When I was 7 years old, my family relocated from Little Rock, AR to Eureka Springs, AR – a small tourist town in the northwest part of the state – where I would spend the rest of my childhood and where my parents still live today.
I will never forget my first day in the third grade.
I was so nervous. Would I fit in? Would anyone play with me? And most importantly – would I find a friend?
The teacher did her best on the first day of school to introduce me as the new girl in the class and asked Becky Bird to show me around. And so she did. She introduced me to her other friends – Tricia and Jolene.
They were heavily involved in some kind of conversation on the playground that looked very intense because they had hidden inside one of the boxes that was underneath the climbing platform. And they told Becky to come on inside and I stood on the outside and asked if I could come in as well. Becky looked with a long look on her face – and deferred to Jolene, who very emphatically responded.
You are not one of the blood sisters. And since you are not one of the blood sisters – you are NOT allowed to come inside.
I still remember how my 7 year old body almost began to cave in. How my shoulders slumped down and how I felt as if I wanted to curl into a ball and hide away for ever?
That’s what it feels like when we find ourselves rejected, told that we don’t belong or measure up – that we aren’t part of the tribe and we can’t possibly ever be.
So, our story today tells us of the beginning of Abraham’s journey. He is still known as Abram at this time – and he sets out on this journey.
We’ve actually alluded to this story multiple times in the previous weeks – because it is such a key moment in the history of God’s people. In a time where people viewed the nature of life as a circle, as if everything was just repeating itself over and over again. That nothing new was happening.
It was in such a time, where Abraham set off – listening to a God who was taking him somewhere new. A God of surprises, a God who was relating to him, and a God who promised to show him where to go.
Now, there’s a few things I want us to know about the time period of Abraham that will be helpful to unpacking this stories.
The days when Abraham was living were days of great violence.
And much of what was driving this great violence were the interactions between tribes.
And tribes would battle over resource, access to land, accumulation of wealth – whatever the perceived disparity. And each tribe had a god or goddess who was associated with their tribe – so when they would fight – it would be whose God is better? Yours or mine?
So when you won – you would be sure and take all of their stuff. Why? Because you couldn’t run the risk that if you left some stuff behind – a few stragglers with enough resources – they might rebuild and then come and take you down.
Tribes weren’t just about bloodline – they were about safety. The world was dangerous and people without a tribe were extremely vulnerable to being enslaved and exploited. So people within tribes were always seeking to accumulate more power and partnerships and economic influence for their own tribe. They were doing this because it was life or death. It was kill or be killed. The fable that Monty shared with us this morning – was a fable about the ways this cycle goes round and round – at one point – one is on top and is violently treating another, but in the course of time – the tides have turned and the oppressor is now the victim. Around and around we seem to go.
For thousands of years – this was the nature of the world.
The tribe would go to great lengths to preserve its life and status and power. Whatever was necessary – at times, fear and intimidation, at times exclusion, and at times, hospitality – especially to strangers – because you never know what kind of war your might start by making someone mad.
It was all part of an elaborate system – one that sought above all things to take the blessings you had been given and to preserve them – for you and your people.
This was how you survived.
This was the world that Abraham knew.
So Abraham sets out – listens to God and God promises.
“I will make of you a great nation.”
The word here is equivalent to tribe.
I will make you a great new tribe.
Sweet. Abraham is thinking.
God goes on.
And I will bless you.
This is likely a reference to material possession.
NICE! Not only am I going to have a new tribe, but my tribe is going to have lots of stuff.
“I will make your name great.” (respected.)
I’ve got the name notoriety and the resources to go with it.
And You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you and cure him that curses you.
(This saying seems to suggest that God will punish those who seek to stand in the way of Abraham)
And all the families of the earth,
Will be blessed because of you.
Wait, Hold up.
What was that last part?
All the families of the earth?
What about the ones I’m going to take down because my new tribe is so awesome?
All the families of the earth?
How is that going to work?
How is my new tribe going to be the best if I’m spending all my time – blessing everybody else?
God was calling Abraham out of the place where he had lived to build a new tribe.
A tribe unlike any other tribe.
A tribe whose purpose it was to BLESS all the world.
