God is entwined in our significant relationships
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 5, July 5th 2020
The story of Abraham and his family looks more like a fairy-tale than the life of real people when we hear that Sarah gave birth to Isaac when she was about ninety years of age, but at least it’s a great story, with interesting twists and great names. My favourites are Uz and Buz, two nephews of Abraham, followed closely by Nahor, who reminds me of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. Today we heard an excerpt from the story of Abraham, concerning the romance of his son Isaac and Rebekah. That little story is part of the bigger story, through which we are being told that God’s will unfolds through the significant relationships of our lives.
To see that in the story of Abraham, we have to first hear the story free of the theological interpretation. So here goes: Abraham wants a new life and so leaves home for another land, far away. There he will build a new home and starts a family, which will set a new direction for his descendants. On the way to this foreign land, Abraham meets Sarah, who he marries and hopes to raise a family, but they can’t, so he has a child with his servant-girl Hagar, and they name him Ishmael. Eventually, the unbelievable happens and Sarah gives birth to a son. In time, Sarah, determined that her son Isaac becomes Abraham’s true heir, pressures Abraham to throw Ishmael and his mother out of their home, which he does. All seems good for the future and Isaac and his father get on swimmingly, until Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac on a mountain. Even though Abraham didn’t actually go through with it, Isaac can’t forgive him, and so moves out from the family home. Sarah also moves out of the family home and then later dies. Abraham organises her funeral and mourns her. Still maintaining his fatherly obligations though, Abraham organises a bride for Isaac, Rebekah, who happens to be his nephew’s daughter. Good to keep family in the family. Being a mere one hundred and fifty years old by then, Abraham thought he had many good years left in him, so he remarried, this time to a woman named Keturah, who may have been his servant-girl from the past with a new identity, which, if true, means that Ishmael, his other son, had arranged for them to get together again. A bit like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They bring forth lots of children, who themselves bring forth lots of children, and so the number of people with funny names multiplies greatly. Finally, Abraham dies at an ancient age, and is buried by Isaac and Ishmael, who in doing so, reconcile their past differences.
The story of Abraham could be the story of a man living in twenty first century Australia, as many family histories are a similar mixture of love, joy and the fulfilment of dreams, but also with complications, tragedies, disappointment, falling out and hopefully reconciliation, or a combination of those.
Abraham’s story is the story of the founding of a nation, in that he is the father of Israel, but it is also the story of a family. Interwoven in that story is the story of God. So, we have Abraham and his family, fulfilling their dreams, and God fulfilling his. Here that means creating a nation through which all the nations of the world shall be blessed, or in other words, setting up a means by which his love for the world would be shown forth concretely, and thus also providing a way for people to love God back. Or another way of seeing it is as a story written by people to convey their belief that God’s love for the world could be discerned through the history of their people.
When we read the details of Abraham’s story, we may wonder what the relevance of Rebekah’s uncles Uz and Buz have to our lives, but if we step back and look at the big picture of the story as a whole, we get the message that God’s story and our stories are intertwined. That challenges the view of God’s will being achieved through God controlling things from afar. And throughout the story, God’s responses, which are at times all too human-like, only serve to emphasise that personal relationships are central to God’s interactions with the world.
The story of Abraham presents God as one who gets what he wants, but not through force or coercion. God is mighty, but not as some may think. Consider this quote from Rowan Williams
“We believe in God, the Father Almighty…” (from the Nicene Creed) …this is what almightiness looks like in practice. It’s the unlimited power to be there, to be faithful to and for a world that is deeply unstable and unjust and suspicious and uncooperative: the power to go on trying to get through at all costs, labouring and wrestling with the human heart. This is why belief, trust, in God the Father almighty is so different from wish fulfilment and projection about some all-powerful character who can just do what he decides and get what he wants straight away. Instead it’s the discovery of what Abraham and Moses have discovered, a God who never runs out of love and liberty. God is to be trusted as we would trust a loving parent, whose commitment to us is inexhaustible, whose purposes for us are unfailingly generous; someone whose life is the source of our life, and who guarantees that there is always a home for us.
(From Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief)
Part of the Christian life is to interpret what God is and what God is doing. The story of Abraham helps us with that, as it shows us where to look for clues, which here, is in our significant relationships.
The Anglican marriage service reflects this same belief that God is integrally involved in our significant relationships. It speaks of God leading the happy couple to their special day, but that’s not in terms of them being like puppets controlled by a heavenly master. It is more subtle than that and never violates the freedom of individuals to do as they wish. In fact, if God were to control what people did with their lives, then it would not be an act of God, because it would violate human freedom (which would go against God’s nature). Contradictory as it may seem, because God’s nature is what it is, the activity of a person can only be described also as the action of God, if that person chooses it of their own freewill. The same is true for any creature on earth. In other words, the part that God plays in creatures’ lives is to enable them to be themselves.
Going back to our significant relationships, how can we look back and see the hand of God at work? Is it to be seen in what happens, or what comes from what happens? Is God only at work in what works out well, or is God always there in some way? And what are we to discern of God’s activity in our relationships in the present?
Here it may be helpful to think of God as the Power of Mutual Relation (a term coined by feminist theologian Carter Heyward). In our gospel passage we hear Jesus criticising people of his time for indulging in relationships that are competitive, rather than mutual. Asking ‘where is God in our relationships?’ then, is asking where, who or what is the power of mutual relating in our relationships? Where do we experience it? How can we bring it? Do I need to leave to find
it? Does something need to change? Am I celebrating it when it’s present?