Monday, October 19, 2020

"Hannah and Her Song" - October 18, 2020

Text: 1 Samuel 1:1-20, 2:1-10

Video

If you are like my family, you may be thinking about how to navigate the holidays in the midst of a pandemic.  We have pretty well decided that as far as extended family goes, it’s going to have to be a virtual gathering.  Which is really sad and yet another casualty of the pandemic.

For those families who will not be getting together, I guess maybe a small consolation is that it helps eliminate those awkward conversations with relatives who are outspoken with their opinions on politics and religion and other hot-button topics, and can’t be appropriate and can’t leave it alone when it is clear their opinions are very different than yours.  The consolation may be that at least you don’t have to be around that cousin who just makes you crazy.

I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture today includes one of those big family meals on a holiday, and this family had some issues.

Over the past Sundays, our scripture readings have included some of the big names of the Old Testament.  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  This morning our two readings focus on Hannah.

Hannah is married to Elkanah.  Each year the family would travel to Shiloh for a religious festival.  This was before Jerusalem was an Israelite city.  At this point, Israel was more of a confederacy of tribes, with judges providing leadership but with no king ruling over the whole nation, no centralized authority.  There were various shrines, such as the one at Shiloh, where the different tribes of Israel would offer sacrifice and worship.  We’re not sure what festival or observance this was, but it apparently was not only a religious observance; there was a feast, a big meal.  

Now while Hannah was married to Elkanah, Elkanah also had another wife named Peninnah.  Hannah was unable to have children, and because of that Peninnah lorded it over her.  She rubbed it in her face.  In that culture, a woman’s worth was very much tied to her children.  

So the whole family travels to Shiloh for something akin to a family Thanksgiving dinner.  And it is the worst Thanksgiving ever.  Peninnah provoked Hannah, irritated her, mocked her.  And the thing was, when they went home afterwards, Hannah would still have to face Peninnah.  It wasn’t like that cousin that drives you crazy; Peninnah was always there.

For his part, Elkanah is trying to console Hannah.  He tells her that she matters to him, that he loves her whether she has any children or not.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asks.  Now here is a pro tip: while Elkanah’s heart is in the right place, asking “Am I not worth more to you than ten sons” is probably not the best way to offer consolation.

At the dinner table, Elkanah gives Hannah a double portion of this special meal to show his love for her.  But with the ridicule of Peninnah, it is just too much.  She refuses to eat.  She leaves the table in tears.  Like I said, it is not a great Thanksgiving.

In her distress, Hannah goes to the temple.  She prays and weeps bitterly.  She tries to make a deal with God.  God, if you will just give me a son, I will dedicate him to you.  I promise.

It is a bargaining prayer.  Maybe you have prayed like that before.  Lord, if you can just get me out of this jam, I swear, I will change my ways.  I promise.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this kind of prayer.  It’s not the way I generally pray.  And what if you pray like this and your prayer is not answered?  Maybe it is easier not to pray in such a bold way.

But it does show Hannah’s desperation.  It shows the depth of her pain.  She is even willing to make a quid pro quo with God, saying that if she has a son, he will be dedicated to God’s service in the temple.  And this is not a small thing: she was willing to give up having her son around as her social security in her old age, if God would just bless her with a son.       

The priest Eli observes Hannah and he thinks she is drunk.  “Woman, stop making a drunken spectacle of yourself,” he says.  I mean, there had been eating and drinking and carrying on – everybody was kind of tailgating for the Lord, and Eli assumed Hannah had a bit too much.  Still, this is not an especially good model for pastoral care.  I mean, he could have simply asked her if she was OK.  

But she tells him, No; I am not drunk; I have had neither wine nor strong drink.  Do not think I am a worthless woman.  I am simply a troubled woman pouring out my heart to God.  I have been speaking out of my anxiety and great vexation.  This was true; she had left the big feast and had not eaten or drank anything.

And Eli says, “Go in peace; may God grant the petition you have made.”

And she feels better.  Whether it was Eli’s encouraging words, or whether it was simply the catharsis of pouring out her heart to God, she ate and drank and was no longer sad.  And before long, she had a son, who was named Samuel.

