A Wandering Aramean Was My Father

My sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, preached at Grace Lutheran in Westchester, Illinois. This is more or less what I preached, though I did some improvising as well.

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In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives the Israelites a prayer they are to pray when they make their first offering to God after a settling — after planting and harvesting — in the land of promise.

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.

“A wandering Aramean.” That’s Abraham, the father of us all. Yes, that includes us too, as Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Galatia,

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

A wandering Aramean was my father. I am his son, the son of a wanderer.

Bear with me, but let’s hear that first reading again:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And so Abram — he has not yet been given his new name Abraham — leaves. He leaves everything. And for what? A handful of promises. And vapor, all of them. A land that I will show you, God says. You won’t know it’s the place until I tell you. As for the rest of it, those are promises made to Abraham, but they aren’t for him. He will never realize any of them. They are made to his descendants. People he will never meet. People he will never know.

There’s a couple of ways to think about this. And I don’t want you to think in terms of either/or, but rather, both/and. Like we, in God’s eyes, are both sinners and saints.

We are the people God makes the promises for. We have received the promise. We are the blessing to the world, we reside in the land that God has given to his people. That this land — maybe it’s the physical earth upon which we live, it’s Westchester, it’s this very ground, the United States of america — and maybe this land that flows with milk and honey is the church. Not just Grace, but the ELCA, the whole of Christ’s church, this body that we have become in the world.

We are, after all, a settled people. We have roots here. Oh, we may move from time to time, as the situation requires. But this is our land. Yes, our ancestors took flight and crossed an ocean and some part of a continent. But that was like Israel wandering in the wilderness. It’s over now, and this is the place.

We are the multitude, countless as grains of sand, as stars in the sky. (And not the bright Chicago sky, either.) We are the promise. Paul says so. We are Abraham’s children, through Jesus.

(But consider for a minute — a land flowing with milk and honey is a phrase used in scripture only to describe the promise. Once Israel actually gets there, the land is never described that way.)

And maybe, just maybe, we too are Abram, there in his home in what is now southern Iraq. And these are promises made to us. But they aren’t for us. We are wandering Arameans too.

What does it mean to be given a promise you will never realize? To grab hold and trust in something you know you will likely never see?

Let’s look again at those promises God gives. I will make you a great nation through which the whole earth will be blessed? What does that mean when you’re just a handful, and you have so little? What does blessing even mean? And how will I, will we, be a blessing to all the families of the earth?

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse. That means there will be dishonor. Perhaps a great deal. God isn’t going to save us from it, just merely get even for us when it happens.

But that also means people who are strangers, who don’t share in this promise, will bless us. Will be kind, will care, will do us good.

Where is this place God will show us? How far away is it? What does it look like? Or must we wander, aimless, until God finally says, “Here, and no farther.”

As part of the first-call process, I’ve been interviewing a lot recently with churches looking for a pastor. Congregations where people are anxious, careful, wondering, places where they’ve been wounded by strife and division and where they mourn loss. I too wonder, and I too am anxious, who will call me to shepherd them? How much longer must I wait before someone decides, before the Spirit of God blows as she will through hearts and souls, and some people are inspired to say, “he shall lead us.”

All of us, wandering, aimless, knowing that God is guiding but not to where. Having a promise. Knowing only that God will show us when we get there. Here, and no further.

Promises given, held tight to.

And that’s the funny thing about a promise from God. The promise itself is as good as whatever is promised. Because God does not lie. I shall be blessed? Then I am blessed! I shall be a great nation? Then no matter how small I am, I am a great nation. Because God has promised. It is as real now as it will be for anyone who might actually inherit generations from now.

Do you know what eternal life is? What the Kingdom of God is? I don’t. I know we have it. I know, brothers and sisters, we have eternal life in Jesus Christ but I have no idea what it is. I don’t. Jesus promises eternal life in him. That’s enough. I don’t need to know what it is to know it’s real, it’s true, and it’s God’s gift. I don’t.

Lent reminds that we are a wandering people. Really, we are. For all our settledness, we are exiles. Grumbling, angry, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, anxious, and filled with sorrow. Exiles, carrying all we have with us. For the journey.

And then we meet Jesus. Minding our own business, we come across him, or he comes across us, and he invites us to come and see, to follow him, to feed his sheep, claims us as his own, because he knows us far better than we will ever know ourselves.

We follow Jesus because he calls. We follow, without really knowing what we’re following, only that it’s good news and we know Good News when it falls on our ears and fills up our hearts. We see signs and wonders and hear incredible things — we must be born again, with water and spirit, or we shall never enter the Kingdom of God! But how is that possible? What does it even mean?

And yet, every day, I get up, gather the manna that God has scattered as my daily bread on the ground, roll up my tent, and start walking, knowing God is there, that Jesus leads and guides and protects, pillar of cloud and fire. When Jesus tells me, be born of spirit and water and come into the Kingdom, I say, “see, here is water! What’s stopping us?”

When he tells me that the Son of Man must lifted up, and that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life, I gaze upon the glory of God crucified on that cross, the ultimate great deed of terror, and I say, “My Lord and My God!”

And I don’t understand. I follow, I believe, I trust, and it’s true, but I do not understand.

Abraham wandered his entire life. He never settled down. He never had a home. Sometimes, he was weak and vulnerable, and had to pretend his wife was his sister in order to save himself and those he cared for. And sometimes, he was a force to be reckoned with, and even went toe to toe with God in order to save a handful of righteous people in the sinful and inhospitable city of Sodom.

But he never had a home. He never had ground to call his own. And when his wife Sarah died, he had to bargain with a Hittite for a place to bury her.

It’s easier for some of us to imagine that life than others, I suspect. I find it easy. But then I’m a wanderer. Home is wherever I can pound a tent-peg in, water and graze my animals, snuggle with Jennifer, and maybe even rest for a few days.

But none of it matters. Because our real homes are not made of wood, or brick. The ground upon which we build, and live, and work, and love, bear our children and bury our dead, is not soil underneath our feet. All of it is Jesus. All of are wanderers because God’s people are wanderers. And all of us are home because we belong to Jesus, who lived with us, died with us, and rises, so that we may have everlasting life.