Sunday, March 4, 2007
Asbury UMC, Yonkers, NY
by Rev. Scott Summerville
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
15:2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
15:3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
15:4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”
15:5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” ….
The Bible today takes us to a moment in the story of Sarah and Abraham.
Every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim traces her or his faith back to one figure in the Bible: Abraham.
We can speak in shorthand of Christians, Jews, and Muslims as the Abrahamic faiths, or we can speak in shorthand of Christians, Jews, and Muslims as people of the book; Hebrew scripture, Christian Bible, Koran – these are three interconnecting scriptures. The story of Abraham is central to the Jewish story, Christian story, and the Muslim story.
Everything about the story of Abraham and Sarah is preposterous and improbable. The situation of Sarah and Abraham is so odd that even they laugh at it; in fact they laugh at God.
The story begins with the Lord’s promise to Abram [as he was called when their journey began] that he [75 years old] and his wife [65 years old] will become parents, and not just the parents of one child but of a multitude of nations.
For the next twenty-five years they wander around the ancient world, growing older and older, and wondering when their promised child would arrive. An elderly couple wandering around the ancient world waiting for the woman to become pregnant. All because the old man hears voices! Waiting and wandering twenty-five years – on the move, possessed by a crazy hope:
I shall make of you a great nation, says the Lord – I will bless you, and make your name great, and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.
Twenty-five years later – Abraham is nearly 100 years old, Sarah nearly 90 – God dropped by to announce: The child is coming. How does Abraham react? Abraham fell on his face and laughed out loud. Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Shall Abe and I in our old age have pleasure; shall I, an old woman that I am, have a child! Ha Ha!” But the Lord knew she was laughing, and the Lord said, “What are you laughing at!” She said, “I wasn’t laughing. God said, “O yes you were!”
It is a story so absurd that the even the main characters laugh at God, and when they have a child, Sarah names him Isaac, which means in Hebrew, “He Laughs,” and she says, “God has made laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh over me…. who would have thought these breasts would again suckle a child!”
In today’s passage, from the book of Genesis, chapter 15, Sarah and Abraham are about ten years into the journey; they will not be having their child for another fifteen years. Here Abraham must endure what the scriptures call “a deep and terrifying darkness.”[Gen 15:12] As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. [Gen 15:13] Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; [Gen 15:14] but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. …. “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…
Just as Abraham must endure long waiting and deep darkness, so it is told his ancestors will have to endure great hardship, 400 years of oppression before they will have their promised land. Surely this is a God who demands great patience!
if any two people ever had justification for scratching their heads and saying where are we and how did we get here
it would be Sarah and Abraham.
What a crazy world we live in, Abraham!What a crazy world we live in, Sarah!
In every generation human beings scratch their heads and say, “What a crazy world we live in.” We all live in the same crazy world, and one of the craziest things is that there is so much conflict among those who share the same story: Christians, Jews, Muslims. God promised to the seed of Abraham the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, from present-day Egypt to present day Iraq . What a fateful promise.
Part of the promise to Abraham and Sarah was that their descendants would live in peace in a world of peace, and a world of religious harmony; yes– remember the words of the promise to Abraham and Sarah: through you all the nations will bless themselves.
So we come today to the story of Abraham and Sarah with the knowledge that the promise to them remains to be fulfilled. We come to the story of Abraham and Sarah scratching our own heads and saying, “What a crazy world we live in.”
A common experience of the era in which we live is the experience of dislocation, a sense of not knowing where we are or where we are going. I will perform a funeral ceremony tomorrow for a man in his eighties who died last week. He was one of the millions of human beings whose lives were changed by the second world war.
His grandson gave me a copy of an account this man had written about his experience as a 19 year old drafted into the Air Force in 1944. He was quickly shipped to northeast England, with the 52nd bomber group stationed at Deopham Green. They were told that their squadron was very short of aircrews and that they should expect to be flying soon – ready or not.