That is the story of what happened.  And then, Susie in Pittsburgh read for us Hannah’s response.  It is Hannah’s song. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, found in Luke, is similar to it and modeled after it.

Hannah’s song speaks of the great reversal that God will make.  

The poor, the hungry, the lowly, the hurting, those filled with sadness will be lifted up.  The rich, the mighty, the powerful, those who have all the control and all the advantages, will be brought low.

Hannah is not asking that God just level the playing field.  She is asking that the world be turned upside down.  Many of the Proverbs view wealth as a blessing from God.  But Hannah’s song offers a different view, the view that God sides with the poor.

Now if things are just turned upside down, if you are just flipping things, then someone is always on the bottom.  But there is another way of thinking about this.  Perhaps it is the case that for those who are calling all the shots, a just and equitable world feels like the world has been turned upside down.  

In Hannah’s world, and down through the ages, many have accumulated wealth and power by taking advantage of the poor.  That is why we find time and again admonitions against abusing the widow and of caring for the alien in your land.

Gaining wealth at the expense of those on the bottom is a time-honored practice.  We see it all the time.  In this pandemic, the wealthiest have done fabulously well, while those who could least afford to lose jobs are the ones who have lost them.  

Hannah’s song, her vision, gives hope to those who are on the bottom – those who are left out and those who are losing hope.

It is interesting that in calling for justice, sometimes the most effective voice is the most vulnerable voice.  Martin Luther King was the great leader, but it was Rosa Parks choosing to sit in the wrong seat that set off the civil rights movement.
 
The most effective voice calling for action to save our climate is Greta Thunburg, who after all this time is still just 17 years old.
 
And then the strongest international voice calling for gender equality in education is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban as a teenager and recovered to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
 
And then there is Mary the mother of Jesus, a young unmarried woman whose own song heralded the birth of Jesus and the changes he would bring.

In a sense, these women are spiritual descendants of Hannah, a vulnerable woman crying out for justice.

In the Old Testament, not many women are named.  If mentioned at all, they are mostly mentioned as wife of, or daughter of, somebody important.  Hannah is not in a family of means.  She is not married to anyone especially significant.  She has not done anything notable to build a reputation.  She is just an ordinary married woman with no children, which was about as socially insignificant as you could be.  And yet we have not only her name, we have her words – and the words of a woman are especially rare in the Old Testament.  We have her name and her story and her voice crying out for justice.

Hannah’s song ends by saying that God will give strength to the king, God’s anointed.  Do you remember?  Israel does not have a king.  Not yet.  Hannah’s son Samuel will become the great prophet and Samuel will anoint the king, in time anointing King David.  Hannah anticipates a time when Israel will have a king who will establish justice in the land.  She celebrates God’s solution before it has even happened.

Well, what about us?  What about us living in this very strange time, in this sometimes scary and chaotic world in which we have to face multiple crises?

Like Hannah, our lives can be filled with sadness, with pain, with disappointment.  And it is within our faith to ask for something different from God – even to demand something different from God.  That is not the way we usually pray.  But maybe there are those times when we need to take our situation and we need to take God seriously enough to pray in that way.  It’s OK.  God can handle it.

And then this story serves as a reminder for us that God is in the business of bringing about justice.  It is for us to pray for that, to call for that, to work for that.  And like Hannah we can look toward and anticipate God’s victory, even when we cannot yet see it.

Now let me acknowledge that in some ways stories like this can be problematic.  What about those who suffer from infertility and long for a child?  What about those who for whom everything doesn’t work out in the long run as it does for Hannah?  This may story not be entirely helpful for everyone.  

But it does serve to tell us that we can pour out our souls before God – and we can look toward and live into God’s justice, even when we cannot see it yet.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  



“A De-Calf Faith” - October 11, 2020

Text: Exodus 32:1-14

Video

After various and sundry plagues, ranging from gross to scary to truly terrifying, Pharaoh finally relented, and while it took the parting of the Red Sea to get over a last minute hurdle, the Israelites made it to freedom.

