September 16, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 1.2 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “By Stages”: Genesis 12:1-9; “Lot & Abram” dialogue by Spill the Beans
When I was 10, the most sacred place for me was about 15 feet off the ground, where I could perch on a couple boards, nailed across two great branches extending from the trunk of mighty white pine tree on my hill in Ohio. It was sappy, sticky place. But a perfect platform where, back up against the trunk, I could gaze through the trees and down the hill of our property, sing and talk to God… I didn’t realize then, consciously at least, that it was such a holy place. But it was. A lot of decades later, there is one particular bend of Bear Creek where I have often stopped and squatted close to the running water, with my hands clasped, listening, petitioning, sometimes just stopping to breathe. Every once in a while saying out loud, when there is no one around, “What wisdom do you have for me this week Bear Creek?” (Pause)
Maybe you have those places, too, in your life story. As you’ve journeyed through your life, in stages, can you think of sacred spots in each landscape that you have inhabited? (Pause) I ask now, to get you thinking, and I’ll ask again in a little bit.
Though our faith story began last week with at this cosmic and global frame, by the 12th chapter of the book of beginnings, the storytellers home in on a single family, a family on the move. Our particular faith story begins with migration:
Now, the God-Who-Is said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…”
So Abram went…”
It sounds so simple. Abram takes his woman, Sarai, and his brother’s son Lot and all of their stuff and household and begins the journey from Haran (near modern Syria’s border with contemporary Turkey) down through Canaan, passing through to Shechem, stopping at the oak of Moreh, where he receives a message from God. That message is a message of blessing and promise. Though there are people already in the land all around, God promises land, progeny and blessing. Abram builds an altar there. Then he moves on, by stages, pitching his tent and building an altar at least twice more before arriving near the Negeb and Egypt. As Abram journeys through our story this morning, he is not just making pit stops. This is not just a convenient narrative technique to move the plot along. For Israel’s ancestors the natural landscape is sacred space. The places named by our Genesis storyteller are sacred waysides, they are places in the communal memory, places they have been. “Moreh” means teaching or instructing. It’s the Tree of Teaching, the Oak of Instruction, a place in nature where divine messages are received. When Abram stops there, he hears God make a promise. The God-Who-Is makes a promise to bless this migrating family, and through them bless the entire Earth. It’s a covenant. (Pause)
It’s a covenant. We hear that word first in last week’s story, the story of Noah and the Flood. God makes a covenant. And it’s really impossible to overestimate the importance of that word and the impact it’s had now for 3,000 years. What begins as an ancient geopolitical relations model of how a weaker people group could live among or alongside a more powerful people takes on a spiritual life of its own. “Covenant” becomes more than just a contract between two unequal parties who promise to do or not do certain things for their mutual benefit. Though it comes from a form of ancient treaty, covenant becomes so much more than that in our sacred story. We saw it beginning with last week’s story of the Flood and the Rainbow, the sign of a covenant God-Who-Is makes with all of creation. There isn’t in that story the same quid-pro-quo you might expect in one of these contracts. There wasn’t the “if you do this, then I’ll do this” formula. In that story, God-Who-Is starts with a promise, a promise to preserve space under the cosmos for all of life to live. Today, that divine promise continues with a divine call to one particular person at particular places on their particular journey… a particular family through whom all nations will be blessed. That image of covenant gets deeper and expands. “The image of covenant is like a grand chest containing pieces of history, parts of myth, and sentences of theology,” writes Gail Ramshaw. The contents of that chest shape Christian understandings of salvation and sacrament, over time. By stages, God’s people wrestle with this relationship: What kind of God? And how does that God call them to live into the promises made? The ancestors wrestle with these questions by stages, and by stages we see it change their understanding of what this holy other invites them to be. (Pause)
By stages, Abram deepens this covenant with God. Notice that it will be hundreds of years before the promises made by God-Who-Is come true. During his lifetime, the eventually renamed Abraham will mostly wander about, waiting for fulfillment. The promises made will be threatened time and again: first, when it looks like he’ll never have children, then when it looks like his only child will be required to be sacrificed to some blood-thirsty god, later when famine hits the land and his great-grandchildren go down to Egypt where they are enslaved and abused. So many times the promise made will get threatened. A whole lot of time passes before Abam’s descendants come into this land of the promise. It helps to stop here, with this first family and notice that there isn’t anything special about Abram. He doesn’t earn or deserve this blessing in any way. Some in the rabbinical tradition imagined there must have been something, some way Abram proved worthy of this covenant. But he’s just ordinary, incredibly and imperfectly so, right down to his moral flaws. In fact, he is about to make the morally complicated decision to save his own skin. (In the next chapter, he pimps Sarai out to a prince of Egypt, in effect.) Which brings us back to the whole idea of God calling this one person, at the age of 75, to set out, to go, with no more guarantee than “I will show you… I will show you… I will show you.” Abram is the first, but he won’t be the last to receive this covenant as a blessing that takes shape and deepens by stages. (Pause)
So, what are those sacred spots in the landscapes of your life where you’ve gained some clarity about the Holy and how and where it calls you? Where have you stopped to build an altar? (Pause) I realized this week that I’ve build an invisible one in a bend on Bear Creek where a whole lot of conversation has happened with God: What kind of god are you? What are you doing here? What am I supposed to be doing here? Whatever covenant was at the beginning of this story, it becomes a way to tell the truth that faith is lived in relationship, and that it deepens and it grows by stages. Our first ideas of God change and evolve. That doesn’t mean that our idea of God at 77 is more perfect or more real or more right. It’s just that the relationship has deepened. We’ve traveled by stages with this holy Source of Life who keeps extending blessing and invitation for human beings to step forward into the promise. (Pause)
At nearly 78 years old, Joanna Niemann seemed more willing than most to stop and build an altar, to attend to the holy, when, by stages, she gained greater clarity about the God-Who-Is and how that God called her to live. I couldn’t read the story of Abram and not see how much Joanna embodied a life of living and deepening the covenant by stages. Michael said on Tuesday night that at one point in her life, she doubted she would ever darken the steps of a church door again. And yet she loved this place, and kept showing up through the difficulty – and sometimes even pain – of relationship because she believed in this God of love. Her God was always reconciling. To live into both the promise and the heartache of life together was to lean in to receive the blessing. More than anything, that’s what covenant is: Faith lived in relationship, trusting that we are not individuals and islands on our own, but that we are always journeying and traveling with the holy, growing in our understanding of what the Holy is and how we are called to live with it. Traveling and resting and stopping every once in awhile to build an altar so that we might praise. (Pause)
Thanks be to God for all the ancestors in our faith. Amen.
 Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New.