Friday, March 18, 2011

Pardon My Verb!

RCL Lent 2A
20 March 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

1)  Not my story, not my language

         Last Sunday I spoke of how I am often intrigued by difficult phrases in the Scriptures.  This Sunday presents us with another of these phrases that remind us that we were not the original audience to whom the words we have heard today were directed nor do we speak the language in which these words were first composed.

         The story of Abraham were collected into their present form at some point during the time when the tribes of Israel were united under the monarchy established by the prophet Samuel when he anointed Saul as the first king.  The territory under the control of the tribes was soon to reach its greatest expanse with the people enjoying relative prosperity and feeling proud of their identity.  As the ancient stories about their patriarchs and matriarchs were gathered together, the people were presented with a history of divine guidance and grace which had given rise to their present well-being.  Although they were no doubt proud of their own achievements, the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs reminded them that all that they had was God’s gift in response to the obedience of their ancestors.

         But in today’s reading there is a phrase that has led to consequences not foreseen by those who first collected the stories of Abraham and Sarah.  God says to Abraham, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.3c)  What you and I, hearing these words from a distance of almost three thousand years and in English rather than biblical Hebrew, do not know is that Hebrew verb used here can be understood in two ways, one that can lead to conflict and arrogance, another that can lead to faithfulness and hope.

2)  A way to death and a way to life

         Throughout Jewish, Christian and Muslim history, this phrase, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” has primarily been interpreted to mean that “God’s blessing and salvation are given to the whole world through Abraham” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible 2003)  But how do later generations make a claim on God’s promise to Abraham to make of him a great nation, to give him a rich land and to grant him numerous descendants?  In the Jewish tradition a claim is made upon these promises by virtue of one’s descent from Abraham’s son, Isaac.  In the Christian tradition a claim is made upon these promises by following Abraham’s faithful obedience to the call of God.  In the early Muslim tradition a claim is made upon these promises by virtue of one’s belief that Mohammed, the prophet of God, is a descendant of Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham.

         Perhaps you can already see how dangerous this understanding of the verb can be.  Centuries of Christian persecution of the Jewish people have been fuelled, in part, by the belief that it is not physical descent from Abraham that matters but spiritual imitation of Abraham’s obedience to God’s call, an obedience that Christians see reflected in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is this line of reasoning that lies behind Paul’s words in our reading from his letter to the church in Rome.  Gentiles share in God’s promises not by blood but by faith, their faith in the faithfulness of Jesus.

         The continuing conflict between the Jewish state and the Muslim states that surround it is a geo-political expression of a conflict between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.  Stories collected by the Hebrew people to explain the success of the early monarchy under Saul and his successors run head-long into stories collected by Muslims to explain the claim of the followers to Mohammed to be the true descendants of Abraham, not through Isaac but through Ishmael.

         How many people have been persecuted and how many people have died because of an ambiguous verb?

         But ambiguous verbs can also be helpful.  Another way of understanding the phrase, ‘. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,’ is to understand the verb to mean, “. . . people will take Abram’s blessings and well-being as the desired standard when asking a blessing for themselves:  ‘May we be as blessed as Abraham.’” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible 2003)  This understanding looks at the story of Abraham more like a parable than as history.  It is this way of looking at the text that offers you and me a way forward.

3)  May we be blessed as Abraham.

         As the story of Abraham is told in Genesis, the world has become a place filled with peoples of different languages and different views on religion.  Into this time and space God selects a previously unknown Mesopotamian by the name of Abram.  We know nothing of his previous life other than he is married to a woman who has produced no offspring.

         This Abram is told to leave the country of his birth, to turn his back on his kith and kin and to take a childless wife to a land that God will deliver to him.  It is an invitation that you and I, if we are honest, would most likely decline.  After twenty-four years of living west of Granville, our family is now looking at finding a home in a part of the metropolitan area that really is only a point on a map to us.  We have no idea about neighbourhoods, transportation and public services; all our familiar places are here, bound by Cambie, Burrard Inlet, the North Arm of the Fraser and Georgia Strait.  When the children and I drove to Langley for the celebration of Paula’s new ministry at Saint Andrew’s, Anna wasn’t sure that she had even ever been to Langley!  Now, if that is how we are feeling in a world of cars, telephones and the internet, try to imagine being told to leave the only place you’ve ever known, abandon the fundamental security network of your extended family and travel to a yet-to-be-named country with a wife who has not borne any children, a fact that makes the future look very bleak, very bleak indeed.

         But this is what Abraham does. Everything that follows is a consequence of this act of obedience.  Even when there are moments when Abraham may think things are difficult, he holds firmly to the knowledge that he has done what God has asked.  Knowing this, Abraham trusts that God will not forget the promises made contingent on that obedience.

         If we wish to be blessed as Abraham was blessed, then we must be prepared to undertake a journey to an unknown land that may mean leaving some of our security blankets behind and carrying with us some things that may not have borne the fruit we had hoped.  What God promised Abraham was identity, visibility and continuity.  But the promises are only fulfilled when we are willing to undertake a journey to an undiscovered country.

         What we call the ‘Ministry Assessment Process’ is, in reality, just such a journey towards identity, visibility and continuity.

         It is a journey towards identity because we are seeking to learn what it means to be an Anglican community of faith in the twenty-first century.  I am firmly convinced that there are treasures in the Anglican way of following Christ that are desperately needed in today’s world:  practices of prayer, sacramental worship, intellectually-engaged study of the Scriptures, commitment to neighbourhood, community and world, to name but a few.  Yet I also know how we have been ‘Anglican’ in the past may no longer open the treasures of the Anglican way to others today.  So we journey towards a new identity.

         It is a journey towards visibility because we continue to believe that congregations are not the problem but the solution to Christian witness.  But the challenges of maintaining so many buildings may limit our ability to be visible in the communities that need to ‘see’ us.  Our energy is often taken up in figuring out how to fix aging buildings, heat inefficient buildings and deal with exterior decay rather than our energies being directed into programs and initiatives that bring the love of Christ into all the places that long for the touch of God’s wisdom, strength and love.

         It is a journey toward continuity because we are committed to staying, in one way or another, in the neighbourhoods and regions of our world.  When we talk about the stewardship of the assets our predecessors in the faith have left in our hands, we are seeking to use those assets to continue the ministry begun generations ago, whether here at Saint Faith’s or Saint Augustine’s or any of the parishes of our Diocese.  But the continuity we seek is one that is energetically outward-focused, a continuity that asks how our assets enable us to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ to an increasingly unreligious world.

         I believe that these promises will be fulfilled but not without the courage to heed the summons that God issues to every generation, whether we be Jews, Christians or Muslims:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis 12.1)  It is a summons that I know we are prepared to heed because we have already taken the initial steps.  We know that being blessed as Abraham was blessed is not a privilege of birth nor a consequence of orthodoxy.  To be blessed as Abraham was blessed means having the courage to leave the familiar behind and seek the land that is yet to be found over the horizon.  Only such a blessing is worth the journey.  Only such a blessing brings life and hope to the traveler.  Amen.

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