And the people celebrated.  Let by Moses’ sister Miriam, they sing and dance and celebrate the freedom God has given them.  But the celebration is short-lived.  The wilderness was a difficult place, and the people actually started wishing they were back in Egypt, under their old masters, where at least they could count on food to eat.  But in their hunger God sends clear water from the rock and manna from heaven to eat.

Finally the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai.  The people consecrated themselves to the Lord; Moses went up on the mountain, wrapped in smoke, and God gave him the Ten Commandments.  The most important commandments prohibited the worship of other gods and the making of idols of any kind.  The people agreed to live by these commands three different times.

And then, Moses goes up on the mountain again, where God will give him the commandments on tablets of stone.  Moses takes Joshua, his assistant, with him.  Aaron, Moses’ brother, is left in charge.  And it takes a while.  There are laws and rules and regulations, and there are detailed plans for building the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant.  It seems like it takes forever.  

The people become restless.  Moses tells everyone that he is going up on the mountain to take care of some legal stuff with God and he will be back.  Don’t wait up.  But after 40 days and 40 nights, they start to wonder if Moses is ever coming back.

The people decide to take matters into their own hands.  They go to Aaron and say, “We don’t know what has become of Moses.  Make gods for us to go before us on our journey.”   It is more of a demand than it is a polite request.  

This sounds shocking because they had just promised three times to follow God’s commandments, and now they were asking Aaron to help them in breaking the first two – to worship another god and to make an idol.

Aaron is in a tough spot.  He wants to calm the crowd, to placate the people.  So Aaron goes along with their demands.  He asks them to take off their gold rings and bring them to him.  

The question that may come to mind for you is, "Where did these people who had been slaves in Egypt get a bunch of gold rings?"  Doesn’t that sound suspicious?

The answer is that the plagues in Egypt had been so bad that the Egyptians had given rings to the Israelites as an incentive to leave quickly.  God had told the Israelites to ask the Egyptians for gold, and when they did, the Egyptians gave them golden articles, kind of as a payoff to get the Israelites out of Egypt ASAP.

Even as the people were turning in their gold rings to make an object of worship, God was giving Moses instructions on the mountain that he was to take an offering from the people, and gold received was to be used for building the tabernacle.  Rather than a building for God, the rings were being used to break God’s law.

Aaron melts down the gold and casts an image of a calf.  “These are your gods, O Israel,” he says.  The word Elohim, a word for God, is a word that can be plural or singular, so it’s not exactly clear if Aaron is saying this is your god, or these are your gods.  And there is only one calf, so “gods” sounds a little odd.  But Aaron adds, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord.”

While Aaron had given in to the people’s demand for an object of worship, he was steering them back toward the Lord.  They had made a golden calf, but the festival would be to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  

So what we have here may not be so much an image of a false god, but a false image of the true god.  Although in the end I’m not sure if there is much of a difference.

At any rate, the next day there is a festival.  The people bring sacrifices, they have your basic Sunday morning service, but then everything comes apart and it descends into revelry, which basically means immoral behavior.

God sees all of this and God is not happy.  He tells Moses to go down the mountain at once, saying “Your people are acting perversely.”  Before, it had always been my people, but now God says to Moses, they are your people.  They are your problem.  And indeed, God proposes to wipe them out and to give Moses the promise he first gave to Abraham.  He says, “Leave me alone so that my wrath might consume them, but of you I will make a great nation.”

Moses might have been tempted to take God up on the offer.  He wasn’t so happy with the people either.  But he nevertheless intercedes on behalf of the people.  He tells God, “These are your people that you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  He says, “You don’t want the Egyptians saying that you brought the Israelites out of Egypt just so you could wipe them out in the wilderness.”  And finally, he reminds God of the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In the end, Moses talks God out of it and God decides against the disaster he had planned to bring on his people.  

Now, you can say what you want about God planning to wipe out the people - and you can say what you want about Moses talking God into changing his mind.  It really is an amazing exchange.  But there is no question that this is not a neutral, impartial, detached god.  This is a very passionate and involved God.

So Moses goes back down the mountain, he sees all that is going on, he is furious with the people and smashes the tablets of the law in a scene that helped make Charlton Heston famous.  (For you students, that’s an old movie actor).

