Then and Now—God in Unknown Places and Experiences, I: The Great Family

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August 7, 2022

Then and Now—God in Unknown Places and Experiences, I: The Great Family

Passage: Genesis 12–15, 24

Many of our stories of scripture take place in the desert, and since we cannot bring the entire desert to our Sanctuary this morning, I brought you a piece of the desert, so we can welcome the story and promise of God.

People only go into the desert if they must and have to. Because the desert is a dangerous place. In the daytime the sun is hot, and in the nighttime, it is cold and the wind blows and the sand stings your face. And the shape of the desert changes and people lose their way. So they only go into the desert if they have to.

In the early days in the land of the fertile crescent, people gathered not in the desert but along the rivers, especially along the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. The great cities on the Euphrates were the city of Ur and another was the city of Harran.

In the city of Orr, everyone worshiped a different god, some worshiped the god of the river or the rain or the sea. Others worshiped the god of the flowers or the trees or the sun or the moon or the stars.

In the city of Ur, there was a family who believed in one God. They believed that that one God was with them wherever they went, even though they had never left the city of Ur. When it came time for them to leave, they knew that God would go with them.

When it came time for them to leave they brought their family with them. Their dad, and their brothers followed along the river and they listened for God. For God would show them the way and they would know when they arrived.

Two in the family were named Abraham and Sarai and they made their way with all the animals and their family and the helpers to their family. They brought their tents with them so they would have a place to be along the way. Finally they came to the place at the edge of the city of Harran and they knew that they had arrived.

The had come to the place that God had called them. They made their home there and in the evenings, Abraham would go out to the edge of the desert. God would draw near to him, and he would draw near to God. He did this often and one night he knew that God was calling him out beyond this place called Harran.

After his father died, he and his wife Sarai began their trek away from Harran. They didn’t bring their entire family this time, but many still went with them, his nephew Lot, and many servants, and animals, and tents.

They arrived at the small village of Shechem. At night Abraham went up to the hill to pray to God. He built an altar there to remember the presence of God in Shechem but God was not calling him to stay. And so they traveled on.

They Arrived in a place called Bethel and in Bethel Abraham went up to the top of the hill and prayed to God. He built an altar there to remember God’s presence in that place but God was not calling him to stay there so they went on.

They went on until they traveled to the place called Hebron. In Hebron he went up the hill and he prayed to God. And there he knew that God was calling him to stay, and so they did. They made their home in the oaks of Mamre.

At night Abraham would go out to the edge of the desert to see the stars in the night sky and the sand that made up the desert. God would draw near to him and he would draw near to God. One night, God told him something that surprised him.

God said “you will become the father of many nations. Your family will become great and number the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert.” Abraham laughed because he was old in years and it would be impossible for him and Sarai to have a child. God said “just wait and see. Change your name, go by the name of Abraham, let your wife go by the name of Sarah. Wait and see my promise unfold.”

Abraham went back to his wife and told Sarah that they would have a child and she laughed. What news was this? And time went on and no child came. And one day Abraham was outside his tent and he saw strangers come from the desert. He welcomed them and Sarah came. Together they brought out meat and milk and water to feast together with these strangers as was the custom in their day.

The strangers told them this “Abraham, Sarah, you will have a child.” Both of them laughed and the strangers went on their way. Sure enough, within the year, Sarah gave birth to a child that brought laughter to both of them. Abraham and Sarah named their child Isaac, which in their language means laughter.

As years went on Abraham went out to their hometown and found a wife for his son Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca were married and had children, and their children had children and their children had children until the day your grandparents had children and they had you. And you became part of this great family.

The Economist reported this summer that migration is shifting across the Americas: “Groups of Haitians now congregate in cities from Mexico to Santiago. Venezuelans deliver meals on bikes in Lima and Bogota. More than 150 thousand Nicaraguans have sought refuge in Costa Rica. Another 150 thousand Cubans left their island in the past year. And the trackless jungle [just south of the Panama Canal that forms a once-impassable barrier between South and Central America has become a dangerous but important highway]. Last year more than 130 thousand people trekked through it.”[1]

Why? Some say the impact of the pandemic or ecological disaster. Some say failing governments and the rise of dictatorships. Some say perpetual cycles of violence that cause people to take otherwise unthinkable risks.

Then as now people do not go into the desert unless they have to. The desert is hot during the day and cold at night. The wind blows and the sand shifts and the land become enigma. Abraham and his family took an unthinkable risk leaving Ur.