In the midst of a world of tribal violence – through Abraham – God is seeking to teach us a NEW WAY TO LIVE.
A few weeks ago, I asked our Tuesday evening bible study the question – what does it feel like to receive a blessing from someone – and people told powerful stories – moments when they experienced unconditional love, moments when they were encouraged by the testimony or story of another, moments when they were serving someone else and found that they were the one that was blessed.
And in all these moments – they talked about the experience as a moment where they felt encouraged, where they felt empowered – like they were able to do things that they might not have been able to do before – that they could stand up a bit taller – because they were a part of something bigger than themselves and there were people in their corner, standing with them.
After college, I joined Teach for America and was a high school science teacher in North Carolina for four years. My first year was a hard one. I was 21 years old, I barely looked older than the students and I had never done this before. Many, many days – I came home discouraged wondering if I could keep going.
And then there was Aletha Hudson, a Southern-Baptist, gospel singing, African-American English teacher who took me under her wing.
She was unlike anyone I’d ever met. Every morning – she would walk by my room and say, April, “Do you feel his power today?”
No, Aletha, I don’t.
And she would come and she would pray with me. She would encourage me.
(And she would invite me to her bible study – which is a whole other story)
But as she left each day – she would say. God is with you April. I believe in you. You have the power – to do this thing.
And each day – more and more I began to believe her – that perhaps – I could stand a bit taller -
We are still a tribal people.
And tribes can draw their lines in lots of different ways.
There are the obvious lines that divide based on the nation you live in, or the nation you are from, your age, gender, race, or ethnicity. Even your college football affiliation.
Sometimes our tribal lines get drawn because of where we are from.
Or in our shared experiences.
Or in our shared theology and outlook on the world.
We all belong to many different tribes.
And we love the feeling of what it’s like to be a part of a tribe.
We feel a sense of belonging. A sense of connection.
Because we are included. We matter.
We feel like “these are my people.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. With finding community and a sense of belonging. With people who we share some things in common.
But the truth is, tribes tend to be driven by their own self-interest.
We want what is best for our own people. And we often believe that our interests are of the highest importance. That they supercede the interests of others.
It’s part of the reason why news stories affect us so much more when they happen to people who we associate with our own tribe.
We are much more upset about Americans being killed in a plane crash than we are if it is predominantly people from a culture we know very little about.
It’s part of how we are wired.
Just a few weeks ago, I was in an Ohio Student Association training and we were talking about the violence happening in our black neighborhoods and the ridiculously high rates of incarceration – and this 18 yr old African American high school student – just stood up and she just began to cry out – “I do not understand. HOW can my white brothers and sisters NOT SEE THIS? How can so many people be so blind?”
Molly Shack – our brilliant organizer shared with her that 75% of white people in America have no black friends. They have no people that they are close to –
And so – there is a blindness. Because it doesn’t affect their tribe. It doesn’t impact them or their interests or the people they care most about.
There is a tendency for tribes to have enormous blind spots – we must remain aware.
And yet –
From the beginning of our story as God’s people. God has declared that our tribe, our church, our calling – is to be a people whose purpose is to bless other people.
People who are different than us. People who don’t look like us. Talk like us. People with a different culture. People who are black. People who are white. People who are poor, rich, uneducated, or Pulitzer prize winners.
Ours is a call to be a BLESSING to all the families of the world.
It’s hard to be in battle with someone – when you are so busy trying to bless them.
I mean – how would it change the way we interact with people who we don’t understand – people who don’t understand us – people who quite frankly – make us angry – or who we think we are better than –
How would it change things if the first question I was asking was – how can I be a blessing to this person?
How can I help this person to stand taller?
How can I help this person to find courage and purpose and meaning?
How can I help this person so that when I leave – they feel more encouraged than before we began talking?
That is who the people of God were always called to be.
This is how we are to be known.
Those children of Abraham. Those followers of God – man, they are just going around finding ways to bless people.
Finding ways to leave people more encouraged and uplifted and empowered.
They are the ones asking us = “Do you feel his power?”
A tribe whose purpose it is to be a blessing.
a blessing to all the world.
It’s always been our call.