Scripture: Genesis 21:1-7
As we begin a new fall season, a good starting point for worship is the establishment of the covenant between God and God’s people. The story begins with the call of Abraham and Sarah in chapter 12 of Genesis to settle in a new land and the promise of a multitude of descendants as plentiful as the stars. It concludes 13 chapters later with the death of Abraham and the birth of his grandsons, Jacob and Esau, thus insuring the continuance of the family line, a continuance that is in question throughout much of the story. In the middle of this lengthy story before they have any children God says to Abraham,
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. (Genesis 17:7-8)
Only there is one small problem. Sarah is barren. The promise of God appears to be still born from the beginning. Then Abraham and Sarah receive three mysterious guests who inform them that Sarah will soon give birth. Now at the age of 90 according to the story, Sarah finds this news just more than a little hard to believe and cannot help but laugh. Then in the subsequent birth announcement recorded in chapter 21, note how the laughter of Sarah is turned around from an expression of doubt into an affirmation of God’s favor bestowed upon Sarah
The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-7)
And so begins the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham and Sarah, turning a doubting laugh into a joyful affirmation, a barren womb into the mother of a nation, a teetering old man into the father of faith. The concluding affirmation given by God in the covenant with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, “I will be their God,” is central to the theology of the Hebrew scriptures and all else that follows this story, including the story of Jesus and the Christian proclamation of the Good News. Thus we hear from 1 Peter, “Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people.” We are invited, through Jesus Christ, to share in that designation as God’s Chosen People. So my question for this morning is this: What does it mean to say that we are God’s people, that the God of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants is also our God?
Several centuries ago in that shameful period of our history when Christians did not want to live near Jews, the Pope struck a deal with the Jewish community of Rome. He would engage their chief Rabbi in a debate. If the Rabbi won the debate, the Jews could dwell in Rome in peace. If the Pope won the debate, they would have to leave. The day of the great debate arrived and all the people of Rome gathered at the Basilica to hear these two spiritual giants settle the age-old dispute. The chief Rabbi, however, suddenly became ill. The Jewish leaders gathered and debated among themselves who could adequately defend their cause at such a critical time. Unable to reach any agreement, they decided to draw straws.
Jacobi, the tailor, drew the longest straw. He ascended the stairs to balcony overlooking the great square where all the people were gathered. When the Pope emerged from his chambers he was startled to find there waiting for him, not the Chief Rabbi but Jacobi, the tailor. Jacobi spoke, “Your Holiness, our Rabbi is ill and could not come. I have been chosen to take his place but since I am but a simple man who has not been educated in the ways of speech, I propose that we hold the debate without speaking.” The Pope thought this to be a fair proposal and agreed.
Jacobi then gestured for the Pope to go first. The Pope nodded his ascent and then stepped forward and in a very dramatic fashion slowly waved his arm in a large circle over the crowd. Jacobi then stepped forward and defiantly pointed straight down to the ground. The Pope responded by holding three fingers up high for all to see. Jacobi held up one. The Pope turned and went into his chambers. After a moment he returned carrying a golden chalice and loaf of bread, which he held high for all to see. Jacobi then reached into his pocket and pulled out an apple, which he held for all to see. At that the Pope threw up his hands and said, “I give up. Jacobi the tailor has won. The Jews may remain in Rome.” He shook Jacobi’s hand and withdrew to his chambers.
His advisors quickly gathered around him and asked what happened. He said, “First I indicated that God is everywhere. The tailor responded, God is right here, and of course he is correct. Then I motioned that God is manifested in the Trinity. The tailor motioned that God is one, which is also very true. Finally I indicated that it is only through the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved. The tailor, however, rightly pointed out that through the sin of Adam, represented by the apple, that all fall short of the glory of God. At that point I realized I had met my match and could never win the debate.”
Meanwhile, all the Jews had gathered around Jacobi demanding to know what had happened. Jacobi shrugged and said, “God only knows. First he said all Jews must go far away and I said we are staying right here. Then he demanded that we had just three days to leave and I replied not one Jew will leave. Finally he brought out his lunch so I took out mine and the debate was over!”
God only knows what it has to do with my first point other than this: behind that debate is the mistaken presumption that if God is our God, then God cannot be their God. The first thing I want to affirm this morning then is what being God’s people does not mean, namely, that God is provincial, that we have certain exclusive rights to God, that God belongs to us and no one else.
This would seem to be self-evident and yet there are many Christians today who still would claim that God does not hear the prayers of anyone but Christians or that God is on our side, whoever the “our” might be. I am continually astounded and rather embarrassed by a few Christian athletes who are so bold to claim after winning a game that God enabled them to win as if God really cares which team wins. That is of course absurd, for we all know God does not care if any team wins other than the Ducks, and maybe the Tennessee Titans now that they have Marcus Mariota!
God is no more the God of the United States than the God of Russia, Mexico, Iran or Iraq. We do well to remember that Abraham was not only the father of the Hebrew people, but also the father through Ishmael of the Arab people.
One of the things we can learn from attentive reading of the Bible is what happens to a people when they become so smug in their belief that because they were God’s people, they thought God would always take their side in any conflict, be it in sports or war or political debates. (These days it is hard to tell the difference!) Instead God tells Hosea to name his son “Not My People” as a symbolic act to show that God could disown his people and would no longer defend them.
