Note: I have two small churches in two slightly different contexts. This week’s sermon had the same beginning and ending for both, with the middle section differing. I’m placing them both here so that you, gentle reader, may see how the same Biblical text could address each context.
Narrative Lectionary Year 1
Today we move from the story of Noah to the call of Abram. And, there isn’t a whole lot to fill you in on with the chapters that we’ve skipped over. After God makes a covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the earth not to destroy the world again with a flood, we have a strange little story of Noah getting drunk and how his sons treated him when he was drunk. I don’t know quite what to do with that story, other than to say if I had been through what Noah had, I would probably want to get drunk myself. So, we’re just going to leave that there for another time. Then we have one of those genealogies that we don’t know quite what to do with, other than to say Noah’s sons had sons, and the world was populated once more. Then we have a story of how all the human beings used to speak one language, and how one day they all got together and decided to build a tower reaching to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God decides to drop by, sees what they’re doing, and confuses their speech, so that work on the tower is stopped and everyone now speaks different languages. We then get another genealogy, this one narrowing in on the descendants of one of Noah’s sons, Shem, and ending with Abram, who is one of the main characters in our story today. And I want us to take particular note of Genesis 11:30, which is not in today’s reading: “Now Sarai (that’s Abram’s wife) was barren; she had no child.” And after that, we get introduced to the man named Abram.
There is no particular reason that God chose Abram. Out of the blue, we see God speaking and commanding Abram to leave his father’s house and go to the land that God will show him. And God makes three promises to Abram: First, that Abram will become a great nation. Second, that God will bless Abram so that he will be a blessing. And third, that Abram’s offspring will inherit the land. Now, I find a few things about these promises very interesting. First, we just heard in chapter 11 that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren, and Abram himself was 75 years old at this time. So how on earth is God going to give Abram offspring and make of Abram a great nation? Second, God never promises that Abram himself will own the land that God is sending him to, and indeed, at the end of Abram’s story, we find that he only owns the land in which his wife is buried. And finally, and most importantly, that, in spite of his age and in spite of the fact that he has no children and doesn’t seem likely to, Abram believes these promises of God, packs up his family and his belongings, and travels to Canaan. That is a tremendous amount of faith being displayed there.
And so, Abram journeys to the land of Canaan, trusting only in the word of God that he will one day have children, in spite of the odds being stacked against him. This journey that he starts out on in today’s reading, and that continues on in many stories after this, will be a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, and it will take many unexpected turns. The blessings that God has promised to Abram will not look like what Abram thinks they will look like. Abram will give up hope of having children with his wife, Sarai, and when God comes to remind Abram and Sarai of that promise, they laugh in God’s face. Abram will have sorrow and pain in his life when he bargains with God over the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and then looks and sees the destruction of the cities and does not know if his nephew Lot and Lot’s family have survived. He will have further pain when, because of Sarai’s jealousy, he is forced to banish Hagar his concubine and Ishmael his son. Abram and Sarai will eventually die without seeing the fulfillment of the promise God made to them to make of Abram a great nation. But, they will also know God’s blessing in the birth of Isaac to them in their old age, and they journey through their life together sometimes believing, sometimes not, but somehow trusting and hoping beyond hope that God will fulfill these promises that God has made to them, and that their descendants after them will be blessed so that they may be a blessing to all of the families of the earth.
As spiritual descendants of Abraham, we too are on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness. And like Abraham, our journey will take many twists and turns, and the blessings will be found in unexpected places. Our congregations of Salem and St. John’s are small, and in many ways, they may seem barren, especially as we see our membership and our attendance on Sunday mornings get smaller. The blessings, when they come, don’t look like what we think they will look like. But God is faithful to God’s promises, and God has promised us, as those spiritual descendants of Abraham, that we will be a blessing to all of the people around us.
For those of you who haven’t heard from the members of the council who gathered here on Monday night, I have asked our leaders to consider either closing this congregation, or possibly merging with another congregation in the area. I want you to know that I have not come to ask this of you lightly, and that it has nothing to do with our finances, which are still stable. This has come over the last year and a half that I have been with you, watching the congregation slowly fade and lose energy for its mission. I have seen you all exert tremendous amounts of energy for the fundraisers that you traditionally do, and I have heard you worry about not being able to get as many people to help out as you have in the past. I have struggled to find new ways of doing mission in this community and have even brought in folks from the Synod to try and help figure things out, and we are all at a loss. My heart aches for all of you, because I know that you have gifts to share for ministry, and I would love to see you use them in places and in ways that would yield more fruit.
I did not ask on Monday night, and I am not asking you today, for any kind of decision or vote. I am simply asking all of you to be in prayer and discernment about the future of Salem over the next few months. I am here to listen to you and answer any questions that I can answer, but please know that maybe right after worship is not the best time, as I have to get down to St. John’s. My phone number is in the bulletin; please call me and set up a time to meet with me. I believe that, just as Abraham was on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, so too, are we on that same journey. God has fruitfulness in store for all of us here at Salem. But also, just as the blessings for Abraham did not appear as he thought they would, those blessings and that promised fruitfulness may not look like what we think it will look like. God may be calling us on a journey to a new and strange country, and a journey that we ourselves will not see the end of.
And I see this blessing that God has given St. John’s played out in so many ways. If I may be so bold as to say this, I think that we have taken the promise made to Abraham seriously, and we know that we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. Richard Jorgensen, the Synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, likes to ask congregations this question: If we had to close tomorrow, who in the community would miss us? Well, here are a few groups that I thought of:
First, Safani, the daycare that our building hosts. Without us, they would have to look for another space. Next, everyone who comes to our monthly community breakfast. Some months we don’t serve as many people as others. But for everyone who comes, we have given them at least one free meal for that day, which may ease some budget woes for that person. And, I’m beginning to see a core group of “regulars” who come each month—even though they don’t make the transition over here to worship on a Sunday morning, they are forming a community that is beginning to know one another. With the monthly community dinners starting this month, perhaps that community can become even stronger. Another group who would miss us is the people who come looking for financial assistance to help with a utility bill, or groceries, or some other need. As the pastor who gets to help the people with the donations that you all place in the jar at the back, words just don’t do justice to the sense of gratitude and relief that I see on people’s faces when they know that they have money to pay whatever bill is hanging over their heads or to get food to feed their family. Yet another group who would miss us is Family Promise. Without the use of our building and without our support, Family Promise would lose a key spoke in their wheel that might not be easily replaced. These are just a few examples, but I want us all to take note of them when we start to get discouraged about our small numbers. Just as God did great things with Abram and Sarai, who by all worldly accounts were barren and dried up, God has done and will continue to do great things through us, even though the world may count us as dried up and barren.
We are the spiritual descendants of Abram and Sarai. We, too, are called to have great faith in God and to believe in those promises, even when it seems like all hope is lost. And, we are called to that journey which may surprise us when blessings pop up in unexpected ways, which may cause us sorrow and pain when life doesn’t go as expected, which will almost certainly bring great moments of unexpected joy and wonderment, and which we may not see the end of. But, like Abram and Sarai, we know that God’s promises are true, and that we are blessed to be a blessing. And we also know that, when our faith falters, we are not alone—God is with us, and the community of believers around us will carry us along. So, let us have no fear. Let us continue on this journey in faith, remembering the example of Abram and Sarai, and trusting that God is with us and loves us—no matter what. Amen.