My words in reflection of Genesis 12:1-9 are below. It's a sermon I called Barren Places. Somehow, my wonderful preaching professor urged me to talk about justice without being aggressive -- so I manage to be pastoral (to a fault). The response was that we needed a reminder about being Open & Affirming. I think we need more than a reminder, but OK. The lesbians (or as I call them, my lesbians) were all there in the front row. I name them in my sermon except for one -- who did the Children's Sermon so beautifully. They each cried. I freakin' cried.
I did a couple of other things in the service that changed the tone so that these words were not the focus. I made them sing (and dance) to Father Abraham for the first hymn. I led. We laughed and were filled with joy. And then, I benedicted by asking each worshipper to greet their neighbor and learn their name and one thing about them. And then, they were to acknowledge that they were family with the words I offered in the benediction. Because of these things, my sermon was no longer the focus -- but I'd be interested to hear reactions.
This is a story of beginnings. It’s the story that you may never have asked your own parents. (Never mind your Biblical ancestors.) It’s the story your parents were probably reluctant to tell – like how my step-mother was tripped into my father’s lap in a bar by a wise friend. The details may not be as juicy for Abram and Sarai – but we don’t know. The story isn’t told. Without any romance or ceremony, the list of ancestors in chapter 11 assures us that Abram took Sarai as his wife. That’s how the story begins. Abram takes Sarai as his wife – but that’s not all. Sarai is barren. You can’t trip over that bar stool. There is no way around that one. This is so much more than a juicy detail. This is a scandal! The story begins in a place without hope or possibility. This is a story that begins in a barren place.
Before we learn that Abram is expected to have children at 75 years old. Before God tells Abram that he will be made “a great nation” where all of the “families of the earth shall be blessed.” Before the risk of divorce for Sarai’s inability to bear her husband a son. Before God told Abram to go anywhere at all, this is just a story about when two people fell in love. This is just a story of beginnings – a beginning where Abram and Sarai affirm their love for one another before their friends and family.
This is the honeymoon phase of any relationship – before anyone knows that she will be barren or that he will become the father of us all. These facts are, of course, what confuse us. We know Abraham and Sarah how we know our own parents – as parents, not as high school sweethearts or even as young people tripping over bar stools in the Old Port. We don’t really want to know the details. We’d prefer the idealized version without the family pressures or scandal or any other complicating factors. Our parents can keep the barren places, in the past – where they belong.
I never wanted that. I wanted to know all of these complicating factors. As a child, I wanted to know every last detail about my parents, partly because it was the only way that I had to know my mother after she died. I only had these stories about their beginning. And then, my father remarried – and I got a new story of beginnings – but even so, my family’s beginning didn’t look like the beginnings of other families.
I was a child in the 80s when divorce rates soared. None of my peers had typical families – with one mother and one father. But, my mother didn’t live on the other side of town. My parents weren’t divorced. And so, I thought that our family – like Sarai – was barren. There was an emptiness. There was a void that I so badly wanted to be filled. I wanted my father to get married again. I thought that would make everything whole again.
Of course, this isn’t just a childish impulse. We all want the honeymoon. We all want our community to affirm our love so that barren feeling turns into blessing – even among the most complicating factors. It seems like a scandal – but perhaps it is just a barren place waiting for a beginning. Or maybe it’s even simpler about that. Maybe it’s just about love and the beginnings of love – as for Abram and Sarai. It’s about beginning a list of ancestors as two people start their lives together – as Joshua and Benjamin did.
The New York Times Magazine recently featured their story. They met in college. One of them wanted to see other people. The other was in hot pursuit and soon – they fell in love. And as so many of us do, Joshua and Benjamin wanted “what they’ve long seen espoused by mainstream American culture: a long-term relationship with a chance to start a family.”
“Go,” God says to Abram. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram was to leave behind all he knew to seek a new home – by faith. He took his new wife and his nephew, and they left to find a place where “all of the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram goes – trusting that God will lead him to a new land. And when he finally gets there, God keeps talking. “To your offspring I will give this land.”
