This is the third sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Before we continue telling the story of the Bible, I want to say about how I think of story. Stories do not have to be literally true to be profoundly true. Stories do not have to be factual to tell us the truth about the human condition and our relationship to the Sacred. When I approach Bible stories, I often think of a saying that has been attributed to a Native American storyteller: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” We listen to these stories again and again to try to find the truth in them and to orient our lives by that truth.
And so… We started our series on the story of the Bible two Sundays ago with — creation! It was good, very good. A beautiful garden abundantly filled with life! Humans created in the image of God! And then, last Sunday: the fall. Humans — desiring to be like God — go beyond God-given limits and broken relationships result, with God, ourselves, each other and creation.
I’m sorry to tell you, but the next eight chapters of Genesis detail more of the same. Things go from bad to worse, actually. Cain kills his brother Abel, and we witness the first murder — the ultimate breaking of relationship, the ultimate claiming of God-like powers, the reversal of creation. Cain goes on to found the first city, the beginnings of what we call “civilization.” (Which doesn’t bode well for civilization, right, if it’s founded by the first murderer?)
The spiral of violence Cain unleashed continues into the sixth generation, when Cain’s descendant Lamech boasts about killing two men because they offended him. By Genesis 6, we are told that humans are intermarrying with angelic beings, which sounds like it could be cool but which crosses the boundary between heaven and earth and is often interpreted as humans trying to become immortal — the very reason that God kicked them out of the Garden of Eden Remember? So they wouldn’t have access to the fruit of the Tree of Life, which would make them immortal?
This crossing of limits, this disruption of God’s created order and harmony has become so bad, that we read in Genesis 6:5-6: “God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. God was sorry to have made humankind on the earth, and it grieved her to her heart.” God decides to press “reset” by wiping out creation with a flood, save for the righteous Noah and his family. Afterwards, God repents of the decision to wipe out creation and vows to never do it again. God makes a covenant — a sacred pact — with Noah and his descendants and with all of creation that God will never again destroy the world. And the sign of this covenant is… the rainbow, of course.
Okay, whew. I mean: All of creation except for this remnant on the ark was destroyed, true, but at least we’ve got God saying God will never do that again, and we’ve got righteous Noah and his family as the humans who will now repopulate the earth. It’s going to get better, right? Wrong. The same pattern of broken relationship and hubris — of humans trying to be like God — continues after the flood. Only three chapters later, the descendants of Noah decide to build a city that features what is likely a Babylonian ziggurat (describe) — a tower, we’re told, with its top in the heavens. By building this tower, the humans proclaim, they will “make a name for themselves.” Not giving honor to God’s name, notice. This, of course, is the story of the tower of Babel.
This story is making is very clear that this tower, this ziggurat, is being built in Babylonia. Remember, Babylonia, the original evil empire, the conquerers of Judah, the place to which the Jewish exiles were taken? Remember, these early stories in Genesis were finalized while the people were in exile. The ziggurat is the means by which the Babylonian gods were believed to enter the earthly realm, descending from heaven via the staircase. Left to themselves, the story tells us, the peoples of the earth were going to build this evil empire, this corrupt civilization throughout the earth. (Insight from the book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters by Iain Provan.) However, God intervenes by making the people all speak different languages. They can’t build their tower, their corrupt civilization, because they can’t understand each other. “Babel” means confusion in Hebrew. That’s actually a really cool nonviolent solution to the problem. Way to go, God 2.0! And so “the multiplicity of languages on earth… is (actually) a blessing of God. It prevents a monolithic corrupt empire from developing unchecked in the world.”
I don’t know about you, but right about now, this story is starting to seem too on the nose. A monolithic corrupt empire that has developed unchecked over the entire world? Hello? We live within an industrial civilization that has now been exported or forced upon the entire world, and this civilization is incompatible with life on this planet. I know that might sound overly alarmist to some of you. But how else do we describe a system that has brought us to the brink of planetary destruction? Our civilization depends on infinitely increasing resources on a finite planet. That just doesn’t work, and we are systematically destroying life on this planet. I never quite know what fact of this destruction is going to break my heart, but on Friday — right before the climate strike march — it was this lead article in the New York Times: “Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.” Talk about the reversal of creation, the undoing of life.
In our story for today, the symbol of this place we are in as a human species is a little sentence, so short it was easy to miss it: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Gen. 11:30). There was nothing worse in ancient times than not having children. It meant your lineage would not continue; it meant you had no future.That’s what barrenness represents in the Bible: to have no future. We, too, are on the brink of barrenness, of having no future for future generations or a very uncertain, very different one.
