Have you noticed that genealogy has gotten very popular? With all of the online resources of web services like Ancestry.com, it is now quite easy to sit in your easy chair and begin to trace your family history. Of course, families have always told stories about their ancestors – whether in the recent past or long past – finding in those stories a narrative that describes what is important to the family, what values are cherished, how a family’s understanding of the world is shaped and formed. Those stories get told around dinner tables, as bed-time tales (“Tell me about the olden days, Granny”), when families gather for important occasions, sometimes when a treasured object that has been passed down several generations is admired or used or asked about. No one really plans on telling these stories; they just show up, waiting to be heard, strengthening the bonds of family ties, and incorporating the next generation into the long, ongoing family story, passing along values and mores and sometimes even traits and characteristics – for good or for ill.
Today’s reading from Genesis is a family story. It’s part of the account of how Abraham and Sarah came into a covenant relationship with God. The back story to this passage is that Abram and Sarai (their original names) left their home in the city of Ur near Babylon and traveled, along with their extended family, northwest up along the Euphrates river and got all the way up to Haran in southeast Turkey, and they settled in for many years. Then God appeared to Abram and promised that his family would become a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed because of him. They were called by God to travel to a place that God would show them…no map, no other instructions or explanations; that’s not very much to go on! But they pulled up stakes and headed for the land of Canaan, what later would be called Palestine, and eventually Israel – with a little side trip down into Egypt to avoid a famine before they returned and settled in to the land that God had promised them.
Time went on, and God appeared to Abram again, encouraging him with a reminder of the promise of descendants who would be a great people. But Abram wasn’t so sure; he had no children as yet and was getting on in years, and so his heir was not going to be a member of his family, but a trusted servant. God reassured him, and told him that Abram’s and Sarai’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars. But Sarai got tired of waiting; she wanted a child desperately. And so she had her maid Hagar act as surrogate for her, planning to raise Abram’s and Hagar’s child as her own. That didn’t work out so well; Sarai became jealous after the baby was born, and demanded that Abram throw Hagar and her son Ishmael out of the camp, leaving them to their fate. Abram did so, but God stepped in provided for Hagar and her son so that they did not die in the desert.
Eventually Abram and Sarai did have a child – Isaac, the miracle baby - long past the time anyone thought it was possible to be giving birth. But before that happened, God showed up again – and that is where our passage for today comes in. God reminds Abram of his promise of land and descendants and makes a covenant with Abram – a sacred agreement. This covenant was based on God’s offer and Abram responds to it with faith, and trust. Abram would have a son, and the promises of God would be passed down the generations. As a sign of the covenant God does two things: he requires Abram and all the men of his family and tribe to be circumcised; it was to be a mark of the covenant relationship going forward. And then, God changes their names from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. Their new names were given to reflect their change of status with God; they were now in a covenant relationship with the Lord and Creator of the universe.
And God kept his promise; Abraham is understood to be the ancestor, the founding father, of all three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And the primary characteristic of Abraham that is valued and treasured and held up for succeeding generations is his faith and trust in God – not always perfect, sometimes a bit wobbly, tested over a many, many years, but a faith that held onto that sacred promise of God. So Abraham and Sarah are our ancestors; they are the patriarch and matriarch in our family of faith. We can trace our spiritual lineage back to them, and we receive their gift of faithfulness and trust in God.
But there’s a cost associated with that gift of faith, or perhaps a consequence of being in relationship with God; that cost is change. All of those things that we look to God for – guidance, comfort, wisdom, healing, strength, courage, love, salvation – all are given to us as gifts. And in response, God asks us to change, to be willing to let of our need for control, to have our character and behavior shaped by God’s values and standards, to remember that we are part of a very large family of faith centered in Christ and stretching all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. We need to align our values and our actions with this family story that reaches its high point in Jesus.
Change, of course, is hard. We don’t like having our routine, our habits, our values up-ended and disturbed. It’s easier and more comfortable to pretend we didn’t hear Jesus saying that he would suffer and die; that means we might have to, also. It’s easier and more comfortable to pretend we didn’t hear the Old Testament prophets speak on God’s behalf against kings and rulers who price-gouged, and short-changed, and oppressed the poor and the aliens in the land, and led them recklessly into war. Most times the kings reacted by arresting the prophets, rather than changing. It’s easier and more comfortable to pretend we didn’t hear St. Paul proclaim loudly and clearly the Jesus is Lord and Cesar is not, and that a Christian’s first loyalty is to Christ, and his or her citizenship is in God’s realm, God’s kingdom. Paul parlayed his Roman citizenship (precious in the eyes of the world) into an opportunity to go to Rome and preach to the people there, and perhaps even to the Emperor. Paul did not survive his house arrest. A large part of what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, is to live life from God’s point of view, not from our own, and not from the viewpoint of institutions and values and cultures that don’t mesh with what God expects.
And so we have this season of Lent – every year – to help us sort through, pack away, get rid of, all that is not part of the way life is lived in God’s family. And on the reverse side, we get a chance to practice those attitudes and disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, generosity, humility, and dependence on God, in a very focused and intentional way during Lent so that they might take hold and be embedded in us. We renew our faith by practicing being Jesus’ followers, and remembering our identity as members of God’s family, ready to receive anew the faith of Abraham and Sarah.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, you bid us come and follow you. Let us this Lent see and know the habits, attitudes, values, and practices that you would have us change. Help us to let go of all that is not worthy of you, and help us to embrace the people and the story of your family of faith, taking our place in it to be, like Abraham and Sarah, a blessing to the world. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2015