Abram went

Abram went

March 16, 2014
Stina Pope


How is your Lent going so far? Are you finding yourself blessed, or harried? Joyful, or overwhelmed?When I look at the lessons for today, there are so many wonderful gifts for us there. There are questions for us to ponder, questions about what our orientation is, what is important, and not.

First we read about Abram, a head of a large household, a man that God talked to. A quick note on the use of story here. The Hebrew writers used story as a way to get across a point. The better the story, the more important the point. We might be inclined to think, OK, then, what we need to focus on is the point, not the story. I don’t think so. What I think is that we need to allow ourselves to “get” the point by immersing ourselves in the story. Have you ever gone to a play, or even been in a movie, where you were so caught up in what was going on that you felt changed by being there? It is especially true in a play, where the actors essentially feed off of the energy of the audience, and the audience is therefore necessary for the play to happen. You can rehearse all you like, it is difference when the audience is there! Can we allow ourselves to be changed by a story?

So back to this story of Abram. This snippet we heard is just that, a snippet of a very long and involved story, part of which includes Abram’s nephew, Lot. But imagine, if you will, that Abram is a seeker after God, and the joy that he feels when God speaks to him, and the astonishment, and then the alarm at what God has said. God said to leave his homeland, and go to a new place. Some of us know how terrifying that can be.

In the Middle East, even today, one does not simply up and move. It is hard for us to fathom how impossible what Abram has done here in those two simple words, “Abram went.” When Abram went, it was not just Abram, it was an entire household, complete with slaves and animals, and everything needed to keep them alive in the desert.

Are we God-seekers? What would we do if we heard God’s word in the night, telling us to do something that seemed impossible, or ridiculous? Would we tell ourselves that it was just a bad dream and turn over and go back to sleep? Or would we lie awake wondering what had just happened, and wondering how our families were going to deal with this? Would we be willing to be called crazy?

Let us move on to the Psalm. This is one of my very favorite psalms, and we use it frequently at funerals. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come?” The hills are where the outlaws hid, the ones who had escaped from the latest rulers. It was a normal thing to think about the hills as a place of both refuge and help. If you had enough warning, when the soldiers came, you would literally head for the hills. And the hills was where help came from, if there was any to be had.

But no, the Psalmist says, my help does not come from the hills, my help comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth. In spite of the way things may look now, we believe that the Lord is in charge of our lives, and because of that, we can live our lives joyfully, no matter what is going on. It is an extremely powerful concept. If you want peace, here it is.

When we move on to Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addresses this passage about Abram believing God and acting on it in faith that what God said was worthy of belief. Paul uses this to say yes, this is the way we should be, stepping forward in faith. For Paul, this is the critical piece of Genesis, and indeed, we need to understand this as well. Up until now, the story in Genesis has been about the creation and humanity’s response to God, which was not very good. Here we have God interacting directly with Abram, just like God interacted with Adam in the Garden. Something very different is happening here. God offers Abram relationship, and Abram takes it.

Then we get to John, and the story of Nicodemus, a leader in the community. By the time we get to the writing of John, the author has to clarify that Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews, but for Jesus, Nicodemus would simply have been a leader in the community. Because he was a leader, he came at night. Jesus was already getting to be known, and Nicodemus was no fool about the political ramifications.

The biblical scholars tell us to pay attention when we see the words “very truly” or more commonly, “truly, truly” and then “I tell you,” because the scholars pretty much agree that when we see that, it means that Jesus actually said those words. Now we still must be very careful, because we don’t know what the context might have been, especially in the Gospel of John, written so long after Jesus’ death, after the fall of the Temple, and after all the letters of Paul!

But what can we learn from this? “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This is one of those things that makes a lot of sense to me. The kingdom of God is obviously not one of those things that can be seen with normal eyes – it’s a God thing! So your eyes need to be opened some how, you have to be “reborn” with new eyes. Nicodemus gets tangled up in the literalness of this concept – how can anyone be born again, he asks. Jesus says, that’s not the point! A spiritual rebirth is not the same as a physical birth.

All of these lessons lead us to the same place. There is a radical re-orientation that is called for if we are to be spiritual. It is as though we have been taught to look down all of our lives, and now we are being told to look up. When you have learned to look down at the earth, then trying to look up is hard at first. It does not come naturally. Our backs hurt when we try to straighten up, our eyes are not used to that much sunlight, and we run into things!

But think about it: slaves look down, free people look up! We were made to look up, and to dance. One tradition in Judaism has people always praying to God with their hands up in the air, and sometimes, dancing. We have the priest with hands up during prayer, but praying like this with hands and arms up in the air feels like a very different thing than us kneeling and bowing our heads. Perhaps there is a time for both.

This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Lent, and we were in Antigua, Guatemala. They have a huge procession there, and our group went out to see. The church was on one side of a square, which is rather typical there, and the square was jammed with people, including a lot of men dressed in purple. There were a couple of bands playing music, and then suddenly we could tell that something was happening inside the church. Out came a long float, which was carried by the men in purple. SAM_1183The float took off down the street, followed by the band. We were in one of the suburbs of town, and we were told that it would be carried all day through the streets until it had gone past the cathedral in the middle of town. Then there was another blast from the second band, and another smaller float came out with Mary on it. The first float had Jesus carrying the cross.

Sue and I pondered how different their celebration of Lent was from ours. Ours is austere, theirs is flamboyant. It certainly got our attention. But it strikes me that it is that very deep kind of re-orientation that we are invited into with this set of readings. A man who is settled is invited to move. A man is invited to see with different eyes. And what about us? What are we being invited into?

As we went to see village women in their homes, we learned how to make tortillas, how to use a backstrap loom, how to stuff eggs with confetti for Carnival, I found myself re-evaluating what was important, and what was not, making that re-orientation that is called for in Lent.

One of the other things that is important to remember is that Abram had no idea where he would end up when he left Tehran. Nicodemus had no idea where he would end up after meeting with Jesus. Both men were changed by their encounters. We never know what is going to happen next, but when we open ourselves to the possibility that something new is available if we will open our eyes to see it, then we can step into a new world. It is not always easy, not always fun and games, but it enlarges us as it enlarges our world.

And we do not need to go to Guatemala to find new things. This is what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. What we need is to open our eyes in new ways. One of the brothers of SSJE suggests looking for expressions of God throughout the day, just small ones, and writing them down each night. When we do that, we will find that we “see” more than we did before, because we look for them. I think it works both ways, that we see more, and when we look, more appears for us to see.

What are you willing to see this Lent? Do you want to open your eyes to the glory of God? What might happen? Who knows!