This is a transcript from the September 20, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
Well, things are not going well. That's the gist behind this passage that we have. It's a short passage on Genesis 15. If you listen to it, underneath is a little bit of a subtext. It's between God and Abram, later to be Abraham. It's not going well, this conversation, this conversation that really got started three chapters ago in Genesis 12.
Several years before this, when God comes to Abraham and says, "Listen, I want you to leave your homeland. I want you to leave your family, your friends. I want you to leave all the security that you have. I want you to go to a land that I will show you." Literally, a land that God only knows, "And then I'm going to make you a great nation. I'm going to multiply your generations. I'm going to bless you in such a way that you and all your descendants are going to be a blessing to all the nations in all the world."
Abram believes. He leaves, and he goes to this land, and it's not going so well. It's not that the land is bad, although his nephew Lot ends up taking the best of it for himself. Abram has to fight and get his nephew out of all kinds of problems because the problem with really good lands is lots of people want it. More than once, he's having to go and rescue Lot. He's having to fight with his own neighbors. As far as those descendants, he's got none. They're 80 years old. To be somewhat polite, their best childbearing years are behind them. While they don't want to be rude to God, Abram's got some issues.
Frederick Buechner reminds us, in Yiddish, there's two characters that are comic tragic. One's a schlemiel, one's a schlimazel. The schlemiel is the person who's not malicious but just seems to always leave a wake of chaos in their midst. Everywhere they go, they're knocking things over. They're banging things. They're stepping on people's toes. Whenever they enter the room, you just know that someone's going to end up with soup on their shirt. The schlimazels are the ones with soup on their shirt. They're the ones who, somehow, are always the dupes. The patsies, they're always the ones that bad things happen to.
In our story, Lot is a schlemiel. He's always getting into trouble. He's not bad. He just leaves chaos everywhere he goes. Abraham, he's the one with soup on his shirt. He's a little schlimazel. He's the nice guy. He's the patsy. He's the dupe. Even nice guys, after a while, get tired of cleaning soup off their shirt. In this conversation with God, as God is making and renewing the promises with Abram, Abram points out. He says, "Listen, about those descendants, I got none. Everything I've got is going to go to Eliezer or some distant relative. This isn't working out. This idea of being the chosen people isn't here. It isn't what the brochures seem to be indicating here."
To which God's response was, "Abram, look up. See all those stars, more stars than you can count? Every time you look at those, I want you to be reminded of my promise because your descendants, your real descendants is going to be more than all those stars. I'm telling you, you can trust Me." To which it says, "And Abram believed. He trusted God." Now, some would say, "Well, once a schlimazel, always a schlimazel." Of course, that's just what you do, just being set up for the next disappointment. God's response when Abraham believes is, "You're my guy. These are my people. I can work with this." In the parlance of a movie, this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship. More than that, this is a new beginning for humanity.
Last week, we looked at the beginnings of Genesis. It began in a garden, it began with Adam, Eve, man, woman, humanity, and God and them choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil when they were told explicitly, "Don't eat from that." They did because they wanted that. That knowledge now, apart from the giver, as any gift separated from the giver is no longer a gift, it becomes a curse. Now, armed with the knowledge of everything, because that's the idiom for the knowledge of good and evil, is everything, that knowledge overwhelms them.
Now, they recognize themselves for the fragile people that they are. They are vulnerable. They're exposed, They hide in the bushes. They cover themselves up. They start blaming each other. They start making excuses. Pretty much the rest of Genesis, it follows along in that path of what happens when we try to separate ourselves from the will and the love of God and go it on our own as if it's all up to us. It doesn't go well, which brings us to Genesis 12, and God starting all over a new humanity, a new approach with Abram.
Now, some will see that story in the garden, and many times, people say, "Well, there was disobedience. There was rebellion. Those are the core problems. If those are our core problems, then our solutions are going to follow." If that's our problem, then what we need to do is find ways to get people to behave. We got to find ways to get people to obey better. We got to find ways to keep them in line. We need rules. Boy, do we need rules? We need lots and lots of rules. If they're not going to follow the rules, we better have some punishments behind that. We need to use fear. We would need to use guilt. That is pretty much the history of religion at its worst for the last many thousand years.
