Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbtyerian Church for the Second Sunday in Lent.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
A few years ago, I came across a fascinating study on the Ashkenazi Jewish population. Ashkenazi Jews are the portion of Jewish people who ended up in Europe, the vast majority of whom later made their way to America; they make up the majority of the world’s Jewish population. Today there are around 8 million Ashkenazi Jews.
Because Judaism is in the unique position of being both a religion and a race, scientists were interested in tracing the ancestry of this Jewish group, to see how they made their way from the Near East to the western world. In the early 2000s, with the rise of DNA research, scientists began to look at the mitochondrial DNA of modern Ashkenazi Jews, which is inherited only from the mother. In 2006, a study made an astonishing claim—that scientists had been able to distinguish four primary versions of mitochondrial DNA with in the Ashkenazi population. They concluded that about half of modern Ashkenazi Jews were therefore descended from just four women. Four million descendants of four ancestral mothers.
The findings have since been cast into doubt, as more detailed and cheaper methods of dissecting DNA have complicated the picture. It’s fairly unlikely—not impossible, but unlikely—that the four-mother theory is true.
And yet, it’s a really compelling idea, and I’ve heard it lifted up in various places over the years. The dubious science of a story like this just can’t compete with the emotional resonance. People want this story to be true. Especially for people whose families have been torn apart by persecution, violence, immigration and relocation, the idea that so many millions can trace their ancestry back to just a few women is a comfort. Even if records and memories of your own family are tattered, the idea of a common ancestor creates bonds to other Ashkenazi Jews—and not just as brothers and sisters in faith, but as cousins in the most literal, biological, genetic way.
Our scripture this morning reads far differently than a scientific study on mitochondrial DNA, but the emotional resonance is the same. This is a story that is meant to teach its hearers that they are family.
Abram’s story is one of God constantly making promises and covenants—by the time we get to the passage we read this morning, they have had this conversation about Abram’s destiny, to be the father of many descendants, at least three times already. To be honest, those other conversations make for better reading. When Abram was 75, God called him to leave home and travel to Canaan, with the promise of many descendants. Once he gets there, God shows him all the land laid out, and promises his descendants will fill it up. Some years later, when Abram complained that God hadn’t done anything to fulfill that promise, God showed him the stars and told him he’d have as many children as stars in the sky. Now Abram is 99, and God shows up again, with the same old story, “you will be the father of many descendants.” It’s not as exciting as before—Abram’s walk is slower, there are no stars in the sky, no untamed land spread out before his feet. All he has now is God’s word that God is good for it.
This time, though, things begin to happen. God promises not just children to Abram and Sarai, but nations. God promises both Abram and Sarai that nations will come from them. God even changes their names to drive the point home. Abram becomes Abraham—the exalted ancestor becomes the ancestor of a multitude, while Sarai becomes Sarah. No longer “my princess,” Abraham’s possession, but fully “princess” or “noblewoman,” a respected individual in her own right. The kind of woman who gives birth not just to babies but to nations.
It’s an interesting word, nations. It suggests something about who this story is really for—about its direction. This is not really a story aimed at Abraham and Sarah, looking forward to the possibility of many descendants. This is really a story aimed at the Israelite people scattered among the nations, looking back at the possibility of a single ancestral parentage.
This is a story aimed at people who aren’t sure about their relationship to each other—what they owe each other, how responsible they are for each other, how much they have to care for each other. This is a story aimed at people who would maybe be okay with caring for each other a little less. To be co-citizens in a politically organized nation, rather than siblings on a family tree.
This is a story to let neighbors know that even if the paper trail has gone cold and the DNA line doesn’t quite match up, they really do belong to each other.
Belong to each other, and belong to God, the one who created this family in the first place.
Families are powerful. They have a hold on us no one else does. To be a member of a family is to accept certain obligations. While much of what it means to be a family has changed over the millennia, that has not. Families are obligated to care for each other, even if just in the most basic ways. Society will forgive you for walking by a hungry person on the street; they will not for letting your child go hungry, if you can help it. Society won’t blink twice if you never check in on your elderly neighbor, but you’ll need a darn good reason to ignore your parents.
A family, when it is acting like a family, is the basic unit of care: the basic source of food, clothes, shelter, safety, affection. It is also the basic unit of accountability: this is how we act, these are the behaviors we allow, these are the values we hold.
Of course, not every family functions this way—even within families there can be a breakdown of obligation, of compassion, of love, of respect. Sometimes tragically so. Not everyone experiences their family of origin as a place where they are cared for. But even when biological families are no longer an option, many people will create new families for themselves—friends who serve in the same way. Not every family is mom and dad and 2.5 kids. Whoever it is that cares for us, not for reward or compensation but simply because they can’t imagine letting us hurt, is family.
So when the Hebrew scriptures make this claim—that all the Israelites are descended from a single family—what it is saying is that they are still to treat each other like family. To care for each other, hold each other accountable, share their beliefs and values with each other. Feed the children, care for the elderly, practice patience. Worship together.
I wonder what our communities would look like if we really treated each other like family. If we took our neighbors’ suffering to heart the way pain in our family cuts us to the quick. If we took joy in their accomplishments the way we take pride in our grandchildren. If we welcomed their company.
Remembering that we are part of God’s covenant family means recognizing that we are not lone rangers in the world. What we do affects others. What they do affects us. As separate as we might want to be, ensconced in our houses and cars and cubicles and online bubbles, we are always tied in to those around us.
The Jewish people who read this story understood themselves to be the family that God created, the one family connected across time and distance even as they were scattered throughout the nations. As Christians, we understand ourselves to be part of those nations descended from Abraham—not by blood, but by faith. To a degree, by choice. We are the nations, the goyim, those who have agreed to be family. To accept that belonging to God means we belong to each other as well—that to love God is to love all God’s children.
It is easy to say “we are all family in God,” and to smile and sit down. It sounds like a lovely sentiment. It is harder to live it. But when we fail—when we let people slip through the cracks, leave them isolated and disconnected—the consequences are devastating.
God promised Abraham a huge family, not for Abraham’s glory or to satisfy his pride, but in order to create a community of people who cared for each other even when the societies around them said they didn’t have to.
I am grateful to be part of a family of God’s making, and of Jesus’ re-making. If we did not have God as our father and mother, Jesus as our oldest brother, I don’t know that we could pull it off. And yet God pours love and mercy and courage and understanding into us, giving us the strength to be part of this family of God.
Whatever your family looks like—whether it is big or small, whether your relationship is close or strained, whether you wish they’d get out of your face or miss them dearly, I want you to remember this—you have family in Christ beyond all that. You have family in every person who has agreed to care for God’s children.
The irony, of course, is that the more science is able to map human DNA, the more we are coming to understand that we really are a family. The divisions we have made of race and religion and culture and clan and family name are tiny, surface level distinctions compared to the similarities in our DNA. Our divisions betray the fundamental make-up of our beings.
We really are one family.
So today I give thanks God taught our ancestors millennia ago that they were family, by reminding the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah.
And I give thanks that today God still teaches us that we are family, by the way God has twisted the strands of our DNA together, marked us at every level as belonging to each other.
To God be the glory. Amen.