Genesis 12:1-9; 17
A word about what we’re doing on Sunday mornings for the next eight weeks. The Treasure of the Core Stories of our Faith is a worship series based on a curriculum put out by Logos Productions called “Adult Crossings: God’s journey With Us,” itself based on some theories I came across reading one of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, in his book: The Bible Makes Sense.
Brueggemann suggests that amidst all the biblical material, “the place to begin determining the shape of the tradition is with the primal narrative, that most simple, elemental, and nonnegotiable story line that lies at the heart of biblical faith…. It is an affirmation in story form that asserts, ‘This is the most important story we know, and we have come to believe it is decisively about us.’” (Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001] 23)
Scholars have identified eight of these core stories forming this primal narrative. These are the fundamentals, the building blocks, the abc’s, the starting place for thinking about God and what God means to us and to our world. So well worth our consideration. For eight weeks we’re going to look at what some consider to be most important about the Bible. Exciting.
The first core story identified is the story of God calling Abram and Sarai, and the first very basic thing I want us to notice is that we’re calling this story, “the call of God.” Not the call of Abram and Sarai (which it could also be called, right?). The story does, after all, have two parts to it: God calls and Abram and Sarai respond. Without both parts, the story doesn’t go on. But in the juxtaposition of initiative and response, the priority (in naming this story “the call of God”) is clearly on initiative.
Now, you could certainly say, there would be no story were there no Abram and Sarai. I kind of did, didn’t I? Without both parts (initiative and response), the story doesn’t go on—that’s what I said, but is that the case? There is, after all, no reason given for their having been chosen. Kind of striking, don’t you think? I remember a sermon on Moses and the burning bush wondering how many people walked right by the burning bush who never saw it, or who saw it but did not step aside to see it more closely, or who stepped aside to see it more closely but didn’t hear the voice of God, or who saw it, stepped aside to see it more clearly, heard the voice of God, but chose not to listen. How many people walked right by the burning bush before Moses saw it, stepped aside to see it more closely, listened to the call of God within it and responded?
The consistency of God’s call—the priority of persistent divine initiative might get masked in an emphasis on the specific ones who heard and responded. The first core story is called the call of God. The first core story is about divine initiative.
Because if the initiative is consistent, the response is eventual. How many “Moses” were there before Moses said yes? How many “Marys” before Mary said yes? How many “Abrams and Sarais”? And if God is speaking to you, will you respond, or will God keep speaking until someone else does? Because the story goes on. This story does go on. That’s our faith. That’s our hope. That it’s precisely this story that always goes on. Get on board or get out of the way because this story is coming through—not in a bulldozer run you over kind of way, but equally inexorably! And that’s good news, and we start with the call of God.
Okay, and we’re right to another place to too easily get side-tracked—wondering whether Abram heard an audible voice. Then wondering are we supposed to hear an audible voice? Or is it more a feeling we’re to pay attention to? Is it one of those ideas that seems to come from nowhere? Is it unmistakable or ambiguous? Is it the voice of our focus on Scripture—our study and contemplation? Is it the voice of mentors in the faith? Is it the story into which we choose to live? Is it the presuppositions by which we live? Is it different for everyone? A burning bush? An angel? A shadow? A presence? A silence? God calls.
I want to step back here for a minute at this point to ask if it struck anyone else that our first core story isn’t the first story. It’s interesting, don’t you think, not to start with creation—especially as good a story as those stories are. And, if you think about it, what are you losing? Creation is also a story of the call of God. God calls creation into being. “Let there be light. Let there be dry land. Let there be platypi.” It’s all good.
But upon further consideration, there are some good reasons for going with this later story as the first core story. First, this primal narrative we’re trying to get at is ultimately not about chronology. So not starting at the beginning is a really nifty way to get that on the table right from the get-go—The Sound of Music with its “start at the very beginning” advice notwithstanding.
We’re not talking about a story or part of a story that happened way back when. We are rather talking about one that’s happening right now—one that’s happening all the time—unfolding all around each one of us. The call of God is the reality in which we live and move and have our being—the consistency of the divine initiative—good news.
Second, in the story of Abram and Sarai, we start with the explicitly relational and the explicitly personal—God in relationship to this one man and woman, and through this one man and one woman to an entire people (the children of Israel) and through that people to all people—all nations. We start with the particular to get to the universal. And we start with the particular to get to the universal in order to (in the fullness of time) bless everybody. The consistency of the divine initiative is focused on blessing everybody. Good news.
