Second Sunday after Pentecost

Empathizing with the characters in the text whose voices we do not get to hear

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Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

June 11, 2023

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9

Have you or your family ever moved because of a call from God? If you are reading this as a preacher, the chances are pretty high that the answer is “yes.” Most likely, you have moved to attend seminary, and then you likely moved again when you began full-time ministry. You may know well the experience of moving for a call from God. You, like Abram, have had to leave behind the neighborhood, the friends, perhaps even the family that you lived close to, in order to go where God sent you. 

People in your congregation may be less likely to identify as having moved because of a call from God, but they probably have experienced having to move in order to pursue an education and/or a career. Think about the high school students you may have in your congregation: how often are they asked where they are going to college, assuming that they will leave their families behind to pursue their education? Once students graduate from college, they may not find a job in their hometown or where they attended school, but most likely will have to move again to relocate to where they can find employment. While they may not name explicitly that this is God’s doing, perhaps as their preacher you can help them feel empowered by a God who travels with us to new and unknown places.

This passage may also help you name for your congregants the experience of moving for a spouse’s career. While remote working can enable some employees to work from home, many companies still expect their employees to be local, which may mean a move if the company relocates or the employee is assigned to another location. This is a common experience for military families as well.

Abram, after all, is not moving by himself. He is relocating with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, as well as enslaved persons who had to move with him. There is no question of a sit-down family discussion prior to this move taking place. God tells Abram to go, and he goes, taking all these other people with him.

For families who move for a career of one of its members, it can be challenging to accept that this move will be for everyone’s benefit. Children may be moved during the school year or at an age when they feel it’s harder to make friends. Spouses may leave behind their support networks and their own careers.

This text does not speak to their experiences. Instead, it is a text of silenced voices. We do not hear how Sarai felt about moving, nor do we see God talking to Sarai about the promise God just made to Abram about a child. As a preacher, it is important to attend to these silences, because it may be that members of your congregation have felt silenced. When kids have to move because of their parent’s career, or spouses move for the other’s job relocation, they need a preacher who can see them and listen for their silenced perspectives.

While Abram is lifted up as the hero of faith, his family gets ignored. When a family member moves for a job, they are beginning something new and exciting, where people have been waiting for them to arrive. The rest of the family and their stories can feel like a backdrop to the story of the one with the new job.

How can preachers honor these other stories? 

First, by listening attentively to the stories within your congregation. If a new family joins because of a relocation, make sure to learn about what the various family members left behind. Take time to offer pastoral care to the whole family, expecting that not everyone may feel excited to have moved to a new place.

Secondly, invite the congregation into imaginative listening, a process of empathizing with the characters in the text whose voices we do not get to hear. Suggest what you imagine Sarai might be going through as she prepares to leave her family, home, and country behind. 

In the book The Flawed Family of God: The Imperfect Families of Genesis, which I co-authored with biblical scholar Song-Mi Suzie Park, I practiced this kind of imaginative listening by writing out letters between Sarai and a friend, describing what I imagined her experience to be like and her mix of complicated emotions. These letters could serve as templates for a similar imaginative exercise you could include in the sermon.  

Thirdly, include the stories of others who have migrated as part of your sermons. The world is full of people who are on the move—some by choice, and others because of life circumstances. Are there refugees in your area? Are there persons who have had to leave their home countries because of war or gang violence? 

By sharing in your sermons the stories of persons who have had to move, you are also giving voice to those whose stories we may not have heard from our scriptural text, as well as to those who may be sitting in your congregation. 

Yes, Abram was a man of faith who left everything he had to follow God’s call. But it also takes faith to see God at work when you are having to move for someone else’s sense of calling. Let the silences in this text inspire you to accompany those who are trying to find faith in their own time of transition.