The next thing he knew there was a flashlight in his face waking him from sleep and orders being given to board the plane where he was to be the navigator. They were to bomb a tank factory in Germany. As they took off, this 19 year old navigator informed the pilot that the plane did not have maps, charts, or other navigational aids, except for one old map covering the English Channel area.
I will not attempt to summarize the whole harrowing experience recounted in this story .
At one point in the journey the plane had been shot up; one of the engines was on fire;
he was thinking, “I can’t get shot down on my first mission, my family will be upset.”
The pilot pushed the plane into a deep rapid descent in an effort to put out the flames, while the young navigator and the bombardier sat with their legs out the hangar door preparing to bail out, watching the flames go by.
The grandson who gave me a copy of the story is 18 or 19 himself, getting ready to go off to college. As he gave me the story, he looked around at his father and uncles and cousin and said, “It’s a miracle any of us here.”
As I read his grandfather’s story, I couldn’t help thinking of all the young soldiers over there in the land of the Bible, somewhere between the “river of Egypt and the Euphrates,” bewildered and praying to make it home.
I have spoken from the pulpit and to some of you personally about a book by Margaret Wheatley entitled to Turning to One Another – Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. It’s a book that addresses the sense of fear, isolation and dislocation that are so common today. She says:
I don’t meet many people who are optimistic anymore.
It doesn’t matter where I am, in what country or organization,
or with whom I’m speaking. Almost everyone is experiencing
life as more stressful, more disconnected, and less meaningful than just a few years ago.
It’s not only that there’s more change, or that change is now continuous. It’s the nature of the change that is upsetting.[For example: ] A small political incident sets off violence that doesn’t end.
A small computer malfunction disrupts lives for days or weeks.
Economic problems in one country cause hardship in many.
The undetected rage of a person or group suddenly threatens us or someone we love.
A disease in one location spreads like wildfire into global contagion.[ She writes that as she travels she keeps hearing comments such as these: ]
Problems keep getting bigger; they’re never solved. We solve one, and it only creates more.
There’s more violence now, and it’s affecting people I love.
Who can I believe? Who will tell me what’s really going on?
I have no time for my family anymore.
I worry about my children. What will the world be like for them?
Then she asks:
Confronted with so much uncertainty and irrationality, how can we feel hopeful about the future?
How can we become people we respect, people who are generous, loving, curious, open, energetic?
How can we ensure that at the end of our lives, we’ll feel that we have done meaningful work, created something that endured, helped other people, raised healthy children? What can we do now to restore hope to the future?
Her answer: “Simple, honest, human conversation about the things that matter…”
“Simple, honest, human conversation about the things that matter…” That is the key to overcoming our isolation, loosening ourselves from the grip of fear,
beginning those steps to change our own lives and our society in ways that will provide alternatives to violence and ecological disaster.
We live in a bewildering and violent time.
We need to find centering symbols and centering practices so that our lives have focus and direction. For Christians the communion cup and the communion bread are the central signs of our life together.
The wine and bread unite us across the span of history to Jesus and his first disciples. In communion we claim our place in history ,
our connection to Jesus,
and our connection to each other.
The wine and bread unite us in the present moment with people who are so different from us: people with radically different life experiences than our own,
but at the table of Christ we are one; our differences subside.
In this experience of communion we overcome our alienation from God and from neighbor, and we are challenged to go out into the world with a purpose.
We take the bread and cup and we tell each other:
“We go forth into the world to serve God and our neighborhood and all that we do. “
As people of communion we are people of community;
we take the bread and cup and we are challenged to break every cycle of violence,
to accept forgiveness for ourselves,
to offer forgiveness and reconciliation to one another,
and to work for the building and strengthening of relationships and communities.
With the Communion cup and the Communion bread
at the center of our lives,
life will still be crazy and often scary,
but we will not drift alone or without hope.
So be it.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace