And God said to Abram; “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be,” from the book of Genesis. From the Letter to the Hebrews: “Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore,” from the Letter to the Hebrews. And from Luke, “… it is God’s good pleasure to give you the dominion.” The Abrahamic promise of inheritance, dominion and progeny looms large in today’s readings. It is true that the emphasis in these readings is on the righteousness of a faith that leans us into a future fulfillment of the promise but if we listen carefully, it is also assumes and commends as righteous the present moment, formative nature of the Abrahamic covenant.
In her TED Talk — The Importance of a Promise – Amanda Messer demonstrates the tremendous power of a promise in the telling of her personal story. She describes her 8-year-old self, waiting on appointed Saturdays by the front window of her house – dressed, packed and ready to go waiting for her beloved father because he had promised he would be there. She looked forward to her weekends with her dad all week, more than anything. In spite of the fact that her father, who struggled with addiction, more often than not, did not come. Her faith in her father’s pledge shaped her behavior as a child and it shaped her future. As an adult she ended up leaving a great job at a software company to co-found “because I said I would,” an international social movement and nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept. As of August 8, 2020, they have distributed by request only over 10.3 million “because I said I would” Promise Cards in over 153 countries. The power of a promise between one father and his daughter. How much more is the repeated telling of a covenant between a God and his people?
It would be easy to focus today on the grandeur of the Abrahamic promise; look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able … – especially with the first photographs coming in from the new James Webb Space telescope. Even with the power of science that can take us back to the near beginnings of the universe and the birth of the stars we see in the sky – the stars? They are innumerable. That homily would be easy. It would be comfortable. It would even be inspiring. But it would be a reading that would make me and by association you complicit in the tragedy that will forever define this summer.
It’s been a long summer – well over half the people in this room have less rights to bodily autonomy then they did at the beginning of the summer. And in the context of a Sunday church reading of scriptures that highlight a promise of homeland, progeny and descendants, it seems responsible to consider the nature of this promise; who’s included in the promise; what is the promised kingdom like; and what kind of present and future does it create? Which takes me back to todays tellings of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants.
In our reading from Genesis, “The word of God came to Abram in a vision….” Abram hardly attends to God’s promise because he is so obsessed by the fact that he is childless and so Eliezer, a slave born in his house will be his heir. God finally gets his attention when he says, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir…. Look toward the heaven and count the stars…. So shall your descendants be.” Here, the covenant is between God and Abram. And the promise of descendants is a promise of the continuation of his lineage. The Letter to the Hebrews is more specific. By faith Abraham sets out for a place he is to receive as an inheritance. By faith his sons, Isaac and Jacob will be heirs with him to the same promise. And by faith Abraham receives the power of procreation even though he was too old. And the scripture reads, “Therefore, from one person and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, as many as the stars of heaven….” This reading of the promise specifies that the power of procreation is masculine and the heirs of the promise are sons.
As far back as the late 1800s, feminist critiques identify the connection between the oppression of women and certain religious beliefs. For example, in 1893, in her ground breaking book, Church and State: A Historical Account of the Status of Women Through the Christian Ages, Matilda Jocelyn Gage, exposed a systemic link between features of public life that women found oppressive – such as laws regarding inheritance, marriage and birth control — and traditional Christian beliefs. Gage suggested that there is a deeply misogynistic view of humanity enshrined in the teaching of the Christian Church and that this view has been used to justify the formulation of different rights for women and for men in both Church and State (147-149). Across the 20th and 21st centuries feminist, womanist and mujerista theologians and more have worked to reclaim, reframe, re-interpret and even rewrite scriptural texts in ways that lift up those excluded and oppressed.
Yet the struggle obviously continues. So where does that leave us today in a world where the diminishment of the rights of people who have the embodied responsibility for bringing actual progeny into the world is still the reality – underwritten by religious beliefs whose foundations are a patriarchal promise.
To find our way toward a possible opening, I turn to Luke: Luke’s reading of the promise in today’s scripture is a little different. “Do not be afraid, little flock (Jesus says in Luke), for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Here it is less clear who God’s promise includes. The parable Luke uses references household staff which in the time would have been both male and female. In fact, scriptural studies show that Luke’s gospel references women more than any of the other gospels. However, it is also true that like the other gospels, only men are included in the discipleship of the 12. So, Luke’s Gospel is not necessarily a ringing critique of his patriarchal context. Still, it has been noted by scripture scholars that Luke consistently deploys a literary strategy of gender pairing – a parable about a man and his lost sheep paired with one about a woman and a lost coin (Luke 15: 3-10) or the story of the healing of the centurion’s slave paired with the healing of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 13:10-17 and 14:1-6) – these pairings are seemingly meant to communicate the message that men and women are both recipients of and participants in God’s grace. The fact is, Luke has taken liberties with the Abrahamic promise. He has re-imagined it in a more inclusive way informed by the message he wishes to impart to his listeners about Jesus as a healer and teacher whose care reaches beyond traditional Judaic boundaries and gendered privilege. Luke’s audience is thought to be primarily gentile and he describes a promised reign of God that is inclusive of his audience. Luke takes on the Abrahamic promise but he uses the exclusion of his gentile audience as an opening onto another more inclusive possibility where household staff who are dressed for action, are served by their owner regardless of gender. Like Amanda Messer, who allowed the unfulfilled promise of her father to fuel her passion to work for a better world where she facilitates millions of promises made and kept – an inbreaking of the kingdom if ever there was one.
So yes, circling back to this homily’s beginnings, calling out the broken character of the Abrahamic promise is necessary but following Luke and Messer, what is ultimately required is our preparedness and willingness to work for and lean into another possibility; a possibility of a promise that transforms disappointment, exclusion and oppression. Luke calls us to be dressed for action with our lamps lit. And so may we find ourselves ready – not only to critique – but more importantly to lean into a reimagining of the promised reign that resists oppressive patriarchal structures and creates a space for an inbreaking of the reign of God that realizes a community of equals committed to the humanity and dignity of all persons.