Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
October 6, 2019
Genesis 17:1-10, 15-17
The Sign of the Covenant
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
Barbara Brown Taylor tries to name all the ways she has known God and found spiritual practices, especially outside of the church, and she names that “most of my visions of the divine happened while I was busy doing something else. They happened to me the same way a thunder storm happens to me or a bad cold or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis; the only part to decide is how I will respond. We are going to have so many calls through this month it will be glorious, since there is plenty I can do, namely to make them go away. I can (1) figure I have had too much caffeine again, (2) I can remind myself that visions aren’t true the same way that taxes are true or the evening news, (3) I can return my attention to everything I need to get done that day. These are only a few of the things I can do to talk myself out of living in the house of God. Or I can set a little altar in the world or in my heart; I can flag one more gate to heaven, one more patch of ordinary earth where the divine traffic is heavy, when I notice it and even when I do not.”
We are going to be talking about call this month and the ways we hear the call of God to participate in the work of the world of creating the Kingdom of Heaven and today we are starting not with the “what” we are supposed to do but the “who.” Not what we are called to put our efforts behind but who is the one who is calling: a call to relationship, a call to faith. Some folks in the scripture, prophets and saintly folks, have one big vision of God: they hear a voice, they make their objections on the spot until we finally end with a “yes” and they set about the big epic work of God in certainty and faith.
Abraham’s story is a little different. Abraham, in this story it says that scripture, it took four times of God coming, four sets of promises, proclamations of the covenant God was making with Abraham and Sarah before Isaac was finally born. And in between what you see is a story which is complicated and at times fraught, and yet God kept coming again and again and again. Abraham, the founder of a full three faiths, does not have a simple single story of the beginnings of his faith. And so maybe that has hope for us whose stories of call might be more complicated as well, because it took four different times for God to meet Abraham and Sarah where they were, to give them just a glimpse of the vision God had for creation and the role these mortals would play in it to build a relationship.
So, scholars would say that these four different versions of the promise or call story in scripture come from different sources: that there may have been different oral traditions or written traditions about Abram and Sarai and Abraham and Sarah and at some point someone said, “All of these stories are sacred,” and so did not try to edit them down or try to make a single story that made sense from beginning to end. Instead, they said, “All of these are so sacred and Holy we must save every word.” And so, it means as you’re reading it you get the feeling that this is happening again and again, that in the final scripture we have named we have a truth that is more than just any one individual story, that this experience of the Holy and the making of covenant and promise happened again and again and again. For, Number One: the first time God shows up to Abram and declares that God would make a great nation of his descendants and be a blessing to all the peoples of the world; Abram just needs to pick up everything he owns and go to a land he has never seen before. And when he finally gets there he lays stone and stone to mark the Holy place where God’s promise became real. Number Two: God let Abram in on his plans and schemes and Abram is more than a little discouraged. And so, even though years have passed, God takes him outside and says, “Look at the stars. Get a glimpse of the sky for in this you see a vision of the number of descendants that will come from you, how you have a place in this vast, stellar sky.” And I wonder how many countless others who had followed him had looked up to the heavens and like Abram caught their breath to have a glimpse of the grand movements of God that somehow they held a place. Number Three: At the age of 100, Abram and Sarai receive a new name, knowing themselves as Abraham and Sarah and coming in the same word and breath. And Number Four: Abraham and Sarah see strangers along the road; three travelers that when they invite them into their tent in hospitality low and behold these strangers begin speaking words of promise. Through this act of hospitality, instead what they receive is a glimpse of how they are to be held in God’s love and promise that leaves Sarah laughing.
And so, as we read them all through what we see is God establishing a relationship over years and in each time, some way God reintroduces God’s self to meet Abraham and Sarah again and again wherever they are amidst their doubts, their failings, their ups and their downs, each time to say, “You and I, we will be in relationship with each other. Here is my vision of what will be and here is the crucial piece I think belongs to you.”
There may be folks here, in this community, for whom your call to faith, to belief, feels very clear; that there was a time when the heavens opened and you had a vision of wonder that the Holy was real and you still talk about this moment with hushed tones of wonder as fuel for your faith. And I know there are folks here as well whose story feels more complicated. There may be a story of growing up in a church out of obligation and habit until there was a day when for some reason it felt more real. There may be a story of a salvation prayer, of words of being born again or saved that was named and in the ebbs and flows of life it could be that you would name that differently now. It may be a story of being here, uncertain if faith feels real at all, struggling to put the glimpses of your experience and trying to see if they somehow map onto the traditions of faith and these words.
