One of the jokes about the Bible is the “begats”—there’s even a Simpson’s episode where you can even hear Larry King recite some of them! You know the ones: “Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arpachsad two years after the flood. And Shem lived after he begat Arpachsad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. And Arpachsad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah.” Etc., etc. There’s a subtle theological point being made with some of those lists. Many of the genealogies in the Old Testament, especially those in Genesis, begin with the phrase ‘eleh toledot, “these are the generations.” This phrase acts as a heading for different sections of Genesis. In Genesis 2.4, the narrator says, “these are the generations of the heavens and earth when they were created,” and then launches into the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. So all humankind is, in a sense, the offspring of the cosmos. Every subsequent use of ‘eleh toledot narrows the genealogy down a bit: “these are the generations of Noah,” “these are the generations of Shem,” who is the father of the Semites, “these are the generations of Terah,” who is the father of Abraham and grandfather of Lot. Finally, at the end of Genesis, “these are the generations of Jacob,” the father of all Israel. The promise of offspring, of land, of closeness with God all gets funneled into smaller and smaller family lines. The family of promise is to be a sign to the nations, the means of spreading the blessing of God. Like a lot of God’s strategies, it’s counter-intuitive: why choose smaller and smaller families in order to bless the whole world? Part of the answer is, of course, that it’s hard to find people who can trust God as much as Abraham or Moses could. Part of it is maybe that God asks so much, not many nations want to accept God’s covenant.
The rabbis have a self-deprecating story about the giving of the Law at Sinai, which is the ultimate moment of grace for Jews. One by one, they say, every nation in the world was brought before God at Sinai, and offered the covenant of the Torah. And one by one, each nation refused. It is, after all, a pretty difficult bargain to accept: You need to be the most righteous people in the world, serve God always, and in exchange, God will hold you to a higher standard than anyone else. Assyria, you want to be in covenant with God? No, thanks. Egypt? Um, no. But when Israel is brought before Sinai, the last and least of the nations, they accept, because they are so small and helpless. What do they have to lose, compared to the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia?
But ultimately, I think God needed time to mold one family and one nation in his likeness, to start small in order to build something unique in history, before extending that relationship to the rest of the world. After all, it’s not until the experience of the exile that Israel really gets universalism, the idea that God is God everywhere, not just constrained to the land of Israel, and that God loves and is bound to folks beside the Hebrews. It’s as if the Hebrews need to understand how big God is before they can get their minds around how enormous God’s plans for the world are.
And in the early church, God’s promise explodes out of the boundaries of the covenant made with Abraham. Where Abraham once was called to leave everything, to place his trust in God alone, the followers of Jesus are similarly called. Those who reduce the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” to a personal, mystical experience miss the basic emphasis of the Acts account of Pentecost: This isn’t about personal closeness to God, or not only about that, but it is about Jesus’ followers being able to communicate. It is about the early Christians being empowered to go outside the boundaries of their communities of origin. It’s about going outside of our homes and our languages to make others feel at home, namely the others who are so often excluded from membership in tribes and nations. As the Apostle Paul puts it, now all who share Abraham’s faith are Abraham’s descendants. We no longer have to share Abraham’s blood, or his covenant of circumcision, to be his children. To become Abraham’s relative requires nothing beyond a trust in the same God, and a willingness to leave the familiar for the foreign.
God asked Abraham to leave his family and homeland, to go to a land he didn’t know, to become a foreigner, which is a calling to great vulnerability. The word “Hebrew,” which is what Abraham’s offspring would be called, means “the one from over there,” or “the one who is not from this place.” To call oneself a Hebrew is to acknowledge one’s otherness. In the Bible, people never identify themselves as Hebrews to other Hebrews; you only say “I’m a Hebrew” when you’re not at home. This vulnerability is what God calls us to—to leave the familiar, to trust God when we have nothing, to trust God when we are uncomfortable doing God’s work. It is to be pilgrims in all the nations and institutions of the world, to be faithful to God above all other claims on our allegiance. It is to take huge risks for the sake of God’s work, which is our mission. It is a willingness to be unpopular, to forgive the unforgiveable, to love others as yourself—even, as the Quaker folksinger Carrie Newcomer writes, “In a world where they call you a fool for living out the Golden Rule.”