Abraham’s father—Terah—is still with him on the first part of the journey. It is a safer road. There is a river to follow. Food and water are more secure. They settle in the city of Harran. But after his father dies Abraham and his family take a greater risk. When you read the entire narrative from Genesis 11–25 you’ll see what they face in the rural desert. They encounter famine. They feel the economic pressures of caring for livestock. They fight in a war that is now their own. There is family drama. A city is destroyed in fire and smoke, family members barely making it out alive.

Then and as now, the consequences of migration are hardship, uncertainty, and risk.

It is the story of Abraham that leads us to the biblical ethical viewpoint that each of us must show hospitality to the stranger, that we must welcome the sojourner, feed the traveler, house the refugee, and make space for the immigrant. The story of Abraham has much to teach us and impacts every corner of our understanding of self and God.

Sometimes in worship we take scripture line by line, word by word, like an art aficionado looking at the brush strokes of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Seraut’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island. But this month Christine and I want to zoom out like we have today on the ancient stories of our faith. Genesis. Exodus. Uncovering the sacred in the desert and in the promised land. The wide scope will give us perspective. Sometimes we look at the brush strokes, but now we will step back, and take in the whole painting.

What does Abraham’s story tell us today? It tells us that God calls us into the unknown. For Abraham that unknown meant migration, first along the rivers of safety, and then into the more risky territory of desert; each time reestablishing himself, finding new footing, being at times clever, at times wise, at times exceedingly foolish. Nonetheless God walked alongside him through it all.

Don’t be mistaken God didn’t swoop in and rescue Abraham in some divine heroic manner: polishing away problems and tidying up mistakes. It is a story with many bumps along the way (for example you remember the part of Abraham’s story, where he is so afraid of his famine-related journey to Pharaoh, that he introduces his wife as his sister, and allows Pharaoh to marry her…only to later have Pharaoh find out and Abraham gets read the riot act and then kicked out of the kingdom? Sarah it seems was part of her own #metoo, her own husband using his power to hand her over to another man without thought for her wellbeing). In other words Abraham is far from perfect.

Abraham is no saint. But Abraham—with his imperfections—seeks and finds God in this place beyond his comfort zone, where even amid the uncertainties of what might come next offers him a chance to look up at the night sky and hold space for the sacred indwelling of God’s presence to enter in.

We have much to learn from Abraham. You yourself may not be anticipating an Abraham-style migration event in your own life, walking the waterless desert without the certainty of a way through. But you are facing your own desert, your own risky path, your own sense of being called beyond your comfort zone, into something new. For you it may be facing an unexpected illness or injury. It may mean walking with a loved one into the hardest season of their life. It may mean unexplained loneliness or loss or some unfair unwanted turn of events at this stage in life that you never thought possible. Your own personal desert may be a dried up sense of belonging, or a longing for another way. It may be a cross country move with its own risks and possibilities staring you in the face. But if we find any semblance of hope in this story of Abraham, it is that God calls us into the unknown and does not leave us abandoned.

Abraham practices, day after day, week after week, standing-in-the-presence-of-God and thus listening to God and listening for God. He walks out into the night sky and seeks out a kind of holy inaudible back and forth, a conversation, divine and self, entangled in the discernment of a lifetime, that nudges Abraham to go and then stay and then go and then stay, each decision wrapped up in this sacred dialogue, where the spirit of the living God can draw near, and the full presence of Abraham can be drawn up into the wisdom and longing of God.

Sometimes we go out anyway, without any semblance of divine listening. Sometimes we botch it, fully descending into a spiral of trouble that feels unending. Sometimes we make a wrong move or a very wrong move. But in the story of Abraham, despite his own wrong moves at times, we do not see the full guilt and shame of the world’s religious institutions come into play here. God is at work in the hopelessness, and through the transgressions, and across the scandals whether in Ur, Harran, Shechem, Bethel, or Hebron. God is at work there.

19th century poet Christina Rosetti writes “Tread lightly! All the earth is holy ground.”[2] And it is Abraham—thousands of years ago—who is setting the stage for her theological orientation to the presence of God made known across the globe. Everywhere Abraham goes, he sets up an altar to his God, to our God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being; the one who is in all and with all and for all.

Without Abraham’s sense of God’s presence with him everywhere he goes, we would not have the Psalmist who says of God, “even if I rise on the wings of dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me.”

Abraham offers us an orientation to divine presence that allows us to know, to realize, to stand in hope; that the God who was with us yesterday will be with us tomorrow, and that whatever troubles we bear today, God will hold us,

love us, and be alongside us, through the muck and the mud, through the risk and the wind, through the uncertainties and the wide possibilities set before us. May we meet this God, and may we too, tread lightly for all the earth is holy ground. Amen.

[1] The Economist. Migrant flows are changing in the Americas, July 14, 2022.

[2] The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics), Christina Rosetti, 2001, p. 380.

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