Sunday, March 8, 2009

Abraham's Faith

Genesis 12: 10-20, page 8
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep, cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.
But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
Sara and I have been talking about names a lot lately. We’ve settled on Lily, after my grandmother, and Susana, after Sara’s mom and sister. Susana will be spelled with one “n”, the Spanish way, because Sara’s father is from Colombia, South America.
As a Spanish speaker, he pointed out that Susana is the Spanish word for Lily; so our daughter’s name is really Lily in English, Lily in Spanish, Evans.
That’s something we didn’t even think about. But a lot of names are words for things in other languages, and being English speakers we don’t always pick it up.
One of my favorite examples is Peter. When Jesus renames Simon, changing his name to Peter, in English it looks like Jesus just trades him one name for another, but the name he picks, Peter, is a strange one. What Jesus was really doing, while we English speakers can’t tell, was renaming Simon “Rock” because he is the rock that the church would be built on.
Abram and Sarai’s names also change to Abraham and Sarah, but the name choice that is the most important when considering this passage is the name of their promised son yet to be conceived – he would be named Isaac – Laughter.
But Laughter must have been the farthest thing from Abram and Sarai’s mind here in Egypt. Considering the cruelty of their situation – being torn apart from each other – how could they ever think about laughter again?
Rather than laughter, our passage for today is one where fear spilled out of Abram’s mouth and into Sarai’s ears, “Say that you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Sarai heard these words as a woman of the ancient world, probably accustomed to making hopeless choices. She was powerless, condemned whether Abram lived or died, but she did have the power to save this man who she loved – and she consented.
Sarai walked into Pharaoh’s brothels; and we wonder if Abram’s heart went with her, or if it broke right there on the Egyptian border.
Their cruel reality must have sucked up everything else – if they had dreamed about their future while they walked through the desert – smiled thinking of those promises from God – that “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing,” we would understand if the Egyptian desert sucked the hope from these words, making faith in such words seem like a long-ago memory.
We question Abram’s faithfulness in this moment. Could he have kept on believing God’s promise was real? Or would a truly faithful person have made the choice he did – to survive rather than face death? Ours is a tradition of martyrs, so why wouldn’t our greatest model of faithful living choose martyrdom over survival in this time of trial.
What lesson on faithfulness is there to learn here; if faithful living means making the right choices what does this passage have to offer? Sarai was left with a choice that wasn’t really even a choice, to see her husband die and face Pharaoh’s brothels, or see her husband live and face Pharaoh’s brothels, her fate was already sealed. And Abram – choose martyrdom or survival – is that really a choice either?
They were virtually powerless – at the mercy of the will of someone bigger and stronger.
As Glenda Kanner pointed out in a Bible study this past Tuesday at the IHOP, The Kite Runner is a book that tells a similar story.[1] Written from the perspective of a young Afghani boy, this book tells the story of Amir and his best friend Hassan. Amir lived a privileged life during the last peaceful days of the monarchy, in those last few years before Afghanistan was invaded by Russia, the last peaceful days before the country was engulfed by war that still continues today.
Amir and his best-friend Hassan win their city’s kite flying competition by cutting their final opponents kite free from its owner to fly off down the streets of Kabul. Hassan runs off to get the kite back for his friend, but in the process he meets a gang of older boys who want to keep the kite for themselves. A cruel situation unfolds before Amir. He runs down the alley to see his friend Hassan at the mercy of this gang, and like Abram survival permeates his mind as fear takes hold. Will he continue down the street to stand by his friend?
Sarai spares Abram, and in that moment I wonder what Abram felt.
“When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.”
He didn’t die, but because of Sarai’s willingness to hide the fact that he was her husband he became rich, and it was as though part of the promise God gave him just before he went into Egypt that “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing,” were coming true.
But what about the cost of all that livestock; in the face of all that stuff I think we know what kind of guilt occupied his mind, knowing that the wife he loved was suffering while he stayed alive.
Amir watched from around the corner as his friend Hassan stood, “fists curled, legs slightly apart,” facing three older boys head-on as though he was cornered like “some kind of wild animal.” Standing there, sheltered by a corner, making a choice not to suffer alongside, but to be spared as Abram was. And Hassan never had to know what Amir had done. He never had to know that Amir watched from around the corner not doing anything. But Amir knew, and no amount of safety, no gift, and no busyness could get that memory out of his mind of watching his best friend being abused and not doing anything about it.
I fear facing the same choice, because you lose either way if these are your options. Suffer, or have the one you love suffer for you while you tend your flocks or take shelter around a corner. What kind of choice is that?
How can faith survive in such situations?
But it’s not Abram’s decision to survive that sets our example today. It’s his faith, and I believe that it is a faith that should set our example today. Because the Bible could very well have ended right where today’s scripture passage ends – our story, our song could have ended before it really even got started – ending with Abram there with his flock, living a long and tortured existence where his wealth increased though his heart turned cold, never recovering from the cruelty of life that took his wife away, never escaping the guilt he carried for surviving, looking forward to the fate he wished he had met that day long ago.
But the story of faith doesn’t end.
God doesn’t give up on the promise, and some how, neither do Abram and Sarai.
Faced with the cruelty of life; the devastating effects of the abuse of power and the futility of our own ability to do anything about it, giving up on the promise is no small temptation. And while Egypt tried to break them of their love for each other by tearing them apart, while Abram’s desire to live, to choose life over martyrdom, might have robbed him of his faith in himself, faith in God made a new day possible.
I believe Abram and Sarai could have gone the rest of their lives never forgiving, never forgetting, with their lives filled up with tears and sadness.
But laughter came again – that is faith, believing that by the power of God, tears can give way to laughter.

[1] Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003).