“Now there was a famine in the land.”
The recurring reality of this sentence sets the stage for many of the stories in the Biblical narrative. Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and his sons, Naomi and Elimelech, and later the prophet Elijah -- the rains fail to come, the crops fail,
“the fig tree does not blossom and there is no herd in the stalls” (as Habakkuk writes)--
and there is famine in the land.
And famine meant then, as it has throughout history, even down to our own day, that people move. They move because they must. They move to where it is better. They move to where there is rain, to where there is family, where there are jobs. They move to where there is food. Where there is life. Where there is hope.
Often they move, intending to back someday -- when it is better, when it is safe again. Sometimes, though, they know they will never go back. The move will be permanent.
And sometimes, after moving, things are better, and even the pull of family, of land, of home, cannot overcome the prosperity that the new land has brought.
Until, that is, the new land betrays the immigrant, who finds he is still a stranger and an alien.
The news these days is full of stories much like the story of Isaac in chapter 26 of Genesis. I heard this story just this week, that the resident aliens in Greece are petitioning the government to do as was promised them: give them permanent resident status, and allow their children to become citizens. They have been living in Greece for 5 years, 10 years, or even longer, and they have prospered.
But the economy is a mess; the government is close to bankrupt; and there are massive rallies around the country, and in the capitol of Athens. The aliens are taking Greek jobs away from the native Greek citizens, and the cry is for them to leave. And such scenes are being repeated around Europe, and indeed around the world.
The wells of Contention and Enmity continue to be dug, and quarreled over. If Isaac prospers, he is taking away from the more deserving native citizens of the land. And if Isaac does not prosper, he is a leech feeding on the welfare state. Either way, Isaac the alien, the immigrant, the refugee, is a problem. What are we going to do with Isaac?
Now a promise of numerous descendants, as many as the stars in the sky, may not sound like much of a blessing when the only real estate you own is a cemetery plot, when you are trying to find a place to pitch your tent, and when you name your latest well “Room” when the neighbors don’t immediately show up to claim it. (Though you might notice that Isaac doesn’t stay in Rehoboth long before moving on again, this time to Beer-sheba. Room, it seems still isn’t room enough.)
But God’s presence in this story frames this refugee’s experience, as we might hope God’s presence frames the experience of everyone who undertakes the journey of an alien and stranger: “I will be with you. Do not be afraid. I will keep my promise to your father, the promise I make to you. You will have land again, and descendants, and blessing.”
The presence of God provides a vision beyond the current time of famine, and loss, and wandering; a vision that goes into the past to claim a heritage, and that goes into the future, a future of plenty and stability and belonging. The past and future are anchored in being God’s people, so that the present time with its uncertainties, false starts, and dead end wells can be endured without giving in to despair.
There are many ways in which such a story as Isaac’s can speak to situations in our world today. We are especially aware of this when in the midst of the people of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Even Hollywood has noticed this: “Blame the Lutherans,” goes the now-famous line from the movie, “Gran Torino.”
But I think even for us, sitting here, many of us pretty rooted in this land, pretty much native, neither refugees nor immigrants, most of us: even we can relate to this story.
We also know times of famine, of loss, of drying up of hope and what seemed to be flourishing new growth. The wells we have dug, full of water, are not ours to keep. The structures we build, are lived in by others. We find ourselves on the road again, figuratively and literally.
How much Contention and Enmity will we have to work with before we come to that broad place where there is truly hospitality rather than only tolerance; where there is blessing, not just begrudging “room”?
It is a question for which there is no ready answer; I certainly have no easy answer, this day, this year. But like Isaac, like all the patriarchs and matriarchs, the great cloud of witnesses, we are hemmed in, behind and before, by a promise and a presence.
“I will be with you,” God says. “Do not be afraid. I will keep the promise I made to your fathers (and to your mothers), and I make the promise to you. You have a land, and a future, and a hope. You will be a blessing to all nations, and you will be a blessing.”
And as a sign of this, we have God present with us. Jesus is there, with us, outside the city gate, outside the camp, on the road, in our tents, the one who tabernacles with us. He is there in the barren times, the wilderness times, the times of wandering, of change, of obstacle and famine. He bears the rejection of the alien and the stranger, and his blood sanctifies even those who conspire in his rejection and death. Yes, even you and me.
We can even dare to learn hospitality from him, hospitality with all its risks, even when we fear losing what we have gained, even when we are in the process of leaving one homeland to venture out in search of the next. Sharing what we have with other strangers and aliens, we continue to receive. And God meets us again, and again, with this reassurance:
“I am with you and will bless you.
I am with you and will bless you.
I am with you and will bless you.”
And we come to his table, and he is, and we are. And it is enough.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.