Repentance and Repair: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18

February 21, 2016 – 2nd Sunday in Lent

Introduction: This story is about Abram who we will know later as Abraham. “After these things” refers to Abram’s nephew Lot and Lot’s people who were attacked and abducted by a coalition of kings who came from the east into the area Lot was living. Abram gathers his men, pursued Lot’s abductors and rescued Lot and all of Lot’s people.

[Read Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18]

There are lots of ways to read and interpret the bible. The way that is typically my default is to look at the text in its context. What has happened leading up to this particular story? What happens afterward? How does this story serve the larger story? Why did the biblical writers and editors tell the story this way? Why did they include what they did? How does this story contribute to the theological importance that the writer wants to communicate?

So I read back through the story of Abram that begins in chapter 11. And I like to look at what’s coming next—how is what happens in this story going to play out in what’s to come?

The story begins to gain traction when God calls Abram to leave the place where he has been living and to set out to a place that God will show him. God makes a promise to Abram: “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…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1] And Abram set out.

Now Abram hears the promise of God a few more times but as the years roll on, he and Sarai continue to be childless. Eventually he assumes, what was traditional that without his own biological child the child of one his slaves will become his heir. But God has something else in mind.

One way this story in chapter 15 functions in the larger context of the biblical story is to raise our sights to how God is at work to fulfill the promise made to Abram. In every story in Genesis, there is great potential that God’s promise will be derailed. First with Abram, who has no heir and seems too old to become a father. Then with Isaac, with Jacob and with Joseph, the story is fraught with potential for God’s promise to reach a dead end. But every time, God makes a way when there seems to be no way. And one way this story functions in the bible is to assure us that God’s promises can be trusted.

But let’s hear the story in another way. And this is what happened to me after I thought I had my sermon idea all wrapped up earlier this week.

God makes a promise to Abram: “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…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Abram set out.

Abram sets out as an immigrant. He had already left his homeland in Ur when his father moved everyone to Haran. This is not like when you get a new job in another city and you pack up your belongings and move across state lines. Abram is living in a time of tribal affiliations; where most people would be born, live, and die close to where they were born.[2] Every time he moved, he was going to a foreign community, a place where he knew no one and no one knew him.

I don’t know if anyone had documents in Abram’s day but he functioned as an undocumented immigrant. He had no credentials in his new place. He knew no one to work for. No one knew anything about him to trust him or his people. It was a severely risky journey Abram was embarking on to leave what was known and follow God to some place unknown to him and where he would also be unknown.

Miguel de la Torre, who teaches social ethics and Latin@ studies at Iliff School of Theology, says “The story of God’s people is the story of aliens,” refugees and immigrants, “trying to survive among unfamiliar people in a land that belonged to others.”[3]

Listen to what the lectionary left out of this reading.

[Read verses 13-16.]

[Read verses (pick-up on verse 18) 19-21.]

I don’t know why the lectionary left out those verses but it troubles me. Often the lectionary leaves out portions of stories that are troubling or violent or unsettling because they raise theological possibilities that we don’t really want to deal with. The story is cleaner if it’s just about God whose promises are true. I do believe God is faithful to the promises God makes. It would be hard for me to stand up here as your pastor if I didn’t believe that. And sometimes the story is more complicated.

A prominent story of Abram’s descendents is the story of land. For generations they will have no land. First as people enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Then 40 more years with no land as they trek through the wilderness, having been led out of Egypt by God into freedom.

What we hear in chapter 15 is God will give Abram’s descendants land but the story also tells us that land is inhabited by others. And we know from the book of Judges that when the people of God cross the Jordan river into the land they believe God has promised to them, it is still inhabited by lots of other people who didn’t get the same message that their land would belong to someone else. There are battles and ambushes and death and conquest and pillaging before God’s people are fully able to lay claim to the land the bible says will be theirs.

