9/8/19 - Blessed to be a Blessing - Genesis 11:30 - 12:20

Blessed to be A Blessing

Genesis 11:30-12:20  

September 8, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

In her picture book, The Blessing Cup, Patricia Polacco tells a wonderful family story.[1] It is the story of Anna, a young Russian girl and her family The story centers on a beautiful china tea set that had been a wedding gift to Anna’s parents.  The set had come with a note from Anna’s great aunt. The note said “This tea set is magic. Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God.  They will never know a day of hunger.  Their lives will always have flavor.  They will know love and joy and they will never be poor.”  Every so often,  Anna would ask her mother to tell the story about the tea set and the message in the note. And even though there was never enough money, they believed they were rich because they had each other.  Before their evening meals, Anna’s mother would say “So that our lives would always have flavor.”  In this way, the tea set and its message shaped their lives.

Then one day, the family was forced to flee, because the czar ordered all the Jews to leave.  As they moved across the land, Anna’s father got very sick and the family ended up living for a few months with a kind doctor who helped him get better.  When they were forced to  leave again, the doctor purchased traveling papers and passage on a ship to America and took them to the train himself.  When he returned home, he was astonished to find their tea set in his dining room.  Anna’s mother had left a message with it “Always remember, dear friend. You are the bread that fed us. You are the salt that flavored our lives. You are the love and joy that held us together. Your golden, kind heart makes you rich indeed. You shall never be poor!  I am leaving our precious tea set in your good keeping.  We kept one cup so that we can still have its blessing among the four of us.” 

The one cup survived the ocean-crossing.  On every family occasion and holiday, they drank together from the cup and told its story.  It was passed from generation to generation.  Anna gave it to her daughter Carle.  In 1938, Carle gave the cup to her daughter.  In 1962, Mary gave the blessing cup to her daughter, Patricia.   Patricia kept up the family tradition, sharing tea from the cup and telling the story to her children. And in 2013, she shared the story with the world in her book.

The cup is part of the story.  But as the cup travels from one generation to the next, it also shapes the story.  The story of the tea set received as a wedding gift becomes the story of the tea set given to someone else in gratitude and the memories formed around celebrations where the one remaining cup was shared.  It is always a story about identity, but the version of the story you heard would depend on where you were in history when it was told. 

There are parallels between the way that story worked in Anna’s family and the ways the stories in Genesis shaped and were shaped by the history of the Hebrew people.  The stories in Genesis are stories about the ancestors, about the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah,  Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah.  They are stories about who and what and where.  Who were our ancestors? What did they do?  What are the names of the places where they lived? Those stories got told over and over again, just like Anna’s mother told her the story of the tea set that had been a wedding gift. 

But then something happened to the Hebrew people. They were captured by an enemy and taken away to a foreign country called Babylon.  They were no longer in the land of their ancestors, no longer in the place where they believed God lived.  It made them question their identity – how could they be Israelites if the country of Israel had been destroyed?  How could they keep the covenant outside the Promised Land?  How had their ancestors done it?  They looked for answers in their family stories, and they told those old stories in ways that answered some of their current questions. Scholars believe it was when they were in exile that the stories were written down as we have them now.  So the experience of exile shaped the identity of the people of Judah, perhaps like giving away the tea set shaped Anna’s family identity, and the new shape became  part of the identity going forward.

The stories we will read this month are likely very familiar to many of us.  It may be helpful to hear them with new ears if we consider how they would have been heard by those in captivity in Babylon.

We begin in chapter 11 with what Walter Brueggemann calls “the most incredible announcement in the tradition of Israel.” [2]  The transition from chapter 11 to chapter 12 is the transition from the history of the world to the history of Israel, or theologically, from the history of the curse to the history of the blessing.   If we had been following along, we would have heard a long genealogy naming generations of Abraham’s ancestors, setting his story in its context.  We might expect the genealogy to continue with the names of his descendants, but instead it abruptly reports “the name of Abraham’s wife was Sarai . . . she was barren.”

We all know people who longed to have children, people who would have been wonderful parents, but people who for a variety of reasons were never able to conceive or adopt children.  Despite the advances of medical technology and reforms in child welfare laws, infertility and the inability to adopt are brutally painful experiences of our time.  We have this in common with Abraham and Sarah.  They have no children and it is brutally painful.

“Now Sarai was barren” sums up a situation of hopelessness.   “This family has played out its future and has nowhere else to go. There is no foreseeable future.  There is no human power to invent a future.” [3]

The history of the people of Israel begins like this, in utter despair.  Imagine how those in captivity would have heard this. They are in a parallel place, of metaphorical barrenness. Without offspring in their homeland, they have no future as a nation. After invasions and deportations, they face the possibility of extinction or of absorption into other nations.  A future life seems impossible, but they realize that it once seemed impossible for Abraham and Sarah too, and their interest is sharpened.

