God said, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram [which means “noble father”], but your name shall be Abraham [which means “father of many”]; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations… As for Sarai [a name which means “princess”],… Sarah shall be her name [which means “mother of nations”].”
This is God’s covenant promise with Abraham.
Perhaps you recall from last week that a covenant is an agreement between two people or parties who desire to be bound in a deep, committed relationship. It declares the blessings of being in covenant as well as stipulations about behavior. God’s covenant with Noah, which we heard last week, expressed God’s deep desire to be in relationship not only with Noah, but also with all of creation. I left you with the charge to engage in prayerful discernment around what you can do to exhibit a Noah-like care for every living thing on the planet.
Abraham’s covenant shifts our focus from creation to something else. Some traditions within the Christian faith emphasize God’s command to Abraham, “Walk before me, and be blameless.” Certainly there is something good in our Puritanical roots that linger even today. Today’s New Testament reading shows how St. Paul places the focus on faith. Abraham believes God’s promise even though he and his wife are childless and well past the years for giving birth. Is this what we should take away from Abraham’s covenant – the call to be blameless and to have faith in the improbable – or is there something else here, something that we have been overlooking for quite some time?
I think there is. We find an important clue about it in the new names God gives to Abraham and Sarah. These names reveal God’s dream for the human family, that we, though diverse, might all trace our lineage to a common ancestor and live together in one accord. The great faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have Abraham as an ancestor. We are family, all of us, but it does not take much of a glance at the news to recognize that we are highly dysfunctional.
This past week, members of ISIS raided thirty-three Assyrian villages and took hostage as many at three hundred Christian refugees. It is part of a systematic effort unfolding in multiple locations around the globe to control and kill members of religious minorities by driving them from their homes, enslaving women, and destroying houses of worship. It follows on the heels of the beheading twenty-one Egyptian Christians, which follows on the heels of the attack on a kosher grocery in Paris (where seventeen people were killed) and the attack of the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine (killing twelve).
Clearly, this is not what God envisioned for the multitude of nations tracing their origin back to Abraham. In fact, God must weep. And lest we Christians play the martyr card too quickly, we need to acknowledge three things. First, over the long course of human history, there have been many, many times when we have been the ones who brutally persecuted religious minorities. Second, to the degree that the United States and Western Europe are Christian nations, we have flaunted our military supremacy in Arab countries without thinking through the impact it would have on Muslims around the world. And third, ISIS is not just a movement against Christians or the west. It also targets Jews, Shiite Muslims, and other religious minorities.
A colleague shared this prayer with me. He offered it at the beginning of a parish’s Lenten program, but I think it speaks eloquently not only for God’s dream for that faith community, but also of God’s deep desire for the multitude of nations that have one common ancestor:
Gracious God, thank you for the diversity of human beings that surround me on every side. In the ideas, in the hopes, in the dreams, and in the struggles of those who share this earthly life, let me find that through a community of human beings I am made fuller and more alive. Let the fullness given by community give me the courage to offer my own unique self with humility to the lives of others. As we all share in the life that you have so graciously given us, may we be the lights of your love to one another. Amen.
It is a prayer that is expressive of God’s dream for all people, but it is not the reality in which we live.
Some people are saying that America should engage in a holy war as Jihadists extremists. I do believe that America needs to help those threatened countries and people who want to defend themselves against this expression of evil, but if anything I believe we are called to wage a holy peace. Our words, our prayers, our actions need to have as their goal not the eradication of those who oppose us and not the elimination of those we fear, but living into the covenant promise that God made with Abraham. Is there a more important belief in our time than faith in God’s promise that Abraham would be the ancestor of many nations?
Given the world we live in, that would take radical faith indeed. And some people are doing it. Last Saturday in Norway, more than one thousand people formed a “ring of peace” outside Oslo’s main synagogue. It was an event organized by young Muslims in response to recent events around Europe and it took place in sub-zero temperatures. One organizer said the gathering was intended to show that “that Islam is about love and unity.” Another stated “We want to demonstrate that Jews and Muslims do not hate each other… We do not want individuals to define what Islam is for the rest of us.” I find it heartening that there are people out there of all faiths who understand why God brought forth our nations from a common ancestor.
Another person who understood this was Kayla Mueller, the young American aid worker who was killed on February 6 by on airstrike on the ISIS camp where she was being held hostage. She wrote this four years ago in a letter to her parents:
“I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
She lived out these words by volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Amnesty International. After college she went to India to work in an orphanage and also gave assistance to Tibetan refugees. She went to Israel to help with African refugee resettle in that country and joined a movement that led her to sleep in front of Palestinian homes threatened with demolition by bulldozers. Returning to her home in Arizona in 2011, she went to work at a treatment center for HIV/AIDS patients and also worked in a shelter for homeless women. Kayla was all about waging non-violent holy peace.
In December 2012, Kayla Mueller moved to a location near the Syrian border in Turkey to help with the refugee crisis. She wrote home, “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal.” In August of 2013 she was taken hostage by ISIS after visiting a hospital. During her imprisonment her biggest concern was not for herself, but for family and friends who were suffering for her.
When I hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me, most of the time I realize I have only the thinnest and most idealized understanding of what this might mean for my life. But when I look at Kayla Mueller I realize that she understood to the fullest degree possible what it meant for her. One person wrote that she “is a martyr not because she was killed for her beliefs but because she was willing to live by them at any cost.” That helps you and me to find a new place to start. How am I going to live by my beliefs perhaps not at any cost, but at least at a great cost, or maybe even at some cost?
This morning we add to the rainbow in our emerging Lenten display cut-out paper dolls. The rainbow reminds us of God’s covenant with all creation. The paper figures represent the multitude of nations that God has brought forth out of a single person.
What do you do already to live into God’s covenant dream for the entire human family? What else might you do? Perhaps you might write a prayer as beautiful as the one I read earlier. This, I think, is a powerful way to counteract the very understandable response of fear that grows with each day’s headlines. Perhaps you will find a place to offer your time, talents, and treasure in a way that brings you into contact with the wonderful “diversity of human beings that surround you on every side.” Perhaps there is something else. I will give you a short moment of silence to wait and listen to allow God to put something on your heart.