But, we already stopped listening. We’re stuck on the fact that Abram went without asking any questions. Does he even know that his wife his barren? Why would he go? Why doesn’t he ask? After all, there are no offspring. Sarai is barren. There can’t be any offspring! We are not like Abram. We do not listen. We ask questions. We begin to edit the story so that we might better understand it. We take the facts and rearrange them into some logical explanation – as if we had any control over how this all started. We focus on those barren places and ignore God’s assurance that “all of the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Go, God urges when we are stubborn.
Go from what you believe to be true.
Go from the expectations of your friends and your family.
Go from your small town where (just maybe) you were accepted as you are.
Go from the barren places without hope of new life.
Go from your parent’s house to the possibility I will show you.
We are going together to find a place of possibility – that beginning of a possibility that we all want where we are known and loved. Where our families – in all of their shapes and sizes – are blessed. This is where we are going. This is a story our beginning. It started when our church family covenanted to be an Open & Affirming congregation, when we dared to welcome and bless each and every one of God’s people. We began to listen to each other’s stories, which is not as easy as it sounds. Listening means that we have to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers. We can’t be God anymore than we can be like our parents (though Lord knows, we never want to be like them). We can’t tell them where they went wrong. We just have to listen. But, when we are brave enough to listen, really listen, like Abram did and perhaps go along with the story without editing or deciding how the story should end, we might find that we are all truly blessed.
That’s the strange thing about this place. We meet people in the midst of their stories – when they wander through these doors feeling barren, empty and alone – and we get to listen to their stories and be transformed by their stories until somehow those stories become part of our place on Meetinghouse Hill. Those become the stories that affirm our possibility that all families can really be blessed – no matter what the legislation of our state upholds.
And though we might want to edit or insist on scandal or begin their story for them, that’s not our task. This is the story of our beginning. This isn’t the story of one gay couple in Massachusetts or one lesbian couple in California. It is our story to tell how we answer God’s call together. After all, we are a group of people that believe our mission is not only:
to worship God as made known in the Scriptures, as revealed in Jesus Christ, and as encountered through the Holy Spirit;
to serve our members, our community and our world, working in faithful witness toward justice and peace for all people;
to educate people of all ages toward a deeper understanding of their individ ual faith pilgrimage, their relationships with others, and their responsibilities as stewards of God’s created order;
to grow in fellowship as the Body of Christ, inviting others to share in the Good News of God’s love.
This is our mission. This is what we believed it to be in 1993 and still do. This is how we claim our life together in this family so that when God tell us to go, we don’t question. We know that it is our call to serve, educate and grow with the stories that we hear. It is these stories that inform who we serve, how we educate and whether or not we dare to grow into what God is calling.
These are the stories that matter and shape our ministry together – not only the story of Joshua and Benjamin. They have their story of blessing, but we have many others that require our careful listening. After all, Abram couldn’t go anywhere unless he listened. He had to hear God before he could go to that place where all of his offspring might be blessed.
Like Abram, we must begin to listen to those barren places – whether it is the story of a lesbian couple who have begun the countdown until their wedding while dreading the reality that the one of the bride’s parents refuses to come. It’s the story of another couple that comes to find sanctuary here because their pastor insisted their love was a sin. These are the stories in this place. These are the possibilities that are trusted with us and waiting for blessing. And it comes. Trust me. It comes when one of our members taps her pastor on the shoulder just before an evening meeting to share the news that she’s pregnant. It is not only her pastor that jumps up and down in the church office, knowing the anxiety these two young women face in beginning a family. It is her entire church family that celebrates in this story because we get to be there as that new family is created. And with our faith, we will grow with them listening carefully for God’s voice urging us to go – just as Abram did. Go from what we believe to be true. Go to worship, serve, educate and grow, invited others to share in the Good News of God’s love right here.