February 25, 2018 – Rev. Debbie Allen
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Walk with me. Has anyone ever said these words to you? Have you ever spoken these words to a friend? There is something so intimate about walking with someone you are close to and sharing the joys and sorrows of life. Somehow, the rhythmic movement of walking, or, if you don’t walk, just being with someone in the movement of nature – the wind in the trees, the sound of waves on a beach, the flight of birds from one branch to another – that movement frees the spirit to reveal itself in the presence of another.
Over the past few weeks, I have heard the words – walk with me – again and again as a gentle invitation, a tender longing for our company on this journey through life. It feels as though these words are spoken by someone who loves us deeply, who knows what it means to live fully and who seeks to draw us close, so we too will experience life in all its fullness. Walk with me.
Make no mistake about it, the divine voice in today’s passage from Genesis is the voice of El Shaddai – God Almighty, God of the mountain. El Shaddai is one of the most ancient names for God and is used only in the stories of the patriarchs. There is something formidable, if not intimidating, about the sound of this name. We do not doubt for a moment that this God is in control as creator and sustainer of life and that rival gods will not be tolerated.
What is not obvious in the text is that these words were written long after Abraham was called by God to leave his home and to make his way to the promised land, long after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness, and long after David’s reign as king of the Israelites. These words were written in exile – a time of mourning, of alienation, of longing for the land, the temple, and everything that had once given meaning to their lives.
So maybe, the way I’m hearing these words is not so far-fetched. Rather than the words of an angry God who seeks to punish a wayward people, perhaps these are the words of a compassionate God who understands how painful it has been for the Israelites to be separated from their home.
Walk with me. We don’t have to be physically able to walk in order to walk with God. Walking is a metaphor for how we live, where our energy and attention goes, what choices we make, with whom we spend time and to whom we are committed.
According to Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann, to walk with God means to live [one’s life] before God in such a way that every single step is made with reference to God and every day experiences [God] close at hand. If we walk with God, we live fully in God’s presence.
That is what God is calling Abram to do and be, and it is our calling as well. It may sound beyond our reach, like a goal that only the saints and the mystics are able to attain, but it is meant to describe our natural state, the way we were created to be.
Walk with me and be trustworthy, God says to Abram. Other translations use the words blameless, perfect, faithful, and wholehearted. We can easily get lost in the various meanings of these different words, but one thing is clear. God does not expect Abram to be without sin. And that’s a good thing because Abram has already done some pretty questionable things. God is well aware that humans can be weak and inconsistent, and that they frequently wander away from the path of truth and wholeness.
I like the word trustworthy because walking with God requires trust, and the more we trust the One who invites us to walk, the more trustworthy we become.
No one knew this better than Abraham and Sarah who were called out of everything that was familiar to them to go to unknown territory. And, as if that wasn’t enough, God is now making a covenant with them that is based on the impossible – the conceiving of a child very late in life.
Trusting God’s covenant and the promise of a son through whom a great nation would be born is a challenge for Abraham and Sarah. Later in chapter 17, Abraham falls on his face and laughs at the idea of a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman having a child. He says to God, If only you would accept Ishmael! and God responds, I’ve heard your request, and I will bless Ishmael, … but I will set up my covenant with Isaac… And with those words, God departs and Abraham is left alone.
Walk with me and be trustworthy. It turns out that walking with God can feel pretty lonely sometimes, especially when our trust in God’s presence is severely tested. Often, we have to walk without knowing where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. All we can do is put one foot in front of another, trusting that we will receive what we need along the way.
While Abram is working on his trust issues, God does not hesitate to trust that Abram is the one with whom to make a covenant. But me, says God, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. This covenant elevates Abram from family father to the status of father of nations.
And with this elevated role, Abram, meaning exalted ancestor (a backward-looking name), receives the name, Abraham, meaning ancestor of a multitude (a forward-looking name). Sarai’s participation in the covenant is also acknowledged when her name is changed to Sarah, meaning princess.
The changing of names in today’s world still marks significant events, rituals, and transitions in life. People let go of childhood nicknames names and reclaim their birth names. Some people adopt entirely new names that feel much closer to their true identities. New names signify a new reality, a sense of belonging, and an orientation toward the future.
