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Ancestry.com

abrahamRomans 4: 1-5, 13-17, 23-25
Genesis 12: 1-4

Introduction to the reading
The opening chapters of Romans are addressed to a congregation composed of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  Paul makes two important claims:

  • The power of salvation is for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first And then also to the Greek; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
  • A person is justified by faith, apart from works prescribed by law (Romans 3:28).

In the reading for today, Paul emphasizes the primacy and inclusiveness of God’s grace, turning to the example of Abraham.

Sermon
Have you seen the ads for Ancestry.com?  Very playful and well, satisfying in a way.

  • I always thought I was Italian but found out I was really Eastern European.
  • My parents told me we were German, but I discovered we are Scottish, so  I’ve traded my lederhosen for a kilt.
  • When I had to fill out forms that ask for race, I put down Hispanic, but now I know my heritage is a mixture and so I check off Other.
  • I knew I was African, but now I know I’m West African, and I want to find out more.

Something in each of us makes us curious to know our roots, where we come from and who our ancestors were.  And now through technology, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to find out by using a mail-order home DNA test kit.  You swab some saliva from inside your mouth, send it off to the lab, and soon, you’ll be paging through a report that tells you what percentage of your ancestry comes from which different areas in the world.
    
Ancestry.com can reach back through time to tell you something about who you are.

The world is a big and varied place (what an understatement!).  Over the centuries, and on through our own time, people have moved around a lot, discovering, adventuring, escaping, resettling … creating societies of today that are filled with diversities and mixtures in race, ethnicity, customs, mores, language, governance, religions and so on.  Such diversity can be beautiful… or it can be mean.

Beautiful.  In an article in last Sunday’s New York Times, “What Biracial People Know,” the author, Moises Velasquez-Manoff (speaking of diversity), claims that “diversity – of one’s own makeup, one’s experience, of groups of people solving problems, of cities and nations – is linked to economic prosperity, greater scientific prowess and a fairer judicial process.”  Diversity exercises the mind, he says, enhances mental flexibility, fosters creativity and gives deeper meaning to life. (Velasquez, 8)
    
On the other hand, diversity can be mean and divisive.  It becomes easy to label someone as Other and to fracture the common wealth.  Haves and have-nots.  Rich and poor.  Oppressor and oppressed.  Powerful and powerless.  The feared and the fearful. Us and Them.  Victim/perpetrator.  Change vs. deadlock.  Hope vs. dread.  Promise vs. denial.  Freedom vs. suppression.  Sadly, this seems to be what is happening in our world these days.
    
Ancestry.com might be able to tell you where you came from, who your forebears were and so, who you are.  But it doesn’t tell us about who we are as civilizations.   We are left to realize on our own that each one of us contains both the ability to appreciate the beauty of diversity and perhaps, a mean pride in who we are or are not.  That is the common DNA of being human.

The story of Abraham can bring us back to our common ancestry, our spiritual ancestry.com, as it were.

Abram (he is not given the name Abraham until later) is the first human to not stay put, the first émigré, the first immigrant.  God said to him:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you”  …  So Abram went, as the Lord told him.

God’s command relates not only to geography but also to Abram’s innermost being, for in leaving behind all that was familiar, Abram embarked upon a journey of heart and spirit and soul.  God initiated the journey and God was his guide and stay throughout.  Abram was to trust and obey and in doing so, he would be a truly righteous man.

In our beautiful, and mean, diverse 21st century world, it would be a good idea to remember that all of us who believe in the one God are related to one another spiritually through Abraham.  Precisely what that means for each tradition varies considerably.  For Jews, Abraham is literally the father of the nation, so they can claim to be physically related.  For Islam, Abraham is a prophet who was granted a revelation from God, which he accepted and obeyed.  Abraham is a model Muslim.  For Christians, Paul’s letter to the Romans explains how we, too, are children of Abraham because Abraham had ultimate faith in the covenant promise God made with him, as did Jesus himself.  

Paul writes:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith…
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to adherents of the law [the Jews] but also those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all…  Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.  It will be reckoned as righteousness to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

The days of Lent beckon us to embark on spiritual journeys, to dare to look more deeply into our hearts during a time set aside, according to the church calendar, for such contemplation, introspection and reflection.

Setting aside time for that is nearly impossible in our culture of perpetual motion, 24-hour news, always being “on” and tuned in.  But Lent invites us to do just that, to create a kind of desert place in our schedules, to step away from what we are daily pressed to do and to follow, as did Abram, God’s voice toward a place of blessing.

For, ultimately, more important than our being spiritual descendants of Abraham, is that we are all children of God.  As a biographer of Pope Francis recently remarked, in a piece about the flow of migrants in Europe and the immigration situation in our own country:  “For the pope… being true to Christianity requires seeing all [human beings] as equal creatures of God, whoever they are and whatever they believe.” (Ivereigh, 6)

And so, we must ask ourselves, what that means in our beautiful, yet also mean, diverse world of today.

  • What are God’s expectations of us with regard to justice, peace, forgiveness, mercy and love -  socially, politically, economically?
  • What measures can we take to build bridges of peace, engage in open and honest interfaith – and, yes, political - dialogue and action, and work for the well-being of everyone in our communities?

It is by God’s grace that since the time of Abraham, we have been engaged in these ministries of the faith.  Amen.

Ivereigh, Austen. “Is the Pope the Anti-Trump?” New York Times. 15 March 2017, 1, 6.
Velasques-Manoff, Moises.  “What Biracial People Know.” New York Times. 15 March 2017, 1,8.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
March 12, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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