“To Be A Blessing” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity
A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org | Used with permission
This morning’s scripture is a text of few words. Less than four verses. Structured around four main verbs: Go. Show. Make. Bless. Go – Go, Abram – from everything you know, from your land, your kindred, your parents’ house. Go to this new land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, a great name. I will bless you, and you will be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. So few words. And yet, so few words set so much in motion.
Go Abram, from everything you know, and begin again.
The paucity of words leaves room for many questions. So who is this Abram? Did he know this God before this – this voice that tells him to Go? Why would he trust this Go from this God – and leave everything behind? Wasn’t he terrified about this going – about the unknown that lay ahead? What did his wife Sarai have to say? Did they pause – even for a moment – and say – Really? Do we really want to do this?
Because if we peek ahead in the story, we know that the going won’t be easy – it rarely is. We know that from scripture and from the stories of migrating peoples in our day. They will arrive in a strange land. Those already there will be suspicious of the stranger. There will be challenges, and violence, which Sarai and the women will experience even more than the men. We know the struggle of people on the move – beginning again.
The big question that rises up for me is – How do they do it? Abram and Sarai and Lot, how do they just begin again? How do people do that in our day? For that matter, how do we? How do we begin again? Standing in lives we know – in those moments of change that come – big and small – sometimes expected, sometimes not – in those moments – how do we begin again? This beginning again, that is woven into the fabric of life.
We know this isn’t the first “Go” in scripture, and it won’t be the last. Abram and Sarai and Lot will go and settle in a new land. But by the end of Genesis, there will be a famine in that land, and their descendants will go into Egypt – where Joseph has prepared a way. They will go there, settle, and farm and thrive – until a new Pharaoh rises up, and they find themselves in slavery.
There will be the Go of Moses – “Let my people go.”
There’s the Go of Passover – “Get up and go – now! – in the night! – while the Egyptian army is weak – Grab what you can carry and go. Go from slavery. Go towards freedom.”
There will be the daily grind and Go of their wilderness wandering – forty years of stumbling and grumbling in the desert – every morning a new Go – Go, take today’s plodding steps on this relentless journey to the land that is promised... someday.
Even after they settle that land, there will come the Go of exile – when the Babylonian army sweeps in and takes the people into captivity.
Go after Go after Go – every Go, a leaving and a beginning again.
It doesn’t stop with the Hebrew Scriptures.
We find that in the life of Jesus. Just after he’s born – Go – flee to Egypt – Herod is trying to kill you. Remember last week, just after baptism, Go into the wilderness and face the voices there. Go heal. Go teach. Go face the powers. Go face the cross. Go, even unto death.
And there is the Go spoken at the mouth of an open tomb, “Go tell the others. He is not dead. He is risen.” That Go Jesus spoke to his disciples, “Come follow me, and Go tell the world.”
Go after Go after Go – every Go, a leaving and a beginning again.
We know this Go and this beginning again in our own lives.
There’s the Go of birth. Just when more push – and there we Go – out into a shockingly cold and bright new world. There’s the Go of growing up and leaving home. Go to school. Go to work. There’s the go of adventure – adventures we choose, and adventures that are thrust upon us. Love, loss, parenthood, aging. There is the go of dying.
There is a Go at the dawn of each new day.
Wake up -- go into this day.
Every day is a brand new day.
This is the day that God has made.
This Go, this beginning again, it is part of the rhythm of our days – of life. As the Benedictines say, “Always, always, we begin again.”
And, all around us people are beginning again. Ours is a world of Go. People on the move. We live now in a interconnected world. I think of the Bay Area, and how so many of us are not originally from around here. On an even larger scale, we live in a world where people are on the move because they have been displaced – by war, by famine and flooding, by political and religious persecution, by violence and rampant corruption in their homeland. People on the move, beginning again. Everywhere, all the time – a reality not just of ancient stories and of history – but of now.
Yes, always we begin again, but how? How do we begin again?
Maybe the even bigger question is:
How do we live in a world of beginning again?
