Abraham meets Wendell Berry meets Nicodemus – 10/2/11 – Genesis 11:31-12:7; John 3:1-9

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1)

Abraham and Sara are famous for leaving home – responding to a nudge, a dream, a divine calling, a crazy idea, leaving their kindred and heading for somewhere else.  Where they were headed, they did not know.  “To a place that I will show you,” was the only thing they had to hang their faith on.  And where they were leaving?

As Genesis tells the story, it was actually Abram’s father Terah who was the first to set out from their homeland.  “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.  The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.”  (11:31-32)  Why Terah settled in Haran, a little over half way to his destination, we’re not told.  Maybe he had a change of heart.  Maybe he was getting old and this was about as far as could make it.  Maybe he thought Haran was a better place to retire, without those pesky Canaanites around.  The text chooses not to make a judgment on this half-accomplished journey.  Abraham’s call, then, which directly follows, is a call to complete the journey begun by the generation before him.  Leaving Ur and starting a new life somewhere in the place known as Canaan.

What I would like to try and do together in the next three weeks is to use the Abraham and Sara stories as a way of thinking about and addressing some big picture kinds of questions.  They are questions that presented themselves throughout my Sabbatical studies, although they aren’t particularly new questions.  And, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what these big picture questions even are, except, perhaps, “What is the big picture?”  How’s that for a big picture question?  On a big history, long trajectory scale, What is the storyline, what are the overarching themes, the lay of the land, what is the length and breadth and depth of this picture, this big picture, in which we find ourselves?  A rather ambitious question, perhaps, and I promise to miss all sorts of important points and nuances, but do want to have a go at this.

A little more concrete way of asking one of the related question:  in recognizing that Abraham and Sara were called to this new life, and that the Apostle Paul teaches that we are, by faith, descendants of this couple, a part of their global family, we can ask, “What is the shape of this new life, and how does it relate to what might then be called ‘the old life’?

So here goes, big picture:

As far as we can tell, humans have been farming for 10,000 years.  For the 200,000 years – or so! –  before that, since the beginning of our species, human groups lived by foraging – hunting and gathering – moving in small groups across areas of land and living off of the edible parts of plants and animals in their landscape.  The life of the forager involves conforming one’s life around what the earth is able to produce.  Populations stay low in order not to overextend the ability of the land to produce food.  People live in small groups, where cooperation and sharing are essential for survival.  When you forage, you cover a lot of ground.  You don’t settle in one place, and you can’t carry much stuff in your backpack.  Personal possessions are few if existent at all.  Relationships are for the most part egalitarian and women and men share equal honor.  This isn’t necessarily because our foraging ancestors were more noble and moral; it was a matter of survival and necessity to relate in this way.  We’ve been mistaught that this is mainly a story of survival of the fittest, when it is just as much as story of survival of the most cooperative.  If one guy tracks down a deer one day he’s going to pass it around and expect that the following day his cousin is going to share his catch.  And the women hold it all together providing most of the day to day goods from their foraging.   This is the picture that anthropologists and historians can piece together, to the best of their ability.  This is how humans have lived for 95% of our existence.

Without agriculture there are no food surpluses and therefore no concentrations of populations, no cities; and no concentrations of wealth, no class.

But we’ve shifted.  Can you tell?!  With the onset of agriculture, rather than conforming our lives around what the land can produce, we conform the land and what it can produce around our lives.  Rather than living extensively, moving about over an extended territory to meet our needs, we began living intensively, finding technologies and methods that allowed us to produce wealth within a relatively small area of land – selective planting of plants we like, and domestication of animals useful to us.  Agriculture is a tremendous discovery, a tremendous power in the hands of humans, and it changed everything.  But not for a while.

For about the first five thousand years of agriculture, from about 10,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago the archeological records show no significant signs of major changes in human societies, ones we would equate with modern civilization.  People are starting to settle in permanent towns, but all houses appear to be about the same size, pointing to continuing egalitarian relationships.  There are no signs of massive warfare – no collections of weapons, or skeletal remains with weapons wounds.  It’s hard to tell what all happened in these years, but it’s significant that half of our history as farmers doesn’t seem to show many differences as the previous years.

But around 5000 years ago, we begin to see signs of the major shift whose cultural descendants we are.  In Mesopotamia, ancient Sumer, in modern day Iraq, there start to appear city states, and with them dense populations, private property, political hierarchies, the subservience of women, and warfare.  When one household can produce enough food for several households, it frees people up to do other things, like art, or study, or constructing buildings, or consolidating political power.  When you have wheat in the barn, and stuff in your house, and people you don’t know out there just a little beyond the borders of your property, you’ve got to protect it, right?    All of this is not because of agriculture, but is made possible by the wealth and power it gave us – wealth and power which can be used for good, or for harm, but which we have so often failed to yield for good.  This might be one of the main reasons why Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, has referred to agriculture as a “catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” (Diamond, 1987)

For the school students here, when you look at world history, this is where it often begins.  In Sumer, where the first empires of the ancient world were born.  It kind of helps that they invented writing, which gives us a good place to start for official history.

One of these original powerful ancient city states of Sumer was called Ur.

“Terah took his son Abram and his son’s wife Sarai, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan.”

