Scripture: Genesis 11:26–32 & 12:1–3
Abram and his family were stuck.
Don’t feel bad if you nodded off a bit during the reading of Chapter 11 this morning. Those genealogies can be hard to follow sometimes. But a deeper reading here suggests a really fascinating story.
There was a guy named Terah who had three sons: Abram, Nahor, and Haran. He lived in a place called Ur of the Chaldeans, but he began to move his family south, into the land of Canaan. That’s when they got stuck.
The story tells us that one of Terah’s sons, Haran, died. We don’t know why, but the narrative genealogy has a melancholy feel to it as it reports that Haran died before his father. There is something significantly painful about losing a child. We expect to lose our parents; that is the natural order of things. But our children are supposed to outlive us. So when one loses a child, there is often a deep grief…not only the pain of losing this person, but also a sense that something is askew in the universe. This was Terah’s experience and his grief. The story tells us that the family stopped moving toward Canaan at a place called Haran. Yes. It was called the same name as Terah’s son who had died. Now, perhaps the grief of a father was so great that he named the place where they stopped after his lost son, as a way to remember him. Perhaps it just so happened to be named the same as his son, and he felt the need to stop there as a way to honor him. We aren’t sure why they had the same name, but what we do know is this: Terah never left. He himself died in this place with the same name as his son. The family’s journey from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan stopped in this place…and got stuck.
This is where we meet Abram, at the end of Chapter 11. His brother has died, causing I would guess no small amount of grief. And now his father has died, compounding his grief. Furthermore, the passage tells us that he and his wife Sarai were unable to have any children, a condition which often causes the grief of lost dreams, lost expectations, and very often lost pregnancies. All of these conditions together were coupled with the reality that the family had set out for Canaan—seemingly a considerable time earlier—and never arrived.
Abram and his family were stuck. Stuck in their multilevel grief. Stuck in their indecision, about whether to stay or go. Stuck in their inaction, in the town with the same name as their brother and uncle and father, with no idea what to do next.
Where are you stuck?
A lot of us can probably relate at one or more levels with Abram. The Mayo Clinic talks about complicated grief in medical terms: persistent complex bereavement disorder. Grief is normal…until it is not. Symptoms of complicated grief include an inability to focus on anything but the person or relationship that is lost, an unhealthy focus on or avoidance of mementos or reminders of the person, an inability to create or keep other relationships—or even trust others—because the energy required for remaining in the grief is so high. These intense feelings might be normal for a short period of time, but the “persistent” in the title means that sometimes years later, they remain. Like Terah and Haran, folks get stuck and aren’t sure how to move on.
I have suggested before that the pandemic has created conditions rife for complicated grief. People who we lost, events that we lost, relationships that were lost during the pandemic were often piled up on top of each other—one loss is hard, but all of the losses at once has caused a paralysis. For many of us, the pandemic has kept us from being able to grieve in healthy ways: some families haven’t had funerals for their loved ones, and others haven’t been able to travel to them. And for a lot of us, we have this general sense of malaise or anxiety, and we may not name it as grief, but that is at least a part of what is going on. We grieve the way things used to be, or the comfort that we had in being together with others, or just this sense of normalcy that we didn’t miss until it was gone. It’s grief, and it is often complicated, and it’s hard.
Think about the church context. What are you missing from 2019, or 2009, or 1999 in the church? We have been through so many levels of changes in the last 20 years—our church and The Church—especially in the last 3. And we don’t always name it as grief, but I think it is. I miss Wednesday night programming: the meal, and the kids choir, and the low-key atmosphere. I think it was time, but I miss it. Looking back, I miss life before livestream; don’t get me wrong, I am so glad that we have figured out how to do it, and we talked about it for probably close to 20 years, but it means that we are beholden to different copyright expectations and technical considerations and the World According to YouTube! I miss that simplicity. And I miss people who have left the church. People come and go in churches all the time, but it feels like a part of the family is gone. And it is complicated by the pandemic, not knowing if they are gone or worshipping at home or what is going on. By the way, when people ask me about someone, I always say the same thing: call them. Tell them you miss seeing them. It doesn’t matter why they are gone—if you miss them, tell them.
Like Abram and his family, there are all of these layers of grief and anxiety, and it leaves us just feeling…stuck. Not sure what to do or where to go next. I want to spend some time asking some questions, inspired by Abram’s encounter with God, and see how it connects for us.