In spiritual traditions, the receiving of a new name from a teacher at the time of initiation is especially meaningful. The name, if it is well chosen, embodies the gifts and potential of that person. It is something to be lived into as the person’s self-awareness grows and can be a powerful guide, shaping choices and actions that flow from the meaning of that name.
Years ago, I was initiated into a Sufi order. The Sufis are primarily known as the mystical branch of Islam. But one Sufi teacher felt called to establish an order that would serve as a spiritual path for people of many faiths, or no particular religion. In the Sufi tradition there are said to be 99 names for God (although that number is just a reference to an infinite number of names). These names, when spoken or chanted in the sacred Arabic language, open the heart to God’s presence.
I was given the name, Nur Fattah, at my initiation. Nur means “light” in Arabic and Fattah means “opener.” So the meaning of the name is “opener to the path of light.” I am not involved with the Sufis in the way that I once was, but I carry this name close to my heart, because it calls me out of myself and into relationship with God and with every person I meet. I do not pretend to fully embody this name, but I recognize the potential for embodiment within me. The name guides me in my walk with God.
Walk with me and be trustworthy. There are many stories of the faithful and how they have continued to walk with God in situations of great duress, but one story keeps returning to me. It is a story that unfolded in the late 20th century, of French monks who lived and worked in a Trappist monastery in the village of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of northern Algeria. I first read about them in the book, The Monks of Tibhirine, and later saw the film, Of Gods and Men, that is based on actual events that took place in the 1990s. I will never forget going to see this film at Cinemapolis on Good Friday some years ago. There weren’t many people there. It wasn’t one of those blockbuster movies. But it was obvious, as people were leaving the theater, that we had just witnessed something extraordinary.
In some ways, the lives of these monks were very different from ours. They were monastics who, like Abraham and his family, had left the familiarity of their native land to serve God. Monks take a new first name to symbolize their new identity in Christ and they adopt a new family in which the abbot becomes the father and fellow monks become brothers. Few of us have made such sacrifices and it would be easy to think that we don’t have much in common.
And yet these monks were ordinary human beings with the same fears and irritations we all have.
They were remarkable in the way they became a part of the Muslim community in which they showed respect for Islam and created loving bonds with the inhabitants of the village. However, Islamic terrorists became increasingly active in the area and the threat of violence created an extremely dangerous environment for the monks. The government first offered military protection, which the monks refused, and then strongly advised them to leave.
The most compelling scenes in the film for me are the times when the monks sit around a table to share their thoughts and feelings about leaving. There is a progression to these meetings. At first, several monks are not at all happy about staying in Algeria. I’m ill, says one monk, I want to leave. I didn’t come here to commit collective suicide, says another.
And then we hear the voice of one monk saying, We must reflect and pray together. Help will come from the Lord. And that’s what they decide to do, so each monk can discern what his own conscience is telling him, and so that collectively, their decision will be grounded in God’s will rather than their own.
As the months pass, the violence escalates. When the monks return to the table to make a final decision, something has shifted. Now we hear them saying things like, We were called to live here in this country with these people who are also afraid… The good shepherd doesn’t abandon his flocks to the wolves.
At this meeting, every one of them votes to stay, knowing that the outcome may very well be death at the hands of the terrorists. After making this decision, they take communion and then share a simple meal. One of the monks puts on music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, that haunting melody that conjures up the image of a swan gliding across the water. Then he pours a glass of wine for each of the monks and they sit in silence, gazing at each other with expressions of profound love and grief. That night they are captured and their fates are sealed.
God willing, none of us will ever have to face circumstances like these. But I can’t help thinking that we too live in a culture of violence in which we can no longer ignore the possibility of facing tragic situations close to home. How does the way we walk with God help to create strong communities where people receive the care they need? Where people feel a sense of belonging and acceptance that allows them to act with courage and compassion?
The monks prayed together and took time to reflect before making a decision. Their walk with God included a commitment to the bonds between the brothers and between them and their Muslim neighbors. As a community of faith, we too are called to create bonds of trust within the church and with our neighbors so that God’s promises can be fulfilled.
Our next hymn is an invitation to walk with each other so that love can shine through. We so often sing facing forward, without looking at each other, but, as you sing the refrain – Walk with me, I will walk with you and build the land that God has planned where love shines through – try looking at those around you; sing these words to your neighbors. And know that it is only together that we can truly walk with God. Amen.