Last week, I mentioned Malala Yousafzai – the Nobel prize-winning activist for the rights and thriving of young women and girls. You may know her first book, I Am Malala, which tells her story of standing up to the Taliban. She has another book, We Are Displaced, where she gathers and shares the stories of refugee girls from around the world – courageous young women, beginning again.
Malala is Pakistani – born into a pre-Taliban Pakistan, where girls could go to school and learn. Her father ran two schools, one for boys, one for girls. That freedom ended when the Taliban swept into the Swat Valley where her family lived. Both Malala and her father were vocal activists for the rights of girls to an education – and if you know Malala’s story – you know that she was targeted and shot by the Taliban, and her family knew that they had to go. Malala explains that – as with so many refugee families – “the only choice they had for their safety and their life is to leave.” To go.
Malala and her family made their way to Birmingham, England. (And it’s taken some practice for me to say Birmingham like that.) They left with only their clothes on their back, and Malala says as they settled in – “it felt as if we had landed on the moon – everything looked, smelled, and felt different” – tall buildings, people from so many cultures. Even in school, where she most wanted to be, the girls were different, the language, even the jokes. As she found her way in her new home, the world responded with support. That inspired her to continue to speak out, and a commitment to help tell and amplify the stories of other girls, globally displaced and on the move – of their courage and strength.
Malala tells the story of two sisters from Yemen – Zaynab and Sabreen – who fled bombings and revolution. They made their way at first to Cairo – where Zaynab came down with tuberculosis. In a strange land, she quarantined alone for her treatments. Eventually, through the help of relatives in the US, she got a visa – but because of a mix-up in the paperwork, and a new president hostile to immigration – her sister Sabreen did not. So they had to make the difficult decision to split up. Zaynab made her way to the US. Sabreen set out on her own journey – which included a perilous voyage across the Mediterranean on a rickety raft. Zaynab has made her home in Minneapolis, where she has taught the girls at school how to play soccer. Sabreen has made a home in Belgium, where she has married and begun a family.
Sabreen and Zaynab met Malala at a gathering of globally displaced girls – advocating together for the human rights of girls. When Malala asked the gathered young women what they want to change, Zaynab says this: “At the start I wanted to have a better life with all our family in Yemen. I know those dreams are now impossible – but I can make other dreams come true. I want to finish my schooling so I can go back to that beautiful home and bring justice with me. I want to rebuild it. I believe that there can be a happy ending for every story, and I will create that happy ending for this part of my own story.” Zaynab adds, “I dream big.”
I don’t know if you watched 60 Minutes last Sunday, but they told the story of the SOLA girls school in Afghanistan – an entire school that fled as Taliban forces rolled into Kabul.(And of course, anytime I think of Afghanistan, I think of our own beloved Asma who led this congregation in planting trees for peace in her homeland.) The SOLA school’s founder – Shabana Basij-Rasikh – started the school in reaction to the Taliban’s first reign of terror. As a child, she had to go to a secret school, dressed as a boy. She eventually left and went to the US, and then left and went back to Afghanistan – with the intention of helping raise up the next generation of Afghan leaders – including girls and young women.
The school had been thriving for a number of years when, last year, the Biden administration announced the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. Shabana began planning to take the whole school (200 girls) abroad while that happened. But the Taliban circled Kabul sooner than expected, and she and the girls (256 girls and school staff) evacuated on one of the last planes to leave Kabul.
They went, and they were welcomed... in Rwanda. Rwanda welcomed them with eager, open arms. They found a home for the school in a former hotel complex, with a dining hall. The girls wear school uniforms made of Rwandan cloth to honor their host country, and they have persevered in their learning – math, science, the Quran, geography, leadership.
And when asked about their hopes the girls say what they want to be – a surgeon, a politician, an astronaut – one of them wants to be a spy. Shabana Basij-Rasikh says that she hopes that the world will see in these amazing young women “educated girls committed to one day being leaders of a different Afghanistan.” And so every morning, they recite together this affirmation: "We all are Afghans, We love Afghanistan. We will try our best and work hard to improve our beautiful country."
Lesley Stahl asks them, “You say this every day?” They all say together, emphatically: “Yes!” And one of them, Zahra, says, “We repeat it every day -- it's stuck in our heart.”
