Genesis 15:1-6

When the Council called an emergency meeting after church on March Fifteenth, I thought we would be navigating a crisis that would last a few weeks. Do you remember the early days of the pandemic?

Way back in March, the commercially made masks were needed by medical professionals, so the rest of us began wearing masks made with love from home sewing rooms. We had to figure out how to use Zoom on the fly, and what to do when stores had no toilet paper, and how to embrace letting your hair do whatever it’s going to do. Around the Quad Cities, people covered their homes with hearts. Construction paper hearts in the windows! Hearts painted on the Twelfth Street doors of the church!

These were the days we thought the crisis would last a few weeks, then we’d all come back together. Instead a few weeks became a few months. A few months became more than a few months. Now we don’t know how long this will continue… We don’t know.

We do know people who have died from covid. We know people who have died sooner than expected because the pandemic changed their options. We know people who have lost jobs that will not come back. We know people who work in hospitals and prisons; we know people who are confined in hospitals and prisons where there’s no hiding from the virus.

This has been especially hard for teachers who suddenly have to do a job they’ve never been trained to do. This has been especially hard for families with children who have to manage online learning and childcare. This has been especially hard on individuals who live alone, those for whom the isolation is threatening their mental health. People are starving for touch! This has been especially hard on those who are homeless. The especially hard litany could go on and on…

Whoever you are and however you’re surviving this, I’m pretty sure, you are grieving.

You might find there are moments when you forget about the pandemic, then it hits you all of a sudden. This usually happens to me in the hazy moments before I’m all the way awake. You might find that the things of just getting through the day take so much longer than they used to! I heard a colleague describe it as wading through honey —everything takes forever. You might find yourself exhausted or crying out of nowhere. All of these are signs of grief, and I really believe: All of us are grieving.

In the early days we were ready to rally and respond to the crisis with patriotic fervor and splendid generosity! Come on, we’ll stay up all night if we have to! But it didn’t end, and when it didn’t end, it’s like our gusto dissolved and sadness began pouring in. If this is what you’re feeling, you are not mistaken. You are not alone.

Today our scripture comes to us as a reminder of God’s promise. Back before his name was Abraham, God found Abram and called him into relationship. The LORD our God decided to make three promises to Abram: You will have land. You will have numerous descendants. You will have blessing.

That was the beginning of the story, and we know how it ends. Spoilers —God was right! The Holy Spirit came through on the promises. Abraham died in his own land, the father of nations, a blessing handed on for generations. But this is not that day.

Today the word of the LORD comes to us after God has promised him descendants but before Abram has any babies. He and Sarai have been trying, and trying, and she still can’t get pregnant. For a while it was a crisis; these days Abram is settling into the sadness.

Here in the thick of grief, God finds Abram and reminds him that the promise was not a lie. It is real, and it’s coming one day, just hold on…And I can’t tell you how he did it, all I can tell you is the Bible says: Abram believed God. He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Something I love about this story: Here God is working to reach through the grief and convince Abram in his heart. So you’d think this would be the perfect opportunity for the LORD our God to pull out the stops and ring all the bells!

But did God pick up a mountain and hurl it into the sea? No. Did God speak to Abram from a burning bush? No. Did God thunder in his best Charlton Heston impression and summon the smoke-machine smoke? No. It wasn’t the rock-splitting wind. It wasn’t the earthquake. It wasn’t the fire.

Instead. The first time God tells Abram about his descendants, the LORD says: Hey! You see all that dirt? If you can count the specks of dust, then you’ll be able to count your offspring. Today when Abram is thick in grief because seriously, what if they’ll never have children, the Spirit takes him by the shoulders and leads him outside to look at the sky. Now it’s the middle of the afternoon!1 Despite the usual warnings, in this case, really do read the comments. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2762 But the LORD says, Look at the stars! Oh you can’t see them? Hold on… Then try to count them, I dare you! That’s how many children you’ll have.

You can believe me, says the LORD. Here, look at the dust. Human people are made from dust, dust mixed with Spirit! You can believe me, says the LORD. Here, look at the stars. All the earth is made out of darkness, darkness mixed with light!

It’s like God is telling him: Come on, you don’t need me to sign this contract with a flashy miracle. God signs her name in the dust of the earth and the light of the dark, then she presents this as proof that she will keep her word. Maybe that’s the first thing.

Maybe the second thing is God knows the day will come when Abraham won’t be able to look at the dust or the stars the same way —not ever again. Imagine when Abraham was an old man with children and grandchildren. Imagine him looking up at the stars one night, and laughing, then hearing the classic prayer rise up out of his being: O God. You were right.

These days, even if you’re not feeling the weight of sorrow in your own soul, you know someone who is. The construction paper hearts are fading and peeling from the windows. Our sadness is showing. If my Facebook feed is any indication, we’re all discovering how bitterly hard this is for each other. Maybe this noticing matters more than we realize.

For one thing, we human people are hardwired for compassion, so noticing somebody else’s struggle provokes our desire to help. It’s like if anybody has ever handed you a baby. Hand somebody a baby sometime, and see what they do. Chances are, they’re going to take the baby! And that’s amazing! (If you’ve gone and given up all hope for humanity, may that restore some glimmer of it.) It’s just like that.

When we see someone who is hurting, the deep impulse of our soul knows what to do, and we hear ourselves offering support. That’s a good reason to notice someone else’s pain, but that’s not all…

It’s also that compassion is made out of sorrow. When you see somebody else’s sadness, you’ll see that it could be your own. Their grief might spill into yours, it might awaken the wounds where your own heart has been broken. It could be, when you see somebody else crying, you’ll feel tears prickle in your eyes and run down your face. This is how human people are made. And holy are the tears. And what if this is not just a sign of our grief. What if seeing each other’s sadness is actually a sign of God’s promise…

And so it is, our faith teaches us that God has issued a promise to humankind. It’s not like the promise God made to Abram. It’s not land ownership and offspring as far as the eye can see. (Can you imagine!) This time the promise is the world coming back to life. Isaiah described it as a feast on the mountain where all the nations gathered, and death was destroyed. Jesus taught the promise by invoking the Kingdom of Heaven. Reverend Martin Luther King Junior named it the Beloved Community.

It is a world where our survival is shared in common, where fear is answered by love, where power is expressed —not through violence— but through compassion. This is not our world, but it could be, and our faith says that God says it will be. And how can we possibly believe this! Have you seen the violence? The pandemic? The hurricane? The fires?

We are thick in grief, and our prayer is How long O LORD? Our prayer is, Come on, O Holy God. How is the world coming back to life? There’s no sign!

That’s when the Spirit sighs the deep sighs of her soul. No sign? she says. Really? The Holy Spirit takes us by the shoulders and says Look. Behold the tears. Look at the people who are grieving. Look at the dust. Look at the stars.

You are made of dust says the LORD. You’re made of the dust of earth with the breath of Spirit. You are dirt mixed with God! You are made of the light of stars says the LORD. You are made of the tenderness of tears. These are the signs; this is the proof!

The day will surely come when you look at the dust on the ground and you will remember. You’ll look at the stars and you’ll hear the laughter of Sarah coming out your own mouth, and you’ll hear the prayer of Abraham rising up in your heart. O God. You were right. On that day we will look for the tears running down the faces of the people we love only to find—they are laughing too.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Despite the usual warnings, in this case, really do read the comments. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2762

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