Covenant and Calling
A sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 15, 2013
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Genesis 17:1-10, 15-16, & 22
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. and I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”
God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised”
…God (also) said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her….”
And when God had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.
Prayer of Illumination:
From the cowardice that dare not face your truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Deliver us, O Lord, and open us to Your Holy Truth in Word and Spirit. Amen.
My beginning came during an ice-storm, not uncommon in Michigan in early March. Dad had been called to the hospital for some emergency and had not yet returned and my mom woke that morning with labor pains. She sat on the bed with her three children, watch in hand, counting contractions together. Soon enough my sister and two brothers were sent to the neighbor’s house, Dad finally got home and they began to head to the hospital, taking three or four different routes until they could find a way around downed trees and power lines. Mom had fast labors, especially by number four, so she was brought through the doors and straight to the delivery room and I arrived shortly after.
It’s a story I know by heart. I know how the ice storm had made everything crackly and shimmery, how my brother John had strapped on his ice skates that same day and our dog had pulled him, skating, around the block. I know how my parents toyed with naming me Corey, but decided I looked more like a Julie.
It is the story of my beginning, and I know it by heart. The mere fact that I know that story helps me to be more resilient, researchers say. In fact, the more we all know about our family stories – their beginnings and endings, triumphs and struggles – the more resilient we are in the face of life’s challenges and hardships. The story of how our parents met, of our ancestors’ arrival through Ellis Island or Angel Island or another path altogether, the story of Uncle Joe’s corner store or when Great-Aunt Ursula ran off with that strange foreigner.
The importance of knowing a family’s narrative is most particularly valuable for children. In fact, those same researchers say that “The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. As Bruce Feiler notes, perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a strong family narrative. To tell and share the stories of their own beginnings, even those stories that go way back to before they were a twinkle in their parents eye, as the saying goes.
It is a new program year, a new school year is upon us, and so we find ourselves at our own juncture of beginnings this morning. Many of us have packed our children off to various schools or colleges, have accumulated various supplies to sustain them for the coming months, and have already gone through some schedule adjustments. We have returned to our regular routines: early train schedules and regular mealtimes. Even the change in weather seems to feel like a page has turned, and here we are again at the beginning.
The story we find in this morning’s text is another beginning. It is the story of the beginning of our family – this family of faith – the story of Abraham and Sarah, or rather Abram and Sarai, and the covenant that God made with them. By the time we meet these two in today’s piece of the story, Abram and Sarai have already been through quite a bit.
This is the third time that God has come to them, promising generations of children. The first time, Abram was 75 years old, and God called him to leave the land of his father and journey to a new land promised to him. Years go by and still no children, yet God continues to be faithful, and appears to Abram again saying, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.”
The two travel, survive struggles and hardships, with Sarai still barren they orchestrate a child for Abram through his slave Hagar. And yet, this solution does not seem to answer the yearnings of Abram’s heart, or the words of God’s promise.
They are in their nineties when God appears to Abram a third time. They have been waiting, perhaps not very patiently, and yet, faithfully. They continue to trust, to believe that God will be their God, and to live as though they are God’s people. It is in this trusting that Abram discovers that his life is not his own, but God’s. This third time, God’s covenant transforms.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God says to Abram, “And I will make my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations.” You will no longer be called Abram and Sarai, but Abraham and Sarah. These new names give them a calling, and reorient their lives: they will be known as the “father of a multitude” and as “princess.” Through these names they are given their true identities: as loved and claimed by God. Through circumcision Abraham will be marked as God’s own in a bodily and real way. And they will be known as the father and mother of generations.
It is of this multitude which we are a part. Here, in Larchmont, generations and generations later. The road from Abraham and Sarah to today is a long and winding one, filled with suffering and celebrations, sorrows and joys. This story is our story, however strange and distant it may seem. We too are claimed by God, marked as God’s own through our baptisms, and joined in the community of faith throughout the ages. This is who you are and who I am, who we are together: Beloved Children of God.
It’s not so easy to remember this, though. In a world such as ours, it’s easy to be distracted by the pace and demands of our daily life, by fears about Syria and the ever-volatile Middle East, about wars and violence. It’s easy to forget, in the midst of our strivings toward our own future, or the health and well-being of our loved ones. It’s easy to forget that in spite of these very urgent and important concerns, the ground of our being and source of our lives is the God who has blessed us and named and claimed us as his own.
I think, perhaps this is why God’s covenant was marked by such a painful and bodily sign. Like the mark of circumcision for Abraham, there are ways we can make our lives as recognizably formed in Christ, but, likewise, they don’t come without some pain. Like Abraham, We are called to be marked by our faith: standing up against a culture of consumerism, carving out a Sabbath in a world of frenetic 24/7 productivity, responding to conflict with prayer instead of quick-fix solutions or violence, giving away our time and money rather than accumulating more and more for ourselves.
These choices hurt. They are meant to. This is what it means to live a life marked by the God of Abraham and Sarah.
The other beginning we are celebrating this morning is the launch of our Centennial year. The beginnings of the Larchmont Avenue Church was about 100 years ago, sparked by the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, an artist named Emily Lindsley. Those that gathered on that June day back in 1914 knew the importance of God’s calling and covenant, they wanted to be marked by their faith and fellowship, and so they gathered together for worship, for baptisms, for communion and the sharing of the stories of faith. They gathered, and we have been gathering ever since.
It is the story of our beginning, what would become the Larchmont Avenue Church. And there are many more: the story of the ground breaking for their first building on this very spot. The story behind the creation of this spectacular sanctuary and facility, completed just before the Great Depression, and the pains they took to avoid it being repossessed by the bank.
Stories of weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations, of teenagers sneaking into the bell tower, mission trips across our country and then to places far and unknown.
Stories of your own beginnings with this community: the first time you walked through the doors here: perhaps it was even just this morning, the first person you met, the moment of welcome that signaled you were home.
They are not all joyous, some are marked by dissonance and discord, hurt and humility. But we trust that God has been with us throughout them all – sustaining us for the life and ministry we share here, in this place.
These are the stories of faith, the narrative that binds us to God and to one another into the great family of faith. And we have come together to tell them, and we will keep telling them. Over the course of the coming year we invite you to share those stories of faith, when, like Abraham and Sarah you were called and claimed, marked and named as God’s own. Those stories may not be in the too distant past, they may be just from last week.
But they are the stories that point to the things we believe give us Life and Life Abundant. They are the stories that define us and mark us as God’s own beloved.
So: what is the story of your beginning?
What is the story of your faith?
What are the stories you have of this church, here in this place, either distant or fresh, that show forth the ways that God’s Spirit is still at work among us, even now, after generations of believers?
How are you participating in God’s story today, and going forward – passing that faith from our generation to the next?
What is your story?
It is time to tell it.
In the name of the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, and of Jesus the Christ, faithful toward us throughout generations and generations.