Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Preaching, the Thick and Thin of It, 2

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at a local congregation. They are in the middle of a series tracing the broad strokes of the biblical narrative. They've asked me to do a few of the sermons in the series, and Sunday I had Genesis 12 as my sermon text.

In previous posts, I've talked about the preaching imagination, and particularly the need to render both the world of the text and our world with thick description. Also, I think a lot about what is performing in the text, and how can I get it to perform in the sermon. So, what would I do with Genesis 12 along these lines.

This is an important text, a game changer in many ways. What is surprising in light of that is the scarcity of detail. There is no prelude or back story. No build up this moment. We have precious little detail about Abram and have no indication that Abram knows anything about this God who is calling him. We have an astounding promise stated directly and without conditions. And given the scarcity of information about Abram, his decision to "do as the Lord said" is pretty stunning. So, what is performing here? Lack of detail. The lack of detail we have makes the details we do have more impacting.

What's performing on the listener's side of the ledger? Familiarity. They know the story and they automatically hear other stories along with this one. This sermon has a lot of potential for echo and allusion. Also, the world of stories we live in revels in the motivations of characters. The drama is played out in the psyche of the characters before it is in real action. Inner landscapes are as important as outer ones. The biblical stories typically resist that kind of psychologizing, which serves to put the emphasis in the story on the initiative and action of God. I want to bring these worlds into conversation.

So, here are some snippets from the sermon:

"Now the Lord said to Abram..." Just like that. Abram's minding his own business, just hanging out in the middle of a genealogy with his fathers and his barren wife, and the Lord speaks to him.

This can happen, evidently. You can be minding your own business, mending your nets by the Sea of Galilee, or checking your email, or watching Wheel of Fortune, and the Lord can just interrupt you. "Abram!" Just like that, "the Lord said to Abram..."

"...Leave your country and your kindred and your father's house and go the land that I will show you."

Which is asking a lot, isn't it? Country, kindred, father's house. Leave what you know. Leave the things that give you identity, your sources of security, the life that has been handed down to you. Leave it for the land that I will show you.

It would be one thing to say, leave country, kindred and father's house and go to California, or Dallas, or Miami. At least then you would know how to pack. Nancy and I are going to Uganda in a few days. We're not prepared for Africa. We need shots and lighter clothes and different foot wear. It helps to know where you're going. But Abram gets none of this. None of it. No destination. Only a land that he will be shown, which puts all the stress on the one doing the leading. Which I don't think is really a very popular notion. If you were a travel agent and this was your business, I think you'd go broke.

I think that because a few years ago I wrote a book with Randy Harris and Doug Foster called, "Seeking a Lasting City." But that wasn't our first title. The title we wanted was "Leaving the Land We Know," but our editors nixed it. "It will scare people. They don't want to leave what they know. They'll think you're asking them to leave Churches of Christ." Not much of a market for this leaving country and kindred and father's house, evidently.

But Abram got more than an invitation. He got a promise as well. And what a promise. "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 the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed."

That's an astounding promise. Really. One that you could only believe if you suspended belief, hoped against hope.

And its made to Abram. And we know precious little about him. We don't know if he's a person of faith. We have nothing of his exploits. Know nothing about his character. All we know...all we know...all we know about him is that his wife is barren.

If we were vetting likely candidates for this story, the one thing we know about Abram would disqualify him. Great nation. Blessing. Great name. It screams family, offspring, fertility. And Sarai, Abram's wife is barren.

Which makes you wonder about the promise maker. Who makes wild promises like this? This isn't business as usual--it's not like a "your money back, no questions asked" kind of promise. This is an all in promise. This is life out of barrenness, creation out of nothing. The Lord is all in. He's put his reputation on the line in the form of a wild promise.

But here's the kicker. "In you all the families of the earth will be blessed." I mean why not. Promise a family to someone incapable of having a family and then promise them all the families of the earth will be blessed through this impossible family. Why not?

"So Abram went as the Lord told him."


Seriously. Just like that. "Abram went as the Lord told him."


Now, I'm not one to criticize biblical writers, much. But I'm thinking that most story tellers worth their salt make a bit more of this moment. Give us some sense of the inner turmoil within Abram. He's tortured. Country, kin, and father's house verses this fantastic, unsecured promise. He's torn. And in his inner conflict lie the seeds of success or failure. This story depends on how he will work out his inner demons. Cue the music. Which way will he go. Close-up on his eyes, the worry lines on his forehead. Follow him back into Sarai's tent. We hear her say, "Might as well go. Stupid hope is better than no hope. There's a fine line between trust and desperation and we're walking it Abe."

Now that's a story.

But we have none of that here. The story refuses to look at anything other than the promise.

God--a preposterous promise--trust. That's all we have.

God--a promise--and trust.

Which it turns out, is really all you need to tell a story about God.

It's not that our story lacks drama. The human characters are always trying to hijack it, change the plot just a bit, make the outcomes a little less risky. Make it less a comedy or tragedy and more a fairly tale.

Abraham would rather trust his ability to pawn Sara off as his sister than trust the promise-maker.

Sarah tires of waiting for a son, so she sends the concubine into Abraham's tent. Let's kick start this thing a bit, take it into our own hands.

God's not even above injecting a little drama, asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

But all of these serve to highlight the basic elements of the story here in chapter 12. God-promise-trust.

Next post, the rest of the sermon.


Warren Baldwin said...

Good post, Mark. I've preached this story many times in different settings, but still seem to learn something new or at least get a new emphasis whenever I read someone else's take on it.

I appreciated this comment: "The drama is played out in the psyche of the characters before it is in real action. Inner landscapes are as important as outer ones. The biblical stories typically resist that kind of psychologizing, which serves to put the emphasis in the story on the initiative and action of God."

I've read about avoiding psychologizing the text. If the preacher feels the need to do some of that, he should do it with a story of his own, even with imaginary characters, and leave the integrity of the biblical characters in tact.

I appreciate sermonic tips as well as your development of this passage.

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Warren. I think you're right about psychologizing. Glad to have you as a reader.