But look again at what happens in Genesis, in the midst of a stuck family and a grieving heart: God shows up. God doesn’t leave us in our stuck-ness, but gives us a way out. Abram and his family had absolutely no apparent reason that God would choose them. It doesn’t say “Abram was a righteous man,” or “God was pleased with Abram.” Interestingly, the only thing we know about Abram was about his story of grief. There may have been a great reason why God chose this guy and this family, but the text doesn’t say what it is. Which I find kind of comforting. I never feel like I have the “faith of Abraham,” or Moses, or Mary. But here’s the deal: Abraham didn’t really either. God showed up and granted the grace necessary for the day. The loudest part of the story is that God shows up. Look at this pile of blessings that God promises: land, family, name. Abram didn’t do anything to deserve this stuff, but God gives it to him anyway. Remember that we are living with this language of covenant over these next weeks? In Scripture, covenant with God is never something that humans initiate. God is always the initiator. God offers and is faithful to covenant, even when we aren’t.
One, where is God showing up in your life? I am guilty as are a lot of preachers, in danger of handing you a to-do list for Christian living. But the most important story of Abram’s story is that God shows up. I would suggest that that is the most important part of your story, too. The most important part of our story as a church. Where is God offering us blessings? Surprising us with grace? Abram and Sarai were just people, and then God showed up and used them in a big way. I’d like to be curious with you about how God is showing up in your life, in our shared lives together.
The story continues, and Abram has a part to play. God tells Moses, “Go.” The Hebrew teachers call this story “Lech Lecha” for this directive that God gives. The Hebrew is a little vague. It could simply be an amplification: “Go…now.” Or “GO!!!!” But it literally means “Go for you.” Which I think has some stunning implications. Perhaps God is telling Abram that in the going you will be blessed. This going is for your sake. How often do we find our way out of stuck-ness simply by going and then figuring it out? For a family that feels stuck, God tells Abram “Go to a land that I will show you.” In the blind trust required for you to begin this journey, you will begin to find what you need to complete this journey. Go for you. Lech Lecha.
Two, is it time to go? Move forward? Act? Take that first step. This is not one that I can answer for you, and maybe you aren’t sure how to answer it either. But maybe there is a “go to a land I will show you” in your life, or in our church, that we need to discover together. This might be an outward action, or it might be an inward experience. Sometimes the “go!” is something that happens inside of us. Remember, that the “go…” may be “for us,” what we need. Perhaps the way we get unstuck is just to go and figure it out in faith.
Because look what happens next, when he plays this part. He will receive land, and a family, and a name. But then there is this line: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This blessing is not just for Abram and his family; it is for the world through Abram. God’s covenant was not just a lottery that meant that one family got lucky. This family was given a role. A task. A position in the world. It didn’t always feel like they had won the lottery! Yet, in this chosenness, they have been a blessing. These are blessings for Abram and Sarai, but more importantly, they are blessings through them.
Question three: how are you a blessing today? Not how ought you be a blessing…this isn’t another holy to-do list. But how, today, are you a blessing? Who have you blessed in your church or your family or your work or your school? Abram was blessed to be a blessing, and I think we are, too. As we participate in the going, we participate in the blessing. How are you blessing others today?
Finally, after Abram receives this calling from God, he responds. He and Sarai trust God enough to begin the journey, and they get un-stuck. But it doesn’t say that it happens magically or all at once. It says that their journey comes in stages. They pick up and move to the next place, until they are ready to move to the next one. And if you read the story in its entirety, you see that several times along the way, they set up an altar. Not like an altar where they create a space for worship in the future, but more a memory of what God has done in the past. It’s a symbol of gratitude and thanksgiving. Along the way, they leave markers of the journey. Memories of God’s faithfulness.
The final question for today is this: how are you moving on in stages? Are there ways that you mark your grief? Altars that you set up in order to remember the things that you miss? Do you acknowledge what you are leaving behind? What are your markers for the journey? Maybe you write down words in a journal. Or create something artistic. Or use your spiritual gift of scrapbooking! All of us have some level of stuck-ness out of this pandemic, and it is healthy to name the things that we have lost as we begin new ways of living. As you go to a place that God will show you, are you looking back to thank God for how you got here?
How many of you have been watching the new Lord of the Rings shows? No spoilers, I promise. In our family, we have been watching the Peter Jackson movies to get ready for them. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are classic journey stories.
I think of a scene early in The Hobbit, the first book that reflects the Abram story for me. The great wizard Gandalf shows up in the Shire, where the little hobbits enjoy a quiet and stress-free life. But Gandalf is there to recruit the hobbit Bilbo to join him on an adventure. Their conversation is great:
Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.
Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …
Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.
Bilbo: You can promise that I’ll come back?”
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.
For Christian author Tolkien, the journey became a metaphor for the life of faith. Just like Abram, a great adventure awaits. And he, and we, will never be the same.