July 28, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
Pentecost 7: Abram and Sarai
This week, we continue our exploration of the Genesis narratives with the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s stories, or Abram and Sarai as they were called before God gave them new names. They are the mother and father of both the Jewish and Christian people, and it will take a few weeks to fully tell their story. So today, I want to begin actually with some concerns I have about the blessing God bestowed on our patriarch, Abraham.
But first a story about an experience I had this weekend. On Friday night, I was hanging out at the Waterfront Concert with a group of people I just met a couple of years ago. We were gathered at a picnic table eating pizza and cake and celebrating one of our friends, a young woman who is moving away and getting married. Her nieces were a little sad that she would be going, but the girls were distracted from their sadness by telling me excitedly of their visit to Funtown/Spashtown the day before and listing for me their favorite and scariest rides.
The young woman getting married is Batoul. Her nieces are Maryam and Ghazal, and they have lived in Gardiner since the summer of 2017. They are refugees from Syria. Batoul’s parents also live here as well as her sister and the girls’ mother, Warda. Two other brothers were able to leave Syria with them. But one sister was left behind with her husband and children in Idlib—a place we often hear about on the news—a dangerous place in Syria where much of the city lays in ruins from the bombing. And sadly, Warda’s husband, Maryam and Ghazal’s father, is missing. Presumed dead.
Having gotten to know the Daaboul Family, both their joys and struggles with assimilating into American and Maine culture, it makes my heart ache when I hear rhetoric about immigrants not being welcome in our country. And while I realize this is just one family out of thousands arriving in America, my brief time with them has taught me a couple of things. 1.) They didn’t come to America because it was easy and they wanted to abuse the system—they came because they were trying to survive. Syria meant the very real threat of violence and death. America gave them hope for life. And 2.) These people aren’t the “other,” no matter how much people try to portray them as such. They may look a little different than your typical Mainer, but when you get to know them, their dreams and hopes are the same as most of ours—they want to be happy and to take care of their families.
Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the story of Abraham. I have always loved Abraham and Sarah’s story. I still love this story. I love how God called and they answered. How God said, “Go,” and Abraham said, to paraphrase,“Sure thing.” I have always loved how God promised to bless Abraham and that blessing Abraham would mean that he would then become a blessing for others.
But Abraham’s story, like that of the Daaboul’s, is about who belongs and who doesn’t. Who can lay claim to a particular place. Because even though I love Abraham’s story, I have a hard time when we get to that part that says, “When they had come to land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring, I will give this land.’” And then later the text goes on to list all of the people residing in the land of Canaan, but still promises Abraham that it is his descendants who will dwell and prosper there.
How can God promise the land to Abraham and his descendants? In this narrative, we get a glimpse of the violence that is coming between Israel and these other people as they fight over this land. Violence that continues to this day. Canaan is described in the Bible as the “land of milk and honey.” America has been described in the same way, and the fertility of its land and the opportunity of this country has meant that immigrants from all over the world have been making their way here for the past three to four hundred years. But whose land is it? Does it matter who was here first?
I found it ironic when I discovered that the group “Maine for Mainers,” a group of White Nationalists, was gathering in Canaan this weekend—Canaan, Maine, that is. One of its members said this in an interview, “I’m not aware of one Caucasian crossing the southern border. I’ve never heard of it. If the facts are racist that’s not my problem, it’s just the facts. We didn’t invite them here and didn’t ask to be separated from our money.”
Her statement made me laugh a little. I bet the indigenous peoples of Maine, once they realized that the intention of the European settlers wasn’t really to coexist but to force them out, felt the same way… “We didn’t invite those Caucasians here and didn’t ask to be separated from our land.” Perhaps those Native peoples should have started their own “Maine for Mainers” group back in the 1700’s when their hunting grounds and fishing areas started to be seriously infringed upon by Europeans.
We have to be honest about the stories we tell about ourselves and our beginnings. The narrative that this land belongs to one group only is preposterous. Just like Abraham and Sarah, the Europeans didn’t arrive in an uninhabited land. For Abraham, the land was occupied by the Cannanites. For the Europeans who arrived in America, particularly here in Maine, they entered into the land of the Micmac, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, the Abenaki, and the Penobscot.
Was it God’s will that the Europeans should take over this land of “milk and honey” here in America? Was it God’s dream for Abraham and his descendants that they should drive out the Canaanites and other people living in that land of milk and honey? Is that really what God meant when he said that Abraham would be a blessing?
If we are honest with ourselves, we will see that the writers of these Genesis stories had an agenda. Abraham and Sarah were the patriarch and matriarch of the Israelite nation. Remember that much of Genesis was written down when the Israelites were living in captivity. They had been captured by a greater power but the collective memory of their people still held the stories of how their ancestors settled and prospered in the land of Canaan building a great nation despite the obstacles.
This is the story of the Israelite people, and in it, everyone else becomes the “other.” As far back as we have written records, people have needed to make distinctions between themselves and the “other.” That was true in the time of Abraham, and it’s true today. Because when we define people as the other, we can put them in a box and give them all qualities that we despise or fear in order to justify denying them human rights—we make them less than human so that we don’t feel bad about treating them as such. Parts of the Hebrew Scriptures go to great lengths to demonize those Canaanites and other local peoples living in the land that the Israelites wanted to conquer. If they could convince themselves that the people they were conquering were evil, then they could believe that God really was on their side and desired the destruction of those people . Remember that in Genesis, the nation of Canaan is descended from Noah’s grandson, Canaan, who was cursed by Noah because Canaan’s father, Ham, saw the nakedness of Noah—a strange reason for an entire nation to be cursed, but our scriptures have plenty of wild stories like that one.
Three thousand years of written history has shown us the dangers of an us and them mentality. There’s no us and them—only we, the people of God. That includes those ancient Canaanites. That includes the Daabouls living here in Gardiner and all the people streaming into this country seeking safety and hope for a better future. Do we need better laws and systems in place to deal with the influx of immigrants? Absolutely. But making them out to be evil is not the answer.
Now I know that I have been a little hard on Abraham in this sermon. Or perhaps I have been a little hard on God, since the writer claims that it is God who promised the Canaanite land to Abraham. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find some good news, some blessing, in this story as well.
Even for Abraham, God’s promise was distant and mysterious. God’s promise of a better world feels that way for us, too. But Abraham kept waiting for that promse to be fulfilled, and not always patiently. Abraham struggled and he questioned. But he also had the gift of imagination. Abraham could see that which had not yet been fulfilled. He stayed loyal to God despite the frustration and the waiting.
Perhaps a little imagination is what we need today. So much of the world seems broken. On a national and international level and even in our own lives. And in this broken world, we can’t survive without the imagination to see the fulfillment of God’s promise for us, as distant as that might be. But in the meantime, we can be a blessing as God called Abraham to be. We can live as if we have abundance to share with others instead of getting stuck in the fears of scarcity—and not enough—and me first. Let God help us to be a blessing and to imagine an abundance that would make it possible for all people to live together in peace and prosperity. Amen.