There are a number of ideas and questions we might explore here.  First, I want to think about the role of Aaron.  He wants to indulge the people’s request – or demand, perhaps – and at the same time he wants to be faithful to Yahweh.  So he makes the golden calf, breaking the first two commandments, but at the same time says that this will be a festival to the Lord, to Yahweh.  The God of Israel.

Well, you really can’t have it both ways.  That was kind of the point of the first two commandments.  If you are a true worshiper, you need to be all in.  Aaron opts for a half-calf faith, if you will, but was required was 100% de-calf.
 

Some of you can attest to the difficulty of going completely de-calf, but I’m not just talking about coffee.  Because there are any number of things that can demand our allegiance, that we have a hard time letting go of.  There are any number of things that we can get confused with the real thing, with the true god.  

It is interesting that at least in Aaron’s eyes, the golden calf was not so much a false god but a false representation of the true god.  And in that regard, the golden calf wasn’t the only false representation of God.

What about Moses and the way people looked to him?  For the Israelites, Moses apparently functioned somewhat like the golden calf.  Without Moses, they were lost.  They confused Moses with God.  Now to be fair, there were times when Moses spoke and God answered in thunder, so of course there was an awe about him.   But if the calf was a false material image of the true God, then for some Moses functioned as a false human image of God.

It is possible for us today to put our faith and hope in things and people and institutions and movements and ideologies – even good things, even wonderful people - that should be reserved only for God.  

The other things that struck me as I read this familiar story once again was this whole matter of waiting.  Moses is gone up on the mountain and it just takes forever.  It is hard to wait.

The thing is, these were a traumatized people.  They had lived as slaves for generations, and now they had made an epic flight to freedom.  But even free from pharaoh, the future is unclear.  The people looked to Moses for leadership, for stability and comfort and a word from God.  But Moses is nowhere to be found, and the people start to worry.  They start to wonder.  After a while they get a little panicky.

We know a bit about waiting.  Do you remember back in March – when it seemed like life might be on hold for a few weeks – when we might not get to normal for a couple of months, until sometime after Easter?  Do you remember that?

Nothing is the same and we are all waiting.  And it gets hard.  In our devotion on Thursday night, we looked at the verse in Galatians that says “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.”  Well, that is hard.  This is a very wearying time.  For most of us, this has got to be the most wearying year we can remember.  There is a reason that mental health professionals are keeping extra busy right now.  And so I am a little more sympathetic with those Israelites who did not handle that time very well.  

The people got one another worked up and demanded gods to go before them.  They were anxious.   They were worried.  But what if they had instead encouraged one another and supported one another and helped one another through a vulnerable time?

And then what about us?  We have that same choice and that same opportunity, through this vulnerable time.  We can care and encourage and support one another and trust in the God who will not let us go, even in those wearying times.

“Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we shall reap at harvest time.”  Thanks be to God.    Amen.
 

“God Meant It For Good” - September 27, 2020

Text: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21

Video


It is pretty amazing that we gather together each week and consider words written by people who lived 2-3000 years ago.  It was a completely different world.  Housing, transportation, health care, retirement, basic ideas about the nature of the world were very different.  Yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.

And the amazing thing is, as different as these people may have been, we read stories of real people, real communities that know both struggles and joys, and we can see ourselves in these stories.  We know that at some level, these are also our stories, and God speaks to us in the midst of this.

Last week we looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s faithfulness to them.  God told Abram to count the stars, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God’s promise proved to be true.

Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac.  Isaac is not a part of our reading today, but what happens in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca.  You may recall that they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  The two sons had an intense sibling rivalry that was only encouraged by their parents.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s favorite.  His mother helped Jacob to cheat his brother out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to Esau as the firstborn.  Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do.  He worked for his Uncle Laban, back in the old country, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and it turned out that the woman under the veil, the woman whom he had married, was not Rachel but her sister Leah.  He worked for Laban another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.

By now, Jacob is back home, he has more or less made amends with Esau, and he has many children.  But his entire family history is one of dysfunction.  Jacob is now known as Israel, which means “Striving with God.”  He has grown and learned along the way, but he still hasn’t learned that much.  The very first verse we read this morning says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.”  Instantly, this is a red flag.   We know that this is a really bad idea.

