The word “bless” is found in some form nearly 600 times in the New Revised Standard Version. When I looked up the words we translate bless, blessed, and blessing in my Bible dictionary, I discovered that the Hebrew words speak of health, longevity, and fertility. I also discovered that it can be translated as flourishing. So, if you say “I’m blessed,” or “what a blessing,” is this what you mean?
When Bruce Barkhauer was with us, he spoke of a "thread of hope" running through Scripture, linking creation to new creation. I believe that there is also a "thread of blessing" running through scripture that connects the call of Abram to Jesus, and through Jesus we are connected to the realm of God.
This morning we heard God call Abram to leave his homeland and migrate to a new land so that God could make him and his descendants a great nation so that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him or because of him. All he had to do was pack up his family, and head out toward a new and strange land. We might call this a true Lenten journey, because Abram had a lot to lose if he took up this vocation. He also had much to gain, but that would take a leap of faith.
Migrating to a land that was unknown to him wasn’t the only act of faith required of Abram and his wife Sarai. God also told Abram that he would become a great nation, which was a problem, since he and Sarai didn’t have any children, and Sarai was past her childbearing years. Abram tried to help God out by taking a shortcut, but having a child with Hagar wasn’t what God had in mind. God intended to use both Abram and Sarai to fulfill the promising of blessing.
The call of Abram was an act of grace designed to set humanity on a new path of redemption. Genesis 3-11 tells the story of how humanity got off track by choosing to “do what was right in their own eyes.” That led to one disaster after another, until the peoples of the earth gathered in the land of Shanar, built a city and a tower. As I was preparing this sermon, I discovered a few items in the Tower of Babel story that hadn’t occurred to me before. The first thing is that when the people built the city, they put up walls to keep out the “Other.” They wanted to separate themselves from the people who were different from them. Secondly, they built the tower to “make their name great.” With this crisis brewing, God decides to slow things down by confusing their languages and scattering the people across the earth (Gen. 11:1-9).
It’s in this the context that God calls Abram, promising to “make your name great.” The people of Babel built a tower to make their name great. God called Abram and told him that God would make his name great. To have a name that is great is a gift of God. It’s not something we make for ourselves. That is how the families of the earth will be blessed because of Abram and Sarai and their descendants, which includes Jesus. Of course, in the biblical story, curses often accompany blessings, but I’m going to leave aside the curses, and focus on the blessings. That’s because as I read this passage, I hear a message of reconciliation. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian churches, God was in Christ reconciling all things to God’s self (2 Cor. 5:18-19). In Christ, all the families of the earth, in fact, all of creation, is blessed. When we allow this blessing to take hold in our lives, then the walls of separation begin to come down and all creation begins to flourish.
If we go back to the story of Babel, and take note of the walls that the people put up to “protect themselves” from the ones they considered the Other, then we begin to see how this call of Abram relates to us today. Gerald Janzen, who is an Old Testament scholar who taught at Christian Theological Seminary, suggests that the confusing of the languages at Babel was “a sign of the divisiveness embodied in the city walls and as God’s judgment on divisiveness.” That is an important word for us today, since many Americans seem intent on putting up walls that will separate us and protect us from the “Other.” Some of these walls are physical, but not all of them. In calling Abram and Sarai, God sets in motion a process in which the walls of separation are removed. As Gerald Janzen puts it: “now Abram’s name is to serve as a seed word in the reunification of the human family” (Abraham and All the Families of the Earth, p. 18).
Paul picks up on this point in his letter to the Galatian churches, in which he speaks of the promise made to Abraham. Paul writes that the seed of blessing is embodied in Jesus (Galatians 3:15-18). When we are baptized, Paul writes, we clothe ourselves with Christ, so that:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28-29).
God promised Abram that Abram would become a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. When Paul takes up this promise, he’s writing to a divided congregation. He tells them to take down the walls of division, because “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring.”
When we are baptized, we take hold of this promise for ourselves. We affirm God’s desire to bless us and bless others through us. That takes us back to the very beginning, to when God created the heavens and the earth, and then created humanity in the image of God so that humanity could be stewards of the earth. We got off track in Genesis 3 because we thought we could get along without God. We put up a wall, but God didn’t give up on humanity. God set in motion a plan that would reconcile all things to God, and the call of Abraham and Sarah was the first step in that plan. We, who are Gentiles, Paul writes, are drawn into the promise God made to Abraham through baptism into Christ.
In thinking about blessings, I turned to Rachel Naomi Remen’s book: My Grandfather’s Blessings. Remen is a physician and the daughter and granddaughter of Orthodox Jewish rabbis. Her book is full of stories of wisdom, grace, and blessings. She writes these words that reflect Abram’s call: “Blessing life offers us a certain immortality. Our love outlives us and strengthens others, even after we ourselves are gone.” [My Grandfather’s Blessings, p. 106]. That sounds about right. That’s what God was telling Abraham. The blessings that God poured out on Abraham, when shared with others, would live on long after he had passed from the scene.
One of the words of wisdom passed on to Rachel Naomi Remen by her Rabbi grandfather had to do with the principle of Tikkun Olam. That is, to heal the world. He told young Rachel:
“We need to remember to bless the life around us and in us, Neshme-le,” he would tell me. “When we bless others, we free the goodness in them and in ourselves. When we bless life, we restore the world.” [Remen, p. 327].
I believe that is what God intended when God called Abram and blessed him, so he could be a blessing. God invited him to join in God’s work of restoring the world. In Christ, who is the seed of blessing, we are invited to join in this work, by blessing the life around us and in us.
To share in the blessings of God is to pass on the legacy of blessing from one generation to another. Yesterday, Susan shared with us a children’s story called The Blessing Cup. It’s the story of a young Russian Jewish girl and her family, who were forced to flee Russia during one of pogroms. The story centers around a beautiful china tea set, that was a family legacy. As the family was forced to flee their village, the father got sick, and the family ended up living with a kindly doctor, who sold a Persian rug to buy passage to America for the family. In response the family left behind the treasured tea set, keeping only one cup, the Blessing Cup, which was passed on from generation to generation. The family left a note with that tea set, which fits well with the story of Abram and God’s blessings. Anna’s mother wrote in the note:
Always remember, dear friend. You are the bread that fed us. You are the salt that flavored our lives. You are the love and joy that held us together. Your golden, kindly heart makes you rich indeed . . . You shall never be poor! I am leaving our precious tea set in your good keeping. We kept one cup so that we can still have its blessing among the four of us. It is all that we will need. [Patricia Polacco, The Blessing Cup].
In response, I can only add the words: Thanks be to God for the blessings of God passed on from one generation to the next until we come into the realm of God.
Note: This text and sermon was originally intended for March 12. The loss of electricity and decision to worship with our neighbors at Northminster Presbyterian Church, led to the decision to return to the service intended for Lent 2A.
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 19, 2017