Go, from everything you know, and begin again.
How do they do it? I am in awe.
Let’s notice just a few things in these stories – Abram, Sarai, and Lot; Malala, Zaynab, and Sabreen; Zahra, Shabana, and the girls of the SOLA school.
First, notice that in each of these stories, they go. God says to Abram go – go from everything you know – go, so that you will be a blessing – and then Scripture says, “Abram went.” In each of these stories, they go – they take the first step into their new beginning – the first step into the unknown. The first step for a better world. That takes courage. And I want to name that and honor that.
Second, notice that in each of these stories, as they go into a new beginning, there is this sense that they go with God. Now, this story of Abram is a story from the Hebrew Scriptures, told in a Christian community, as we tell stories and honor the courage of these Muslim girls. These are stories from across what are sometimes called the three Abrahamic religions. In each story – in ways that flow out of distinct, but related traditions – there is the sense that they go with God. As this morning’s Psalm says, “God will not your foot stumble; God is your keeper, the shade at your right hand; God will keep your going out and your coming in forevermore.” God says to Abram, “Go, and I will make something of you, so that you will be a blessing to all nations.”
And that’s the third thing, notice that in their going with God, they become a blessing. We’ve talked about “blessing” before – blessing is this gift from God – embodied in us – in our words, in our lives – that “issues forth [into the world] in goodness, and well-being, and life.” In blessing, we infuse good into the world. God says that Abram will be a blessing to all peoples. Malala blesses the world with fierce, moral conviction that girls have a right to education and a right to live and thrive in a world without violence and fear – a blessing we see lived out in Zaynab and Sabreen and the Afghan girls school. As they go, and begin again, they become a blessing in the community they create.
And that makes me think for a moment – about the communities coming to life in these new beginnings. It makes me think, not only of the people on the move, but also of the people who are there receiving and welcoming them – like the Rwandans who welcomed and found a home for the SOLA girls school. Maybe for those moments when we are in our homeland – in the midst of folks who arrive on our doorstep. Maybe our part in being this blessing – is welcoming them in – providing shelter and food – being a friend and a neighbor to those arriving in a strange land. Maybe that’s our part in that particular beginning again.
I think of Asma – of the story of her journey to the United States, how she made her way here – how she then took some of you to Afghanistan – to plant trees – how you were welcomed there. I think of how Asma welcomed me to this place.
How do we begin again? How do we live in a world of beginning again? Well, how about this for the start of an answer:
We Go – with courage, we take the first step and the next –
we Go, accompanied by God, accompanying each other,
we go together into the new beginning –
and we go to be a blessing.
And as we go, in this world of new beginnings,
we welcome each other –
we welcome those who are on the move – in their new beginning –
and we say to each other: “There is a place for you here.”
© 2023 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text, see Terence Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. i (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), pp.420-27; Cameron B.R. Howard, Commentary in Connections, Year A, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), pp.43-48.  Terence Fretheim calls this a “fulcrum text.”  Howard, p.44 (“The gaps in the narrative help us to host better questions.”_  See Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017), pp 29-33.  See Malala Yousafzai, We Are Displaced (New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2019).  Id.  See id.  Id.  You can view (and read) the news story here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sola-afghanistan-education-60-minutes-2023-02-26/  Id.  See Fretheim, p.425.  This Sunday's Benediction was from Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie's amazing book, The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Lives (New York, NY: Convergent Press, 2023), pp.182-83:
Blessed are we who take a minute
to look over our shoulder
at all we learned from what was,
the people we became,
the people who loved us into becoming.
The peace that came with familiarity.
Blessed are we who trust this timing,
and who open our hearts anew
to change, to new friends, to hope.
Nervous, maybe heavy-hearted,
but brimming with gratitude for a life
so beautiful that it hurts to say goodbye.
Blessed are we, turning our eyes ahead
toward a new path not yet mapped.
God, give us courage to take this next step,
and enough for the one after that, too.
Remind us that you have gone before,
and behind, and around,
and are with us now.
In our leaving, in our arriving,
in our changes, expected or shocking,
[God,] surprise us with who we might become