What we have done is, we have approached the problem as if the issue were moral and legal, as if the big problem was a rule was broken and now, God's honor needs to be assuaged, as if we need to get people to straighten up. The real issue, both in Genesis one, two, and three, and now, in Genesis 12 through 15 isn't moral. It isn't legal. There is rebellion, but it comes as a result of something more core, and it's the lack of trust. The real problem is relational. The real problem is one that we did not trust God. We can make all the rules in the world to try to get people to behave or at least not to misbehave, but that doesn't solve the relationship.
Somebody says, "Trying harder doesn't get you where you want to go if you're pointed in the wrong direction. We need a new direction." I was thinking this week about a time when I was four or five years old. This just flashed to me. My dad was a basketball coach, and the school he had had a brand new gym. We're going to have an event. It was just for some friends and lots of friends that were going to come. We were going to have this incredible new gym.
We got there about an hour or so early because there was things to set up. My dad had some things to do in this new gym of his. He leaves me in this gym with all these balls, all this equipment. It's paradise when you're four or five to have this gymnasium all to yourself, knowing that your friends are going to come. It's just going to be a blast. Except this time, it wasn't because in order to go do his work, my dad needed to go to his office. As there are in those gyms, there's all these big giant heavy metal doors, and I was not strong enough to pull them open.
When I recognized and realized I was in this gym, and I felt very alone. It didn't go well. I freaked. I cried, I yelled, I screamed, I pounded on the door until my dad, in exasperation, opened it and said, "What's going on?" What he saw was just this kid who should have been having the time of his life just in a puddle. I remember him being exasperated and frustrated and what I thought was anger at the time. I'm sure it was. Over the years, what I've also begun to recognize was there was more than a bit of hurt in his eyes, as he tried to explain to me is, "I didn't leave you by yourself. You're not alone. I'm just right here."
He could tell I was going to have none of it. It wasn't a matter of more rules. It wasn't a matter of treat me like I was bad. The real issue was I was afraid, and there was this issue of trust. He did something that I thought was rather brilliant. He took a towel, and because those doors are so heavy by themselves, he took and wedged it in the door, so there was a crack just about this much so that if needed, I could poke in, I could look, I could see, and I knew I wasn't alone anymore. I had a blast. Why wouldn't I? I had the gymnasium all to myself. I had equipment. I had balls. I had friends coming over. You can try harder but it doesn't help if you're going in the wrong direction.
Religion too many times tries really hard because it's trying to solve the wrong problem. The core problem is one of trust, it's one of a relationship that's been broken, which brings us back to our passage with Abram. God doesn't get mad at Abram, doesn't give him more laws, any laws at this point, doesn't give them rules, doesn't use guilt. He says, "Abram, look up, count stars every time at night, every time at night it starts to close in around you and you begin to wonder whether it's worth it, whether you can trust anything, count stars. See those stars, each one of them is a reminder of my promise." Abram chose to believe.
Why did Abram and Sarai get chosen? People ask that question and sometimes I think the answer may be just as simple as it might be profound, that maybe they weren't the only ones chosen, maybe they were just the first ones to say, "Yes". Maybe they are the ones who chose to believe and continued to do so. They became the people that God got to work through the new humanity, the new people through whom God was going to work to bless this world as we learn to trust, many good things can happen.
Before we get to how all that happens, I want to stop there for a moment and ask, where in your life has God left evidence of God's promise? Where has God shown and given evidence that you in fact are chosen, you are beloved? Where has God tried to get your attention? Maybe even today. Where? Where has God been trying to tell you and assure you in the core of your being, "You are not alone"?
The chosen are known by their choices. Abram and Sarai chose to believe, they trusted in God and God's promises. Their names changed from that point on, they now became Abraham and Sarah, because they now were entwined with God and the breath of God was in their name, their very name. Did their life get better? No, not really, but they continued to navigate and you get this sense that they spent a lot of time looking up in the night and looking at the stars, and reminding themselves and letting those stars and choosing to let those stars be the reminders of the promise of God.
Somebody once said, when you learn to love the stars, you no longer fear the night. I like that. In this case, I think when the stars become the reminders of God's promise, when you become familiar with, when you navigate by, when you familiarize yourself, when you ground yourself in the promises of God's love, that you are beloved, when you do that, then you no longer fear the night, you no longer fear the failures, you no longer fear the doubt. It is in those darkest nights that sometimes the stars shine brightest. In fact, it's only when the dark night is dark, that you get to see those and you get the feeling that Abram and Sarai, spent a lot of time looking and choosing to trust in those times and so do we.