In our story, God looks at all this mess that humans have created, all this wrong relationship. And God has a few options at this point in the story (from Mennonite Biblical scholar Ted Grimsrud’s book God’s Healing Strategy.)
- One, just be done with this world once and for all. Get rid of it. It’s clearly a failed experiment. But God’s already tried that once before, with the flood. And God has promised to never do it again.
- Two, God could choose coerced conformity. God could say: “You know, that whole free will thing I gave you humans when I made you in the image of me? I’m taking that away. You can’t be trusted to make good choices.” But this would defeat the purpose of creating humans with whom God could have a free relationship. Isn’t that odd? In this story, God desires relationship with us so much that God takes the risk that we might make horrible choices, choices so horrible that they could undo creation.
- The third choice is “healing without coercion.” To heal this brokenness without using force. To re-create the world without doing violence. And this is what God eventually chooses.
God finds this obscure, barren couple — Abraham and Sarah. Let’s be clear, when we meet them, they’re not Jews. That identity doesn’t exist. They’re polytheists, just like everyone else around them, living on the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia. They’re not these saintly superheroes who God spotted and said: “There’s some wonderful, faithful people — I choose them!” For reasons never explained, God selects them to become a people, to become a community through whom God will bless all of the families of the earth. As we read in Genesis 12:1-3: Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation (explain this), and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This point right here at the beginning of Genesis 12 — this is where the Biblical story of salvation begins. We have brokenness spiraling out of control before that, and then we have God’s plan for healing, which begins right here with another act of creation, the creation of a community who will know God and God’s ways. As Grimsrud says: “It is through people of faith living together, face to face, people of faith learning to love and give and take. Through concrete, daily peaceable community life among a specific, particular group of people, God will make peace for all the (people) of the earth.”
A slight detour for one paragraph about what it means to be chosen… That concept has been misinterpreted a lot. Being divinely chosen has been used as justification for racism, nationalism and militarism. In fact, it will sometimes be used that way in the Bible. And it’s been used that way throughout U.S. history. In this story, this is not what chosenness means. Even when God says “I will take you to a land that I will show you,” we’re not talking — here — about conquest of that land. In these stories, the well-being of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants will be tied to the well-being of other communities already dwelling in the land. That’s not true in all the Biblical stories about the land, but in this tradition of storytelling, it is. (insight from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries professor Safwat Marzouk’s essay in these Bible Reflections.) In other words, being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re God’s pampered favorite child and you can throw tantrums and steals toys and treat everyone around you like crap. It means you’ve been chosen for a divine purpose and that God has blessed you for that purpose.
I’m not sure that’s what I would have done if I were God. How are you going to take these very human, very messy people and do anything with them? As we’ll see in the stories to come, Abraham and Sarah and their descendants are not superheroes. They are “sometimes dysfunctional, deceptive and cowardly; at other times, heroic, faithful and courageous” (from The Bile as Story by Marion G. Bontrager et al.). Very human. Just like us. Why would God choose them? I sometimes wonder if it’s because Sarah and Abraham were the only ones who said “yes,” the only ones who left everything behind when God asked them to leave their ancestral lands and their family and go to a new place. Maybe Abraham and Sarah were the 50th or 500th people God had asked, and maybe they were the only ones to say yes. Maybe that’s why Jews, Muslims and Christians refer to Sarah and Abraham as the mother and father of our faiths. Because they said yes.
And here we are, some 2,500 years later, the inheritors of this story and this promise of being blessed so we can be a blessing to others. We are still dysfunctional, deceptive and cowardly; we are still heroic, faithful and courageous. Why would God choose us? And what will our answer be when God asks us to be chosen for the sacred purpose of blessing the world? Because I believe that question is always being asked of us, in new stages of our lives and in new stages of the life of the world. And young people — I am talking to you also. If you don’t know it by now, you are powerful and people listen to you. And you have also been called, been chosen for a sacred purpose right now.
At this historical moment, when we are in a climate emergency, what will our answer be? I’m seriously thinking of these questions, and I know many of you are also. I’m wondering how much jail time I’m willing to risk, how much of the “normalness” of my present life I’m willing to leave behind to devote myself to the sacred purpose of blessing the world. At this historical moment, when creation as we know it hangs in the balance, , what will our answer be? Will we say yes? And what will be willing to leave behind when we do?
May God bless us as we allow these holy questions to transform us.