Sermon by Burton Cooper
Gen 12:1; Rom 4: John 3:1-7
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country
And your kindred and your father’s house
To the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation …”
So Abram went ...
God tells Abram to go, just go, leave your country, your home, your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, your uncles, aunts, cousins, your way of life. Just go, I’ll make of you a great nation, says the Lord, I’ll make your name great. And sure enough, Abram does go. The biblical text just says, “Abram went.” Not a word about any inner struggle, no questions asked, no words of sadness or regret regarding such a parting from everything that Abram holds dear and is familiar with. This silence on Abram’s part is not unfamiliar to us. We see it glaringly so in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, where God tells Abram to take his son to Mount Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering; and, Abram, without further ado, rises in the morning, saddles his donkeys, takes off with Isaac to the land of Moriah, again no questioning, no inner murmurings, not even a word to his wife, Isaac’s mother, Sarah. Scripture apparently thinks that some decisions are too deep for words, perhaps because some decisions are rationally inexplicable. In any case, we always have to remember that when we read the Bible, we are in a strange world. “We’re not in Kansas, anymore.” What scripture does tell us, in the paragraph preceding this morning’s lectionary reading, is that Abram’s father, had migrated from Ur of the Chaldees, which is in the south of what is now Iraq, near the Persian Gulf, (had migrated) to Haran which is in the north of today’s Iraq, near the Turkish border. In ancient times, that’s the Mesopotamian area, and was the seat of the later Assyrian and Babylonian empires which, more than a thousand years after Abrams’ time, over-ran first Israel and then Judah, (in the eighth and sixth century respectively) two kingdoms founded and peopled by the descendants of Abram. Abrams’ father, then, was a Mesopotamian migrant, an alien settling in a foreign land, who no sooner had settled down with his family, and was prospering, when God tells his son, Abram, “Go, leave your country and your kindred,” making of Abram a migrant, an alien, always living in foreign lands.
It’s no wonder that this migrant, alien, character of Abram jumps out from the text these days for our age is one of those great ages of migrations, people coming out of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, fleeing the political turmoil, economic deprivation, violence in their native countries, heading north to more stable nations, nations whose people then worry that their stability is undermined by the influx of migrants. There is nothing novel about human migration, nor anything novel about migration being seen as a threat, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not, so it’s important to be able to distinguish one from the other. As we’re often reminded, this nation is a nation of migrants. We came in wave after wave to a land already peopled. Ancient Israel, itself, was established by those migrating descendants of Abram, Isaac and Jacob, who settled first in the foothills of the the land of Canaan, and then eventually conquered the whole of that land and its native people. It’s probably fair to say that the human race has got a willingness to migrate, even an impulse to migrate, built right into our DNA, our human essence. For as we now know, human life first appeared in Africa, and then, over a period of thousands upon thousands of years, came out of Africa to people every land continent on earth, perhaps over-people it. But when I say that I run ahead of myself.
Let’s stay for a moment with that impulse to migrate. It sometimes arises from living amidst threatening conditions but it also arises in times of stability, from a restlessness with the status quo, a desire for the novel as a stimulant to existence, an ambition to strike out on one’s own, to do great things. Perhaps Abram’s decision, then, is not as strange as it first appeared to us. He hears a voice, coming from deep within him, saying, “Go, leave your kindred, your country, all that you’re familiar with and love, and I will make your name great, I will make a great nation out of you.” It’s a tempting offer. It’s not the first time we’ve seen tempting offers in biblical stories. Just last sunday, in the lections, we heard of the serpent’s tempting offer to Eve, to give her knowledge of good and evil; and of the devil’s tempting offer to Jesus, to give him dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. So when Abram hears a tempting offer coming from a voice deep within him, he has to decide who’s tempting him: God or the devil. And now we can understand Abram’s strange silence, now we know why Abram says nothing to his parents about leaving, nor anything to Sarah about God’s call to sacrifice Isaac. For surely, had he said a word, his parents, like any mom and dad, would have said, “Son, that’s the devil tempting you to leave your family;” and Sarah surely would have said, “Abe, my love, my dearest love, that is the devil telling you to sacrifice your son, our only son, whom we dearly love.” So Abram is silent. He takes the great risk of faith, the risk that this is God, not the devil, calling him forward; and it’s a risk that like all risks requires courage. So our biblical faith is telling us this: when we think that faith is not a risk, that it doesn’t require courage, then we are fooling ourselves.