We are told that Joseph was the son of his old age.  What the narrator does not tell us is that Joseph was the first child born to Rachel – the sister he had wanted to marry in the first place and his favored wife.  (That’s another bad idea, but that is probably another sermon.)

It is not just that Jacob has a favorite child; he is so obvious about it.  He has a coat made for Joseph with long sleeves.  That is the Hebrew text.  For some reason, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, has this as a coat of many colors.  Now you tell me: what sounds more appealing – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Joseph and the Long-Sleeved Robe?  

You may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference, and ideally that may be true, but clothing can definitely convey status.  I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they just did not stack up next to Converse All-Stars.
 
Now think about this: an awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe, or tunic.  If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one from Amazon.  Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and that might take months.  Clothing was very much a symbol of status, of importance, of wealth.

Whether it was a special long-sleeved robe or whether it was an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – or maybe an Amazing Long-Sleeved Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jacob had given Joseph a robe that not only conveyed status, that not only made people take notice of how special Joseph must be, but that also rubbed it in to Joseph’s siblings every time they saw it.  Jacob did not even pretend to love his children equally.  And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there will be repercussions.

Joseph, for his part, is not embarrassed by the special attention; he seems to love it.  He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers.  This does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.

One day Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them.  Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance.  As he approaches, the brothers vent their anger and hostility toward him.

They are so consumed with envy, with jealousy, with hatred that they would kill their own brother – even their younger brother they were supposed to take care of.  But Reuben, the oldest, doesn’t want to do him harm.  “Let’s not shed his blood – let’s just throw him in the pit and leave him here,” he says.  He planned to come back and help him out later.  The others listen to Reuben and throw Joseph in a pit.

Reuben wanders off apparently, and when some Midianite traders happen to pass by, Judah says that it would be better to sell him into slavery than to leave Joseph to die.  So that is what happens.  Reuben returns and is distraught by this turn of events.  The brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to their father.   

Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph.  But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back this gift he had given Joseph – with blood on it.  They are not just getting back at Joseph, they are also getting back at their father.

This is a seriously messed-up family.  I guess one of the things that happens when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Well, maybe we’re not that bad.  Our family isn’t perfect, but I guess it could be worse.”

It is a wild story.  The coat may or may not be technicolor but the characters and the story certainly are.  From Abraham and Sarah down through the generations – to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers – the promise has been that God will use these people as a blessing to others.  A blessing to others.  Right now, they are not even a blessing to each other, much less to the nations.  How will this ever happen?

The second part of our reading comes much later.  Joseph winds up in prison in Egypt but rises almost miraculously, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation.  In a time of impeding famine, he is in charge of all the grain stores in the nation.  And when his brothers come, desperate to buy grain, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph.  There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death.  And when Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.

The younger Joseph wouldn’t have thought twice about it.   But now he is older and wiser.  He has experienced hardship and he has grown from it.  And time has given him perspective.  He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”

Joseph can see in retrospect that what had happened actually served to save his family.  In a time of severe famine, somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any grain.  In the end, good came of what was meant for evil.

This is not to say that God orchestrated the whole thing.  This is not to say that God led his brothers to plot to kill Joseph.  This is to say that God has a way of working out God’s purposes even in the midst of treachery and human sin.  God is faithful even if we are not.

Now, if you look at this story and want to find a few practical applications, it’s not that hard.  Here are a few:

#1 – Don’t play favorites.  Generally, as a parent or an employer or an educator, it is a bad idea.  Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child.  As much as I love Harry and Rudy, Zoe is my clear favorite.  Of course, Harry and Rudy are a cat and a dog.  If you want to have a favorite child, just have one child.

#2 – Don’t be a jerk.  You may be thinking, I came to church just to be told “Don’t be a jerk?”  Well, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simple things.  Joseph was handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible.  As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favorite status in the face of others, and the result is probably not what he would have wanted.  I hate to be so obvious, but one of the takeaways is, don’t be a jerk.
   
#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid.  Again, it’s pretty simple.  Reuben was distraught over what the others had done to Joseph.  As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions.  A little foresight on the front end would have gone a long way.

