Sermon: “Understanding Abraham”

I preached from this sermon manuscript (but departed from it significantly) for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 5, 2023 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 12:1-4a and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17.

My thanks to Pastor Gatton for inviting me back to the pulpit, and my thanks to you for welcoming me.

I thought I might start with a little German academic joke about Abraham being the ur-patriarch, since he was both the first patriarch and since he came from the city of Ur of the Chaldees. I thought, everyone loves a pun. Especially a pun from Mesopotamian archaeology.

But then I though the better of it, and wouldn’t tell the joke. The fact is that there are a lot of heavy material here: Abram and Sarai as religious figures; their role as the fountainhead of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the claims and counterclaims between those three religions; the depiction of sexual and personal ethics in the Abraham cycle that make modern people cringe; and then throw Paul into it. The sermon shouldn’t start with a pun, it should start with a content warning. I’ll do my best.

Review of the lessons in context

Today’s texts deal with faith, particularly the faith of Abram (later renamed Abraham) and the theological importance for his heirs, us included.

We will look at what faith means, because most of us have inherited incomplete concepts on the subject. The heirs — as in inheritors — part is as tricky as the faith part. The Abram-Abraham story arc about appears in the lectionary about once a year, so I’ll take this short reading as license to go further. But there are reasons why you don’t get an Abraham blockbuster from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille. (If you know the stories, you know. If not, look it up in the book of Genesis or ask me in the coffee hour.)


First, let’s put today’s passage from Genesis in context. We’re right at the beginning of the Bible. Reading though Genesis, we have two versions of the creation of the universe with humanity; the separation of humanity from God; the first murder; the rise of wickedness among the people, ending with the great flood (that’s Noah, his family and the ark). God promises not to do that again, but when the people raise up a tower to God, God scatters them — us — into different language groups.

The following section takes from Babel to Teran, Abram’s father, and with it a change of tone. The mythic explanations of the origins of the world, humanity, sin, violence, and nations gives way to a personal story: one family in a particular place and time that had a particular relationship with one God.

As we know, those earlier mythic tales had parallels in other mythic tales of the ancient Middle East. The biblical revelation, you could argue, comes from how those well-known tales were altered. The theology is in the alteration, and I’ll preach about that at some point. In any case, the pivot to figures with a personality and a back story make Abram — later renamed Abraham — and Sarai — later renamed Sarah — seem like historical figures, and this was long believed to be the case. Except there’s no evidence of this. There’s nothing in the archaeology to suggest it. Genesis, as we have it, was first written down centuries after the events in the Abraham narrative and contain anachronisms. The themes of possession of the land, and Abraham’s bloodline through his second son Isaac being all from his own homeland, seems to claim that Abraham’s heirs had nothing to do with the people of the land of Caanan. It is also a story of origins, and we have to know what was intended to say, so you can see where God is revealed. Read literally, it’s old propaganda and nation building, no better than thinking that George Washington “can not tell a lie.” To heard God speak, you have to read between the lines.

In this case, you have to look at what doesn’t make sense. You might think that God would show blessing or particular favor on someone for a particular reason, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. And Abram was to be the father of many nations, he would have a land of his own and he would become materially prosperous. And as if to underscore the story, Abram and Sarah had none of these, and no obvious prospect about how to acquire any of these. The lesson isn’t how to become rich land-owners; the lesson is about the freedom God has to dispense grace. Abram’s famous faithfulness was a response to this grace, not its cause. God is the original cause; how we respond is how we show our faith.

If Abram simply did what God wanted, and then got the benefits, it would be as if God had hired Abram for some purpose. This is what Paul was getting to when he wrote “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” It wasn’t that Abram believed the right thing and that made it so, but rather he responded to God and stayed engaged with what unfolded before him.”

Unlike Abram and Sarai, Paul lived in history, and belonged to another era. Let’s review the second reading. Paul’s letter to the Romans is widely loved, with moments of aching beauty. It is also one of the older parts of the New Testament — written some time in the mid 50s, before the Gospels in fact — and widely recognized as being an authentic work of Paul, unlike some others. It’s important to remember that the Bible isn’t a book as much as it is a library. Romans is among the oldest works in the New Testament, but probably written about seven centuries after Genesis was laid down, and Abraham, were he historical would have lived two millennia before Paul, thus just as far as Paul is from us.

And, as I’ve preached recently — and so won’t go into so great detail again — it’s key to discussions about salvation among Christians. Martin Luther propelled the Protestant Reformation from a study of Romans, and later generations of Protestant theologians known for a universalist or “hopeful universalist” view of salvation will start there.

