Benediction Online

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Abram's Inheritance Genesis 15 1-12,17-18

The first reading this morning is the story of the unconditional covenant between God and Abram. God promised Abram a great reward, but the only thing that Abram wanted was the one thing he thought he couldn’t have, children and grandchildren. God promised him that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and when Abram believed this impossible promise we are told that it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Why did Abram want a clan of children and grandchildren?

The ancient Hebrews did not believe in eternal life. The only way that their name lived on, the only kind of immortality they knew, was through their children and their possessions. So to have children, to have land, was important. It was a measure of their worth and their value as individuals.

Abram and Sara were nomads. They had no land to call their own. They had set out from Ur, up in the area of the fertile crescent near the Euphrates in modern Iraq, and their journey took them as far south as Egypt. The fertile land, the land where you could settle down and grow crops was by the rivers especially in the great Chaldean plain just north of the Persian Gulf, and the delta of the Nile.

God’s covenant, to give Abram’s descendants the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, is problematic for us if we read it literally. It can provide a justification for Israeli aggression. However, it only provides such a justification if it is taken in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Reading a verse contextually means looking at it within our understanding of the whole of the Bible, trying to understand what it might have meant in its original context and only then considering what it might mean today.

What might it have meant to Abram to be told that his descendants would be given the land from the Nile to the Euphrates? Firstly it was land, which he did not have as a nomad, secondly, it included areas of very fertile valley land as well as the hillsides where he would have grazed his flocks and thirdly it encompassed geographically the whole of his life. It had the potential to provide his descendants with tremendous well-being. This was to be his inheritance.

In Biblical context ‘inheritance’ is often used to mean what someone would be able to leave to his children rather than what he inherited from his parents. And in the absence of life after death, one’s inheritance was one’s immortality. So God’s promise to Abram is that he will be remembered not only through his children’s children but through the land that they will inhabit, a stretch of land which encompassed his whole life. His whole life would become a blessing to those who came after him.

This was a time when gods were very connected to the land because they were thought to be spatially limited just as we are. A god lived in a certain place. It really wasn’t until the Exodus, and more strongly the Exile, that the idea of a God who transcends time and space developed. Abram had experienced God from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates; this was the kingdom of God as far as he was concerned. So in this covenant we also have the sense of God promising that Abrams’ descendants would live in the kingdom of God.

Which is bringing us to more familiar New Testament language. In our baptism we are marked as Christ’s own for ever. We are translated into a new inheritance as the daughters and sons of God, this God who we now know transcends place and time. We are heirs to the kingdom but we no longer understand that as a physical place. It is no longer the land between two major rivers. Now we understand it as the inner country. As Jesus said, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’.

However, the inner kingdom requires translation into outer life. It is not enough to jealously guard our spiritual comfort, to quietly rejoice in our relationship with God and our certainty of eternal life, without living that, without being risk-takers in our outer lives. Because that is what eternal life allows us to do; it allows us to take risks. We don’t have to tread cautiously afraid of the possible outcomes, we can walk boldly in the path that we believe God is opening for us, confident that if we got it wrong, everything is still OK.

We are taking a risk with the Abundance Shop. I think it’s a small risk, I know some of you think it’s a big risk. We are moving the shop to a bigger place with greater visibility on 9th Street. The new store is bigger but only because it has an upstairs; downstairs will be about the same. Is that going to be a problem? Perhaps, perhaps not. We are certainly going to have to pay more rent, and so unless our sales increase, we will have less income. That’s the risk. But it’s a risk we can afford to take, because from a spiritual perspective we know we are already living in the kingdom, we are already living in our inheritance and so whatever happens, we are safe.

We have been looking for a bigger place for the Abundance Shop for about a year, and Sally, who has been our front person on this, has been very frustrated with landlords who don’t want a thrift store. Now the time has come. I am amazed and excited about the possibilities of the new store and feel quite sure that this is the path that God has prepared for us to take. I encourage you, if you can, to go by when we are there working on it, and see the place for yourself.

Because our true inheritance is not in the material world we can take risks, we can step forward in faith AND we do not have to have turf wars. We do not have to defend our physical boundaries nor push forward to establish larger territory at other people’s expense.

However, we do live in the material world, and our call to be wise and careful stewards of God’s gifts, includes the land on which we live. As spring comes and the grass grows I am again reminded that we are stewards here of nearly five acres, not just the parking lot and church. Sometimes it feels as though we are camping in the middle of a field, on land which we have not fully claimed. As we continue to seek God’s will for us as a faith community, I hope that we can find ways to faithfully use this land for the enrichment of all beings, not just the ground squirrels.

But there is a wider question. What will our inheritance be for our children and grandchildren? What will be the state of the land on which they live? So much of what we have come to take for granted is threatened as a result of the ways we have lived. Our water supply is dwindling, global warming is leading to huge changes in climate and the ever-increasing world population is living in increasing poverty. These are not things to be taken lightly.

I hope that if you are not already, you will start using the little Lenten booklets from Episcopal Relief and Development which challenge us to consider the needs of others and the needs of our planet. Unlike Abram we do not need land and children to assure us of eternal life. But what lives after us is important.

What is our inheritance going to be?

Dolly Parton puts it really well when she sings:

And when we're walking together in glory
Hand in hand through eternity
It's the love that will be remembered
Not wealth, not poverty

And when we're gone long gone
The only thing that will have mattered
Is the love that we shared
And the way that we cared
When we're gone, long gone.


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