Abram’s God is not like other gods. Stories from the ancient world often featured gods driving the narrative. Competing deities used humans as proxies to carry out their sibling rivalries. In the Fertile Crescent, it was thought that the irregular patterns of floods was caused by warring gods. Abram’s God didn’t play these kinds of games.
I want to share a couple of stories with you this morning about Abram (who would later receive the new name Abraham). One story we already read this morning, the other two are not in the Bible, but that’s okay. The Rabbis knew them. Rabbi Hiyya, who lived in the third century, told a story about young Abram, before God told him to “Go!” to the promised land.
Abram’s father Terah did good business in his hometown of Ur as a clay idol statue salesman. His father sold little clay gods. The whole family apparently worked in the theology business. One day, Terah left young Abram in charge of the store. Abram, full of righteous anger, smashes all of the clay statues. When Terah returns, the boy has placed the stick in the hands of the largest idol. He tells his father that a woman came to offer food to the gods, and they argued over who would eat it first, until a fight broke out and destroyed one another. Terah rolls his eyes and says to Abram, “son, they’re just statues.” Abram responds, “then why do you worship them?”
Abram saw things differently. For Abram, to use the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, “there was a God out there beyond ‘god.’” The God of Abram was not confined to some clay vessel, not tangible. More than our opening hymn this morning, I can imagine Abram singing, “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise. In Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” There is a God out there beyond god.
We are children of Abram. Along with our Jewish sisters and brothers, and our Muslim sisters and brothers, I believe when God took Abram out for an astronomy lesson, we are the stars God was talking about. Abram’s vision of a God out there beyond god took hold. Our God cannot be contained in clay vessels.
We live in a day when there are many Evangelical Atheists. Think about that term. You may have friends or family members that wonder about your sanity for spending your Sunday in church. (Also I’m willing to bet you probably have other friends or family members that think you’re crazy for worshiping in THIS church. Well, crazy loves company. They don’t call us Holy Commotion for nothing.) The Oxford Scholar Richard Dawkins has been on a very public campaign against belief in God. His most famous book is called “The God Delusion.” Dawkins isn’t alone. Bill Maher on HBO, Christopher Hitchens, God rest his soul, even Steven Hawking, the great Cambridge cosmologist, has come out against God. Are we crazy?
You may be surprised to hear this, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we are crazy for believing in God, for trusting in God, sometimes like Abram and Sarai, despite the evidence. A theology professor of mine, Dr. Maria Pilar Aquino, used to say: “Atheism is irrelevant, because you have to specify exactly which god you don’t believe in.” She often went on to say that when atheists talked about the god they didn’t believe in, she usually didn’t believe in that god either.
See, I think the “New Atheists” are a bit like young Abram. They’ve got a bat in their hands and they are smashing the clay statues. I have to say, as a member of the clergy, as a representative of the religious establishment, I can sympathize. In the church, we’ve put up a lot of little clay men over the centuries and said, “that’s God!” Religion needs a little smashing now and again.
This is an aside, and maybe it is impolitic, but if your god thinks you shouldn’t be allowing your children to participate in the Girl Scouts, double check. You may have an idol on your hands. Time for some smashing. Incidentally, I’ve offered any Girl Scouts that need a home after this last week to come to The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion. We will welcome you.
It’s not just the news from this past week about the St. Louis Archdiocese questioning its relationship with Girl Scouts let’s be honest, time and again human-run religious organizations have set up clay idols. I can understand why some people are turned off by all the little gods we have running around. As the 16th century Italian monk and astronomer Giordano Bruno said to the church at his heresy trial: “Your god is too small!”
I’m about to tell you a secret. There’s a trick to this theology business. It’s a lot easier to talk about a small god. It’s often easier to make a clay statue for a small god than to describe the God of Abram, the God of Jesus. Wrapping your mind around “The God out there beyond god,” that’s difficult. But a word of advice: never settle for a small god.
Eventually Abram grew up, and he began a journey with his wife Sarai (later known as Sarah), his nephew Lot, and his father Terah, who had apparently forgiven him for smashing all of the merchandise in the shop. They head for the promised land, but initially, they only make it halfway there. The family settles in Haran, where Terah dies. After his father dies, God calls Abram again: “Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you, and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…” Abram is 75 when God calls him, not a young man.
There’s another story from the Rabbis know that isn’t in the Bible. The story picks up as Abram is about to leave. You see, the people of Haran tried to get Abram to stay. They protested Abram leaving. They camped at the city gates and tried to convince him to not to go. Abram was a wise old leader in Haran, trusted, his counsel was sought. Why was he headed off into the wilderness, especially at his age?
“Don’t leave. We need you here” they say. Abram looks out at them and gives his answer. He says, “you don’t need me. No one is indispensable to anyone but God.” No one is indispensable to anyone but God. There are two sides to his statement. One is obvious: no one is indispensable. “You don’t need me in Haran. There are other wise leaders.”
In that way, we see that Abram really is wise. I have the privilege to work with a number of you who have come to an age of wisdom. And I’ve learned to listen for a particular marker of wisdom and leadership among my retired and retiring friends. I’ve heard the phrase a number of times lately, it goes something like this. “I looked around one day at the team I had worked so hard with for so long, and I realized, they don’t need me.” That’s wisdom. There’s a certain freedom in that statement: “they don’t need me.”
No one is irreplaceable at work. Really. No one. Like it or not in a year, we’ll have a new president of the United States. Everyone is replaceable in their work. There is wisdom and freedom in figuring out that you can be replaced.
But there is another side to Abram’s statement: “no one is indispensable to anyone but God.” To God, Abram is indispensable. To God, you, people of Haran, and you, people of Holy Communion, are indispensable. Who you are matters. What you choose matters. How you love matters. Again, Abram is reframing God for the people of his time. The gods of his day were small in their intentions. They used humans to further their own petty plots.
The God of Abram was a different sort of God, beyond all those gods. Abram’s God was big enough to love and care about, to need each and every human life. Subtly Abram told the people of Haran, you don’t need me, you need God.
David Foster Wallace, the late author and post-modern literary critic, gave a famous commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago. Commencement addresses are full of advice for graduates, and Foster Wallace gave advice reluctantly. He was a postmodern, and postmoderns do everything reluctantly. Here’s part of his address, try to hear it with Abram’s idol smashing and his loving words to the people of Haran in mind.
“here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid,a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
We haven’t come that far from the ancient world with all the small Gods. This is what St. Paul is warning the Philippians of this morning. “Don’t let your god be your belly.” Don’t live the default settings offered to us. This is why Jesus tells the pharisees Jerusalem kills the prophets. We still live in a world that traffics in small gods. We live in a world that profits on fear and keeping gods small.
Following the God of Abram was and is a radical choice. If you feel unsteady at times, know that the patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets are with you. They all come to God with questions. Before you try out Abram’s method and cut open any animals, call me. But know that God can handle the questions. God can handle your doubts. God is with you, inviting you, to Go!, have an adventure. Trust in God, because God is out there, beyond all of the minuscule images that are often offered.
Out there, looking out at those stars, Abram caught a glimpse of his heritage. You and me and the millions of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims that call Abram our Father, and Sarah our mother. All of the people on our planet who seek a bigger God, they are all children of Abram. And at the same time, the God who is beyond God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (to quote Thomas Merton). We may need to smash some idols. We may need to leave behind the city we’ve called home. But God is with you. Just ask Abram.