Rev Dr Phil Wall’s sermon for 16th August
Genesis 12: 1-4
So this morning we have given Jersey and Nelly the gift of the storyteller Bible – a wonderful collection of funny, sad, nerve-wracking and heart-warming stories and this got me wondering– what is your favourite story? Yes, I know it’s tough and yes, I’m aware that I may well lose all of you for the next fifteen minutes, especially if I encouraged you to include fiction and non-fiction, stories contained in books and those told on film, those passed down by families, those found in the Bible or those that use language and images that you might not often hear in church…but what, if you were asked over coffee, would you say was your favourite story?
Many of us might chose a story that we came across as children and that immediately brings back how we thought and felt when we first read it. Others of us might be drawn to the story of a film that took us into another world or that changed the way we view this one. Others still will be drawn to a real life account of a person who has inspired us or the tale of a family member who loved us. Whatever the case, I believe that these stories matter. For stories inform who we are, they influence how we view the world, even effect how we interact with one another. In his lengthy book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, experimental psychologist Stephen Pinker, convincingly argues that one of the factors which caused a decrease in violence over the centuries was the rise of the novel, then film, for both made stories more accessible, helping us to learn about the world and one another, encouraging empathy, curiosity and compassion. He cites examples like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist that helped readers encounter people and situations they had never met before and that subsequently transformed social attitudes. Simply put, some stories change the world.
And today’s reading contains just such a tale for those four short verses from the first book of the Bible contain the story of some promises which transformed human history; of a man in whom three of the world’s religions find common ground; of a God who blesses the world; and of a people into whose story Jersey and Nelly’s names have been added this morning. This is the story of Abraham, or Abram as he is known to us here.
Prior to meeting Abram the Genesis tale has been shot it widescreen, giving us stories of cosmic proportions – of creation and desolation; of floods that covered the earth and the nations which descended from the survivors; of soaring towers and the origin of different languages…and now, with Abram, we have been brought in for the close-up – for the story of one man’s experience of God.
So far, we know little about this man, hearing only briefly of his ancestry and family, marriage to Sarai and absence of children. We know nothing of the man’s character; his worldview; his faith…yet suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the Creator of all speaks to him, makes promises to, and demands of, him, and sends him on his way to be a great nation in a promised land. Thus begins the story of the people of God. This then is our family history, the tale of from where we have come, the account of who we are, and as such, Abram’s story is our story.
So, what are we told? What does the Lord say to Abram? God says ‘Go’. “Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. With little introduction, little explanation, Abram is told to begin a new journey. He is to leave his old life behind, to depart from the place where his family had settled, where he had even buried his own father, to leave all that was familiar and to journey to a place not yet revealed to him. To leave your country, family and home was a dangerous act, was foolish because that was the place where you were known and counted, they were the siblings who would protect you from outside harm, the house who would see you through years of famine…and to leave for a land yet to be disclosed? Well, I wonder how Abram explained this with Sarai…or maybe she was the one who reasoned with Abram, who knows? But off they set. The Lord said ‘go’ and go they did…on a journey full of danger and blessing, death and new life, faithfulness and doubt, yet one filled with promise. The promise that God would be with them every step of the way. Would be with them in the hospitality of strangers and the clarity of visions; in the silent glimmer of the stars, the kicking of a babe in the womb, in the burial of a loved one in the dark. God had promised to be with them, beginning to end.
And God has promised us likewise. Today, we have witnessed the beginning of a new journey for Jersey and Nelly. Like Abram’s journey, theirs will be one that sees danger and blessing, new life and death, faithfulness and doubt but it is also one suffused with the promise that God will be with them, as God is with each of us, every step of the way. And it’s worth remembering that Abram was seventy five when he started this particular journey. For God, we can never be too! young or too old, too important or too insignificant to be called onward, to be told to set off on the next stage of our journey.
Of course, Abram’s journey with God was not undertaken on his own. We have already mentioned how Sarai, his wife, though unseen in the verses read earlier, accompanied and encouraged Abram on this journey, whilst Lot, his nephew, has also been named. And in the tale which unfolds, we hear of kings and slave-girls, angels and priests, children and grandchildren who walk alongside Abram. Brief encounters with foreigners and lifelong relationships with family both become the means through which Abram is blessed, held and loved by God. And today, in the company of some strangers whose names they will never know and with family whom they will know all the more with every passing day, Jersey and Nelly, too, have been blessed, held and loved by God. Our stories have intertwined and will never be separated, for through baptism, Jersey and Nelly have been welcomed into a bigger family. A family which is called to love one another, serve one another, eat, laugh and weep with one another. A family which spans the globe and of which there will be no end.
And yet, as the people of God, our story is not one of tribal boundaries, of a salvation club just for the chosen elite, or of a family who only look out for their own. Far from it. For Abram is told that he will be blessed so to be a blessing to others. That in him, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. God’s promise to Abram; God’s founding of Israel and calling of us did not occur so that God’s blessing would remain with the few but in order that God’s blessing would be given to the many. We, too, have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Tragically, of course, the Church’s story, and that of each of us as individuals, has not always born witness to that blessing. Yet, whilst we may confess our own waywardness, may say sorry for the times that the church has tried to keep the blessing to ourselves, God calls us back to the story that grounds all stories. That we have been blessed, through our inheritance as daughters as sons of Abram; in our immersion with Christ in baptism; and through the refreshment and strengthening of the holy spirit, we have been blessed to be a blessing to others.
And so we are called to feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned; to show hospitality to the stranger and bring healing to the sick; to challenge the powerful and give hope to the hopeless…whether in epic struggles against injustice, or in unseen moments of quiet kindness. It may be glimpsed in our bank accounts or in the smiles on our faces. May be felt as a gentle touch to a grieving friend or given as an invite to a baptism party. However we may pass it on, God has blessed us so that we may be a blessing to others.
And finally, we are shown that our story is one that does not end with us. God told Abram to leave all that he knew for a land that was yet to be revealed to him. A land that God promised would be given to Abram’s offspring; a land that Abram did not call home in his lifetime. God’s promise of name and nation; God’s vision of the future did not come to fruition in Abram’s life but his response to God would shape it. In the same way, we have been entrusted with God’s vision of the future – of the kingdom of God – an eternal banquet; a time when suffering will cease, justice will prevail and creation will be restored. This is where our story is heading. This will be our happy ending. We may only see glimpses of this in our lifetimes yet we are called to share this story and to live it; to pray for it and work for it; to find hope in it and to hand it down to the next generation. So that they may hear of Abram and Sarai; of Israel and Jesus; of Jersey and Nelly…so that they may know, delight in and be transformed by the story of God’s eternal and extravagant love for each one of us and for all creation. What a story. What a God. Amen.