A sermon given on February 25, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in honor of Emma Gonzalez and all the children of Parkland, FL who are calling us to listen. You can read the scripture lessons by clicking here.
On today’s cover, we see an illustration from an illuminated Christian manuscript, Abraham and his descendants. In the front, we see the Christian on the left, the Jew in the middle with a yamaka on his head, and the Muslim in a turban carrying the Quran. Abraham himself looks like he is in deep need of a couple weeks of vacation and sleep. After all, the people who claim to be his descendants haven’t always played together very well.
The stories of Abraham are quite significant in Christianity, as well as to the religions of Judaism and Islam. These 3 religions are known as the Abrahamic religions because we all claim Abraham as the ancestor of faith. In the Muslim scriptures of the Quran, Abraham’s (or Ibrahim) story is a well-developed account, second only to Muhammed. The tales of Ibrahim mirror those in our own scriptures but focus heavily on the compassion and kindness of this character and how these qualities are the most important to live a life in union with God.
Since we share the Hebrew Scriptures with Judaism, we share the same narrative and, to a large degree, our religions understand this character the same way – the ancestor of faith. The one who led us all to understand God in the way we understand God today – the unbounded, ever-present, omniscient loving presence… the God of Love, the God of all Life.
The character of Abraham articulated belief in a God of all – monotheism. The stories of Abraham all reflect this in both the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the Quran. Abraham is the model, the archetype, if you will, of an aware life, an enlightened life, a life in union with the God of Love.
Modern Biblical scholarship understands Genesis not as history the way we understand it today, but rather as a set of stories written to help remind ancient Israelites of their common ancestry during a very divisive time in their history. These stories offered a way to help people remember that differences were not as important as what they shared in common.
And the most important thing they shared is their relationship with the God of Love, the God of all life.
As we know, this is hard for humans to remember.
Abraham first appears in Chapter 11 of Genesis as Abram, the son of Terah. And, like last week’s readings, where Jesus went immediately into the desert, the first story about Abraham is one of desert journeying – God sends Abram away from his home of Haran into the desert.
Abram built altars to God in the desert and lived in Egypt as an alien, he traveled extensively and received direct messages from God – one, in particular, a dream in which God offered Abram a vision of his descendants:
“‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions.” (Gen. 15:13-14)
But if Genesis isn’t an historical account, how do we understand these passages? Who exactly are the descendants of Abraham?
As I was coming to Christianity in my 30’s. I had many conversations with my first priest, Bill Ellis, as I struggled with this religion. His responses were never about learning rules or quoting scripture. Instead, they always offered space for me to let God in. In other words, he taught me about faith, rather than about religion. And I am profoundly grateful for that.
My particular struggle in finding my own home in Christianity is that I see truth in many religions. And this was related to the trouble I was having as I tried to reconcile this call to be a Christian with the more extreme fundamentalist versions of Christianity. I couldn’t and still cannot claim to be practicing the same faith as these people. So, of course, I spoke with Bill about this. And Bill’s response was so filled with grace that it has stuck with me.
He said something like this, “I’ve come to understand that I have more in common with people of other religions that I do with many other Christians. Because it’s not about the particulars of how we worship God, it’s about the God we choose to worship. And so I find I have more in common with people who actually worship the God of Love, regardless of how that is expressed, than with people who are more interested in judging others or twisting God to fit their own image. Because they don’t worship the God of Love. They worship the god of fear or, even, the god of hate.”
So, I’d like to return to the question: Who exactly are the descendants of Abraham? Because I believe the answer to be: those who worship the God of Love, who is the God of all life.
It is not Abraham’s DNA that we are invited to inherit. It’s not even Abraham’s religion that we are invited to inherit. What we are invited to inherit is Abraham’s faith, Abraham’s belief in a generative, life-giving God that knows no boundaries. And this faith is found in all religions, in all peoples, in all walks of life from the beginning of time.
Abraham, the original believer, the exemplar of compassion and kindness. The one who knew God to be the God of all life, rather than a localized deity who only loves certain people. Abraham, the one who continually gave his life and his heart to God rather than insisting that God do his selfish bidding.
Abraham is the one who understands that this journey with God is a covenant that human beings must actively participate in. We give of ourselves and God gives us what we need. It is a faith that calls us to service of God to one another.
Abraham’s faith acknowledges that all comes from God and all belongs to God so all we have and do is offered to God. The truth articulated in this faith is so basic and deep, so expansive and generative that it is beyond the walls of nation and religion, and the limits of tribe and law.
And God promised that multitudes of peoples would learn this truth and come to exemplify the same compassion and kindness that Abraham did. God promised that leaders would arise from this awareness, that God is the God of all Life, which is what Abraham taught us. God promised that this covenant would be everlasting. And so it is. Because here we are – the inheritors of Abraham’s faith.
And what is most helpful to remember is that the stories of Abraham were written for a people who were divided to help them remember the deeper truth as articulated in God’s covenant with Abraham: It is the God of Love that binds us all together. It is the God of Love who will find a way to return us to Love by turning worldly power on its head.
Remember God speaking to Abraham about his descendants? … your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed… but I will bring judgement on the people who enslaved them…
This is the same declaration given to us in the Magnificat:
God has brought the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
It’s the same message given to us by Jesus in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful…
It’s the same prophecy given to us in Isaiah chapter 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The stories of the Hebrew Scriptures aren’t about things that happened a long time ago or entertaining myths we can toss aside. These stories are about us, about what we are experiencing right now. And it is at our own peril If we refuse to find guidance in them.
When we are deeply divided and we find ourselves in untenable, tension-filled times… and then we try to look for safety in the echo-chambers of our opinions… it’s because the powers that be have us all rattling our swords. This is when the God of Love lifts up the lowly and blesses the peacemakers and the merciful.
This is when the God of Love lays low the rich and powerful and cuts through the cacophony of the world by speaking through the voices of children, the truly powerless in any society. “A little child shall lead them.”
For a descendant of Abraham, these are beacons of hope in a dark world, calling us back to the God of Love, back to compassion and kindness. The God of Love will always call to us in our disparate, lonely places, inviting us to accept our inheritance and become Abraham’s descendants in faith once again.
Because when the world has stopped making sense and we’ve grown staunch in our opinions, refusing to listen to each other, the voices of children will always rise above the din and lead us back to God.
Are we listening? Will we follow?
This is the covenant that is everlasting:
We are each other’s keeper. We always have been. We always will be.
May we listen to the voices of the children.
May we accept our inheritance.