As examples in our own time, I think of the brave women and men who broke laws and were reviled for their activism in the Civil Rights movement. I think of the martyrs, in this country and around the world, who are protesting child labor, unsafe working conditions, and exploitation which looks more like slavery than employment. They are fired, insulted, imprisoned, beaten, and even killed; they might be shot while attending their local church, or struck down by homicidal drivers. Many of them suffer this only for standing up or working on behalf of someone else, someone helpless, and not even on their own behalf.
These are men and women threatened, defamed, injured and even killed protecting the poor, but they get no awards. They don’t wear uniforms, they have no commanding officers, their widows and orphans certainly don’t get any financial security. They do what they do only for love, for faith, for God. They have been sojourners in our country and in our world, receiving little but hatred, called traitors and enemies. Their names are not remembered except by the very few.
Is that what we want for our lives? Probably not. Like the empires in the rabbinical story, we might very well pass, if given the option. After all, we’d all like to be remembered well. We certainly don’t want to be called traitors, don’t want burning crosses on our lawns or death threats in our mail. But God’s call does involve taking risks, including the risk of giving offense, as Jesus was not afraid to do. It might mean speaking up when you know you’ll get in trouble for it—maybe not in legal trouble, but trouble with friends or relatives can be even harder to face.
But God’s call to us, as to Abraham, is to trust God above all others. And God’s gift to us, as to the first followers of Jesus, is the empowering of the Spirit to be bold, to transgress the boundaries between people, to go out in courage to build what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community—a community in which all are cared for, all are valued, all are sacred and beloved. It is not to belong fully to any nation or institution or group beside this Beloved Community, but to give ourselves entirely to God’s work. This doesn’t mean abandoning or not loving our country or church or workplace. But it does mean refusing to become insiders; it means being willing to stand apart from those organizations so that we can be critical of them when they oppress or impoverish or kill—it means to witness to the Beloved Community in the midst of imperialism, racism, sexism, all the insidious structures and prejudices that kill our sisters and brothers. It means being willing to take risks out of love for others, to stand on the side of those who are abused by the very institutions we are a part of, even at the cost of being cast out, and seen as enemies of those institutions.
Our call, like Abraham’s call and the call to the early church, is not to define ourselves by what we oppose. It is instead to fix all of ourselves on love. It is to let love so suffuse and strengthen us that our lives are oriented to love. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “Jesus is a man for others.” Father Daniel Berrigan, imprisoned for his protests during the Vietnam War, said that a Christian must be “a sign that is inspired by Christ’s example, a sign that can be read as saying: ‘I am for others, I am here and now for others.’ ” To go where God sends us is, like Bonhoeffer and Berrigan and King, like all prophets and activists, to risk judgment. To walk with Abraham, to be God’s sojourner in the land, means that God’s vision of the world is meant to be our overriding vision, and that can be incredibly threatening to others. The grace and blessing of God—which is what we’re meant to embody in this world, the light we’re meant to shine—makes some people uncomfortable. We all too easily prize the divisions between us, or are afraid of people who rock the boat. But God overwhelms those divisions, and God demands we rock the boat; that is what it means to embody God’s blessing to the world.
Some of us got together last fall to watch the documentary, “This Changes Everything,” which is about people joining together to protect the world from global warming. There’s a line in it that’s been haunting me lately: Montana goat rancher and environmentalist Alexis Bonogofsky, speaking of the fight of Indigenous people and ranchers to preserve Montana from the mining industry, says that, ultimately, “it is not hatred of the coal companies, or anger, but love [that] will save this place.” In the same way, it’s not oppositionalism, but deep commitment, that will save us now. It’s not hatred of evil that will save us. It’s not even our anger, as righteous as that can be. Love will save us now. Love will sustain us as we work for God’s Beloved Community. Love and a deep solidarity are what will save us, they are God’s plan for saving us. So let us break bread together in recommitment to the love and solidarity of God with our broken, grieving world.