis trying desperately to develop a relationship with humanity, but time and time again we would turn our backs on G-d, choosing instead to live according to our own ways. But G-d, whose “grace it is to always have mercy,” continued to offer compassion, forgiveness, and a chance at reconciliation.

So G-d promises Abram, who would become Abraham, that he would be the father of a great nation, that he would be blessed, that his name would be great, that he would be a blessing, that in him all the nations of the world will be blessed. This statement in Genesis 12 ought not be overlooked because it gives us a glimpse into the intention and the character of G-d. G-d had chosen Abram to be the father of a people who would be an example to the world of how to live. Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary (Atlanta, GA), suggests, “The life of Israel under the promise will energize and model a way for the other nations also to receive a blessing from God.”[1] G-d did not choose Abram and bless him for his own sake, but in order that through him the entire world would be blessed. G-d had intended Abram’s blessing to exponentially multiply until it covered the face of the whole world. It is not true that G-d had only reserved a promise and blessing for Israel; rather, G-d, the infinite fountain of blessing and mercy, wanted lavish all humanity with that blessing. Abram and his descendants would be G-d foot soldiers, drafted into G-d service to show the world what it means to live under the promise and blessing of G-d. As Terence Fretheim, Old Testament scholar suggests, “G-d’s choice of Abraham serves as an initially exclusive move for the sake of a maximally inclusive end. Election serves mission.”[2] Beloved, G-d had intended for Abram and his descendants, and that includes you and I, to showcase the ever-widening circle of G-d’s mercy.

So when we encounter this rather bizarre scene in Genesis 15, I invite you to see it in the context of G-d’s promise and mission. No, the passage of the fire between the two halves of cows, goats, rams, and chicken is not the recipe for Gates’ Barbeque. This is an ancient near-Eastern ritual of making, literally “cutting,” a covenant. The statement that is being made in this ritual action is this – may the same thing that happened to this cow, and goat, and to this ram happen to me if I violate the terms of the covenant. Covenant cutting with G-d is serious business because the mission of God is a serious endeavor. This is the point of our reading from Genesis this morning – our relationship with G-d, our identity among the children of Abraham by faith, and the mission to which we have been called are serious matters.

G-d has indeed called each of us to be blessed, not for the sake of ourselves or our own families or our social circles, but so that we can continue in the legacy of blessing conveyed to Abram and carried down through countless generations until our very day. Yet I wonder, in the age of the Prosperity Gospel and consumerism run-amuck, if we understand what it really means to be blessed. So much of our theological framework around blessing has to do with the accumulation of stuff, of wealth, of material things. We are blessed, or so we think, if we have the stuff to prove it. But stuff, things, material possession are not within the framework of how the Bible understands blessing. To be clear – having stuff isn’t bad or evil. It is true that to whom much is given much is required (Luke 12.48), but having things in and of itself is not sinful. It’s just that this definition of blessing is too small, too narrow, too myopic. So I want to spend the next few minutes exploring what the Bible means when it says we are “blessed.”

When I was in seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center, I took a class in Judaism that completely changed my life. I had gone to seminary on a journey, not intending to be ordained, but simply wanting to figure all this G-d stuff out. My first semester as a seminarian, I enrolled in a class that explored Jewish practice and the Hebrew Bible with Rabbi Zvi Shapiro. During the course of the semester, my classmates and I would visit two synagogues, one Reform and one Orthodox, as part of the requirements of this class. The first Shabbat (Sabbath) service we attended was at The Temple, a Reform congregation which, if you are familiar with American history, was was bombed by white supremacists on October 12, 1958 because of Temple’s commitment to social justice and civil rights. There is actually a scene in the movie “Driving Miss Daisy” that depicts the bombing. The service I attended was in English, so I could follow along reasonably well and every now and then the entire congregation would respond with this single refrain: “Blessed are you, LORD our G-d, King of the universe…”

A few weeks later we would attend an Orthodox Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Jacob. My experience at Congregation Beth Jacob would be very different. The entire service was in Hebrew, the women sat apart from the men (including my female classmates), and all the men, including yours truly, had to wear a yarmulke. And yet, even though I could not understand large parts of the service, I did hear the refrain I had heard a few weeks prior, except this time in Hebrew –

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…

“Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King of the universe…” I had learned enough Hebrew to mimic the words, but I was particularly struck by the action, the choreography, that accompanied the prayer. Every time they say the word “Baruch” (translated “Blessed”) they would bend their knees and bow at the word “atah” (translated “you”). Who is the “you?” Adonai, G-d, sovereign of the universe.

I was struck by this experience, but I had many questions. Rabbi Shapiro explained it to me like this – Baruch, the Hebrew word for “blessing,” is related to other Hebrew words that deal with rooting, grounding, planting, kneeling, even lightning – all of which have to do with downward motion. Blessing, at least how Jewish people might understand it, has to do with G-d coming down, choosing to be revealed to humanity through the mission of Abraham. The community bent their knees at the word “Baruch” as an embodiment of G-d’s coming down among them. To say that G-d is “blessed” is to say that G-d is here, and present, active in the world around us. To say that we are blessed is to say that people around us can see the G-d in us.

Jesus himself echoes this idea of blessing in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” because even though the world may throw them away and count them are one of no value, they, you, are imprinted with the image of Adonai, King of the universe. Your very being and identity are blessing.

You are blessed from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet.

You are blessed in your coming out and in your going in.

You are blessed in the city and blessed in the field.

You are blessed because you have been grafted into the family of G-d whose mission it is to make G-d known – to open the eyes of the blind to see the hand of G-d at work in the world around them, to strengthen feeble knees that they might walk by faith in G-d and not by sight, to draw people to this table where we say every single Sunday, “Blessed (right here!) is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

You’ve been searching for G-d. You’ve been looking for G-d. And G-d has chosen to be known in the bread, and wine, and in the community empowered by this feast that we share.

The blessing of G-d has nothing to do with how little or how much you have. You are blessed by association, blessed by proximity to a G-d who chooses to be known among us, to call us into a family, that through us the world around us might be drawn into a close-encounter of the G-d kind. We are blessed to be a blessing. And here’s some good news – even if the world has counted us out – said we are too young or too old, too this or too that, G-d still deems us fit to serve G-d’s purpose.

G-d told Abram that his descendants, those who would make G-d known to the world, would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. You and I are a part of that family and a part of that mission. The world needs to see G-d in us.

A G-d of endless compassion.

…who hungers for community and relationship over estrangement and division.

…of radical and prodigal love.

…who forgives.

…who reconciles.

…who builds up.

…who empowers.

…who gives, and gives, and gives… until it doesn’t make any earthly sense, and then gives again and again.

Christianity calls this sacrament ­­– outward and visible signs of G-d’s love. That’s our mission: to be sacraments of G-d that the world might see G-d in us. That is what it means to be blessed – that we resonate with divinity that shatters narrowness of vision and smallness of mind. To be blessed is to be called into mission, to be recruited into the service of a compassionate, loving, present G-d.

Beloved, you are blessed…

…so act like it.


 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, quoted in “Genesis,” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, Gale A. Yee, Matthew J.M. Coomber, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014 ), 107.

[2] Terence Fretheim. “Genesis,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leadner Keck 12volks. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994-2002), vol. 1, 424.

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