Stepping Out – March 17, 2019

Stepping Out – Seeing in the Wilderness

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Genesis 15: 1-6

March 17, 2019

Main Idea: God keeps promises.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

For the Season of Lent we are exploring the wilderness.  Last week we used our sense of hearing to pondering the different voices that speak to us and how we discern to whom we listen.  This week we will consider how our sense of sight can help and hinder the commitments we make to each other and to God. 

My family loves to hike and when we first moved back to Vermont we would hike almost every weekend. One Saturday, when N. was small, we went to Snake Mountain in Addison (who has hiked there?).  This is a great hike because it is an old road that once went to an inn on the top of the mountain.  The trail is wide and relatively easy.  The summit is on the old foundation of the inn and from there you can see an amazing vista of the Champlain Valley, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.  The day we were hiking was beautiful. We ate lunch at the top and started back. About 1/3 of the way down, I caught the toe of my hiking boot on a rock or a root and I fell like a tree, knocking N. down and breaking my sunglasses.  N. was unhurt but my left knee had landed on a rock.  Quite quickly, I knew that I had injured myself but there was nothing to do but to hobble down the rest of the way.  Nothing was broken but my bruised knee became very swollen and it would be months before it was back to normal. 

I had not been paying attention as I hiked down the trail.  I did not see the obstacle that took me down.  I had been too busy talking to notice where I needed to put my feet.  In the wilderness, I did not watch where I was going.   When I started the hike, I certainly did not expect to fall. I, and my family, had to deal with this unexpected circumstance.

Before we start our exploration of today’s Scripture text, I’d like for us to do a bit of personal reflection.  Please take out a pen or use the little pew pencil, find a blank spot on the bulletin, and write down your three most important commitments.   Just jot them down, we won’t gather them up.

Now pick one of them and remember the day, the moment when you made that commitment. Picture it in your mind. Can you see it? Where were you?  Who was with you?  To what or to whom did you make this commitment?  Now as you reflect back on that day, could you have imagined all that has happened between that day and today?  Could you have foreseen all of the joys and the challenges that have occurred?

Every significant commitment requires stepping into the unknown, with no guarantee of happiness or success.  Every commitment requires that we look out to the horizon and recognize that there is more than what we can see.  But in all things, God promises to be with us and to bless us.  And God keeps God’s promise.

The story of Abraham and Sarah begins in chapter 12 when God first speaks to Abram; “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (12:1-3)  And Abram steps out just as God had told him. He and his wife Sarai leave all that they know to set off into the wilderness. We are not told that there is anything special about Abram.  The only thing that sets him apart is that God speaks to him, he listens, and he does what God asks.  The Scripture text makes a point to let us know that Abram is 75 years old.  Already pretty old to start a journey, let alone start a family, but Abram trusts God.  He trusts in the promise that God has given him.

Abram and his wife Sarai see many things and have many adventures as they journey through the wilderness.  They travel to Egypt where they get mixed up with the Pharaoh (12:10-20).  They travel to Canaan and to Bethel.  They become rich in livestock, silver, gold. (13:2) Abram fights in battles against petty tyrants (14:13-16) and earns the gratitude of kings (14:18-20).  Life is quite good, except for the fact that they still do not have a child.

Which brings us to today’s text.  After all of these adventures “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.’” (Gen 15:1). [It is interesting to contemplate “a word” coming in a vision. What did it look like?] But Abram’s response to this vision from God is not gratitude.  Abram complains! Almost to the point of whining! He sees no reward!  He only sees his childlessness. He sees only his grief and Sarai’s grief.  “What are you talking about, God?  What good is all of this stuff, this reward, if I have no one to inherit it? As of now, it all go to my servant.” 

God responds to Abram’s complaint with love and reassurance. “You and Sarai will have a child.” Then God leads Abram to step outside and gaze at the night sky.  God leads Abram to look beyond his immediate grief to contemplate the universe.  Our view of the night sky is very poor compared to what Abram would have seen.  God said ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’…’So shall your descendants be.’ (Gen 15:5).  Look beyond your self, look beyond this present moment, to see the beauty and the breadth and the blessing of God’s creativity. Trust that there is more than what you can see.

As Abram contemplated the heavens, “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” 

As Abram gazed at the stars he realized the limits of his sight.  He could not see the future.  He could not see all the possibilities that lay before him. But he could recognize God’s commitment to him. He could trust that God would care for him and that all God had promised would come to pass.  Abram’s belief in God did not require closing his eyes to questions.  His eyes were wide open to both the challenges and the opportunities before him. He recognized that his desires would not be fulfilled all at once.  But he trusted God.

Later in Genesis we can read the story of the birth of Isaac. The rest of the book of Genesis, the rest of the Bible, tells the story of the descendants of Abraham which include not only the Jewish people, but Christians and Muslims as well.  Taken together, these 3 faiths do rival the numbers of stars in the sky.  Abraham did not live to see the multitudes of his descendants but God kept God’s promise to him.

When we ponder our relationships and commitments we realize that we cannot see all that will occur. We remember the optimism and hope that accompanied the making of those promises and yet many of us have had moments when we could not see how we might find our way through; an illness, a job loss, a great grief. In those moments we depend on the promises we made, and on God.   We also recognize that we cannot see or anticipate the unexpected joys that popped up either! We can look out to the horizon but not beyond. Like Abram, we just keep moving forward into the unknown, trusting that God will be with us.

As a faith community we see many challenges before us as we adapt to the rapidly changing society around us. How do we share the gospel beyond our walls?  How do we do the work of the church with a changing congregation?  What will our future be? Like Abram, we just keep moving forward into the unknown, trusting that God will be with us.

When we look around the wider world we see such grief and hardship; poverty, oppression, violence, destruction. We can question and argue with God as Abram does.  God sees our hardships and listens to us. God recognizes what we see and points us beyond our grief to action, moving forward to sharing God’s love with the world.  On Friday, after hearing about the shootings in New Zealand, I first sat in grief, weighed down by yet another horrific event.  But then I got up, went out and brought flowers to the Islamic Society of Vermont.  This small gesture was appreciated by this community that is deeply grieving and afraid.  With others also reaching out to support the community, there is opportunity for us all to strengthen the bonds which unite the descendants of Abraham.

What is fascinating about these stories of God and Abram is that it is God who makes the promises.  God reaches out to us, God shows us that God will be with us in all circumstances. God actively works for the good of creation. God, through Jesus our Christ, shows us that evil and death are no match for love and life, the true reality.

Because we know this, because we can see the work of God in the world, we can continue our journey in the wilderness, which is life.  We can continue to step out in faith, trusting that God is with us.

Let us pray,

God of the unknown and the known, we thank you for your promise and presence with us.  Help us to see you in the opportunities that surround us.  May we be faithful in our commitments to each other and to you.  Amen.