Faith seems to be a theme in the three readings today. The first reading describes Abraham: a person of faith who trusts the future that God assembles for his family.
The collected stories of Abraham are found in Genesis, chapters twelve through twenty-five. He is presented as the founding father of the Hebrew people. He is a somewhat mysterious figure and we are not sure whether he actually existed. His story was the legend or mythic memory of one of the confederating tribes which came together to form the tribal alliance that became the nation. The tribe of Abraham probably was the most significant group in the merger, since he is seen as the founding father, and his story is the longest of all the stories gathered into one national history. The myths of the other tribes were shaped into the stories of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Let us recognize that as important as any one group’s story is, it yearns to be woven with the stories of others as the fabric of human life is constructed, and as people come together.
And if we too quickly mold Abraham into an illustration of faithfulness, we miss most of his story. Abraham’s God was active in the details of human life, even those which do not make sense, or in those small events we easily overlook or forget.
Abraham’s full remembrance would recall the great shift in his life when he decided at the “young” age of seventy-five to leave his home town of Haran, in Mesopotamia, in Ur, and to follow the Fertile Crescent trade route north and west, along the northern edge of the great desert and west toward the land known as Canaan near the sea. He may have farmed along the way, but he is mostly on the move, following herds, grazing his animals in the foothills. And he is buying, selling, and transporting merchandise along what was one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world.
His was a family business. The household, if you could call it that, probably numbered around 100 people. There were several relatives including Lot and his wife involved in this venture based on raising livestock both for themselves and others along the trade route as they traded with merchants moving goods through the corridor. Eventually they settle more permanently on the western end of the route, near the sea. At one point, because of drought and famine, the business almost collapsed, but they move temporarily to Egypt where there is food and pasture. Then they regroup before returning to their western grazing areas.
Land is important to Abraham’s storyteller, and in the area by the sea, in Canaan, Abraham buys or acquires control over several large fields, or base camps, or we might say ranches. After his death, his children and grandchildren expand on these holdings so that an actual territory emerges.
Once, when Lot was in trouble, Abraham formed a small army, or we might say Special Forces Unit, to rescue Lot who had been captured and probably held for ransom by a warlord. But by and large what marks the dealings of Abraham is that he had few enemies. He was gifted at getting along. He had a great capacity to work well with the economic, military, and political powers in the region. Abraham is a strong negotiator, who could be shrewd and at times even deceitful.
And there was one way of doing business that worked very well for Abraham. This was what we know as making covenants. A covenant was an agreement between two parties. It may be that the origin of covenants, or mutually binding contracts between parties, is a new invention for doing business in the Bronze Age as trade flourished. And Abraham made effective and long lasting agreements with all who crossed his path. You might say he was especially good at contract law, and made sure that the covenants made benefited all the parties involved: so good in fact, that even God and Abraham make covenants together.
Essentially he was a man of means who learned to trade well and prospered by not seeking conflict with those around him. In these stories he is remembered for this capacity to shrewdly negotiate with a sense of good will in order to strike a good agreement. Eventually the idea of covenants is used to shape our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. God offers us a covenant with very gracious terms.
In his relationships, business dealings, and interactions with others, Abraham often showed two character traits that contributed to his success. He was highly adaptive, adjusting his perspective and understanding according to the circumstances. Even his vision of God involved several adjustments or changes along the way. Sometimes his moral agility got him into trouble, but by and large his capacity to adapt gave him the capacity to succeed.
The second character trait was a sense of hospitality and magnanimity. In dealing with war lords, petty kings, various emperors, family, servants, and business partners, his dealings were marked by a full measure of that desert hospitality that was so important to life in the ancient Middle East. Hospitality is often a theme in the stories of Abraham. And as we reflect on Abraham today, we could do no better than to simply understand that throughout life we will need to always build good agreements with those around us. Let us carefully attend to the details of the agreements we make with our neighbors, friends, and family, at work and at school, in our communities, nation, and world. As we do that we also will need to be adaptable and gracious. And let us do what we can to engage more and more people in the broader social contracts or covenants needed to make our own fertile crescent or these days we might say our blue marble safe and productive for all.
One of the most important things to Abraham was what we would call legacy. The question of his legacy comes up again and again in this story. What will he leave behind after his death? Because he and Sarah are childless so late in life, legacy becomes especially important. When most of us think of our legacy we think of family. But in these stories, legacy becomes more than having an heir. There is something about legacy that expands as we grow older. It involves more than our children. We want to leave something behind that makes a difference. We want to be remembered. We hope that what we stood for and what we did will grow and prosper. We want to see the good things of life continue beyond our frame. Eventually, Abraham’s and Sarah’s legacy is the founding of a nation, this new tribal confederation that blends the patriarchal stories of several tribes into one family story. But then this national legacy is broadened to include all people who seek a relationship or covenant with God. When we think of Abraham’s life we think about our own legacy and what we will leave behind. And that is a good thing.
And then finally, as we recall Abraham, this great negotiator and deal maker, high adaptable and gracious, focused on legacy, we also discover in these chapters that Abraham had a rather strange Bronze Age religion. Somewhere in his desert wandering, he gave up on the worship of the many Mesopotamian gods, and began to hear the voice of one god, one spirit in the wind of the desert blowing over the sand. There was one god, one spirit, one voice that spoke to Abraham as he listened. This voice called to Abraham. There was an intimate relationship between Abraham and the god of the desert wind. The voice became the source of his strength and courage. It helped him adapt. It helped him be gracious. And this faith became part of his legacy. This faith was not a static thing but is molded and then reshaped several times along the way: moving Abraham beyond malice to enemies, beyond the commonly practiced sacrifice of children, beyond family feuding, and beyond superstition. And each time God deepened Abraham’s faith, a new agreement or covenant was forged between this desert trader and his God.
Today we also read about Jesus and Nicodemus who comes in the middle of the night, uncertain about where his life of faith is going. Sometimes these journeys into the unknown are not happening in the outer lives we lead, but in our inner lives and spirit. The act of faith is not always a physical transition, but a spiritual change. The gospel of John expresses this inner journey into the depths of the spirit in the words of Jesus. He introduces Nicodemus to uncharted territories of the spirit’s unfolding, along the trade routes of the spirit not yet fully explored. The journey in this third lesson, into the new unknown, is the spiritual quickening that we experience in the lives we lead. Sometimes the door opens to new ways of thinking about God and being the people of God.
Jesus’ words call to mind how our faith gives us the courage to journey more deeply into the unknown life of the spirit. Over the course of decades our spiritual selves are refined and renewed, over and over again. Our views change as our hearts grow. We become more capable of loving and being loved. We reflect more wisely as we encounter more suffering. We draw more deeply upon the wells of compassion that have always been there. We drink more deeply from the font of wisdom we experience in the presence of God. We change our minds about matters of faith as we mature, as individuals and in community.
Lent is a season of spiritual journey, of the deepening of the life of the spirit, of walking more boldly into new spiritual practices and realities, leaving behind older more familiar forms which may provide order and comfort, but may also limit our vision of the broadening rivers of God’s love. Each Lent is not so much a call to give something up, but to take something on as we boldly and with courage face deeper issues in our souls’ formation and reformation, until we feel the birth of something new in the festival of Easter.
This week, a new door may open in your life as well. A new possibility may emerge, either physically or spiritually or both. Or a new reality may need to be dealt with. Or a difference will make itself known in some part of your life. Or you may discover yourself like Nicodemus, probing more deeply the spiritual mysteries of God’s abundant love. Springtime is full of such changes. Through it all, recall Abraham and Nicodemus, who moved into their future, trusting God to be with them.