Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 16, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Well, there’s not really enough in this passage for me to work with, is there? The action is pretty limited: God tells Abram to go, he does, God promises Abram some land, Abram builds an altar.
There isn’t much language or symbolism for me to unpack, either. Bethel can mean “house of God” and if Bethel, the house of God or the garden of Eden, is to the west of where Abram built an altar, we could hear that to the east of Eden Abram still found cause to thank God. To echo last week’s story, despite how far humanity had come from the garden, Abram as everyman constructs a reminder that God is present no matter where we go.
In a different context, I might speak to the issue of God offering up another peoples’ land to Abram, but I think that would be a negative lesson, and we have enough negative lessons these days.
So, again, not really enough to work with for a sermon. I wonder if Abram felt the same way about himself when God called him out.
We don’t know anything about Abram at this point beyond his age of 75, that he is a descendent of Noah, and that his wife Sarai is infertile.
We do not know anything of Abram’s character or why God would choose him. There are no tales of his chivalry or wisdom or might or piety. Noah, his great-to-the-eight grandfather, is described as a blameless and righteous man, but not Abram.
Abram is just an old guy, by ancient Mesopotamian standards, who lives with his wife and nephew, and one day is told by God “You shall be a blessing and all the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Woah! Where did that come from, God? I wonder if Abram felt confused and overwhelmed, and like maybe he didn’t have enough for God to work with, not enough for blessing the whole earth. Perhaps you don’t believe you have enough to be a blessing either.
BLESSED TO BE
Let’s consider what a blessing is.
When I was a kid I did a little needlepoint bookmark that said “Blessed to be a Blessing.” It’s a pretty common phrase. My childhood understanding was that I would feel good by doing nice things for other people. Which is true. It does feel good to do nice things for other people. But I’m skeptical of “doing good” as a full definition for being a blessing.
Part of that is because Abram, later renamed Abraham, does relatively little good.
After God’s call, Abraham often becomes fearful and impatient, and behaves weakly. He gives his wife Sarai, renamed Sarah, to other men for their sexual pleasure. He uses a slave, Hagar, to have a child, Ishmael, because he can’t wait like God asked him to. When Sarah became jealous, Abraham abandons Hagar and Ishmael to the elements. Eventually Abraham and Sarah have a child of their own, Isaac. But when Isaac becomes an adult, Abraham is so unable to be faithful to God that he almost sacrifices Isaac on an altar.
Abraham does not set up hospitals or societies of equality. Abraham does not usher in an era of compassion or a season of jubilee. Abraham does not do any of the works of mercy and justice that we so prize as expressions of our faith.
And God never asks him to. All God says is “Follow me. Follow me and you will be a blessing.”
So being a blessing has to be something different, or at least more than, being kind and doing good.
Jan Richardson, a United Methodist pastor who has written several books of blessings, describes blessings as words we use to give voice to God’s will that we and our communities be whole and well. She writes that blessings are not magical spells that reverse pain we have inflicted or received, but conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1
Blessings are words we use to give voice to God’s will that we and our communities be whole and well, words through which the speaker opens a conduit between the receiver and the hope and help of God.
Being a blessing, by her definition, is an act of speech. A blessing is a moment of words offered by one to another, words that are occupied, words that are enfleshed, by God.
What do you think of that definition? Is that something you think you could do? Do you believe that you have a blessing within you to give? Or, like Abraham, is your first reaction to think you are not enough?
I know that all of you do a lot of good in the world. I know that through your gifts of time, talent, and treasure, you have mitigated pain, relieved hunger, and prevented despair. You have leveraged all of your advantages, some earned and some granted by our racially and economically and sexually tiered society, not only to your advantage but to that of many others.
You have done powerful good, and with great kindness.
But I don’t know how many of you really believe that you are, through no effort of your own, already and always a blessing.
If, as Richardson describes, blessings are not magic, then the people who offer blessings need not be magic, either. The people who can offer blessings are, like Abraham, those about whom there are no tales of chivalry or wisdom or might or piety. Blessing people are people who are fearful and dubious, who sometimes hurt those they love the most, and who break God’s heart often.
Abraham had the strength to leave his home, to do the tangible and practical work that God asked, but he had to walk for many years, testing the limits of God’s grace, before he could believe someone with seemingly as little to offer as himself carried within him something as powerful as a blessing.
I don’t want you to have to walk for as long as Abraham. I don’t want you to think that you are only as good as the works you can do for others. That is not all God sees in you.
Each one of you carry in your person—in your heart, your soul, your solar plexus, your gut, however you feel it—a divine spark ever-ready to catch fire and leap to another, a burning ember which the Holy Spirit tends and builds up when you need the words, the story, to illuminate God’s presence for another.
But sometimes, even in the raging storms of hurricanes and mid-term elections, when it feels like our hands and our pockets and our feet cannot do enough, we need to stop, to look to the altar of blessing God has built in our hearts, and remember that God is always with us, and we are already enough.
1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of Grace. Orlando, Florida: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015.