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Sermon: The Covenant

March 31, 2011

Note: I have moved away for the Lectionary texts for a few Sundays in order to spend more time in the Abraham-Sarah narrative this Lent.

Genesis 15:1-21

For hundreds of years, Africans were stolen from their land and taken in chains to places all around the world, including these United States, land of the free.  Those slaves worked cotton and tobacco fields, and in homes, and at many other back-breaking jobs.  Through those long, long years of slavery, their cry went up, “How long?”

Even today, with so many black Americans living in poverty, attending substandard schools and experiencing all the awful effects of gang violence and intimidation, people in the black community still raise the cry.  “How long?”

Far off in the Middle East, there are people who have been living under the thumb of tyrants like Mubarak and Gaddafi.  They have not been truly free, and in their struggle to win that freedom, they are stonewalled or cut down.  After all these decades of living under oppressive rule, their cry is the same.  “How long?”

In a home in a quiet neighborhood, somebody’s father sits in a chair.  His brain, his identity has been taken away by Alzheimer’s.  He is no longer “Dad,” but is just a body, but a body that needs to be cared for and loved just the same, even though he fights his daughter every step of the way and treats her like the enemy.  Every day after work she trudges home to take care of him.  She feeds him, bathes him, dresses him, puts him to bed, and there is no end in sight.  “How long?”

That is the story of scripture because it is the story of humanity.  The Israelites are slaves in Egypt for 400 years.  They wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  They are in exile in Babylon for an entire generation.  The Romans—and every other more powerful army—crushed them beneath their boots for centuries.  “How long?”

God said to Abram, “Do not be afraid.  I am your shield, and you will see your reward.”

And Abram said, “How long?  What can you give me?  I still have no child.  You have not given me even a hint of the promised offspring.  My heir is an adopted slave.”

God might have said, “Don’t you believe me, Abram?  Oh, you of little faith.  You should trust my promise.”  But this is a God who also understands our long, unfulfilled yearning.  Even God has said, “How long?  How long will my people my people disobey and turn away and go after idols?  I just mean to love them.  How long?”

Instead, God said, “Look at the stars.  Count them, if you can.  Your descendants will be like this multitude.”

I imagine that as Abram looked into the sky, he would have realized that he couldn’t count them.  Abram would not have known that there were many more stars out there that he couldn’t see than the ones he could see.  He might have remembered who made these stars, the planets, the seas, the mountains, the creatures of the earth.  The scripture tells us that Abram believed, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  “How long?  But at least I do believe that it will come to pass someday.”

God then directed Abram to prepare a sacrifice that would seal a sacred covenant between God, and Abram and all Abram’s descendants.  It was a bittersweet covenant, because though the Lord promised to give Abram’s offspring a land of their own, God also said that the promise would take a long time in coming.  How long?  Well, 400 years.  They would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years.  But Abram himself would go to his grave in peace, knowing that there was an heir to the promise, that God had indeed been faithful even though it had taken a good, long time.

This is the covenant God made: to Abram’s descendants would belong all the land from the great river in Egypt all the way to the Euphrates.  God would do this.  In between the long time of promise and fulfillment, God had given Abram a covenant.  Scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote that the covenant was God’s way of practicing the promise until it was finally fulfilled (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis [Atlanta: John Knox, 1982], p.150.).  The time of waiting was not simply a time to despair and bemoan the long period of suffering.  The time between the promise and fulfillment was a time for practicing the promise, for Abram to live as if he really believed that when he looked out on the multitude of stars he was seeing the future of his people.

*     *     *     *     *

In the summer of 2008, a cancer survivor named Daria felt like her life was truly back on track.  She and her husband had landscaped the backyard—something they had wanted to do for years—and Daria was almost finished with her education.  After her cancer scare, she decided to switch fields so that she could get into a career she felt she would really enjoy rather than just having a job to pay the bills.  Life was good.

When she walked out of the doctor’s office that day back in 2008, she was devastated.  The cancer had returned, and it was back with a vengeance.  It had already spread to her lungs and liver.  It seemed as if the Universe had played a very cruel joke on her.  As she said, “I cannot believe I am going through this again.”  How long?

Daria decided to settle in for a long fight again.  She had battled her cancer for four years before it went into remission, and she was ready for round two.  Her story of this second battle, detailed in her blog Living with Cancer, is a twisting, turning tale featuring more trips to doctors and the hospital, more drugs, more therapy—both chemo and psychological—and more frustration than any one person ought to experience.  But it also features moments of incredible courage and hope.  Daria could find signs of hope and bliss in the most ordinary of things, such as a good nap.  Here is one entry:

I started the day with an excellent sleep. Slept right through last night…what a difference that makes. So today I feel like I’ve got energy to spare.

Yesterday afternoon, we went for a drive out in the country and 3 deer crossed the road right in front of us…so beautiful.

Other than that, we’re just relaxing and enjoying the moment.

Her daily to do list is very simple: “1. get up; 2. survive; 3. go back to bed.”

To be sure, Daria asked the question “How long?” numerous times.  Cancer never gives you an easy road.  Unlike God, it never makes promises.  In fact, sometimes it does all it can to take hope away from you.  Yet Daria refused to give in to the despair that can result from a promise long delayed.  She threw herself into sharing support with other cancer patients and engaged in benefit work for cancer-related charities.  Somehow, she discovered her own sacramental sign of hope as Abram did when he looked out on the numerous stars of the sky.  She found a reason to believe, to know that despair wasn’t the only option.  So Daria fought and she loved and she lived.

Then, in January of this year, Daria began to have problems with her liver.  She again asked the question, “How long?” but this time she wondered how long she had to live.  Unfortunately, the answer was “not very long.”  On January 22, she died, peacefully, in her sleep, about two-and-a-half years after her cancer returned.

You may ask, “Eric, why tell us this depressing story?  In the end, she died.”  Well, yes, she did, but in the end, we all die.  That’s how the story seems to end for all of us.  But we are a people who believe in something.  We believe in a promise-giving, covenant-making God who gives birth to a barren couple and life to those who die.  And while it is perfectly fair and understandable that we may sometimes cry out “How long?” in the face of our suffering, the more appropriate question for us who believe is simply “How?”  How will I practice the promise?  How will I live while I wait?  Will it be with courage and faith and hope and joy?

Abram saw the stars and he was able to believe the promise.  It was to him a sacrament, a means of grace.  We share a sacrament today that affirms that the love of God is stronger than the abyss of death.  In that sacrament we affirm that Jesus Christ will come again “in final victory, and we [will] feast at his heavenly banquet” (The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989], p.14.)  How long, O Lord, how long?

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