Sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 6, February 16, 2003, dedicated to the memory of Isaac Ahrens and always to the glory of God!
Genesis 12:1-9; and Mark 1:40-45
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, or rock and our salvation. Amen.
There is a story told in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The story is about two brothers who lived on either side of a hill. One was wealthy, but had no family. The other had a large family, but had limited wealth. One night the rich brother decided that he is blessed with goods, and he took a sack of grain from his silo and carried it to the silo of his brother. The other brother decided that he was blessed with many children and, since his brother should at least have wealth, he took a sack of grain from his silo and carried it the silo of his brother. Each night they went through this process. And every morning each brother was astounded that he had the same amount of grain as the day before. Finally, one night the brothers met at the top of the hill and realized what had been happening. They embraced and kissed each other.
At that moment a voice from heaven declared, "This is the place I can build my house on earth."
The point of the story in all three religions is the same. It is this degree of brotherly love that is necessary before God can be manifest in the world.
So, the question is, can God be manifest in this world? For God to be manifest in this world, all three religions agree, it will take the relationship between two persons, such as we hear in this story, to create and allow a relationship with God. And the truth is, if we are not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, than we are not capable of having a relationship with God. So the question is not whether God can bring peace into the world. The question is: "can we?" (Drawn from , Abraham, Bruce Feiler, William and Morrow, NY,NY: 2002, pp.12-13).
On the hill of three faiths, in the name of one God, in the seed of Abraham - this story of bridging the differences between billions of prayerful people, through thousands of years - still haunts us. We, as Christians meet on that hill in Jerusalem, that hill of the Dome, the Wall and the many churches. Along with our sisters and brothers from Islam and Judaism, we still find ourselves unable to share selflessly the gifts God has given us. We fail to embrace the other ones we meet on the hill. And by so doing, we fail to have a full relationship with God.
I don't know about you, but as I watch the unfolding scenes in the United Nations Security Council, I feel neither a part of a united and uniting nation, nor do I feel secure in the counsel of all the nations gathered. It is often a surreal drama in which the leadership from the United States is neither listening or being heard. Rather than our best hope for world peace, the United Nations has come to be a geo-political battleground. As we watch the build-up for war, you must be wondering along with me, is there no longer a peaceful solution? Is there no longer a way to use the cold anger of diplomatic reasoning, over and against the "hot anger" of our weapons of massive destruction?
This past week on the celebration of `Id al-Adha, in Mecca, a leading Islamic Imam shared his fear with the two million Islamic pilgrims gathered in Mecca that western world powers (no names mentioned) were seeking to destroy Islam all together. I thought this was both frightful that he would feel this way and extremely dangerous to say in such a setting. This irresponsible, fundamentalist comment was like throwing an explosive devise into a crowded room! You expect a terrible reaction!
In the midst of all this angst, this prayer, this wondering - my thoughts return to the Rock - to the hill where the Dome, the Wall, and the many churches stand in Jerusalem. My thoughts return to Abraham, whose beginnings are traced to that place. My thoughts return to the source of all being, to God whose name is Yahweh, Allah, Father - the God of Abraham.
In Genesis 12:1-9, our God called Abram to become the father of all the nations. God called him to leave his native land and his father's house and to venture out to a place unnamed and a future blessed only with a promise. In silence and with total obedience, Abram goes forth. This is an extraordinary request at any level, but it is made even more profound by the fact that Abram is 75 years old, his wife is of similar age and barren, and he has no idea where he is going. His destination is simply described as "the land that I will show you." Later, God will more specifically promise Abraham descendants that will be as numerous as the stars and shows him the land between the Euphrates and the Nile, at the moment of the call, God is more mysterious and demanding.
Also, God never becomes physically manifest to Abram. As we reminded by Bruce Feiler in his new book on Abraham, "There is no burning bush, no dead frogs, no tablets, no water sprouting from a rock. Worse, the voice doesn't even introduce itself. Subsequent biblical figures learn that this disembodied eloquence belongs to the "God of Abraham," and usually you hear a brief curriculum vitae. Abraham receives no such credentials" (Abraham, Feiler, p. 40).
Later generations conclude that Abraham understood the voice belonged to God, specifically the one and only God. All three religions are clear about this. But, the Bible is not. If anything, the Bible is very unclear about the voice and the source. The voice that calls Abraham to Canaan belongs to "Yahweh," or "the Lord." Later, Abraham performs circumcision at the request of El Shaddai, or "Almighty God." He plants a tamarisk at the behest of El Olam, or "the Everlasting God." Abraham appears to serve several gods - or at least One God With lots of names! Perhaps most significantly, Abraham is far from a complete monotheist. He is a transitional figure, with a foot in both the polytheistic and monotheistic worlds. This makes trusting Yahweh even more remarkable. He is deeply rooted in a polytheistic society where gods have physicality and are identified with tangible facts of daily life like rocks and trees, and yet he puts his faith in an indiscernible, immeasurable, unprovable, and wholly other god. Abraham has vision and courage. (Quoted/drawn from Abraham, pp. 40-41).
The power of God's electing Abraham to serve as God's sacred emissary on earth is both enormous and strikingly simple. The enormity of the call is found in God's summons for the world to devote itself to One God. Humanity has failed through many generations to live into its call to follow God's word and will. Now, through Abraham, the world is summoned once again. It is simple, really.
Abraham shows his commitment to God's covenant with his feet, not his words. Silently, faithfully, Abraham joins the covenant with his feet, not his words. He heads out, walking with God. "He doesn't believe in God; he believes God. He doesn't ask for proof; he provides the proof." (Feiler, p. 44).
The power of the call and its meaning for our lives is that in venturing out, in following, God reveals Abraham's true character and full potential. Medieval rabbis interpreted the spiritual journey of Abraham, Lech-lecha as "Go to yourself," as in go to your roots, find your true potential. Throughout the ages, Jews have seen Lech-L'cha as the path, the way, the "going forth" of faith. It has sustained generations of wandering, faithful people.
For each of us in each of our lives, "the path" through the wonders and trials of life becomes our teacher. Some of us, like Abraham, go silently and faithfully into the desert we are called to. More of us, like Moses, argue, struggle, and debate with God - if indeed, we even go forth with God!
The message of Abraham is to go forth. The message of Abraham is to listen and not talk. The message of Abraham is to be alone, to be quiet, to be silent in our listening to God. If you never hear the call in the first place, you'll never know which way to go.
How is God calling you? As one who lives in the inheritance of Abraham, how have you responded to God calling you out to leave the comfortable place and venture forth to an unknown future?
Thomas Merton addressed this reality in a prayer which has been shared here by Pastor Ron Botts and me in recent years. The prayer goes like this:
God, we have no idea where we are going. We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road, though we may know nothing about it. Therefore, we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us, and you will never leave us to face our perils alone. Amen. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude,p.83)
May God grant us the gift of hearing and responding to God's call in our lives. And, may we, someday meet on the hill and embrace, knowing that the unseen God who has created us and calls us is still waiting with eager anticipation to become manifest on earth once more - if we are but open. Amen.
Top of the Page