Keeping Promises (3/17/19)
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me,[c] ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when[d] you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
This was one of those weeks when I couldn’t decide which text I wanted to use as the basis for my sermon. On Monday, I was planning on using this story, but later in the week I changed my mind, because events in the life of this congregation made the other story more relevant. Still, I wanted to say a little bit about this one.
On Monday afternoons, I meet with some other pastors from Freehold and we discuss the texts for the next Sunday. One of the members of this group is a woman named Jen and she’s the Pastoral Associate at St. Robert Bellarmine. No, the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t ordained any women as priests, but they do allow women to serve in some pastoral functions.
Anyhow, we were discussing this reading from the Gospel of Luke and Jen said that the image in this story of Jesus as a mother hen, gathering his brood under his wings really resonated with Jen. You see, she lives out in Cream Ridge and she has a lot of animals, including a rooster and three or four hens.
One day, Jen heard a great noise coming from the back yard. One of the hens was clucking away, frantically chasing after her chick. There was a hawk in the sky, circling Jen’s yard. And once the mother hen found her chick, she gathered it under her wings and sat there, waiting for the hawk.
When Jen saw this, she went out and retrieved the hen and the chick and put them in their coop, where they’d be safe.
What I found so interesting about this—after Jen explained it to me—is that the mother hen would not have been able to fend off the hawk. The hen simply would have sacrificed her own life, so that her chick could survive. Which is, ultimately, what Jesus does for us. He offers his own life, so that we may live.
In 2019, a lot of us don’t fully appreciate these metaphors—most of us weren’t raised on farms. But Jesus was speaking to an agrarian community. Everyone was close to the land; he didn’t have to explain the story. I want you to hold this image in your head, this idea of God protecting and providing. Let it inform your understanding as you hear our reading from the Old Testament. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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.” 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?”[a]3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 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.” 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.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 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.”
Good morning. I want to start by telling you a little story about my grandmother, Ora. She was my dad’s mom, and she was just the sweetest person in the world, though she had a very strong will. In many ways, Eleanor Hargis reminded me of my grandma. Also, my grandma lived to 97, so, the similarities were quite clear.
My grandma grew up on a farm. When her parents got too old to work and manage the farm, they subdivided the property and sold some lots on the edge of the farm to my grandmother and two of her sisters. My grandfather built the house where he and my grandmother would raise three kids. My dad grew up on that hill with his brother and sister, several aunts and uncles, and a whole mess of cousins. It was a kind of Norman-Rockwell-1950s childhood for them.
I grew up in a town about 25 miles west of there, and a year after I graduated from college, Grandma asked my parents if we’d like to move back into the family home. There was a little mother-in-law apartment attached to the house where Grandma lived for most of the year, and then in the really cold months, she’d stay with her sister, next door.
Grandma was 86 when we moved into her house. She was in great physical and mental health when we moved there. After Grandma turned 90, she began to grow anxious. She was afraid of falling, among other things. So, we got a baby monitor and put it in her bedroom. That way, if anything happened through the night, she could call out and we would hear her.
The offshoot of this, the unintended consequence, was that my mother would often hear Grandma’s prayers at night. And as she grew older, Grandma wondered why she was still alive. She was a woman of deep faith and she trusted in God, but she didn’t understand his plan.
Grandma was the sixth of ten children. She outlived all of her brothers and sisters. She outlived all of her friends. She even outlived some of her nieces and nephews. Grandma also lived long enough to see three of her four grandchildren graduate from college and she got to meet and hold her first great-granddaughter, who was named after her. After all that, she figured she had accomplished all of the work God had planned for her, and she couldn’t understand why God hadn’t called her home. She wanted to be reunited with all the people she’d loved and lost. God’s plan had become a mystery to her.
In our reading from Genesis, God’s plan is also a mystery to Abram. He trusts in God completely, but still he laments that he has no heir. This was a big deal in the ancient world. Everything that Abram has worked for will go to his servant, Eliezer of Damascus.
This would be a big deal in its own right, to say nothing of the fact that God has promised Abram an heir. Remember, also, that Abram and Sarai were already old when God told Abram to leave his home country and family and settle in a foreign land. Then God says that Abram’s descendants will inherit the land of Canaan. But that’s ridiculous! He and Sarai are old and childless—and all of that has been established before we get to this morning’s reading.