Coincidental with my thinking on Abram this week, came an email from our fellow parishioner, Jack Barrett, that lover of German literature, containing an article on Goethe, an article whose argument pushes our discussion of God’s disrupting call to Abram into the very dilemma of human existence. According to the writer of this article, Goethe was concerned about the negative effects of change, particularly the acceleration of change, the speed-up of the tempo of life, so that each moment devours the previous moment, leading to a constant unsettling and destabilizing of the social, moral and political order in which human beings need to live. In the figure of Faust, Goethe’s great literary creation, we find a spirit that forges on and on, unrestrained, with limitless desires, seeking all knowledge, and being fed all the time, ultimately to his own destruction, by the figure of Lucifer. Goethe, according to this article, invented a term to characterize the nature and meaning of the speed-up of time. It’s a horrible sounding term, at least in English: it’s “velociferish,” a combination of velocity and Lucifer. In other words, it connects the acceleration of the tempo of life with Lucifer, a dark, destructive force. And, of course, since Goethe’s time, which was over two hundred years ago, and now looks staid to us, time, the time in which we live, has accelerated by quantum leaps.
So what are we to say, we people of biblical faith, a faith which affirms a God always calling us forward, calling us towards change, whether to Abram, or to Moses, or to the Israelites coming into Canaan, or to the prophets calling for a more just order, or to Jesus calling us towards the kingdom of God, or to Paul calling us into a new community, or to Luther and Calvin calling us into reform, (what are we to say) to this notion that our openness to change, even our longing for it, our restless striving for knowledge, has the touch of Lucifer in it, the touch of ultimate destruction. I think of a book on physics that I recently read, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli. It’s a wonderful book, with clear, brief explanations on general relativity, on quantum physics, on black holes, on space and time, but then it has the most devastating of conclusions. The author, a physicist, clearly overwhelmed by the beauty, intricacy and mystery of the universe, tells us, in his final pages, that the very knowledge which reveals the universe’s beauty, has given us the power to so damage life and the environment, that assuredly we will be one of the shorter lived species, that we will bring about our own extinction, or at the least destroy all civilization, and throw us back into primitive life. There was a time when we people of faith thought that God would never allow us to destroy ourselves but when we so think we are like the Israelites who thought God would never allow the Babylonians to conquer Judah, or like the ancient Jews who thought that God would never allow the Romans to expel them from the Holy Land. God does not protect us from the evil we bring upon ourselves, so that it’s a real possibility, not a necessity, but a possibility, that our restless striving for knowledge and power will make us a short lived species. It’s Goethe’s point that this restless striving that drives us forwards has an element of Lucifer in it, an element of destruction. But in faith we say that what drives us forward also has an element of God in it, an element of creative upbuilding, that the acceleration of time has allowed us humans to be more interconnected than ever, more relational than ever, more open to others, more tolerant of difference, even more appreciative of difference, including religious, ethnic, racial and gender difference. It’s as if the human race is simultaneously on two separate historical paths, one fueled by the devil, racing towards destruction; the other fueled by God, by the power of goodness, love, racing towards God’s kingdom, a community where we recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters to each other. It’s as if we live every day in danger, staring at the evils and sufferings and stupidities around us, and yet, in faith and responsibility, we live as though a great future lies before us, a great destiny. I know only too well how hard it is for any of us to so live, to so believe. It requires a huge commitment of faith, love, and trust, of courage, to claim against all the violence, inequalities, against all the lies and hypocrisies surrounding us, to claim that life will triumph over death, that goodness will prevail over evil, that our loving human efforts will bear fruit, that the change we are driving towards is greater community, greater equality, greater justice ... reconciliation with all peoples. So that in the end, in the end, the darkness will indeed be overcome by light.
Praise God for this mercy.