Why would you leave Ur, the power center of the world, the most happening place on earth, to start a new life in the back woods?  In the Abraham and Sara story it’s just as important to know where they are leaving as it is to know where they are going.  Maybe even more important.  They don’t even know where they’re going.  But they know where they’re leaving.  They’re leaving behind this brave new world of empire and domination that is just having its inaugural days in the history of our species.  It’s not an accident that what comes right before this in Genesis is the parable of the tower of Babel, when humans use their power not for mutual thriving, but for trying to build a tower to the heavens.  God calls Abraham and family to throw themselves out of the loop of this trajectory of history, and to start a new story, a new people, an alternative community with alternative values and ways of relating.  This is the story of Israel, and later, the church, which adopts this same identity.  And God promises that they will be a great nation, and that all people will consider them a blessing.  But they’re going to have to learn how to do it in a farming world where humanity has already taken on the mantle of wealth and power.

Having spent the summer on a farm, and having been deeply inspired by what goes on there, I’m hesitant to admit that the same system that brings us fresh tomatoes, beef, eggs, and butternut squash is the same system that makes possible patriarchy, class hierarchy, global warming, and the nuclear bomb, but it’s the truth.

If Abraham were to meet Wendell Berry, my guess is that they would hit it off pretty well.  Wendell Berry, our Kentucky neighbor, has spent his life thinking and writing about farming, and doing a good deal of farming himself.  He has always spoken his mind, but he’s getting old, and old people tend to be even less inhibited in saying how they really feel.  Two years ago he wrote an essay in which he said about our society, “The days when we could be safely crazy are over” (p. 26, essay “Money versus goods,” in  What Matters?).  The same year, 2009, he gave the commencement address at NKU and told the faculty and graduates that up until now our system of education has had only one major – upward mobility.  And that he would like to introduce a second major, called Homecoming.  The proper goal of education, he says, and, I would add, the proper goal of Christian formation, is “understanding what it means to be human in a living world.”  He goes on to say, “And so the homecoming curriculum will be a curriculum of questions such as the following:

  1. What has happened here?  By ‘here’ I mean wherever you live and work.
  2. What should have happened here?
  3. What is here now?  What is left of the original natural endowment?  What has been lost?  What has been added?
  4. What is the nature, or genius, of this place?
  5. What will nature permit us to do here without permanent damage or loss?
  6. What will nature help us to do here?
  7. What can we do to mend the damages we have done?
  8. What are the limits: Of the nature of this place?  Of our intelligence and ability?”

Wendell Berry says that this will begin and end “with a confession of ignorance.”  He also says that “eventually the schools, and their students, and their graduates, are going to see that homecoming is not an elective.  It is a requirement.  We could call it Emergency Ecological Training.” (All quotes from “Major in Homecoming,” in What Matters?)

I’m curious how that speech was received at NKU.  I haven’t heard.

I can imagine Abraham and Sara giving a standing ovation.

The gospel reading that is paired with the Abraham and Sara story is that of Nicodemus.  One of the links is that in the same way that Abraham and Sara were told to go, even though they didn’t know where they were going, Nicodemus is told by Jesus, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Last week Keith used the text from Acts when Philip is caught up by the Spirit and whisked away from his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch to his next divine appointment – a rather dramatic way of narrating the Spirit leading people in ways that nobody can predict.  The creative impulse of God is fully spontaneous and free.

There’s another way that the Nicodemus story helps illuminate the Abraham and Sara story.  Because Jesus makes it utterly clear to Nicodemus that what is at stake is nothing less than a total spiritual conversion, a death of the old self and a rebirth of a new self, that rich phrase, “you must be born from above,” or “born again.”  We can study the history, familiarize ourselves with the anthropology, engage the politics, search the Scriptures, but if we don’t undergo the spiritual conversion to the new life, it is not going to work.  Our spirits are too colonized by the old story, by the ambitions of Ur and Babel, with an upwardly mobile based education.  I’m speaking confessionally here.  This is a spiritual condition that calls for the surrender of the self to a new Spirit, a new animating force in our lives.  That holy wind that picks us up and takes us to places we can never anticipate.

The good news, I believe, is that we’ve already left Ur.  We don’t buy that story.  The towers built to the heavens look more and more fragile each day and the sound bites propping up the order and analyzing the crisis are making less and less sense.  Our mothers and fathers have taught us to head out from Ur and not get stuck with its enticing beauties, and we’re on the road, half way between Ur and the promised land, but we don’t know where we’re headed.  What will be shape of this new life?  Can we actually be born again?  And didn’t we already do that, or do we have to be born again, again?  Is there really a Spirit out there that wants to carry us somewhere?

I want to end with a prayer, but invite us to first spend several minutes in silence.

This Stepping Out


Holy One,

we hear stories:

of Abraham and Sarah
loading up the U-Haul

with nothing but an old armchair

and an unlikely promise.

Is this the kind of stepping out

you ask of us?


We hear stories:

of Nicodemus stealing away in the night,
risking reputation and academic pride
for nothing more than a fireside chat
with a peasant rabbi

and a long-forgotten promise

reawakened by His presence.

Is this the kind of stepping out

you ask of us,

a walking away from the trappings of a life
toward the trembling Mystery of Life itself?


We confess, O Holy One,

an inclination to cling

to the self we have carefully constructed,
to the life we have inherited,

to the beliefs that keep it all going.

But sometimes in the night,

in the rare in-between moments,
the Life within our life beckons,

the Holy within the hectic quickens,
the Sacred within the scared stirs.


Help us to trust that the wind at our back
is your spirit,

nudging us toward the Nazarene,

in whom your promise

to the bold and open-hearted

is realized.



From: If Darwin Prayed:  Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics

   by Bruce Sanguin