I have a friend named Ken who has several nephews and other family members, all young adults, who live in a particular area where guns are plentiful, and almost all of their friends and social group are carrying.  They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much at times, and they tend to get in arguments.  Now, conflicts are a part of life and disagreements are going to happen.  But when you compound that with alcohol and when everybody has a gun, bad things happen.  Nearly all of Ken’s male young adult family members in that area are in jail, they have been shot, or they are dead.  It’s tragic.

We can make poor, impulsive choices as individuals and we can also make poor, impulsive decisions as a society.  A little thoughtfulness, a little foresight, might serve us well.

#4 – Remember who you are.  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and a blessing to the nations.  It was a covenant passed on generation by generation.  Israel’s children were heirs to that promise, a promise they no doubt had been hearing all of their lives.  

But to observe their behavior, you wouldn’t know that.  To see the pettiness and arrogance, the envy and jealousy, to see the treachery and bitterness and violence in their hearts, you wouldn’t know that.

We need to remember who we are.  We are children of God.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.  When times are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled, we need to remember who we are.

And then, #5.  This is where the story ends.  Even if we mess up, even if we fail on numbers 1-4, even when we play favorites, behave like jerks, act without thinking and forget who we are, God is there.  God loves us.  Even in our world of dysfunction and violence and sin and evil and just plain meanness, God does not forget us and does not abandon us.  God forgives and God gives us, like Joseph, the strength and ability to forgive.

God is always faithful.  Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good.  And our calling is to join God in that work.  Amen.






“Count the Stars” - September 20, 2020

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

For the last 26 weeks – exactly half a year – we have not had any in-person gatherings.  No worship, no committee meetings, no Bible Studies or Sunday School classes – although we did have an official work day in August.  For the first time in 6 months, we are gathering in person, at least some of us are.  Preaching primarily to a camera over these past months has been a weird experience, although it feels pretty normal, pretty routine now.  But this – speaking not only to those who are at home, gathering on Zoom, but to those who are here, in person – this is weird.   Different and really good.

One of the difficult things about this pandemic is the uncertainty of it all.  How long will this last?  When will things be sort of normal?  How much different will normal be?   Or, is normal an outdated idea?  How is this going to affect us all in the long run?  Is this going to change the way we do church?  There are just an awful lot of things we do not know.

We all live with uncertainty.  It is the unknowing, the living without good answers, that can get to us.  It certainly got to Abram and Sarai.

Last Sunday we looked at creation and the fall, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.  In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai enter the picture.  God says to Abram, you don’t really know me, but I want you to leave your country and your kindred and go to a land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.

And Abram and Sarai go.  They go to a place they do not know.  They are unsure where they are heading.  And they don’t really have a history with this God who is leading them.  It is a leap of faith.  They arrive in the place God has for them, but it’s not easy.  There are triumphs along with serious setbacks.  In a time of famine they have to go to Egypt.  Abram’s nephew Lot made the journey with them, but there are squabbles with Lot and disputes over grazing land.  Because of these disputes Lot and Abram they decide to separate, with Lot settling to the east and Abram to the west.

And then God says to Abram, look out in the distance, north and south and east and west.  All of this I will give to your descendants forever.  They will be like grains of sand they shall be so numerous.

But here’s the thing: Abram and Sarai had no children.  Before they even left Ur of the Chaldees, it was notable that they did not have a child.  They had been in this land that God had shown them, living among the Canaanites now, for some years.  Still no child.  But God repeats this promise that they would be parents of a great nation, parents of a multitude.

It is one struggle, one mishap after another.  Lot gets caught up in the middle of a war between adversarial kings and is taken prisoner, and Abram has to go into battle with his household and his allies in order to free his nephew.

And in our scripture this morning, God speaks yet again.  God says, “Do not be afraid.  I am your shield.  Your reward shall be very great.”

It is a little unusual.  Abram was not afraid of enemies.  He had just overcome enemies in battle and rescued Lot.  But God says, “I will be your shield.  You reward shall be very great.”

Abram was not interested in the shield part nearly as much as the reward part.  He says, “God, can you be a little more specific?  This reward part – I’d like to talk about that.”

