A sermon on Genesis 12:1-9 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 4/16/23. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.
Throughout the season of Lent, we explored what it meant that Jesus had a physical body. Throughout Holy Week and Easter, we followed Jesus as he died and was buried, and then was resurrected.
Can you imagine it? Can you imagine if you were one of the people who saw Jesus after the resurrection, or spoke to him, or even touched his hands? Can you imagine the way that everything would suddenly seem possible?
Between now and Pentecost, we’re going to explore what it means for us as individuals, and together as the family of God, to live in that strange reality of resurrection, all the freedom and possibility that releases. What does it mean for us to be the hands and feet of God in the world, this new resurrection body?
We’re calling the series “Resurrected Church.” I’ll confess that when we landed on the title, I asked, “Doesn’t that make it sound a little like the church…..died? Is that the image we want to paint for everyone?” Well, no, and yes—we all know that we are a church in transition, and transition inevitably includes loss. We are close to welcoming a new senior pastor, God willing, but we’re not there yet. And that is, of course, to say nothing of the huge personal and professional and even national losses and turmoil that so many of us carry.
Today we start talking seriously about resurrection, about new life, about what is ahead.
After so many weeks in a row following Jesus through the gospels, today’s reading draws us back to the beginning of things. Not the very beginning, when God was creating the heavens and earth, but at least as far as the beginning of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel. This is the moment God calls Abram, who will eventually be renamed Abraham, and this ancient story gives us a clue about what it looks like for us to be caught up in the purposes of God in the world.
In order to imagine this story properly, we have to remove so many of our filters and preconceptions. Genesis 12 takes place long before Jesus, long before the prophets, long before Moses tells Pharaoh to “let my people go.” When God speaks to Abram, Abram can’t really check any references to learn who this God is.
Twelve chapters into the book of Genesis, the situation is already dire. God created a good and beautiful world and put people into it, and almost immediately, the people worked themselves into cycles of violence and retribution and fear. The early chapters of Genesis are full of curses and warnings. And then the tone changes with Abram. God calls Abram, and God makes these wonderful promises: “I will bless you.” “I will make your name great.” “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
How do you think you might have answered? God tells Abram to go, to leave his home and his ancestors, to travel into an unknown place. Do you think you would have the courage to say yes? Do you think you would trust this new, unseen God?
Well, Abram does, and on top of all the other instructions to go and leave and move, God offers what is either an amazing promise or an enchanting command, depending on which translation you read: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” The verb there is tricky to translate, and it may be more accurate to read it as a command, something like: “I will bless you and make your name great, so be you a blessing.”
I love that turn of phrase, and this suggestion that Abram himself is somehow transformed. He isn’t just offering a blessing or performing blessing as a verb—no, he himself is the blessing.
I want to take a moment and be transparent. If we continue reading, this is one of those stories that makes me feel a little queasy. It makes me queasy because a few verses later, Abram is traveling through the land of Canaan, and Scripture reminds us, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” At that time—the Canaanites were still in the land in our story today because they hadn’t yet been driven out by the nation of Israel. (That happens much later in the Old Testament, after the Exodus, all the stories of Joshua and Jericho and conquest and violence.)
That queasiness, and all that story of conquest, is a huge question about biblical interpretation and theology, and I don’t have room right now to try and untangle it. So let me be more direct about what’s at stake for me right now: The story makes me feel queasy because it brings to mind all the times in the history of the world—ancient and very, very recent—when Christians perpetrated acts of violence and aggression in the name of evangelism. Even on a much smaller scale, I’m thinking of the very aggressive kind of “evangelism” some of you may have experienced, the kind that made you feel small and excluded, the kind that had no interest in understanding you and your experience and your gifts because the person with so-called “good news” thought that all that mattered was your compliance with their beliefs. Have you ever felt cornered or humiliated by someone who thought they were blessing you?
If that’s what it means to “be you a blessing”—if it means dominating outsiders by any means necessary in order to force a conversion to my narrow lens on the world—then I’m not especially interested in being a “blessing.”
Well, let’s zoom out a little. It makes sense that we might read this story and identify with Abram. He has faith in God, and we want to emulate that; he is obedient to God, and through his surrender he accomplishes great things, and many of us want to do whatever it is that God has in store for us. It makes sense that we’re naturally going to identify with the main character of this story, the protagonist.
Except, of course, that Abram isn’t the main character of this story. God is. It’s right there in the first verse: “Now the LORD said to Abram…” That’s followed immediately by, yes, a series of commands, but mostly a series of promises of what God is going to do. “I will make of you a great nation…I…I…”
If God is the main character of this story, that opens up a lot of possibilities for us. Suddenly we can find ourselves many places in the story, with all these other characters who emerge out of the woodwork. Characters like Sarai, the wife of Abram, or Lot, their nephew and surrogate son. Characters like the, quote, “persons they had acquired,” a seeming staff of people, possibly enslaved, possibly more like indentured servants.
And then there’s all those other people, “all the families of the earth,” all those people out there who are not part of the main plot line featured here but are nonetheless a crucial part of what God is up to here. Most of us read this story as Gentiles, as non-Jews, and that means we might share more in common with the people of Canaan than we do with Abram and his family.
