Sometimes a hint is so blatant that you simply have to accept it. This happened to me recently. Last Sunday after church I looked briefly at the readings assigned for today and noticed the Genesis passage about Abraham. The next day a book arrived that I had ordered. It’s entitled Soul Brothers: Men in the Bible Speak to Men Today. [Richard Rohr, Soul Brothers: Men in the Bible Speak to Men Today. Art by Louis Glanzman. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004.] The first chapter of this book is devoted to Abraham. Moreover it builds upon the Genesis passage assigned for today.
I could take a hint! My sermon for today needed to incorporate this look at Abraham. So this sermon is not just from Charles Hoffacker; it’s also from Richard Rohr, author of Soul Brothers. It’s from Louis Glanzman as well. The book features his striking portraits of certain men in the Bible, among them Abraham. Let’s hope too that this sermon is from the Holy Spirit, for unless it is, whatever Louis Glanzman, Richard Rohr, and I have to offer will be of no avail.
Abraham’s story occupies a significant chunk of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and there are echoes of it in many places throughout Scripture. It belongs to the foundation of Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity. This Abraham has himself a big family! But as Richard Rohr points out, his story may seem a little disappointing, particularly if we enjoy macho adventure. Abraham doesn’t do much that’s special. He’s a patriarch who’s not patriarchal. His performance is nothing outstanding.
Abraham does not measure up to the hard standard that our society and most societies put forward for people of influence. Abraham is not all that interested in sacrificing animals or people. He is not all that interested in coming across as some big-deal hero ready to sacrifice himself. The performance principle is not his game.
Meanwhile, much of the world, then as now, is consumed with sacrificing life, usually someone else’s. Much of the world, then as now, is consumed with heroic ventures and peak performance.
What characterizes Abraham is not sacrifice, not heroics, not performance, but faith in God. The point is driven home, for example, throughout the fourth chapter of St.Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Echoing today’s reading from Genesis, Paul tells us, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” [Romans 4:3.]
What puts Abraham in connection with God is not anything Abraham does or refrains from doing, not matter how impressive. It is that Abraham puts his faith and trust in God.
The same point is made somewhat differently in another New Testament document, the Letter to the Hebrews In the passage read to us today, we heard that by “faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents. . . .” [Hebrews 11:8-9.]
We are told here of an inheritance. An inheritance is something that is not earned, but is simply received.
We are told here of a man who travels without knowing where he’s going. That sounds unintentional, even foolish, rather than purposeful and clever.
We are told here of a temporary sojourn in tents. This sounds, not like summer camping, but like a marginal existence, a loser’s life.
Nothing happens here that is conventionally heroic. Instead, we are confronted with startling novelty. What we have in place of the heroic is, as Richard Rohr says, “a genuinely new notion of religion!” [Rohr, p. 5.]
Abraham’s concern is not with his ego. He is willing to wait in confidence and hope even for a God who appears distant and demanding. This is no easy business. It is no walk in the park. Sometimes it becomes a passage through hell. Yet Abraham is content to trust.
Brought to the limits of his own resources, brought even beyond those limits, Abraham discovers his “Real Resource” [Rohr, p. 7] is the Lord. Abraham has not been exempt from testing and trial. Yet he has heard the Lord say to him, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield.”
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According to author Ken Wilber, religion performs two important but different functions. [Ibid.]
The first function of religion is to give the private self identity, meaning, and boundaries. This is good as far as it goes. It is necessary if we are even to begin the religious journey. We need to know that we are special, that we are chosen, that we are set apart for some important purpose. Our ego is inflated like a balloon. We become confident, perhaps even insufferable. This function often occupies the first half of life and beyond. Many people, no matter how long they live, never move on to the second function.
The second function, however, is the real goal. It is accepted by a minority in every religious tradition, but only a minority.
This is the way of descent, of deflation. It is the narrow gate, the hard road, that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount. It leads to life, he tells us, but few there are who find it. [Matthew 7:13-14.] It means shouldering your cross and walking after Jesus.
People choose this way, when they do so, one person at a time. It cannot be mass-produced. It does not follow automatically from membership in any group.
If the first function of religion is a way of ascent, climbing up the mountain, then this other function is a way of descent, going down the mountain, yes, even into the valley of the shadow of death. There we are called upon not to fear, but to engage in pure trust, even as our father Abraham did. Yet the terror, the darkness, is real, and for a time the sun does set.
Richard Rohr closes his chapter on Abraham with the story we heard two Sundays ago about Abraham haggling with God over the fate of Sodom, the city God is ready to destroy for its sinfulness. [Genesis 18:20-32.]
Abraham gets the Lord to keep lowering the minimum number of righteous ones in Sodom necessary for the city to survive. Fifty. Then forty-five. Then forty. Then thirty. Then twenty. Then ten. Finally the Lord and Abraham go their separate ways.
It sounds almost as though Abraham is more merciful than God! But what is revealed here is far greater than the mercy of Abraham; it is the mercy of God, ever at work. Here we have the theme of the righteous remnant, the salt of the earth, the hidden yeast which causes the dough to rise.
As Rohr puts it, “It seems that God just needs a few willing partners to assist in the redemption of the world. The Great Lover needs only a few conscious lovers to join in a giant yes to life. It is these ecstatic ones, these few who bother the answer to invitation, who seem to be enough to turn the world from its path to mutual and self-destruction.” [Rohr, p. 10.]
A few is God’s idea of critical mass. Indeed, at a certain point it seems these few are reduced to one man on a cross outside Jerusalem. But in every generation since, the invitation has gone out to join the remnant, be the salt of the earth, help the dough to turn into bread. This invitation is directed to each of us.
The Abraham who confronts God a short distance from Sodom argues because he knows God is merciful.
That mercy is the abiding reality for Abraham. It keeps him from sacrificing others and from sacrificing himself. It saves him from heroics and inflation.
The divine mercy which has transformed him he believes can fill the earth with his descendants so that they exceed the grains of sand on the seashore or the stars that fill the night sky. For the divine arithmetic is this: a few in every generation amount to a multitude in eternity.
As for us, we can leave behind inflation and sacrifice and heroics. We can go the way of faith. The gate is narrow, but always open. The road is hard, but always there. Faith sets us free from fear, the fear that rules in many places, but need not reign in our hearts. We can find, as Abraham did, that the Lord is our shield. Our reward, like his, will be great.
––Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.