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 No Place Like Home

Sermon - 3/04/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Genesis 17:1-14

I began a sermon series last week on covenants. I want to take a look at covenants in the Old Testament, the most significant covenants. And I suggested that these stories revealed to us that faith is primarily about our relationships -- our relationship to God, our relationship to one another. That's the 'big idea' of this sermon series.

Last week, we began with the story of the covenant with Noah, the story of the flood. Did anyone see a rainbow this week? Hopefully that reminded you of that story, of that covenant of God with the Earth.

Well, the next covenant, then, in the book of Genesis, is the covenant of Abraham, and I'm going to read from Chapter 17 of Genesis, verse 1 through 13:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous. 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.

9 God said to Abraham, As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

So if the covenant with Noah is the rainbow covenant, then the covenant with Abraham . . . well, what do we call it? When we have Sunday-school classes and we're telling the story of Noah and the flood and we give them paper and crayons and they draw rainbows and nice pictures of animals:

 

What do they draw for the story of Abraham? Do we call this the covenant of the scalpel?

Once again, as we saw last week, there are some issues with the story, some problems for modern minds. Last Sunday, I mentioned a couple of those with that Noah story, the whole physical improbability of the flood, 375 days they spent on the ark, there's that genocide thing, etc. Do we really think God would wipe out all of humanity like that, and all the animals, save for the few? And all of that is compounded by the fact that the wickedness of humanity is the same after the flood as it is before. So what's the whole point of it?

So if you missed my sermon last week and how I worked that all out, well tough! You should have been here!

By taking it seriously, I do not mean working out the physics of it, I mean working out the meaning. And I found that meaning in the one change that does occur, and I used this painting that my mother created. The symbol of that covenant, of that rainbow, is of the grace of God, the love of God. The one change recorded in the story is not in humanity, the change is in the heart of God, who says 'never again'. And so the rainbow becomes a symbol of God's grace and goodness.



I discovered this week how truly good God is, I shared this picture of our family at the Rose Bowl back in January. Well, unbeknownst to me, someone, somehow, snuck into my office and got that picture off of my computer and made it into a full-sized poster:

 

I mean is that cool, or what? And not only that, but up in the corner:

 

Whoa! Yeah! Chip Kelly's signature! Is God good, or what?! Or at least some member of the church, still unknown to me, so far remains anonymous. Certainly good to me, I do deeply appreciate that, very sweet.



Back to the text. So, the obvious problem, then, for modern, enlightened minds of the 21st century, is what do you do with a religious ritual that excludes one half of humanity?  This circumcision thing is kind of a male thing, right? Fortunately, we don't have any modern-day rituals like that.

Wait a minute, how did that picture get in here? :)

A covenant that seems to justify the exclusive claims to the land, denying not just the rights of ancient people who lived there before Abraham & company, but is still being used now 4,000 years later to prevent Palestinians from having a homeland of their own.


Now, consider this little irony of the text: the covenant of Abraham is actually told twice. Its told first in Genesis 15, after which Abraham receives a son through Hagar, who is of course the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah, and Ishmael, then, becomes the patriarch of Arabic Muslims. And after the second account of the covenant in Genesis 17, Isaac is born through Sarah. And Isaac, of course, is then one of the patriarchs of the Hebrew people.


And ever since, the descendents of these two siblings have been at each other's throats. And this is a gift from God?



My favorite musical theologian, Bono, from the band U2, sings in a song:

"Lay down, lay down your guns
All you daughters of Zion
All you Abraham's sons
I don't know if I can make it
I'm not good on my knees
Here's my heart, I'll let you break it
I need some release, release, release
We need love and peace"

 

So again, we are challenged by the text to take it serious. Thoughtfully, without necessarily taking it literally -- you know, 'God says it's their land, case-closed'. That kind of non-thinking theology will get us all killed. Seriously. It is the ultimate hubris of humanity that makes divine privilege a right that I possess and you do not. Be that coming from Muslims or Christians or Jews or Baha'is or Buddhist, Hindus or any other. Such a perspective is morally, ethically, theologically, not acceptable any more. Did I mention that I'm opposed to the whole idea?

So, how do we take a story like this seriously without taking it as that literal guarantee of God for the absolute right of exclusive possession of the land to the exclusion of all others?

Last week, I ended with the beginning of the Wizard of Oz. Before Dorothy is taken to the land of Oz, and she sings that wonderful song.

This week I want to start with the ending of the Wizard of Oz, before Dorothy returns to Kansas. I need to stop for second. . . . . spoiler alert, I just want to make sure if I reveal the end of the story that I'm not spoiling it for anyone :)

 

Recall that Dorothy is in Emerald City with all of her friends, after the Wizard has taken off in a hot-air balloon because he doesn't know how to work the thing, and Glenda, the good witch of the North, she comes to reveal to Dorothy (who thinks she's now stuck in Oz forever) that she has the ability to go home. She's had it all the time. It's been with her the whole time -- the magic slippers. All she has to do is tap them together three times and say "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home".

See, this is the image, then, that I want to use for understanding this text this morning. If I keep this going, it's either going to be lions, tigers, and bears, or flying monkeys :)

Here's why the Wizard of Oz works for understanding this story. Dorothy is having a bad day, right -- speaking of tornadoes. That wicked woman wants to take Toto from her, and nobody is paying any attention to her, she's feeling neglected, so she runs away from home, and then comes back and the tornado takes her to the land of Oz. Not exactly a hospitable place for a girl from Kansas, and she's got to find her way back home. And of course she has all kinds of adventure along the way, she's going to need some help from some friends, it's going to take some brains, it's going to take some courage, it's going to take some heart.