When we resist the temptation to identify ourselves as the protagonists in a story in which we are the enlightened insiders in a world full of ignorant outsiders in need of our rescue, we might begin to recognize that we are caught up in this family of grace, just like Abram was, and that God is already at work all around us. For what it’s worth, not even the Old Testament supports that kind of insider-outsider framing; from the beginning God makes it clear that God’s activity is not only limited to one nation or one people.
All throughout the New Testament, Abram (or Abraham) is held up as a paragon of virtue, but it isn’t because of anything he accomplished or any particular quality he possessed. Abram is celebrated for his faith, that is, his surrender. Abram is celebrated because, in his life, God was the main character.
If I can return to that question of what it means for us to be the resurrected church, the hands and feet of God in the world? It means that we are active participants in this economy of grace, this expansive family, just like Abram was. It means that we are just as likely to be the recipients of blessing as we are to be the ones offering blessing.
That means that sometimes your role will be to receive a blessing that is intended for you.
We just spent all this time examining the body of Jesus in our Lent series. So many of the stories about Jesus consisted of the love and ministry he received from others. In other words, to be the hands and feet of Jesus quite literally does not mean you are always the one doing the miracles. Sometimes it means you’re the one being carried—by a mother, by a friend, even by a donkey. Sometimes it means you’re the one being washed, or fed, or given water. Sometimes it means others have to tend to your body, because you cannot tend to it yourself. When that happens, I hope that you can receive that blessing with hospitality and warmth and welcome.
We won’t have to wait long: God willing, this church will be welcoming a new senior pastor in the near future. I know a lot of us are looking forward to this, and I know a lot of us have very strong opinions about who that person should be and what they should offer and where they should take our church. I want us—and I’m including myself in this—I want us to try and welcome that person as if they are a blessing from God for us. I want us to try and receive them as a gift. And the first time they say something in a sermon that really gets under your skin, I want you try to imagine that’s part of the blessing, too.
That’s our role sometimes, receiving the blessing. But yes, there will also be times when God looks at you and says, “Be you a blessing.”
What do we do then? How do I bless others and avoid the temptation to dominate others with my own narrow perspective?
God’s vision for Abram was that through Abram, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God was inviting Abram to imagine this huge family that included absolutely everybody, an enormous vision. But Abram couldn’t enter this new thing God was doing until he departed from what he knew before. God tells him, “Go from your country, and your kindred, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Abram had to die to everything that he knew—including his family—in order to be resurrected into this new family of grace.
Some of you know that I will be getting married in just three weeks. One of the lingering items on the massive wedding to-do list for my partner and me is to make a decision about what to do with our last names. We still haven’t decided! We could each keep our own last names, we could hyphenate our names, or we could combine them into a new name, even.
The decision has stirred up a lot for me, because for 34 years I’ve been Brent Bailey. The possibility of changing my name—changing our names—is making me reflect on what it means to transform from an “I” to a “we,” to try and figure out just how much of myself I am prepared to give up or change for the sake of this new family that we are forming. I’m more excited than I can say for what is ahead, but it’s a transition, and transition inevitably includes loss.
That’s my personal entry point into some of what might be happening here for Abram, as he leaves one family for another. From the very beginning, God makes it clear that the vision is global, it’s all-encompassing, it’s everyone. That’s the kind of “Resurrected Church” we’re talking about.
I think we have to practice that kind of surrender, that kind of loosening our grip, if we’re ever going to be transformed from our own small, controlling selves into a blessing.
If you want to be like Abram—and I think that’s a lofty goal—imitate his humility. Imitate his deep surrender. If you try to imitate only his success by any means necessary, you will not bless the world, because it was God who granted the blessing, not Abram.
Let me make this more concrete. I’m going to go ahead and spoil the “So what?” of this series: We want this to be a time in which each of us, individually and collectively, practice living as the hands and feet of God in this church and in the world by serving in specific, tangible, purposeful ways.
I want to be crystal clear that our goal is not to guilt trip anyone into signing up to serve, or to pressure anyone to add one more thing to a schedule that’s already bursting. If you’re in a chapter of your life where you are at capacity, or maybe the only care you can give is care for yourself—and you know who you are—nobody is asking you to give something you don’t have.
But I suspect that a lot of us are looking around at the state of things in our church, and in our country, and in our world, all these cycles of violence and retribution and fear. We are starting to suspect that we might be the ones God is calling up to do the thing, whatever “the thing” is. You know? We are the church, all of us right here. We are the nation. We are the adults in the room. Mister Rogers has that beloved line for times of crisis, where he says, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I think a lot of us are looking around and saying, “Gosh, you know, maybe I’m supposed to be one of those helpers.”
If that’s you—keep listening. Stay engaged for these next many weeks, because we’re going to be exploring together all the ways that God might be shaping you to be a blessing, whether here at the church or in our community or in your neighborhood.
“Be you a blessing.” We have two specific ways to take up that call in the very near future, and both of them are directly connected to God’s work in our life together as a church…. [Here I close the sermon by introduce two upcoming opportunities for participation and service within our church.]