So even though we affirm that God is our God, we have no claim on God, God does not owe us anything. If anything, it is the reverse that is true and that leads us to the second point, namely, that if there is any claim to be made when we say we are God’s people, it is God who makes the claim on us.
As American citizens we pledge allegiance to our country symbolized in the flag. That allegiance is conditional. Despite all the talk about separation of church and state, we cite that condition in the pledge of allegiance to “one nation, under God”. In other words, our allegiance to God is higher than our allegiance to our country. Fortunately, most of us I think would affirm that most of the time there is no conflict here between our two allegiances. Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that the two are not one in the same, for there are times when the two do conflict.
Nearly 40 years ago two Catholic priests, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, were convicted for destruction of government property when they broke into a military base, poured blood onto a nuclear warhead and–get this–beat it with hammers. Now even if you disagree with the statement they were trying to make about nuclear weapons, you still have to admire the courage of anyone whose allegiance to God calls them beat swords into plowshares by hitting a nuclear bomb with a hammer! Thursday evening I attended the 30th anniversary celebration of PCUN, the Oregon farm workers union, and heard the story of a woman who climbed over the fence at an Oregon helicopter manufacturer at the age of 87 to protest their involvement in the war in El Salvador.
Each of us, allegiance to God may lead us to some what different positions and practices, but if we are God’s, then we must give absolute, ultimate loyalty to no one else, not even our nation. Drawing upon the lessons of Nazism which made the German state the object of absolute allegiance for German citizens, H. R. Niebuhr, an American theologian but born to German parents, taught that “Nationalism shows its character as a faith whenever national welfare or survival is regarded as the supreme end of life; whenever right and wrong are made dependent on the sovereign will of the nation.”
Thus I would disagree strongly with those who say, “My country, right or wrong,” if by that they mean we must follow our country’s lead no matter what. On the other hand, I would strongly agree with them if instead they mean it is my country, right or wrong and therefore, I share in the responsibility for its actions. I am especially indebted to the friends I made while living in Germany who often said, “I am not responsible for the sins of my parents or grandparents in the Nazi era, but I am responsible to see to it that our country learns from its past and never again promotes such hate and death.”
A friend of mine upon entering a large southern California cathedral which shall remain unnamed but which is made entirely of glass, saw draped from the ceiling to the floor an enormous American flag that dominated the entire sanctuary. Puzzled, he said to an usher, “Excuse me, do you have a cross in this church?” The user replied, “Yes, it is behind the flag.” People, hear me, I mean no disrespect to our wonderful country but when the flag obscures our view of the cross, we have a problem.
Last point. If by naming God as our God we claim that our total allegiance belongs to God, then we also affirm that God is our highest value, that God is the source and sum of all that is, the Absolute beyond and above all principles. Belief in and adherence to such a God that is beyond all else is what Niebuhr calls radical monotheism. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. Radical monotheism, says Niebuhr, is the “reliance on the source of all being for the significance of the self and of all that exists. It is the assurance that because I am, I am valued, and because you are, you are beloved” by the one in whom we have our being.
God is the center of all value and worth, the one and only reality worthy of our worship, our complete loyalty and allegiance. However, our affirmation that there is but one God does not mean people will not place their highest loyalty elsewhere, be it in money, possessions, self or country. The truth is, though we claim to be monotheists, to believe in only one God, we live in a polytheistic society that follows many gods. Martin Luther said, “Whatever thy heart clings to and relies upon,that is properly called thy God.” We may call these other objects of devotion false gods, but that does not mean they do not have real power and influence over us. We may say they are not gods, but so long as people give them their total allegiance, devote their lives to their causes, even when they are good causes, when we base our value systems on them and judge what is good and bad by them, we make them gods. Fascism was such a god in Germany under Hitler, capitalism is such a god in our county, but also democracy and freedom of speech–good things I believe in, but should they be our highest value, the basis of all right and wrong?
Nothing else besides God is ultimately sacred. “No special places, times persons or communities,” says Niebuhr, “are more representative of the One than are any others.” Conversely, every person is sacred, made in God’s image. Every nation is holy, called by God into existence. Every living thing points in its existence to God and every place, from the most majestic mountain to the most desolate desert, is a place where God can be found.
To say then that God is our God and we are God’s people is not to say that we are and other’s are not, or that we are any better than anyone else or any different, save that we recognize whose we are and who is beyond all else that is. As an indication of that recognition, God gave Abraham and his descendants a sign of the covenant. That sign for the descendants of Abraham is circumcision, for us it is baptism. Baptism is a covenant-making act; it is the mark of our relationship with God. To be baptized is to accept the call and the responsibility as one of God’s chosen people. We sometimes call this being born again or born anew. As such it calls up many images of birth and rebirth that all begin with the barren womb of Sarah and the surprising reversal of God’s grace.
In the midst of the barrenness of our world, be it the weariness of endless political debates or worries of the end from climate change, the terror of hate-filled racists with American-made guns or the fear of Muslim students with home-made clocks, the plight of Syrian refugees risking life and limb to make it into Europe or the prospects of undocumented immigrants seeking work and a better life in this country, may we as God’s people discover and share the Good News discovered by Sarah that brings laughter and joy in the grace and love of God.
1 Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 27.
2 ibid. p. 32.
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)