Now maybe that’s just the way it is. But I suspect the lectionary leaves this part of the story out—in the English translation, it actually stops the story mid-sentence—I suspect it is because this part of the story is troubling. If all we’re thinking about is the fulfillment of the promise of God, then the story isn’t that troubling. But in this day and time, when we know there’s a long history of people who inhabit land being kicked out, relocated, marched, and murdered so that other people can lay claim to the land, I’m not sure we can leave this part of the story out.

This past Friday was Remembrance Day, the 74th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order to relocate and incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. The order came after the nation of Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. More than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of them U.S. citizens, who lived on the Pacific coast of the United States were forcibly moved inland, without a hearing or a trial, to internment camps (also called concentration camps by some historians). Those who were incarcerated were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, leaving behind homes and businesses, farms, possessions and communities in which they were respected and contributing members.

After the war was over, individuals and families began to leave the camps to try to rebuild their lives at home. Former inmates were given $25 and a train ticket to their pre-war places of residence, but many had little or nothing to return to, having lost their homes and businesses after they were forcibly relocated.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a commission to investigate the World War II internments. The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese American disloyalty, concluded the incarceration had been the product of racism, and recommended that the government pay reparations to the survivors. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed financial reparations to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.[4]

In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attack, President George H. W. Bush issued another formal apology saying:

“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”[5]

I pray this injustice will never be repeated. In this election cycle and the mood of our nation, I do not feel hopeful.

This kind of injustice certainly happened previously in our country in what we call the Trail of Tears—the forcible removal in the 1830s of nearly 1250,000 Native Americans from lands they had lived on and cultivated for generations.[6]

It certainly happened previously, as historian Edward Baptist argues in his book The Half Has Never Been Told, about slavery and the making of American capitalism. It happened in “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans [who] made the United States powerful and rich”[7] but who were excluded from benefiting from their labor.

Most of us, like many others, are descendants of people who forcibly moved others off the land they had inhabited and cultivated. Colonialism and nationalism has a long, ugly history. Have these impulses and efforts been God’s direction or human justification? That’s a hard one to parse out in the bible. I think it’s clearer in the history of our nation as we look back on it but still hard to recognize in our own time because we are so deeply embedded in racist systems that shape our assumptions about the world and distort our views of one another.

Lent is a season of repentance. It is a season of acknowledging the distance between what God desires for us and where we actually stand. This is both an individual practice and a collective spiritual practice. How are we supporting, intentionally or unintentionally, a culture which privileges white people over people of color? How has the church—both our congregation and the larger church that we are part of—benefited from the systems which keep white privilege in place? What would it mean to repent of that?

If Lent is a season of repentance, it is also a season of repair. Repentance is not enough if we don’t make changes to stop the offending behavior. That’s where repair comes in. In a culture which privileges white people over people of color, what is needed to repair the damage that has been done? In a church that has benefited from systems of white privilege, what is needed to repair the damage that has been done? We can’t do this work alone because we can’t know the extent of the damage done to others without those of us who are white doing our own anti-racist work, otherwise, we may very well continue to damage others in our attempts at repair.

This often feel daunting to me—and I imagine it does to you as well. That is why we pray for God to have mercy on us and to show us the way. That is why we do this work of repentance and repair together so that when one of us loses heart, we may strengthen and encourage one another. That is why we keep reading the bible, including the story of Abram and Sarai, digging through the troublesome texts to hear God saying, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” May that be our Lenten prayer as well.

* * *

[1] Genesis 12.2, 3b

[2] Miguel A. de la Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 139.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Another form of reparation took place in 2008 when the University of Washington granted honorary baccalaureate degrees to the 449 Japanese American students whose education at UW had been ended by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order in 1942. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_Remembrance_%28Japanese_Americans%29 accessed 20 February 2016.

[5] The material on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII is adapted
from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans, accessed 20 February 2016.

[6] http://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/trail-of-tears, accessed 20 February 2016.

[7] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, (New York: Basic Books, 2014)), xxi.

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