Leaning Forward Into the Vision of God
A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
March 17, 2019
Friends, in light of the terrible attacks on the mosques in New Zealand, I want to say something before the scripture reading and my sermon. First and foremost, let it be said from this pulpit that we offer support and love to our Muslim neighbors near and far. In the words of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, “We weep with those who weep. We rebuke those who choose the path of division and violence. We vow our solidarity with our Muslim neighbors and our prayers for the grieving and the dead.” I have written letters of sympathy and solidarity to send to the Islamic Society of Framingham and the Islamic Society of Wayland that you may add your name to after worship.
We have a tradition at Plymouth Church of focusing in worship on the same scripture that Faith Workshop is studying, so I have known today’s passage would be from Genesis 15 for weeks. But it seems good and worthy and perhaps even Spirit-led that our text today focuses on Abraham – the spiritual ancestor of three faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. All three of our faiths draw from Abraham.
Our passage comes from the time before Abraham gets his new name. To set Genesis 15 context: in the first 10 chapters of Genesis we hear a cosmic history, and we hear promises made to all of creation. In the eleventh chapter, we move from the cosmic to the individual, from all of creation to one – seemingly random – man and his family. Yet God’s call to Abram, and God’s covenant, are, we are told, will make this family a blessing to all nations (Genesis 22:18), – in them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Abraham’s story lasts many chapters but our focus today is on the promise God makes to Abram in chapter 15, that his descendents would be as many as the stars. Listen, for the word of blessing God has for us, in this morning’s scripture passage.
Text: Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18
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.”
2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But 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.” 5He 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.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”
Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)
That night, Abram must have feel like the Psalmist:
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8)
We can trace our spiritual lineage all the way back to Abraham.
We are proof of the promises made to Abram on that starry night a few thousand years ago, that his family would grow and grow, to be as many as the stars visible on a clear night, standing outside Abram’s tent. We, members of the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, and the Muslim tradition, our faiths have been nurtured by the assurance and promise God made to to this particular person.
This one particular person, Abram, that God cares for. God, who in Abram’s faith spoke worlds into being, God who cast the stars into the sky, God loves Abram so much to that to him God makes a promise, unlike any made before.
This is part of the mystery of our faith, that God, the creative force in the universe, the one who transcends time and space, that God is our God. God cares for each individual one of us the way a mother hen gathers each of her chicks under her wing; the shepherd who counts all of the sheep; the psalms tell us God knows every hair on our heads.
The promises you just made to Juliette are as concrete, as specific, as tender as those God made to Abram. We walked her down the aisle and showed her the people who will raise her up not to be afraid. Who will give her the stars – or at least a galaxy of love. Who will journey with her her, wherever life leads.
We, as the church, promised to care for this child. We promised to help her hold fast to that which is good and to return to no one evil for evil. We will love her and show her with our lives how Christians live. We proclaimed that by this affirmation we are inseparably bound with her.
You made these promises to her sister a few years ago, also.
And to countless others who have come before, children and adults, you have made promises on the days of their baptism. God had a beautiful and personal bond with one person, Abram – that became a beautiful and personal bond with every child who came after. You have this kind of beautiful and personal bond with each person here. I have seen you uphold these promises, even in the short time I have been among you.
You have given the same care to those who have not been baptized yet and you have cared for people to the end of their earthly days according to those loving promises.
The ritual of baptism, even more than a moment for a community to make promises, is about repeating and rehearsing and re-living the promises God has made to this child, and to each one of us.
Those promises echo God’s assurance to Abram:
Don’t be afraid.
I love you.
I will be with you, and those you love, now and forever.
Your future is one of great hope.
Those promises are as tender as the moment God puts an arm around Abram’s shoulder and led him out into the still midnight, tilts his chin up to look at the sky, and asks him to count his children as the stars.
In Abram’s story, we see the relationship between God and one particular person. We have gone from God’s universal relationship – Adam is an archetype for all people; the rainbow covenant is with all the earth – to God’s relationship with individual people. And that one relationship foretells God’s relationship with each one of Her beloved children. This covenant that God makes with Abram brings into being God’s relationship with individual people as numerous as the stars. And that brings the story to Juliette. And that brings the story to each one of our stories. For not only are we among the daughters and sons of Abraham who number like the stars, we are, each one of us, a beloved child of God.
Lest we think Abram’s story is one of a perfect person of perfect faith – and therefore a story our own story cannot resemble – let’s talk for a moment about this man.
If I were picking people to whom to make such promise, I am not entirely sure I would have chosen Abram and Sarai. Abram has Sarai pretend to be his sister in order to pull a fast one on a foreign ruler. Later in the story, Sarai co-opts a family slave into bearing Abraham’s child and then casts her and the child out. And neither one of them believes God when God first says: you will have descendents more numerous than the stars. Abram questions God’s promise. To put it mildly, Abram is flawed and Sarai is doubtful. And they are the people to whom God chooses to present this promise. God chose Abram and Sarai, flawed people, to be on the receiving end of a covenant. That says something about God. It says, God can use anyone for good. Sometimes you’ll hear folks talk about the strong faith of Abraham, and he was faithful: but also flawed, and God chose him, anyway. Which is good news for me, at least, as another flawed human being – and maybe good news for you, too? God calls and chooses and covenants with people not based on their worthiness, but based on God’s love. This is the first and most important identity we are given: beloved child of God, receivers of the most beautiful and tender promises imaginable.
It must also be said: it takes Abram a minute, to get to the place where he can trust God’s promise. First he’s got to ask, really? But our text says he does get to that place of trust – “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
It might take us more than a minute to get there, and that is okay. When we are full of question and doubt sometimes what we have to do, even in the moments of questioning and fear, is to turn to another one of God’s beloved children and embody the promise for them, even so. Even in our own doubts, speak tenderly to our sisters and brothers. Turn to the children who are here in this place, and say to them: Do not be afraid. There is hope. Turn to the neighbors down the road and across the ocean and say to them: you are beloved, you are my sibling, I stand next to you.
We have to lean “forward into the vision of God for the world even when the horizon extends far beyond our own lives.” (W. Dennis Tucker, workingpreacher.org)
As Psalm 27 testifies, we believe that we shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let our hearts take courage; wait for the LORD!