“Visible Signs”

February 28, 2021 | Genesis 17:1-17

Genesis 17:1-17

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him, and said, “I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 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. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 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. 8 And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

9 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 ….So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 ….

15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 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 shall come from her.”  17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Romans 4:13-25

13 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. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 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 the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already[a] as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith[b] “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
At the Old Dutch Church, our weekly Scripture readings come from a lectionary which assigns specific texts for each Sunday.   This week, the reading assigned from Genesis skipped over the part about God requiring Abraham and his male offspring to be circumcised.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it seems too delicate, too graphic, too bodily, too private, too much veering toward sexuality to be talked about in church.    But I decided to include this part exactly because of its bodiedness and its strangeness and the ways it invites us to think about the strangeness, the “otherness” of this God who chooses to make an everlasting covenant with creation and us human beings.

Last week we had a rainbow high in the sky as the visible sign of God’s covenant promises.  This week, the sign of the covenant God makes with Abraham is less visible, more private and personal, and more self and body-involving.  I have more than once regretted the decision to read this part of the text, but I stuck with it because I want to talk about the otherness of God and the ways in which God’s covenant love requires and empowers us to become bodily involved with God and our neighbors in their otherness.

One of the core commitments of this congregation is to offer unconditional welcome to every single person who comes into our life.   We do not do it perfectly.  But we do it because God welcomes us, unconditionally, and calls us to do the same with others.  In some ways, welcoming others into our life, is the easier part.

The hard part is continuing to find our way together.  To keep welcoming each other in our otherness.  To keep being together and allowing one another to be our uniquely weird and wonderful selves.  Sometimes it is a joy.  And sometimes it’s a suffering.  Sometimes opening ourselves to others, even a little bit, feels like more than we dare to risk.   It requires trust and it can take a while for that trust to develop, especially if we have been hurt in past relationships.  Still, as a congregation we are committed to stay engaged with each other’s otherness.

And we are committed to stay engaged with and open ourselves to the otherness of God.  So, this morning, even though the requirement of male circumcision as a sign of the covenant seems so peculiar, and even though I am tempted to dismiss it as a story that our Jewish ancestors made up to explain why they did this, I want to hold onto it as an experience that Abraham had with God.  I want to speak of it as something that God did require.  I want to let God be God.  Infinite Creator and Sustainer of this vast universe.  Breath of life in us and in the whole creation.  And I want to dwell in the mystery of God and say of God, with the Psalmist, “your thoughts are not my thoughts;” and ask with the apostle Paul, “who can know the mind of God?”  I want to let God to be wholly other, outlandish, weird and wonderful, trying and true, unconditionally welcoming and wise beyond our comprehending.

I don’t like that the sign of the covenant is inscribed only on the bodies of those born physically male.   I don’t like that God accommodates to the patriarchal norms of this ancient society, but I do like that God doesn’t ask for female circumcision.   I don’t like that God accommodates to the slave-holding practices of these ancestors, and rather than demand that slaves be freed, God requires that Abraham circumcise the slaves in his household.  But I do like that male slaves, who were likely foreigners, are included in God’s covenant promises and carry this sign on their bodies.  And I do like that God makes impossible promises to 100-year old Abraham, whose body, Paul writes, was “as good as dead,” and to postmenopausal Sarah whose long barrenness is public news.

And I do like seeing Abraham’s trust in God as he accepts God’s requirement of circumcision without debate.  Abraham can argue, but here he simply submits.   I do like seeing him fall on his face in awe of God, and then again, in incredulous laughter at the thought that he and Sarah would have a son, heck—laughter at the thought that they would make love again after so many years.  But, in faith, they do make love.  Isaac is born to them.  Years later, when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his and Sarah’s only son, the one from whom God’s promised generations would proceed—it is an absurd request—but Abraham proceeds, trusting that God won’t require it.  And God doesn’t.

It is precisely the “otherness” of God, the strangeness, the promise to do impossible things that take too long to happen, the demand for difficult things—things that push against our own desires—it is this in God that pushes us to respond to God in trust and faith.   It is our encounter with the holy absurd and the impossible that brings us to the end of our own reason and our own normal agency, and puts us in that place where a leap of faith, or a small step in faith, becomes the only possible way to apprehend and be apprehended by God’s everlasting love and faithfulness.

In today’s gospel reading (which we didn’t read) Jesus says, “If you want to become my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, will save it.”  It is a difficult ask.  It feels like an unreasonable expectation.  It is hard to understand exactly what this means for any one of us on any given day, let alone for a lifetime.   And the way to understand is to just keep going with God, and following the way of Jesus, even though we cannot see where this journey takes us.  To take tiny baby steps, or crawl along hoping against hope that God will be faithful.

What is clear is that going with God, walking with Jesus involves our bodies.  Like the sign of circumcision in Abraham’s flesh involves his body in the plans and purposes of God.  There is suffering in it.  Not only in the cutting of his flesh, but in submitting to and staying engaged with this God whose otherness and call are unsettling and disruptive.  There is ache, and there is loss.   And there is joy in being named and claimed as God’s own, God’s beloved.  The promises of God are fulfilled because, in faith, old Abraham and Sarah make love despite impossible odds against making a baby.   In faith, Abraham walks on arthritic feet up a mountain in the shadows of dawn to give his beloved son to God.

Although in the Christian tradition, the covenant sign of circumcision is replaced by the sign of baptism—a sign which is given to mark every kind of body, and every person as God’s beloved, it is still a sign that involves our bodies in the fulfillment of God’s promises to us, to our neighbors, to creation.  God’s love becomes visible and tangible in and through our bodies.  God’s love becomes visible and tangible in the body of the beloved son Jesus whose arms stretch out on the cross with divine forgiveness and unconditional welcome.  God’s promises are fulfilled in our giving our bodies, our physical lives, our whole selves to this God whose love and faithfulness empower us to risk ourselves in welcome of the other.  In our risking, we are visible signs of God’s life-giving love.


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