The chosen are known by their choices and sometimes the choices we make don't yield immediate results. Sometimes we look foolish, sometimes we got soup on our shirt, we have egg on our face. It looks like we have become the schlimazels of the world, but Abraham reminds us that, that's okay. We don't gauge any more who we are and our worth, by just the immediate evidence around us, we now gauge ourselves by how well did we stay true and navigate our lives by the promises, and then trust ourselves that we are the beloved, and that we are God's people.
It doesn't always work out, but sometimes it does. Sometimes in the working of that out, sometimes people will see what we are doing and they begin to take hope, by the way that we navigate our lives. When we do that well, people even find hope in that, people even begin to suspect that there might be a promise that's true for them as well that they can trust. They too can trust that they are beloved and then truly, that becomes a new beginning.
I don't know where I first saw this video clip. Guy's name is Ray Kelly. Father, Ray Kelly. He was an Irish priest. He had sung at a wedding one time and somebody videotaped and it went viral. He has a nice voice evidently, and so somebody encouraged him and he decided he would go on the American equivalent of America's Got Talent, to the original, which is Britain's Got Talent.
I haven't watched that show for years. You can only watch people being humiliated so many times, before that stuff is being entertaining. The chief humiliater is the host of the show, Simon Cowell. I have watched him just eviscerate people and just leave them, just a pool on the stage. Why would you want to watch that? I haven't watched that for years, but now, here's this clip of this Irish priest who's decided he's going to audition in front of Simon and the other judges and thousands of people in this auditorium. "What song are you going to sing?", "I'm going to sing a song by R.E.M. Have you heard R.E.M?" "What song?" "I'm going to sing one called, Everybody Hurts."
Great song. Tough song. What could possibly go wrong with a middle aged elderly Irish priest getting up in front of Simon Cowell singing an alternate rock song by R.E.M. that's really difficult? "Why that song?" "Well, because it talks about loneliness, and it talks about suffering, and as a priest, I began to really relate to how people struggle with that." "Okay. All right."
I remember the first time I watched I was just wincing, I'm going, "Oh, I just hope this man doesn't get humiliated." Then he starts to sing.
Priest: When your day is long,
and the night
The night is yours alone--
Pastor Russ: There's this relief, he can sing and he's doing incredibly, he's hitting the notes. He's not going to be humiliated and as time goes on, you can feel the whole audience start to relax. They begin to appreciate what he's doing and what he's bringing, but somewhere in that song, something changed because now, people aren't just hearing a song, they're really beginning to listen that life is hard and the days get long, everybody hurts, but hold on. Hold on, hold on, you're not alone.
Priest: -because everybody hurts.
Pastor Russ: Now, people are really leaning forward and as he goes more and more, you could just tell that people are right there and they're listening. When he's done, hold on, hold on. He's pleading now, he's not even just singing. Now he's pleading, hold on. I know you hurt everybody hurt, that's part of what it means to be human but hang on, hang in there. We can do this together. You're not alone.
There's silence and there's a hush in the auditorium that's broken only by one person who stands up. It's none other than Simon. He's the one who stands up and begins to clap and it signals and everybody leaps to their feet and they're cheering. It's a standing ovation.
Why do I tell this story? Well, maybe it's because he's a pudgy, parish pastor and, you know, score one for us but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it goes more to the fact that here is a person who took the gifts that he had and he risked making a fool of himself, but he saw an opportunity and in that opportunity to let people know you're not alone. You could tell that there were stars in his eyes and they weren't just about fame. It had something to do with his connection with God and that came through him and that came through his song in such a way that people could, perhaps, believe that it might be true for them, too.
I believe this. I believe that this week you and I will have choices, we will have choices at the beginning of every day, choices about the way that we live our life. As one person said, it will make the world kinder, gentler, more loving, more compassionate, come courageous or not. Your move. Your choice. The chosen are known by their choices. This week, may you choose in such a way that you are reminded and grab hold of the promise for you and for your life, that you truly trust that you are beloved. If it's one of those times that comes to all of us that get's very dark, when nothing makes sense, maybe especially there, hold on. You're not alone. We may end up looking like a Schlamazel or we may be the towel that's in the door, we may be the star in the sky, we may be the sign that points to something greater and it may be a new beginning.
This week the new beginning happens when we trust in God, we love God with everything we've got, heart, soul, mind, and strength and the way that we live our life, we love our neighbor as ourselves. This week, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing and trusting. May you abound with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit, now and forever. In this week, may the peace of Christ be more than a slogan, may it be a living reality for you and for all those you encounter. Friends, may the peace of Christ be with you.