God’s promises seemed a little bit outlandish, but Abram believed. And he continued to follow the Lord’s instructions. For as long as he could. Until doubt crept in. Then he cries out in lament:
“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.”
He says this in response to God, who has just said, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
Essentially, Abram says, “Nuts!”
Or maybe, “God, are you insane?”
Abram has had enough of the promises. He hasn’t seen any results, yet. “Rather than praising God for this new promise, Abram cried out in pain regarding the deepest hurt and unfulfilled hope in his life: He and Sarai were still childless.”
This is a deep, personal lament; the language is poignant. The language is personal. Abram is hurting and he doesn’t understand God’s promises.
And of course, this reminds me of hearing my grandmother’s prayers over the baby monitor. “Why am I still here, God? Call me home, please!” Those are also prayers of lament. I can also tell you that Eleanor Hargis asked me a similar question, and more than once.
The truth is, we all have trouble trusting in God’s plan, especially when the world doesn’t match our expectations. The world we see doesn’t look like anything that we would imagine as God’s plan for humanity. Abram kinda had it easy. Sure, God made a promise to him that seemed outlandish: “Hey Abram, you old man! You and your childless wife are going to have kids and their ancestors will inherit the entire land of Canaan!” Sure, that might sound crazy, but at least Abram had a direct line of communication with God. At least Abram knew what God’s plan was. We rarely get to hear the plan straight from God’s lips.
What we do have is the witness of Scripture. We have God’s response to Abram’s lament. And by the way, another word for lament is complaint. That comes from one of my favorite scholars, a Lutheran seminary professor named Rolf Jacobson. Jacobson asserts that:
In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet—at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child.
And when Abram pushes back, when he complains to the Lord, God doesn’t punish Abram for complaining.
God offers an even greater promise to Abram: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.” This is grace beyond measure. Abram won’t have just one heir, he will have more heirs than he can possibly count. His inheritance will exceed his expectations, even if he can’t yet see it. God will be more than faithful to the covenant that God has made with Abram.
So, let me tell you what I believe this looks like in our context; how it is that we live out this grace in the world.
I don’t remember when my mother told me about Grandma’s prayers and laments, but it was probably after Grandma died. Honestly, if my mom had told me at the time, I wouldn’t have known what to say to Grandma. I wasn’t going to church at that time and I wouldn’t have attempted a theological answer. I didn’t know how to provide the comfort that Grandma needed. Not the theological stuff. Not them.
When Eleanor Hargis asked me the same question, when she asked me, “Why am I still here?” I was ready. I was prepared. I had a deep theological answer for her. I told her: “I don’t know.”
I don’t know God’s plan. I don’t claim to know it. That would be arrogant.
What I told her is this: “I know that I’m glad you’re still here. I’m glad that I got this opportunity to know you, care for you, and love you. I know that God calls us to love one another, as God loves us. And I know that lots and lots of people in this congregation love you, too, Eleanor. So, for now, just let us all love you for a little while longer, and God will call you home soon enough.”
She liked that, very much.
Let me say now, to all of you: Thank you! Good job! Well done, you good and faithful servants! Every time I visited Eleanor, whether it was at home or in the hospital, I ran into someone from this congregation. Or the phone rang, and it was one of you. You all were so faithful in your love for Eleanor! You were righteous!
You know what else? You are all Eleanor’s heirs. Eleanor nurtured this community for soooooo many years. She participated in a continuum of care for the members of this congregation. Just as Abram was a wealthy and prosperous man, when we look at all the love that Eleanor gave and received, she was a wealthy person, too, and she invested that wealth in this church family.
We are not here today simply because many of you stubbornly persisted through some of the difficult years in the life of this congregation. It takes stubbornness, sure, but more than that, it takes love. The love of Ed and Eleanor Hargis. The love of Ashton and Ruthie Buffett. The love of Sue Daesener. And the love of so many of the saints of this congregation over the years. That is our inheritance as a congregation. And that combination of love and stubbornness is surely what God wants to see. May we, as their heirs, continue to share and spread the love, and bring new people into this community. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to love one another as God loves us. We are called to cultivate that love here in this house and to share it with those outside of our walls. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4001