Rev. Dr. Merritt's Sermon for March 4, 2012
Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt
March 4, 2012
Promises. What do they mean to you? Are they important or are they just a set-up for disappointment? Who makes promises to you? Do they keep their promises? To whom do you make promises and do you keep yours? Throughout the history of God and the people of God, we see God making what seem to be outrageous promises AND we see God keeping them. I want to lift up the example of both Abraham and Sarah this week as we consider the topic, “Promises Promises.” I also want to lift up an article by Professor Eliezer Siegal, The Legacy of Sarah and Abraham, which I found very helpful in this study. Would you pray with me?
God we are in the midst of journey together this Lenten season. We are often led into places we would rather not be, to face issues we would rather not face and to form relationships with those we would rather avoid. You promise us that your ways are best for us. Show us this morning, we pray. AMEN.
The Legacy of Sarah and Abraham:
The perception that we are children of Abraham and Sarah is one of the central ideas in Jewish and, I must say, Christian consciousness. When I was growing up in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, we often sang, “Father Abraham had many sons….” Of course I wanted to edit the song just a little and sing “Father Abraham had many sons AND DAUGHTERS” or “Mother Sarah had many daughters AND SONS.” You know what I mean.
In Jewish practice, three times every day, the traditional liturgy begins with a passage that highlights the relationship with “Our God and God of our fathers (and mothers).” It is true that the patriarchs (and unfortunately not the matriarchs) are mentioned briefly in this prayer, and the blessing culminates in these words so packed with meaning, “Sovereign (GOD) who helps, saves and protects – Blessed are you Lord God, the Shield of Abraham.” In the Jewish tradition, converts to the faith are called, “Children of Abraham,” much like we call ourselves “Children of God” in fulfillment of the Divine promise that Abraham would become “the father of nations.”
Generations of scholars have worked hard to identify the unique qualities of Abraham that made him worthy of initiating the covenant between God and the people. The Jewish mystics see the personalities of the Bible as embodiments of Divine qualities. The attribute these mystics ascribe to Abraham is, in the Hebrew, hesed agape. Scholars have debated on the precise meaning of this term. For me, it seems clearest to suggest that this is not just agape love, Godly love, the love of God for the people of God. It is covenant love, promised love than insinuates that God loves the people of God and the people of God love God and one another because they have made a promise to do so. It is not just that touchy feely kind of love that says casually, “I love you,” because it feels good. This is that deeper kind of love that says “I love you because I made a promise to love you.” I love you when it feels good and I love you when it feels bad. I love you when I feel happy about our relationship and I love you when I feel horrible about it. I’ve decided that I am going to incorporate hesed agape into my own practice of marriage preparation because that is exactly what I mean when I suggest to couples and to all of you that love is both a feeling and a decision. Now here is Good News, Gospel, if you will from the Hebrew Bible: God loves us because God has promised to love us. The second part of that Good News is that we are called to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls. Why, because we have promised to do so. We promised when we were baptized, we promised when we became church members and every time we claim our identity as children of God we are promising to keep our part of the bargain by loving God as much as God loves us. That, my sisters and brothers is the way we keep promises made to us and by us. Promises, Promises!
Remember these words from Deuteronomy 7, in summary of God’s covenantal history, “ God did not set God’s love upon you nor choose you because you were greater in number. God chose you because God loved you, and because God would keep the promise which God swore to your ancestors. That is why God has brought you out and lifted you up and blessed you in such manner as this. Know that YHWH your God is the faithful, is the faithful God who keeps God’s promises and shows mercy on those who love God. Promises: God is faithful and keeps the covenant and is merciful and even more so to those who keep their promises back to God.
Rabbai Hiyya summarizes these lessons in a comment that I hope describes us, The Rabbai writes, Israel (and all the children of God) possess three good qualities: They are shamefaced (meaning that they are humble), they are compassionate, and they perform acts of kindness.
Of course Abraham alone could not have produced a legacy for future generations. In this task he had a capable partner, Sarah. Sarah was viewed by the Jewish mystics as a representative of the divine presence in the world, the Shekhinah, a concept closely akin to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. I like to refer to her with a term I learned from Rev. Dr. Barbara Essex, “Sarah is a bodacious woman.” She’s just fabulous.
You know how much I love to study the Hebrew Bible. I could preach many sermons on this passage along. For today, however, let me close with this. Our own piety and our own covenant promise with God will never allow us to remove ourselves from the marketplace, from the public forum or from the material world in which we live. Professor Segal writes and I quote, “ On the contrary, our role is to bring the Divine down to the world so that the world will become imbued with the divine spirit. Traditional Jews see the performance of the commandments, themitzvot, as the vehicle for imprinting the world with God's will. It was this facet of God's "worldliness," his direct involvement in the human condition that is represented in the personality of the Matriarch Sarah, whose solid realism frequently reins in the excesses of her husband's uncritical generosity. It seems to me that these two personality types were meant to work in a careful balance. It is only through the combination of their qualities that the divine will could be transmitted to future generations of humanity.”
My sisters and brothers, God has made a promise to us that God will always be faithful to us. I stand before you this morning to proclaim that our redeemer is faithful and true. Every promise God has made to us, God will do. Every day, every single day God shows loving mercy on us and blesses us in ways we do not even realize. And I also know this; we have made some promises to God. To love God, to live God, to share God, to love each other, to walk peacefully with each other and to be a blessing to every person who comes our way. I’m calling on all of us this morning to renew our promises with God, to live into them for all we’re worth. I’m calling on us to use this Lent to become as faithful to God as God is to us. Let us make this as season of Promises. Let’s make it a season when we become mindful of all the promises God has made and keeps to us, and let us become mindful of our own hesed agape promise to love God by loving the people of God…ALL of them.
God bless you. AMEN.