A Reading from the Book of Genesis (15:1-12, 17-18)
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.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
(Psalm refrain to be sung by George John and repeated by all)
Refrain: The Lord is my light and my salvation
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, *
it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell.
3 Though an army should encamp against me, *
yet my heart shall not be afraid;
4 And though war should rise up against me, *
yet will I put my trust in him.
5 One thing have I asked of the Lord;
one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
6 To behold the fair beauty of the Lord *
and to seek him in his temple.
7 For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; *
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock.
8 Even now he lifts up my head *
above my enemies round about me.
9 Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; *
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Refrain: Leon C. Roberts, 1987
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians (3:17-41)
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (13:31-35)
Some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). So begins the story of Abraham, the story of Israel, the entire biblical story of salvation. It all starts in barrenness.
In the world in which Abraham and Sarah lived, barrenness was devastating. For most people, it left no room for hope, no room for a future. Theirs was a world in which the vast majority of people lived a daily “hand-to-mouth” existence. Theirs was, of course, a world without Social Security, without Medicare, without a pension or a 401(k) or an IRA. For the great majority of people, a future, an old age, without children meant little hope of any future at all. If they were able to survive — and that was a big “if” — it would be only out of the kindness and generosity of strangers.
Three chapters earlier, the book of Genesis had told of God’s promise to Abraham that God would make of him a great nation. Trusting in that promise, Abraham had left his home in Haran in Syria and had settled in the land of Canaan, just as God had told him to do. Year after year had passed. He and Sarah had grown older; but, despite God’s promise, they had remained childless.
Then in the story told in today’s first reading, God appeared to Abraham again and renewed the promise of God’s care and protection. At first, Abraham protested: “What good is your favor going to do me if we remain childless? I heard your promise long ago, but since then nothing has changed. When I die, everything I have will go to my slave; and, before long, I will be completely forgotten.”
But then God took Abraham outside and had him look up: look up at the stars. “’Count the starts, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.’ And [Abraham] believed the Lord.”
In the short space of three verses, Abraham had moved from protest to belief. But why? Why the change? Maybe it was because Abraham had looked up instead of down, beyond himself instead of just at himself, from God’s point of view instead of just from his own point of view.
We can only imagine what Abraham had envisioned when God’s promise had first come to him years before – maybe himself as an old man, surrounded by a huge family: his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and him in possession of all the land that God had pledged would be his, land stretching from the border of Egypt all the way to the river Euphrates. And it would all be his. He would be the center of it all.
But as the years went by, as he matured, and as his faith deepened, he had finally come to a point where it was no longer all about him. He had reached a place in which he was able to look at the wider picture: at what God was doing through him for the sake of many other people and for the sake of the world. Hadn’t God held that vision up to him from the beginning, at the time of his first promise from God? Hadn’t God ended that first encounter with the declaration that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gn 12:3)? Yet it had taken him all this time, all these years with continued barrenness, to accept and embrace what God had said: that God’s plan was for all people and that he himself had a role to play in bringing that plan to fulfillment.
For Jews and for Christians, Abraham still stands as a paramount example of faith. But Abraham did not have that faith in its fullness from the beginning. He had to grow in that faith, he had to allow that faith to develop within him. And a critical part of the growth of that faith was his willingness to view the world from a wider perspective than just his own life, his own needs, his own concerns. He had to look up and try to count the stars.
By the end of his life, Abraham had reached the pinnacle of his faith: an unshakable faith in God. But that faith, too, reflected the dramatic change that had taken place in his own perspective. He had Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, Hagar. But as for the children of the promise — those who were going to be as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore — he had a grand total of one: his son Isaac. And as for possessing the vast expanse of land that God had promised, all he had was a small plot in Hebron: a piece of land that he himself had bought as a burial place for his wife, Sarah, and eventually for himself. Just one descendant and a small burial plot; but that for him was enough because it was no longer just about him and about what God could do for him. His focus was now on what God was doing in and through him for the sake of others, for the sake of the rest of the world.
Many people struggle with faith. All of us do in one way or another. At least some of that has to do with our limited understanding of God and of the ways of God. But might at least some of that struggle be also the same struggle that Abraham faced? Might at least some of that struggle come from the fact that we have not looked toward heaven and counted the stars: that we have kept our sights focused downward, on ourselves, on what we want, on insisting that God conform God’s self to our specifications and expectations?
Maybe at the heart of it all is our fundamental idea of God. Maybe we so much want to be in control of life that we imagine a god whom we have created in our own image and likeness. We insist that, if God is ultimate Being and if God is loving, therefore God is going to do what we want God to do because, of course, we know best. And obviously, God needs to fulfill God’s promises in the way that we choose to interpret those promises, in the way that we want God to fulfill those promises, at the time that we want God to fulfill those promises.
And when that doesn’t happen, we think we are having a crisis of faith, that we are having trouble believing in God. But maybe the real problem is that we had faith in the wrong god to begin with, that we had faith in the god of our creation instead of in the God of all creation.
It is then that we, like Abraham, need to step back and look up at the stars. It is then that we need to allow God to broaden our perspective, to lift our sight beyond ourselves. It is then that we need to allow God to enable us to see: to see, not God’s place in our plans, but our place in God’s plans. It is then that we need to allow God to be God.