Abram stands as a model of faithfulness. And part of trusting God, looking back from the 21st century, means that each generation back to Abraham and Sarah will view God in a different way than the one before it. Abraham and those who came before him did not seek out the way we do now, yet he persisted not simply accepting God roboticly, but meditating on the visions that God gave him and interpreting them. Abraham’s faith, as we hear it, was dynamic. In the many generations that follow him, faith that it’s best maintains that dynamic tension with the God who speaks without words, who acts without hands and who cannot be seen with the eyes.

Originally, the God we know as God was national and particular, the god of storms and armies. Some of our language of God throws back to these ideas: The God met at the mountain top, God Most High. We have faith and in this God, Who is the same God who spoke to Abraham and those who wrote Abraham’s story. This is the same God, but not understood in the same way. Not understood in the same way, so trusted in the same way, and thus our faith is not carried out the same way. But the interpretation, the tension, the wondering, the waiting: these have not changed. And in the many generations have followed, we have come to know Abraham’s God: universal, ever-present, wise, patient and loving. And this God shared in a great family of religion that includes half of the people alive today both is and is not the same God who told Abraham to go from Ur to Canaan.

What we cannot do is take on every experience unreflectively as a sign of God’s presence, permission or punishment. Let me give you one striking example. As we make the walk towards Holy Week and Good Friday we need to prepare ourselves to overcome old sins. Paul wrote, “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?” (4:1) And for him, this is a reasonable question? Paul was Jewish, and Abraham would be his ancestor, albeit a legendary one. Christians both of Jewish descent and not had been common in Rome. The religious situation was both different and more fluid then than it was today. Since nearly all of Christians today are not of Jewish descent — not to mention the centuries of Jewish oppression and forced conversions in between — we need to be careful about not collapsing the differences between Paul’s experience then, and our general experience today. The Christian connection to Abraham is spiritual, diffuse and complex.

Christian supercessionism is the doctrine that Christians have inherited from Jews those blessings and promises that God made to the children of Israel. There are variations on the theme, but a typical version is that God cut off the Jews and the Christians were grafted on in their place. Extreme, but still living, variants would go so far as to claim that Europeans are the descendants of the “lost tribes” of Israel (itself a discredited concept) while modern Jews are fraudulent interlopers. A more subtle version of supercessionism talks about the “vengeful God of the Old Testament” versus the “God of Love of the New Testament” implying as though there is something foundationally wrong with Judaism, and ignoring or denying that there can be (again!) any development in how we understand who and how God is: whether from the time of pre-Temple Hebrew religion, through two Temples, the Babylonian exile and the development of rabbinic Judaism, or (frankly) from the age of the apostles to the church today. Indeed, speaking of the Old and New Testaments can suggest that one is finished and the other replaced it.

Christian supercessionism has been a key weapon for justifying anti-Jewish oppression and violence for centuries. Since anti-Jewish oppression is alive and well, it is our moral responsibility to highlight and renounce it. But even if the threats of Christian supercessionism against Jews were squarely in the past, it deserves to extirpated because it blisteringly bad Christian theology, and as Universalists we’re prone to feel this with particular strength.

Covenants endure

The relationship between God and Abraham is based on a series of promises, sealed in his own day with sacrifices, called covenants. And when the human parties to a covenant fails in the relationship, they are restored to a right relation through a change of behavior. Take, for instance, the worship by Israelites of other gods. (Now that was a juicy lurid scene in The Ten Commandments with the golden calf and the earthquake and Charlton Heston getting all grrr.)

The idea of God developing from a storm god and a warrior god, to the chief god, to the one God to the exclusion of all others did not happen evenly. What scripture describes as backsliding — and recall these texts were recorded centuries after the fact and after being theologically processed — what scripture describes as backsliding was probably the development of how the people saw God. But the important part is that God didn’t give up on them; instead the Israelites changed, repented and returned.

When the prophets introduced an ethical concern for the poor and despised, they identified the Israelites’ misfortunes as a God’s disfavor for their abuses, the solution was change, repent and return. But but not abandon.

And this is what we, as Universalists take seriously and take to heart: if God would abandon Israel the beloved, even when it failed, what hope would the rest of us have? But God was faithful then, and God is faithful now. And the details of this trust have to be seen by careful and not casual review of how God moves in our lives, both in the good times and bad, in moment of clarity and unresolved confusion. This is the what the church for.

We can imagine ourselves as Abram in those moment when have moment of decision directs us in an unexpected or atypical direction. We can image, or remember if we’ve had those experiences,

Nancy Byrd Turner, wrote a poem in 1935, used as hymn (“When Abraham Went Out of Ur”) but so far as I know, only used in one hymnal: the blue one that came out between the red and gray ones we use. She wrote:

As Abraham saw dawn, remote and chill,
Etching old Ur along the lonely north,
And bowed himself to his loved earth, and rent
His garments, cried he could not go… and went.

His faithful response told him to go. If and when that moment comes, may we do likewise.

May God bless our paths, wherever we may go, this day and forever more.

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