A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – February 24, 2013
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
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.” 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?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 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.” 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.” And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He 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.” He 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. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On 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.”
I’m not sure how old I was, but I remember so well asking my Mother if she thought I’d marry a prince and become a princess one day. I had just finished reading Cinderella and had visions of a fairy tale wedding in my head. In answer to my question, my Mother said that it was certainly a possibility – but that wasn’t what I was hoping to hear. So then I asked: “Will you promise me that I’ll be a princess?” And of course she told me she couldn’t make a promise like that and I walked away feeling sad and disappointed.
I remember my own daughters asking me such questions when they were young and I couldn’t really give them any more reassurance than my Mother had given me. Although children are able to trust easily, they seem to need promises to hang onto to make them feel less anxious about their future. We adults could use promises like that, also, but too many of us have become skeptical of promises – so much so that it’s become our nature to need plenty of proof and reassurance before we are willing to fully trust in anyone or anything.
At first, Abram, later re-named Abraham, was a trusting soul when God called him away from his hometown ofUrand promised him a new land in which to live. God also promised that he would have many offspring to occupy and possess that new land. Abram must have felt truly blessed by God as he answered God’s call of him; but as time went on and he saw no evidence that God was making good on those promises, Abram began to doubt if they would ever come true. His trust was wearing thin.
After all, he was tired and worn out from wandering around and was ready to settle down somewhere. And he and his wife, Sarah, were well into their 90s and had yet to produce a child. His patience, like his trust, was also wearing thin. “I continue childless” he reminded God and how will I know that I’ll possess the land that You have promised me? And God answered him in a vision. He said: “… your reward shall be very great. …Look toward heaven and count the stars…so shall your descendants be, and to your descendants I give this land” (Genesis 15:1, 10, 18). And with those words, Abram’s trust in God was renewed.
Impatience is certainly something that we can all relate to – even impatience with God. We only have to look at the Psalms and see the impatience and distrust that flow through our veins: “How long, O Lord…(how long must I wait)…how long shall I have perplexity in my mind?” (Psalm 13:1-2).
Years ago when I was an intern, I visited a young woman who was dying of a rare blood disease. She had dedicated her life to helping others in the healthcare field which is why all those who knew and loved her were so saddened by the unfairness of what was happening to her. Besides that, she had a child who still needed her, and the reality of the fact that she would not be around to celebrate the milestones in her son’s life was devastating to her. With tears in her eyes, she asked what she had done in her life to cause such pain. What she really wanted to know was: why was God punishing her?
Like Abram, this young woman’s trust and patience in a loving God had grown thin. She had assumed that her life would be full of blessings but it seemed to her that God was taking away all hope of that ever happening. She felt angry about this and then felt guilty for being angry with God. She was clearly in need of pastoral care and I was clearly in need of experience in how to give that to her. My little bit of training told me to be a non-anxious presence and just listen to what she was saying and how she was feeling. But the longer I sat and listened to her, the more anxious I became to talk to her about God – to venture out on the treacherous limb called my personal theology.
I asked her if she had read any of the Psalms recently or any passages from the book of Job, because I wanted her to identify with the anger that is expressed there just in case she didn’t think God could take what she had to dish out, or just in case she didn’t feel justified in being angry with God. I then suggested that it’s easy to believe that we are somehow entitled to blessings, especially when we live a good and decent life as she had. But there are no promises that we’ll get a fairy tale life. Our parents couldn’t promise us that, and we as parents can’t promise our children that.
It was important to me that she knew that God was not punishing her for anything she did or didn’t do because I told her that I believed so strongly in what Paul had written in his letter to the Romans which was that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – absolutely nothing (Romans 8:38). She then told me that she was not feeling God’s love or protection of her or her family right now and I told her that she wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Although I didn’t say it, it’s exactly how Abram was feeling in what we heard this morning which is why God told him: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1).
I suggested to her that even though we don’t feel as if God is listening or acting in our best interest or even being our shield against something like devastating diseases, God is in the midst of all that is happening to us and being with us in on our pain and suffering, taking it on and showing us a way through it. I told her that’s what I thought healing was all about, and that healing could take many forms which we may not be able to see or understand in our lifetimes. I think the only part of healing she wanted to hear about at that moment was in terms of a cure for her disease. And I couldn’t blame her for that. I have no doubt, though, that she found the peace she longed for.
Abraham had to wait until he was nearly 100 years old before he heard the words he had longed for from his wife, Sarah – the words that confirmed that she was, indeed, with child. He had finally received the blessing that had been promised him so long ago. And it was a time when just the thought of having a baby at their age had made Sarah laugh. And maybe Sarah laughed because she had finally run out of tears of impatience and disappointment.
So the questions are: what does God promise us? And just how much do we trust in God to make good on those promises?
I believe that what God promises us is love – unearned and unconditional love with the power to heal like nothing else can; but the problem is that based on what our experiences in life have taught us, we are not able to respond with unconditional trust in that love. Like Abram, we want assurances that God hasn’t forgotten about us and we get impatient enough to want God to act in our time and on our terms. We also want to know we haven’t done anything to make God change His mind about us and withdraw His love leaving us alone in our misery.
We may well do that to each other but God doesn’t act that way. God’s heart doesn’t harden the way ours does. God answers our acts of blatant distrust with acts of radical love – a love so full of healing that it knows no biases or boundaries. Abram learned to trust in God’s love and was blessed many times over – even beyond his lifetime. All we have to do is look to the promise of Easter to trust that those blessings are for us as well.