And that, in a nutshell, is the story of ancient Israel. Seriously. They're having more than a bad day, of course, they've had a back decade, they've had a bad century, right? Things are not going well for the country, the nation has turned away from God, they've run away from home, so to speak. And along comes the big storm and whisks them away to Oz, right? Babylon -- they're taken into captivity, the period of exile. And now they have to find their way back home. And that's going to require a change of heart. It's going to require some some rethinking of their relationship with God. It's going to require some courage to return home.

And unbeknownst to them, you see, they have been magic slippers, they've had them all along. It took them a while, it took them the exile experience to discover that they've got them. So what are those magic slippers?

Now, keep in mind this is metaphor, right? What I want to suggest to you is that the magic slippers that they've had all along is the covenant with Abraham. Now, if you say 'Wait a second Dan, I know that the covenant with Abraham his way back there before the time of Moses, that's 1,400 years', before the period of the exile. Yeah, right, that's precisely the point, they had it all along, just didn't know it.

So, hang on to that thought for a moment while I take you to another foreign land full of frightful creatures worse than flying monkeys -- German biblical scholarship of the 19th century :) Truly a scary place. And a couple of German scholars in the mid-19th century discovered that there are two primary names of God used throughout the Old Testament. One is Elohim, the other Yahweh. Actually, if you look at that song we just did, you can see the difference. In verse 1, "My God, My God", with God written a big capital G and then small letters. That's most likely Elohim. But Yahweh, verse 28: "For dominion belongs to the Lord", "LORD" written in all capital letters, that's how we write in English the name of Yahweh, to distinguish the difference.

So what these scholars noticed is that these uses for the name of God often are in entire sections. In other words, there will be a whole section with just one name, then they'll be another section with the other name. And sometimes it's the same story. The creation story, Genesis 1: "God looked over the face of earth . . .". That's a big G, small 'od'. That's Elohim, all throughout Genesis 1. There's another creation story that begins with Genesis 2, verse 4, and if you look at that verse, second half of verse 4, it says "The Lord God. . ", "LORD" in capital letters, that's Yahweh, uses the name of Yahweh in that second creation story. These are two different stories, and what these scholars suggest is they are two different traditions that evolved over the history, not just about creation but the whole story of the Hebrew people. These two different traditions, likely north and south, northern Israel and Southern Judah, are merged into one to become what we now know as the Torah. Probably taking its final shape about 400 years before the birth of Jesus.

And one of those traditions, one of those sources, is known as the 'priestly source', or just "P" for short, and was likely composed during the period of the exile. One of the marks of the priestly tradition is a major concern with religious rituals, with things like building the temple, rules for priests and, guess what? Circumcision.

In other words, the story of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17 comes from that tradition composed during the time of exile. Now, maybe there's some oral tradition floating along before it comes into its final form, but the point is this final form as we now have it comes during that time of the exile.

Now, if you read the story of Abraham and the covenant with God from the perspective of a defeated people living in a foreign land looking back, rather than a nomadic people (the tribe of Abraham) in a future homeland looking forward, it gives you a whole new understanding of the story. Here are a people in exile, to whom this covenant is addressed, about the promise of a homeland that would be theirs forever. And here they are in a strange land.

I mean, either you would have to see this as a cruel joke, or as a source of hope and inspiration to hang on. That there will be a way back home. We just can't see it yet. In exile, in other words, the story of Abraham is the story of Dorothy, who knows there is no place like home, where one finds one's family and friends:



Now, one footnote to this story: I confess I don't know what to do with this whole male circumcision thing. Except just to note that it is a reflection of a patriarchal society, which does not always translate well into our modern world. Unless of course maybe you live in the world of Rush Limbaugh, but don't get me started on that topic :)

What is most striking is the inclusion of foreign slaves in this story, in the circumcision ritual. Now, sure, we reject slavery now as completely contrary to everything we know about God and God's vision for our world. But do you get how radical it would be to include a foreign-born slave in one's most sacred ritual of identity? And here we see the seeds of a future equality in Christ where there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female, all are one in Christ". Which in turn would be the seeds for the end of slavery altogether, the equality of all people in God. The same equality we see in a Tin Man, a Scarecrow, and a Lion -- all farmhands, remember, they're not part of the family, are they? Well, yeah, they are, aren't they? Who link up with Dorothy, arm-in-arm, on the way to see the Wizard:



So then, back to the big idea the covenant: it's all about the relationship. In the covenant with Abraham, we see that relationship is rooted in a specific location, that place we call home.

Now, the biblical story is about how God continually is at work to restore that relationship, to bring people back home. From the ancient Hebrews living in exile to that prodigal son, living literally amongst the pigs -- it's about finding our way back home.

Historically for Jews, that relationship with God is tied very closely to the land of Israel as their home. Paul makes very clear in Romans that Gentiles are now included in that relationship with God through Christ, so that the exclusive covenant is now an inclusive one. And if that covenantal relationship with God is now possible for us in Christ, then can we see the covenant of Abraham not as an exclusive relationship for some, but as a model for everyone?

A model that says God has a home, a place for all people.

A model that says every nation, be it Native Americans in this country or Palestinians and Jews in the holy land, need a place they can call their own.

A model that says the condition of homelessness itself is an insult against God.

A model that calls for every home to be a place where every child is safe and free from harm.

A model that reminds us there is no place like home. Especially that place where we are at home with God.

 


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