So you can still certainly say the creation stories contain everything that the Abram and Sarai story does. They’re personal. They’re relational. In fact, later theological thinking will read the relational into creation not only at the human and divine level (God relates to Adam and Eve), but also as Trinitarian truth (creation spins out of God’s relationship with self), and with affirmations about all creation being in relationship with itself and with God. It’s just more complicated. A harder case to make.
The creation stories are also about blessing. But in the creation stories’ blessing there’s an evaluative dimension, right? God looked at what God accomplished, and God said, “It is good.” Well, that’s fine and dandy, but what’s good is what God did. The blessing in the Abram and Sarai story is more relational. I’m not sure how else to say it. Less about what God did and more about who God is. And again, I think the creation stories are more about who God is than what God did, but it’s just more complicated. A harder case to make.
And while in both stories of God’s call you have God in relationship with one man and one woman and end up with all people, the creation stories don’t start with God’s call to Adam and Eve. Which brings us to a rather significant difference in the stories—a significant difference between the call of God as the creation stories and the call of God as heard by Abram and Sarai story—perhaps the most important difference. Because when it comes right down to it, the later story (the story of Abram and Sarai) is simply a hopeful story. It’s not an awe-full story—in the oldest sense of the word—a story full of awe. It’s not a wonder-full story—a story full of wonder. There are no great acts of divine power. No let there be light—no separation of the light from the darkness—the emergence of dry land from the waters—no platypi in response to God’s call—no miraculous creation of all that is. The part of the Abram and Sarai story we’ve read doesn’t include that line about with God all things are possible. We didn’t read about a crib needed in the old folks home. Just a promise … a promise believed. A covenant. A new hope.
And God promises what? A family—eventually a big family, a blessing, land. And Abram and Sarai don’t get any of that in our core story. Just the promise. It’s simply a hopeful story about God and this man and this woman who could be any one of us.
I want to point out the obvious at this point. Our text is two texts put together: the first nine verses of chapter twelve and then chapter seventeen. In between the two parts of the story, twenty-four years. Abram was 75 when they set out. 99 in the second part of the story.
Remember that bit about chronology—this story’s not about chronology. It’s not about the beginning of a story or the end, but always the middle. Abram’s 75 years old before he hears God. In the midst of it all, God happens. And then 24 years later, they’re all still in the midst of it. Nothing’s wrapping up. Nothing’s accomplished. Nothing’s finished. Nothing’s done. They’re still on the move. They’re still listening to God. They’re still hoping. Which is remarkable, isn’t it? after 24 years—to still be hoping—to still be on the way. It’s not about chronology.
It’s about being on the way—being on the way with God. I’ve been thinking back on our trip to Texas. 4,250 miles in the car. And there’s something about being on the way—being on the way so closely together! Frustrations, yes. The whole “She’s hitting me” thing, and Sydney and Audra in the back saying, “Mommy, stop hitting Daddy. Daddy, stop whining.” But there was always the next thing to anticipate, the next thing to do, the next people to be with, the next place to be.
So what about us as a church? Where are we going—as Christians? What’s the next thing? The next thing to anticipate? The next thing to do? Who are the next people to be with? That’s a trap, I think, actually, in some ways. I’m not sure that’s the way you want to be thinking in terms of let’s say a marriage, a family, a job. What’s next? Who’s next? Where’s next? It’s a good vacation thought! A good thought for nomads or wanderers or … but not us … right? Because we don’t have maps to look at and say, “Tomorrow, there. See how much ground we’ll cover? See how far we’ll get?”
Blake Burleson was with us years ago for the second or third John Roberts Fall Lecture. He’s the one who offered us a Jungian interpretation of Scripture. He’s the one who’s spent time looking at the geographical, physical journeys of Paul as a metaphor for an interior journey. Fascinating.
We don’t have geographical, physical maps, we have relationships. We have commitments. And we look to see how far we’ve come by the health and quality of those relationships—those commitments. Ours is a very simple, hopeful story. And the measure how far we’ve come not by how far the story takes us, but by how much deeper the story takes us into itself and into our sense of self.
But those really aren’t the questions or observations for today anyway. Because today’s not about us. The first core story—the first core affirmation, God calls. We don’t start with us. We start with God, and the consistency of God’s call. The priority of persistent initiative might get masked in an emphasis on who responds and how. The first core story is called the call of God. Divine initiative. Good news.
And this story goes on and on. Because the initiative is consistent, the response is eventual. Are you a part of the story that is inexorable, inevitable, irrevocable, inimitable, immeasurable, inestimable, incomparable?
I invite you today and over the course of these eight weeks to consider what your core story is. What story defines you? Does it start with the call of God?