The way out of hopelessness, the path through despair is not created by humans, but by God.  God speaks to Abraham. It is the word of God which has the power, the power of life over death, of hope over despair, the power to make a way where there is no way.

The first thing God says is “Go.  Go from your country and your family to an unknown place that I will show you.”  The goal in their culture was to accumulate enough property and livestock that you were secure,  so you didn’t have to move again. Abraham and Sarah have done that.  They are settled, but God tells them to pick up and go, to venture into the unknown . . . and they do.

Abraham is the spiritual ancestor of three world religions.  For Jews, Christians and Muslims, which make up more than half the world’s population, he is the first model of trusting obedience to God.  God says “Go” and Abraham does.

He was working the plan, moving on by stages.  When you are a wanderer, an immigrant, you may or may not have a plan, but even if you do, it often seems that you have little control over your life, chaos threatens all the time. It quickly threatens Abraham and his family in the form of famine. 

So he diverts from the plan, temporarily, to go to Egypt where there is food.  They are foreigners in Egypt, at risk of being mistreated as foreigners often are. So Abraham gets Sarah to lie about their relationship, to say that she is his sister. He does this as self-protection.  Because she is beautiful, men will want her and will kill him if they know he is her husband. He is correct; a powerful man does want her. She is forcibly taken into the Pharoah’s house where she becomes a part of his harem.  Today we would call that trafficking.  Women and children are still the most vulnerable people within groups of migrants.  Among those moving north from Central America through Mexico, it is estimated that as many as 60% of women and girls experience sexual assault during the journey.[4]  And that experience does not necessarily improve when they cross the border.

When this story was repeated in Babylon, I wonder how it was heard? Perhaps there was some anger at Abraham for failing to protect Sarah.  There were undoubtedly women who could identify with Sarah’s helplessness.  One scholar suggests that Abraham’s trickery could have made him a folk hero.  He writes, “People who find – to their own cost – what powerlessness means, are very well aware of the fact that trickery often is the only, thus legitimate, option for survival.  They sustain each other by telling stories about the inventiveness of their heroes and heroines.” [5]     

The first readers of this story may appreciate Abraham’s capacity for deception as a means of survival, but the message of the story is that God does not approve. The message is that God cares for the most vulnerable, and so God intervenes to rescue Sarah.  They leave Egypt and return to Canaan, back on track in obedience to God’s purpose.

This is the first of many journeys that Abraham’s descendants will make, back and forth to Egypt. Egypt is the world power, the place with resources and jobs, the place where foreigners go when disaster strikes, when the food runs out.   It seems that human migration has always happened like this. When events in one place like famine or violence push people out of one place, they move to another place drawn by the opportunity for work or relative safety. In case I’m being too subtle, let me suggest that this push-pull migration happens in many places in the world.  The closest one to our experience is the movement across the border between Mexico and the USA for the last 200 years.  And guess what --  the world power that parallels Biblical Egypt is the USA.

Abraham is model of trusting obedience in three of the world’s religions. He is held up as an example for all who would be faithful in surrendering our will to God’s.  Knowing his story encourages us to respond with similar courage and willingness to go where God directs. But, there is a second response that Abraham’s story elicits from us [6]—which is empathy towards his situation.  First, we say “That’s supposed to be me. I should be obedient like that.” And then, our next realization is  “That could be me.  I could be the foreigner, wandering without a home, vulnerable and at the mercy of strangers.”  And so the second response which this story seems intended to evoke is a concern for foreigners and strangers, those who might be dependent on our kindness for their very survival. 

The patterns of human existence that surface in these stories – patterns of hopelessness and despair, of faith and trust in God’s purpose, of being sent on a mission into unknown territory and of receiving those who find themselves forced to rely on the love offered by strangers – these are the patterns which began in earliest human history which continue into our own time.  May we hear them with the ears of faith, tuned to places of hopelessness, with heightened awareness of the vulnerability of all migrants and particularly the women and children among them. May we recognize our kinship with Abraham and Sarah, and know ourselves blessed to be a blessing to others. Amen.


[1] Patricia Polacco, The Blessing Cup, (New York:  Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2013).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982),, p.116

[3] Brueggemann, p.116

[4] https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/amr410142010eng.pdf

 [5] Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, “Sarai’s Exile,” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), p. 229

 [6] Timothy Simpson at https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-immigration-genesis-121-4a/