Dark Horse

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

imgresIn 1844, the people of the United States elected a president no one had ever heard of.  That’s not entirely true, of course.  James Polk was both Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee, so his name was known in the political circles of the day.  The thing is, no one expected him to be nominated, much less elected to the presidency.  In 1844, most observers assumed that the presidential contest would be between Martin Van Buren, who had served as president from 1837 to 1841, and Henry Clay, who had already unsuccessfully run for the office in 1824 and 1832.  Nevertheless, due to a variety of factors, like a deadlocked convention and the endorsement Van Buren’s former ally Andrew Jackson, Polk received the Democratic nomination for president.  And even though most people assumed that 1844 was finally Clay’s year, James K. Polk won the election by a fairly convincing margin.

urlIn spite of the fact that Polk served only a single term in office and died shortly thereafter, his legacy is surprisingly significant.  Through his negotiations with Great Britain and his prosecution of the Mexican-American War, Polk is responsible for acquiring territory that now makes up a large portion of the United States, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and of course, Texas. Furthermore, the acquisition of all this territory impelled Congress to deal with the question of slavery, which may have hastened the onset of the Civil War.  But perhaps the most enduring popular legacy of James Polk’s presidency is the fact that he was the first so-called “dark horse” candidate for president in this country.  Because Polk was largely unknown to the political establishment, his candidacy took most people by surprise and frankly, no one had any real expectations of him.  Since Polk’s presidency, the notion that an unknown can be nominated and elected president has become an important part of the American political narrative, even though it has only happened a handful of times.  Pundits and party strategists spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to determine who the next “dark horse” candidates are going to be (which arguably means that they aren’t dark horse candidates anymore).  The reason for this is the same reason we pretend that so many of our presidents were born in log cabins: there is a romance about the dark horse candidate.  The very concept resonates with our deepest hopes about the American Dream: that literally anyone can be elected president; literally anyone can attain the goals they set for themselves.

In our reading from Genesis today, we are introduced to Abram, who in some ways is the ultimate dark horse candidate from Scripture.  Now you may be thinking, “Come on!  Abraham?  The “father of many nations”?  The patriarch of patriarchs?  He’s somehow a dark horse?  Get out of here!”  But please, hear me out.  Up to this point in Genesis, we have the story of God’s attempt to be in relationship with all of humanity at once.  To put it mildly, things have not gone terribly well.  Adam and Eve have disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, Cain has murdered Abel, and humanity has gotten together to build a huge tower so that they can be like God.  So in chapter twelve, God adopts a new strategy.  Instead of trying to be in relationship with all of humanity at once, God decides to be in relationship with a single person and his family.  This is the genesis, if you will, of Israel’s understanding of their identity as a chosen people; the people of Israel traced their lineage back to Abraham, who they believed was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation.  The fascinating thing is that Genesis does not give us a reason for why God chose Abram.  The very first mention of Abram takes place at the end of the previous chapter, and all we are told is about him is that his father’s name was Terah, his wife’s name was Sarai, and they settled in the land of Canaan.  We do not hear that he was righteous or blameless like Noah or that he was particularly well suited to the life of a nomad or that he had any particular qualifications for being chosen by God.  This is striking.  This chapter is a hinge point in Genesis; in fact, it is hinge point for the story of God and God’s people and it all centers around this guy we’ve never heard of, this guy we don’t know anything about, this guy who was chosen by God for reasons that are beyond our understanding.  We are by no means the first to notice that Genesis fails to give Abram a backstory.  In fact, during the early days of Rabbinic Judaism, a midrash (or non-biblical story) about Abram circulated among the rabbis.  The midrash suggests that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker, and that one day Abram, in a fit of righteous anger, stormed into his father’s workshop and destroyed every statue, thus demonstrating his intense and complete devotion to God.  While this is a great story, it says more about the fact that we want to know why God chose Abram than it does about Abram’s personal history.

This leaves us in the uneasy position of acknowledging that Abram is something of a dark horse: we don’t know where he came from or what the rationale for choosing him might have been.  Human beings like to make predictions, we like to put things in categories, we like to anticipate things before they happen, we like to decide who the dark horse candidate is going to be before they arrive on the scene.  Yet, in this crucial moment in the story of God and God’s people, we see that God’s choices rarely align with our expectations.  And this leads us inexorably into the uncertain territory of trust.  In all likelihood, the fact that we don’t know anything about Abram’s backstory means that he was also taken by surprise when God chose him.  Imagine his shock when he heard the Lord say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  For all we know, this is the first time that Abram heard the voice of the Lord.  And God does not provide an itinerary, God does not say how long Abram will be traveling, God does not say if Abram will ever see his family again.  All God does is hold out the vague promise that through Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  And Genesis tells us that for whatever reason, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  It’s really quite astonishing. Abram’s “call story,” this pivotal moment in the history of God’s people takes up only three and half verses.  We are not told that Abram asks questions, nor are we told that God explains his choice; we are only told that Abram is told to go and goes.  It’s no wonder that in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes the patriarch’s story with a single verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  As you’ve probably heard before, the Greek word that we typically translate as “believe” can just as easily be rendered “trust.”  In other words, Paul’s summary of Abraham’s story is that he trusted God, and because of his trust, God considered Abraham righteous.