God said, “Do not be afraid,” and it is clear that Abram was feeling anxiety.  But it was not about safety and security so much.  Abram is thinking, “I don’t really need a shield, what I need is a family.  I need descendants.  At this point, a guy that works for me, a servant, Eliezer of Damascus – he is as close as I have to an heir.”

Now you may notice that descendants are a huge deal in the Old Testament.  You can find page after page of genealogies.  Why was this so important?

We need to understand that people did not talk about eternity then.  They way that you were part of eternity was through your descendants.  Your children were the way that you lived on.  And so descendants were crucial.  Abram was becoming rich with flocks and fields and gold, but that did not matter.  To be truly rich one needed children.  Descendants in a sense made the other blessings of life durable and lasting.

God replied to Abram, “Eliezer of Damascus will not be your heir.  Your very own child, your own flesh shall be your heir.  Count the stars if you can.  So shall your descendants be.”

In the face of continuing anxiety and uncertainty, God says to Abram, “Count the Stars.”  The stars were a kind of symbol of God’s promise.  (And I have to say, I the stars of the sky are a more appealing metaphor than grains of sand.)

You know, we have those clear nights when you can see the stars, but there is too much light for us to really see the stars very well.  If you go way out to a place far from activity, far from homes and traffic and far from towns and cities, you can really see the stars.  Go camping in the Badlands and look up at night and it is completely different than looking into the sky in Ames.

But a few weeks back, after the Derecho had hit, we went outside one night.  We didn’t have any power.  Nobody around did.  No house lights.  No street lights.  There was no traffic.  It was still.  We went outside and looked up and we could see the stars so clearly.  We pointed out the Big Dipper and we looked at this amazing sky just full of stars.

I think about Abram and Sarai.  Of how they had said yes to God and traveled in faith to an unknown destination, an unknown future.  At this point, we are all in that boat.

Some by choice – I think of new students who have come to Ames, to this new place, filled with so many unknowns.  But even if you have lived here for a long time, we are now in this new place, this new situation, and not very much is certain.  It’s not just college students who have moved to Ames for their first semester.  It’s all students.  High school and middle school and elementary students who are trying to navigate online school.  And some who will go to school in person tomorrow for the first time – or later in the week for the first time, depending on what group you are in in the hybrid learning model.

Think about parents.  And teachers.  Nobody signed up for this pandemic, and life right now is filled with stress and nothing is certain.

Most of us do not handle uncertainty very well.  Many of us do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  I admit that I want to know what is going on and I want a certain amount of control.

When we go on a trip, I have it mapped out in advance.  Even with GPS, I usually consult the map.  If we have to make a purchase, whether it is a vacuum cleaner or toaster oven, I consult Consumer Reports.  If we are buying a car, I read reviews for weeks.

There are students who don’t like to sign up for a class unless they have a scouting report on the professor and expect to get a decent grade.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  The unexpected always comes into play.

Abram and Sarai had faced uncertainty.  And they will continue to face uncertainty.  And in uncertain times, we are faced with this question of trust.  To move forward in a time of uncertainty requires trust.  Did they trust, could they trust the God who had led them thus far?

“‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

This is a well-known verse that is cited in several places in the New Testament.  “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  

We live in a time of anxiety, but then, what time has not been a time of anxiety?  We have to deal with the gulf between the future that we hope for and the unfulfilled reality of the moment.  All of that is magnified, perhaps, in this time of pandemic.  But from the time of Abram and Sarai on to today, there has always been this disconnect between the world as it is and the world that we hope for.  We want things to be right and hope and pray and maybe believe they will be, but it’s not yet.

In such a time, Abram believed God’s promise.  He trusted God.  And God reckoned it, or counted it as righteousness.  The good news is that when we cannot have complete trust, when our faith is yet imperfect, God takes the trust that we can muster and counts it as righteousness.  Righteousness it not so much about what we do; it is more about what God does within our relationship with God to make things right.

God’s promise is that even though we cannot necessarily see how we will get from here to there, God will see us through.

God says to us, “Count the stars.”  Count the stars and know that we can trust in the love and grace and goodness of God.  Amen.