by David Baer, September 18, 2016
Text: Genesis 15:1-6
My wife and I once crashed a family reunion. Actually, that’s not quite fair. It was our first Christmas as a married couple, and we were invited by a friend of ours on an outing to a tree farm in Massachusetts to cut a Christmas tree for our apartment. This friend of ours went every year with her family to the same place, together with another family that was so entwined with her own in friendships and shared experience across the generations that they might as well have been the same family. After cutting their trees, they went back to a rambling, classic New England homestead for egg nog, carols, and revelry. And so we blundered into this 40-odd-year-old tradition. We didn’t know the songs they were accustomed to singing every year. We didn’t know the stories that everyone laughed at. “Hey! Hey! Remember the time when…?” someone would begin, and I would think, “No I don’t!” We were very well treated and made to feel quite welcome, but we still felt out of place, because it wasn’t our culture, our tradition, our people.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever been invited or just stumbled into the middle of a gathering and wondered, “Do I really belong here?” Maybe it wasn’t a family reunion—maybe it was a new job or a community organization. There are markers in these groups, aren’t there, that signify who belongs and who doesn’t. Maybe it’s a certain specialized skill, maybe it’s knowing certain people. What’s the key, what’s the password, what’s the one special thing that serves as your ticket in, and do you have it?
Our scripture lesson this morning is a story about Abraham, or Abram as he’s called in our lesson. He’s often an important figure, when it comes to who’s in and who’s out, who’s part of the family and who’s an outsider. When Jews, Christians, and Muslims want to make connections, we might refer to ourselves as “children of Abraham,” drawing this figure that has an important place in all three faiths.
But today’s story is important not because of what it means for interfaith relations, but because of what it says to you and me personally. When we follow his example—trusting the God who makes a promise to us, and living as though that trust matters to us—we belong to God and to each other.
Let’s look at the story… Many years ago God called Abraham and Sarah to separate themselves from their country, from their family, from everything they knew, and to begin a journey, promising to make a great nation out of their descendants. At the time Abraham was seventy-five, and Sarah was sixty-five, so this was an outrageously unrealistic promise. But they got up and went anyway, living a nomadic existence, traveling with their grazing animals across the ancient Near East. Now, many years later, God shows up in a nighttime vision to reassure Abraham. God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
Now, I think we’re meant to hear some frustration in Abraham’s voice when he answers God. Abraham says, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And then, I think we’re meant to understand that there’s a pause, with no answer from God, so Abraham essentially accuses God outright of having forgotten about the promise: “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But God leads Abraham outside, and shows him the night sky. Have you ever been camping in a wilderness area, away from city lights, so that you can see the Milky Way? That’s what I imagine Abraham is seeing, all the millions and millions of tiny points of light, as God tells him, “So shall your descendants be.” And then the key moment arrives, which is this: Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as tsedakah.”
I used the Hebrew word there for a reason. Our English Bible says “righteousness.” But that’s such a specialized, religious word that nobody knows what in the world it means. And if we’re going to use a word that’s so obscure in meaning anyway, why not use the original word? Look, tsedakah is hard to translate, but it means something like acting in a way that is fair, that is proper, that honors an important relationship. When people who have more than enough share with the needy, this is called tsedakah, because they are honoring their obligation to look after their neighbors. And someone who acts with tsedakah is seen as being surrounded by a sphere of blessing. We sometimes talk with our kids about creating an atmosphere of good, about being kind and generous to others not just because it’s the right thing to do, but as an example meant to inspire kindness and generosity in others. Whether you call it paying it forward or something else, there’s a multiplier effect at work when you show kindness to someone. Something like that is behind the Hebrew concept of tsedakah. When we act justly and appropriately, when we honor the relationships that matter, God amplifies the good in a way that blesses both us and those around us.
In this story, Abraham looks around and sees a situation that is completely at odds with what God has promised him. For that promise to come true would violate everything in his experience and even the laws of basic human biology. But Abraham weighs the unlikeliness of the promise against the creativity and power and, most important, the trustworthiness of God, and God wins out. “I don’t know how this is going to work,” he tells himself, “but if anyone can make it happen it’s God. So I’m going to live as someone whose future looks like the promise I’ve been given.”