He may have trusted God, but he wasn't happy about it...
He may have trusted God, but he wasn’t happy about it…

This raises a question about what Abram trusted, about what Abram was called to trust.  On one hand, it is clear that God was calling Abram to trust that he would inherit the land promised to him, that his journey would someday come to an end, that God was leading Abram toward a destination.  On the other hand, there is the promise that concludes God’s call to Abram: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  This promise comes before any of the other promises the Lord makes to Abram: before God promises that Abram’s descendants will be like the sand on the seashore, before Abram is promised the land of the Perizzites, Canaanites, and Jebusites, even before God promises that Abram’s wife Sarai will bear a son.  Before any of these other promises, God calls Abram to trust that he will be a blessing to the nations.  In some ways, this is the most extraordinary promise of all.  Abram was a nomad, a herdsman, a man without pedigree or evident talent, a dark horse, and God tells him to trust that he will be a means of blessing for the whole world.  In response to this outlandish promise, Abram trusts God and establishes the vocation for God’s people.  In the end, Scripture tells us that God did not choose Israel for their benefit, but for the benefit of all the people of the world, for the benefit of God’s whole creation.  As Christians, we trust that through Jesus Christ, we have been incorporated into that heritage, that we have become part of God’s chosen people, and that we too are called to be a blessing to the entire world.  Abram’s act of trust is ultimately the means by which all people will come into relationship with the God who created and redeemed them.

Pope-Francis-waving-crowdThis week marks the anniversary of the selection of another dark horse.  On March 13 of last year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the Bishop of Rome.  Calling himself Francis after the poor friar of Assisi and the founder of the Jesuit order, the Pope quickly began to make waves as he dispensed with the traditional trappings of the papacy and began to reform the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Perhaps most strikingly, the Pope insisted that the Church was called to be in solidarity with the poor and downtrodden.  Prior to the selection of Pope Francis, there were many observers who claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the Church generally, had outlived its usefulness, that it was no longer relevant, that it was plagued by so many issues that it could not possibly survive.  And yet, even in the face of all of these criticisms, even though he hasn’t dealt with all the issues plaguing the church, this first year of Francis’ papacy has been shaped by his understanding that the Church can and must be a blessing to the world.  Francis’ attitude in this first year of his papacy has been the embodiment of the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s observation: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace this reality, to embrace our call to be a blessing to the world.  We are called to realize that God calls every one of us, no matter who we are, to help the people of this world understand how much God loves them.  By doing so, we, like Abram, will be dark horses, blessing the world with God’s promise of love for all people.

Referential

When I drive around Abilene during the day, I like to listen to sports radio.  I find that it is a helpful distraction that allows me to transition smoothly from one pastoral call to another.  And so as I got to know the people of Abilene and the Church of the Heavenly Rest, I also got to know the ESPN Radio personalities.  I came to appreciate their various quirks and began to look forward to hearing their reactions to events in the world of sports.  Back in January, however, the station I listen to switched from ESPN Radio to CBS Sports Radio.  The main issue I’ve had with the change is that the format of the radio shows is totally different.  It seems that instead of talking about sports, most of the hosts on CBS Sports Radio talk about talking about sports.  Not only that, these programs regularly refer to things that have happened on previous shows, leaving unfamiliar listeners completely without context.  One show in particular is so self-referential, so full of jargon and inside jokes that there are times that I have no idea what the host is talking about.  I’m sure this can be satisfying for loyal listeners of his program, but for neophytes like me, all of the inside jokes can make listening to the show a frustrating experience.

Today we commemorate the Feast of Saint Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Most of what we know about Joseph comes from the first few chapters of the gospel of Matthew, in which Joseph is depicted as a righteous man who decides to marry his espoused wife in spite of her suspicious pregnancy.  For the most part, then, Joseph is basically known for being a good guy.  But there is much more to Joseph than meets the eye.  Like the shows on CBS Sports Radio, Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph is incredibly self-referential; knowing Joseph and his significance requires the reader to know the story of Israel.

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There’s less singing in Genesis

In the first two chapters of his gospel, Matthew tells us two important things about Joseph: 1) God communicates with him through dreams, and 2) Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape from Herod the King by fleeing to Egypt.  If we are familiar with the story of Israel (as Matthew expects us to be), we would remember that there is another Joseph we meet in Genesis 37 who also interprets dreams and spends time in Egypt.  It is Joseph who ultimately brings Israel down to Egypt, which eventually leads to Moses leading Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus, the defining event in Israel’s history.  By presenting the earthly father of Jesus as a dreamer who brings his family down to Egypt, Matthew indicates to his audience that Jesus is the prophet like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15, that the story of Jesus is actually the story of a new Exodus.  By presenting Joseph in the way that he does, Matthew makes it clear that while the gospel is the story of God doing something new in the world, it is also continuous with the story of Israel.

This is a reality that the Church has struggled with for centuries.  On one hand, Christians make the claim that God has changed the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  On other hand, the Church asserts that the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are consistent with the tradition of the Hebrew Bible.  As Christians, we are called to remember where we have come from while being open to new possibilities.  This is a tough needle to thread, but it is really the only way that we can live faithfully in the world.  If we unflinchingly cling to tradition, our practice will become stale and irrelevant.  If we blindly embrace innovation, however, we run the risk of forgetting the purpose to which we have been called.  During Lent, we are called to return to where we have been through repentance, but we are also called to renew our relationship with God, which may lead us to a different place.