I can tell you about my own calls to faith, not to a particular vocation with a collar but to the idea that God exists, that the world is infused with the Holy and has a place for me in it, a place not to work but into being, existing in relationship with God. And here is where I need to warn you: you need to dramatically lower your expectations for this story. Because I grew up in a church that supported me and I attended retreats and missions, had many heartfelt conversations with folks, but for some reason none of those are the story I am here to tell today. Because the first time I really had a knock your socks off, deeply felt, world tilting experience of a call to faith I was in a dorm room reading a book. It had been a time in my life where things were seeming rather bleak and flat and I was trying to get by on believing as little as possible because then it can’t be taken away from you. And so there I am, reading a book that wasn’t even the Bible, by the way, and I am just suddenly struck by the deep beauty of the world, by the meaningfulness of this life, how we were in the midst of a web of things that mattered and although there could be the world and all the matter in it banging against itself in a meaningless void, the fact instead was that it was so full and deep of beauty and love and sorrow and our lives and choices mattered. And so, in this moment, with the depth and conviction, it meant for me that beneath it and through it and within it all it was edged with the Holy, that the world didn’t make sense to me without God. And you look back and say, “That’s a good desk chair.” But I didn’t tell anyone about it because how do you start a conversation about a revelation you had while studying? I have always felt a bit odd as someone who has needed to tell my call story over and again, but I think of my first call to faith and feels like maybe I should have had a better story. And yet, I followed that line through all of my life and all of the Holy moments in community and in worship, at death beds and at babies cradles, all the way even to these months apart on sabbatical when I was so grateful for the time to be slow and still and to look out on these beautiful waters that surround us in this area and to see that place where the color of sky meets the color of water in one thin line and say, “Oh, the Holy is here.”
And so maybe for you, too, you think about your story of faith and wonder if those inklings or wonderings were enough to consider a whisper of the Divine, wondering if you need to be in or out, completely certain with a moment of revelation that carries you the rest of your life or on the other hand if you haven’t had that to say that one moment of perpetual certainty or lack of questioning, then maybe it feels like you wonder if you were called at all. And if so, I would bring you back to the story of Abraham and Sarah, the beginnings of our faith, how God called Abraham four times. There is a running theme of skepticism, even in the midst of this. Abraham questions the timing, the age and what exactly it will look like. Both Abraham and Sarah are on record bursting into laughter when they hear what God has in store. What I take from this is that a call to faith doesn’t need to fit into a neat story to be powerful and profound. It could be that the ritual that brought you through these doors as a child has supported and stayed with you since. It could be that you first started on the work of faith and then stumbled your way into the experience of it. It could be that from your rock bottom you felt something that had to be a higher power, or it could be that from your mountaintop, amidst the greatest joy of your life, your heart opened. Your story, whatever it was that brought you through these doors, it is enough, it is a blessing and it bears the fingerprints of the Divine.
I take from this, as well, that whatever you think your story is, just wait because God isn’t done with you yet. Today’s story was set when Abraham was 100 years old, old enough that one might think he would know what his name would be when they chiseled it on his grave stone. And instead, in each of these encounters there is a call to a new beginning, there is a call to the beauty of nature, a call to the encounter of the Holy stranger, and they happen right where Abraham and Sarah are, even when they think they are too old or too cynical or too broken to begin with. Because God is saying, “See what I have in store. I am here to make a covenant with you that I will be your God and you will be my people and I will live in you and you in me, for see the dreams I had for this earth and you have a part, see the stunning beauties of complexity that you are swirling through, see the stories of hope and promise, see these beautiful strangers that are transformed from unknowns to unimaginable blessings.” For when I think to my own life and the places where I have let down my stones that created the altars of knowing, from the places that were earth shatteringly banal to right here. This is a place where I have known the Holy, amidst this community. This is a place where people have been called to faith and where others can come to hear that call, too.
Because, we hear in scripture that sometimes when you contemplate the Holy in its mystery, when you look up into the stars and wonder at the universe in its grandeur, sometimes the universe breaks the fourth wall. Sometimes the Holy meets you eye to eye, calls you by the truest name of your heart. And what is there to do but to pack your bags for what comes next, with a gasp and a prayer and a laugh. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.