Sunday, September 18, 2022

Sermon: "Father of Hope", Genesis 12:1-9 (September 18, 2022)


Most of you probably didn’t realize it, but last week, we made a shift in worship from using the Revised Common Lectionary to using the Narrative Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary, which has guided my preaching for most of the time I’ve been your pastor, is a three-year cycle of scripture readings based around the liturgical year (beginning with Advent). Its purpose is to ensure a more or less comprehensive survey of the Bible and to prevent repetitive preaching. The Narrative Lectionary, on the other hand, approaches scripture differently. It selects and orders biblical passages in such a way that it presents a cohesive narrative of God’s people. Over the course of each year in a four-year cycle (one for each of the gospels), the Narrative Lectionary moves from Genesis to the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith, through the Kingdom of Israel and the prophets, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, all the way to the history of the early Church, as if telling a single, continuous story.

I was inspired to try following the Narrative Lectionary way back during Lent, when we read through the entire gospel of Luke from beginning to end. But it strikes me how appropriate it is for us to begin this new way of journeying through Scripture at the same time that we undertake the somewhat daunting long-term project of figuring out how to pay for the new roof on the Westminster Center building. Just as the story of our faith follows a long arc with many challenges and twists along the way, so, too, does the story of our particular faith community. And the narrative of scripture reminds us that, no matter what we might think, God can accomplish great things with our meager offerings of faith, however small they might seem to us.

For example, we think of Abraham as the father of our faith, the one through whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled. His is a story of great faith accomplishing great things. But he didn’t start out that way. Before he was Abraham, or “Father of multitudes”, he was just Abram, a man with no children who still lived with his dad. He WAS nothing, HAD nothing, EXPECTED nothing. He had no reason to believe that his life would have any meaningful impact on the world. The Bible doesn’t tell us how he felt about all this – maybe he was relieved that he had few responsibilities, or maybe he was always on the lookout for a way to increase his net worth; maybe he was content with his roles as husband and son, or maybe he grieved his childlessness deeply, as so many of us do. But either way, he would have had to resign himself to the reality of his cosmic insignificance. He lived his life day by day without creating even the smallest of ripples in the world around him.

Then, completely unexpectedly and seemingly out of nowhere, God drops a pebble in the water of Abram’s life. This unimportant, insignificant man suddenly becomes the recipient of a monumental divine vow. God promises descendants, land, and blessing in abundance to this man who has nothing. These aren’t just nice things for Abram to enjoy; they’re important markers of status in ancient times. It would be as if God appeared to someone today living paycheck to paycheck and promised them an advanced degree, homeownership, and a pension, all without any debt. Unimaginable. Impossible. Lifechanging.

But although God makes these promises directly to Abram, he won’t live to see them fulfilled. He never meets the 12 great-grandsons who eventually become the twelve great tribes of Israel. He never sees his descendants settled in the land of Canaan – in fact, the only land he ever owns is the small burial plot he buys upon the death of his wife Sarah. And he certainly never hears his name uttered as a blessing throughout the earth. These were promises made to Abram, but they were all to benefit those who would come long after him.

This is the hardest kind of promise for humans to appreciate – the kind whose fruits we won’t ever see. We might even wonder why God mentioned these things to Abram in the first place. He probably could have contentedly enough lived out his entire life without knowing all that God would accomplish after he was dead. God could have just filled his descendants in later. But the promise wasn’t FOR Abram’s descendants. God deliberately made the promise to Abram himself. God wasn’t, as we might assume, offering the gift of personal prosperity; rather, God was offering Abram assurance that his life would have meaning beyond himself.

We ALL long for this promise to be made to us, whether we realize it or not. We all want the things we do during our lifetime to mean something. But we tend to be fairly shortsighted about it – we usually don’t think much further into the future than our own kin, one or two generations beyond us. We want to be able to SEE that our work has paid off, to KNOW for certain that our efforts have been successful. But that mindset is WAY too limiting for a people who claim to believe in eternal life. It inadvertently restricts the impact that our actions on earth can have. If we insist on proof of our influence, the things we do will only ever reach a few decades into the future at most. God’s plans, on the other hand, extend MUCH farther into the future than we can possibly imagine.

Abram was given both a promise and a choice. He had to have recognized that it wasn’t possible for him to become a “great nation” or a blessing to the entire earth within his lifetime. He must have known that God’s promise was for the future. So he had to choose whether to live for himself and those closest to him, as his instincts would have urged him to, or to live for the future and those he would never meet. And this man who had next to nothing chose to become a nomad, giving up what little he DID have, to put his trust fully in God – all for the sake of a promise beyond his own reach.

God makes this very same promise to Their people today, but it’s a promise that we often struggle to trust – and not without reason. It’s hard to have faith in a future of abundance when scarcity seems to surround us. Over half of all PCUSA churches have fewer than 100 members. The property that the denomination DOES have is increasingly difficult for us to take care of. And it’s difficult to feel like a blessing in an increasingly secular world. We continue to put our time, resources, and energy into building God’s future kindom on earth, but it can be tough to maintain hope without some sort of proof that our efforts and sacrifices will make a difference.

Like Abram, we have a choice of how to respond to God’s unlikely promise. We can embrace our doubt and fear and convince ourselves that we’re satisfied with what we know we can easily achieve for ourselves. We can play it safe, reap the limited rewards, and let the story end comfortably – if disappointingly – with us. Or, like Abram, we can leave behind the things that tether us to mediocrity and throw ourselves, heart and soul, into the work of investing in a future that only God can see – even though we may never directly benefit from it. We can recognize that what God IS offering us is far better than instant gratification – we get to play a pivotal role in a story that will go on, a legacy that grows beyond each of us, a witness to God’s faithfulness for generations to come.

WE may think of Abraham as an impressive historical figure, the type of person destined for great things – but that’s not how he would have seen himself. He would have questioned why God chose him for this great plan, and indeed, whether even God could make such monumental things come to pass through such an insignificant person. But God wasn’t looking for an especially righteous person, or affluent person, or talented person. All God required was a person willing to start the ripples that would eventually grow into a nation, a faith, and a holy kindom. Ripples that would continue to spread slowly but surely over thousands of years, culminating in reconciliation with God for all of humanity through Christ. Ripples whose impact Abram would never see – but that he wholeheartedly believed would come to be.

According to Hebrews 11:13, so many of our biblical heroes “died in faith without receiving [God’s] promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them.” The lesson they teach us is not that faith leads to personal success and prosperity, but that our faithful actions today make us a part of God’s story forever, stretching throughout the ages. Although Abraham eventually becomes known as the “father of multitudes”, perhaps, given his limited perspective, he would better identify himself as the “father of hope”: hope that his life would have meaning, hope that his personal sacrifices would serve the Lord, hope that that he could make a difference somewhere into the future. This hope, together with God’s promise, is what enabled him to take the great leaps of faith that we celebrate today.

Let us, too, be the beginning of a new hope, one that inspires us to look into the distant future and act in ways that reach far beyond ourselves. Let us have the courage, today and every day, to create ripples that will travel beyond what we can ever know. Your compassion today could inspire generations of humanitarians to come. Your sacrifice tomorrow might transform lives that you will never know. Your offering now may empower the sharing of Christ’s love for centuries into the future. Don’t worry about how small the ripples you make might be. Be a parent of hope. And in faith, take the first step towards a holy future known only to God. Amen.

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