The name for this is “faith.” Notice that Abraham is placing his faith in God, not himself. He doesn’t squish up his face and say, through gritted teeth, “I believe in my potential to become a great nation!” If he did that, apart from trust in God, it would just be stupid, ignorant, and foolish. There’s this great story that comes from Lewis Carol’s novel Through the Looking Glass, where Alice runs into the White Queen chasing her shawl through the woods. The White Queen tells her,
“I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.1
Faith is not about believing six impossible things before breakfast. It’s not about turning off the logical part of your brain so that you can pretend that things that don’t make sense actually do. Faith is about placing your trust in the One who has always been a faithful promise-keeper. Abraham didn’t trust in himself and his own inherent potential. He trusted in God.
Notice, too, that what pleases God, what God counts as tsedakah, or loyalty, honor, a fitting and appropriate response, is only this trust. God isn’t interested other qualities Abraham might possess. God could have chosen a different couple to start a great nation. God could have gone with newlyweds in their prime of their fertility. And those newlyweds wouldn’t find it at all difficult to trust God’s promise to them. We’ve honored God’s promise, they’d say, by starting our family. We’re making things happen. God chose us for our strength, our vitality, our human potential. But God didn’t choose a couple like that. God chose a couple that couldn’t make things happen, so to speak, that had to rely on God, to wait on God, to trust God to make things happen. They have no other way to honor the blessing that they’ve been promised. It’s not their strength, not their skill, not their youth that God counts as tsedakah, but a trust that comes from being in a place of vulnerability and dependence.
The Christian story has to do with a promise too. In Jesus, we believe, God came to live with us, as one of us. Jesus lived as a kid and grew up, the way we do. He stubbed his toes. He got hungry. He got angry and frustrated. He laughed. But he was also uniquely, amazingly open to God’s blessing. He touched sick people, people no one else would go near, and they were healed. He touched a few loaves of bread and some fish, and it was enough to feed thousands. He spoke about how the world could be different if a good and loving God ran things and everybody knew it, and people believed it was possible. And the people who thought they ran things didn’t like this. So Jesus also experienced the very worst things that come with being human. He was unjustly imprisoned and condemned. His friends abandoned him. He was beaten and executed in a slow, brutal fashion on the cross, and he expressed the absence of God so many of us feel when we’re hurting. And then he died, and they put him in a tomb, and his friends and enemies alike thought that was the end of that.
But here’s the promise: God raised Jesus from the dead as a way of promising, “My love for you never ends. Nothing can stop it—not the destructive or painful things you’ve done or experienced, not even death itself. Jesus is alive, and you will be too.” It’s an impossible thing. It’s no more likely than a promise to make a great nation out of a couple of childless seniors. And we’re no more capable of making it happen for ourselves than Abraham and Sarah were. It’s a promise that invites our trust, from a place of dependence and need and longing. And it’s that trust that God welcomes and celebrates as tsedakah. It’s what honors God’s gift to us and draws us into the sphere of God’s blessing. And when we hold that trust alongside others who are hoping and longing for the same thing, it knits us together in a community of belonging—not based on being especially good or capable or holy, but based on a common need, a common vulnerability, a common dependence on God to make it happen. When we follow Abraham’s example, trusting the God who makes a promise, and living as though that trust matters to us—we belong to God and to one another.
We’re about to celebrate a baptism. Mason belongs to God, and he belongs to God’s people, and we belong to him, not because he’s especially good or capable. That’s not a knock on you Mason—you’re only 10 months old! But it’s exactly in this position—before we have it figured out, before we can do for ourselves—that it’s most important to see God’s love poured out for us.
If your heart quickens at the promise God makes in Jesus Christ, if you want to trust in and walk with the God who makes that promise and keeps it, if you want to walk with others who hope and trust as well, that’s all it takes. You don’t need to be good, you don’t need to know the right words or how to perform the right rituals. Knowing your need, trusting the promise is all it takes to belong to God. Like Abraham, we’re here not to boast of our strength. We’re here to trust, to lean on a faithful promise-keeper, a powerful protector, a loving God whose blessings outnumber the stars in the sky. Amen.
Lewis Carol, ‘Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There/Chapter V’, Wikisource, 19 August 2012, 02:39 UTC, <https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Through_the_Looking-Glass,_and_What_Alice_Found_There/Chapter_V&oldid=4025817> [accessed 16 September 2016]