21 Feb 2016: Lent 2: Abraham



But the word of the Lord came to him …  He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them."  Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."  And he believed the Lord …

There is a book called Son of Laughter in which the author, Frederick Buechner,  imagines Jacob recalling how his father Isaac would speak to him about his grandfather. It is wonderfully evocative … listen …

"When I was a boy, he sometimes talked to me about his father - Abraham, the father of fathers … Abraham was a barrel-chested old man, with a beard dyed crimson and the hooded eyes of the desert.  He had a habit, when he spoke, of putting his hands on your shoulders and drawing you gradually closer and closer as the words flowed until at the end his great nostrils were almost in your face like twin entrances to a cave.

He was rich in herds and flocks, not to mention also in silver and gold, tents and in women.  He was the bane of many small kings and in many ways was more of a king than any of them.  It is said that Abraham talked with (God) the way a man talks with his friend.  He would argue with him.  They say sometimes he would even nag him into changing his mind.  Perhaps that was why my grandfather was the one (God) chose out of all men on earth to breed a lucky people who would someday bring luck to the whole world.

All that and more was my grandfather Abraham, yet sadness always rose in me when my father talked about him.  I pictured him labouring under his wealth and his honours like an ass under three hundred weight of millet.  I pictured his eyes red and bleary from years of whipping sand.  I pictured him groaning, as he heaved himself out of the pit of sleep at sundown to lead his precious train of kin, beasts, baggage, mile after moon-lit mile in search of pasturage and whatever else he spent his days in search of.  I saw him as a homesick, sore-footed man.  A wanderer.  A broken heart."

What I like about that portrait is the insight that faith - the only kind of faith the Bible talks about - is not an easy thing. It is a gift one must struggle to receive one's whole life long.

* * *

This week's text from Genesis is one of the most important in the Bible.  It is the beginning of the story of Abraham, and how he trusted the promise of God enough to leave behind everything that was familiar to him, and become a wanderer in the wilderness places of the world.

He packed up all that he owned and, along with his wife, set out for parts unknown with not even a map to guide them.  All they had to rely on was a voice, which may have been God's voice or maybe just an undigested bit of goat’s cheese.

Now, I don't know, but I suspect that most people, most of you, would probably call that faith: faith being the assurance of things hoped for but not seen.  Who knows why Abraham and Sarah trusted the voice enough to do such a reckless thing.  But they did; and it still fills us with wonder when we think about it.

But, even if we are not Abraham or Sarah, we still know something of what it means to be on an adventure.

Life is an adventure.  It starts from the very moment of birth as an infant enters a new and unfamiliar universe.  The adventure continues as you start school, make friends, begin careers, choose a life partner, start a family. 

Life is an adventure because there is always the element of the unknown as anything new is begun.  We begin new things on FAITH ... faith that whatever the journey happens to be, somehow it will turn out all right.  For people of faith there is a certain comfort in taking adventurous steps because we believe we do not take those steps alone.  As the Psalmist has said, ‘My times are in your hands.’

Abraham believed that.  God came to him and said, ‘I want you to head out into open country.  Don't worry about your destination.  I will fill you in on the details as you go along.’

Abram would have had every reason to say, ‘Wait a minute, Lord. You don’t know what you are asking.  I have a good life here in Haran.  I am respected in my community, I have a good income and many fine friends.  My wife is happy here.  My father is buried here.  And on top of that, I’m 75 years old.  You don’t know what you are asking.’

But the Lord told him, ‘I will make you into a great nation.’

Of course, Abram could have objected further.  ‘What do you mean `a great nation?'  Up till now, you haven’t even made me a great family.  Here I am 75 years old; my wife is 65.  We don’t have any children at all, much less enough to populate a nation.  Lord, maybe you are thinking of somebody else of the same name.  You cannot mean ME!  No, I don’t want to move.  I will just stay right here in Haran.’

Of course, to his eternal credit, Abram did NOT say that.  He did as God instructed and began that adventure of faith that eventually did result in the founding of three great religions.  For all three faiths, Abram became the model of the adventurous, faithful spirit.

There are lots of stories in the Bible about Abraham, but it has been suggested that those stories comprise only about one percent of the stories that are actually out there. There are stories about his boyhood that Genesis never mentions, even one about being cast into a fiery furnace because of his objection to idols - he comes out unscathed, of course.

A book: Abraham: a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler which raises the question of why can't the 12 million Jews, 1 billion Muslims, and 2 billion Christians - half the population of the globe - get along better, especially when one realizes that all three religions share the same family tree?  If all three trace their roots to Father Abraham, and we do, maybe there is something in the life, faith and piety of Abraham that could inspire a greater harmony and peace between us.

The author travelled to the Middle East and talked with spiritual leaders of each faith tradition.  All agreed that reconciliation was indeed possible, but all agreed as well that the task would not be easy.

All looked back to Father Abraham as part of their heritage, but it should be noted that each tradition has recast the Abraham story to suit themselves, a process described as ancient identity theft.

"So what is the message of Genesis after September 11?"  Feiler asked one of Israel's most respected archeologists.
"If you ask me, it's a question of modesty," he responded.  "Why do religious people act the way they act?  It's because of a lack of modesty …  Some people read the text and suffer from a lack of modesty.  They really believed they had all the answers."

And so they wind up killing each other.

He continued, "What I'm trying to do, especially in this part of the world, is to teach people to be more modest.  To explain to them that they don't have all the answers.  If you'll be modest, you'll probably understand the text better, and there's much less chance that you'll do awful things in the name of God."

"So can you find a basis in the Abraham story for modesty?" Feiler asked.  

The archaeologist said, "You can take the story of Abraham and teach people they don't have all the answers ... we don't have all the answers.  We don't know our destination.  And we certainly don't know everything about God.  It would be wonderful if we could all learn that, like our famous forebear, we are works in progress with a long way to go in this life of faith.”

On the last Sunday in March 2000, Pope John Paul II shuffled down the plaza of the Western Wall, reached out a trembling hand to touch its stones, and, as is the custom of Jewish visitors, tucked a note to God into a crevice.

The pope's pilgrimage, the first ever by a pontiff to the Jewish state, was celebrated with days of interfaith prayer, delicately worded diplomatic niceties, and, as might be expected, some squabbling.

The visit is probably the highest point yet in the history of dialogue among the monotheistic religions.  His written prayer, which was later removed and placed in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust museum, reads as follows:

God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations.  We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer.  And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.

"The LORD said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.'"

Perhaps, if we allow him to be, Father Abraham can be a blessing in this contentious 21st century in ways that no one would have ever thought.  Who knows?  That is part and parcel of the adventure of faith, an adventure that Abraham knew well.  Let it be, Lord.  Let it be.