The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
[In the choir loft.]
Eliezer: But, sir?
Abram: I’m serious, Eliezer.
Eliezer: Oh, I know you well enough to be sure that you aren’t kidding. I just… this is all too much… are you sure?
Abram: As sure as I can be. Look, friend, you know my situation. I have no son. I have no one to pass all of this on to!
Eliezer: Surely a cousin, though, or a nephew?
Abram: Yes, yes, I could find someone, but I choose you. Listen. I trust you. You manage this household well. You will make sure that good relationships with our neighbors are maintained. You know everything in this camp, from the pillows Sarai prefers to the leads on the camels.
Eliezer: Well yes, sir, but I am a servant, not a patriarch!
Abram: You are a friend. I trust you. You will make sure that Sarai is cared for. You will ensure the prosperity of the whole household.
Abram: I know you. Please. There is no one else that I want to ask. Tell me, Eliezer, that when I die, you will take care of these people. Tell me that you will lead them.
Eliezer: I will do what you wish.
Abram: Thank you, Eliezer. You don’t know what this means to me. With no heir, well, I’ve been worried sick. You know as well as I do that if I die without an heir, there will be chaos.
Eliezer: Yes, I have been worried about that too. I don’t understand that, but…
Eliezer: Oh, no, it’s just that I wish that God had granted you, I mean, this all wouldn’t be such a problem if…
Abram: If God had given me a son?
Eliezer: I’m sorry, sir. But [angrily] wasn’t that the promise! I don’t understand! I don’t understand your God. I am honored that you think so highly of me, sir, but you are my friend as well. My heart hurts when yours hurts.
Abram: I don’t understand, either. I don’t understand any of this. I just know that all of these people – the cooks and the shepherds and the camel-tenders and my dear wife – all of them need to be cared for, and you can do the job. Perhaps my God will build a great nation with you, instead.
Eliezer: Perhaps. I am not so sure of this God.
Abram: It is late. Take your leave of me. Rest well, and I will see you in the morning.
Eliezer: Good night, my lord.
Abram: Good night, my friend.
Voice of God: Do not be afraid, Abram.
Abram, startled: Hello? Who’s there?
Voice of God: I am your shield, your very great reward.
Abram: “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”
Abram: You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.
Voice of God: This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.
Abram: At my age? At Sarai’s age? That’s absurd. That’s…
Voice of God: Come outside with me.
[Abram moves to the pulpit.]
Voice of God: Abram. Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.
Abram: They are beautiful, but I cannot count them.
Voice of God: So shall your offspring be.
Abram: Mine? (pause) Are you still here, God? (pause) Where are you? (pause) My offspring, the voice said… what a wild thought. But, it’s a wild thought, to believe that God is talking with me at all. With God all things are possible, right? So, yes. My offspring. I believe.
Children’s Message: The Promise Basket
Abram and Sarai really wanted a child, but they thought it would never happen. God said they’d have a baby, though, and God was right!
Abram and his wife Sarai were really old, beyond the normal time for having children, but God gave them a baby anyway. Abram had a child, named Isaac, and that child had children, and so on.
That’s one way of thinking about Abram’s family. But when we talk about Abram, we also think of him as a father in faith. Abram chose to believe, even though he couldn’t see any evidence of what God was saying. He just saw the stars in the sky, and heard God’s promise, and believed.
God makes one family out of everyone who believes in God’s promises. That’s why each of you have your face on a star this morning, hanging from the balcony: because each of you, and me, and Mary Katheryn, and Doug, and Leuola- we’re all part of that same family. It’s called the family of God, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what your last name is or what color hair you have or how big or little you are. In this family, all of us are brothers and sisters.
So, the kinds of promises that Abram believed in are promises for you and me too. That means that you are always loved, no matter where you go. It means that when you mess up, you can say you’re sorry and God will always forgive you. It means there’s nowhere you can go where God isn’t already waiting for you. You’ll always be a part of the family of love.
Now, I know you know all of that. But some of the bigger folks, they have a habit of forgetting. So I need you guys to do me a favor. I have a whole basket of promises here, taken from all over the Bible. I need you to each grab a few and make sure that every big kid and grown-up has a promise, and then come back down here.
Ok, I have one more thing to tell you, and then we’re going to pray. It’s about your feet. The prophet Isaiah says that anyone who brings people good news has beautiful feet. You just delivered all those promises, so that means that your feet are beautiful!
When you tell people the truth about them, that they’re loved by God and that they can be part of God’s family, then people like to see you coming. That’s what makes your feet beautiful. Will you pray with me?
God, there are so many stars in the sky, big and little, and we can’t count them all. They’re amazing. And God, there are so many people in your world! Tall and short, loud and quiet, countries and continents full of people. You made all the stars and all the people, and you love them all.
Thank you for keeping your promise to Abram. Thank you for reminding us that stars and people are all different sizes and shapes and colors, but we are all brothers and sisters. May we never forget that we are all one, that through you we are all part of the same family, part of the same story. AMEN
Sermon: Walking in Darkness
When was the last time you heard the word dark used in a positive way?
We avoid dark alleys. We worry about people with dark intentions. A situation with a dark outlook can drive us to despair. Dark clouds gathering on the horizon do not bring us hope.
A dark day in America is, at the very least, not a good day. It’s ominous.
As far as I can tell, the only time we mean dark in a good way is when we’re talking about dark chocolate.
Darkness is something that we’re taught to escape, to fight against, even to fear. We plug nightlights into every outlet. We make sure every child at camp has a flashlight.
We flood our driveways with unnatural nighttime light. It makes us feel safe.
In 1994, an earthquake hit the Los Angeles area. It caused massive blackouts, which was to be expected, but then something weird started to happen. People called 911 to report a strange glow in the night sky.
They were seeing the Milky Way. They had never seen it before. The city’s attempt to blot out all the darkness of the night had been so effective that they had no idea what their own night sky looked like.
They had streetlights and neon lights and headlights and taillights and brightly lit up billboards, but they didn’t have enough darkness to have the Milky Way.
And lest it be too easy to laugh at them: current estimates suggest that around 83% of the world’s population, and more than 99% of North Americans and Europeans, live with light pollution. If you want a clear sky, you really have to go to Madagascar or Chad.
I can go back to the foundations of my great-great-grandfather’s home, and I actually have a nail from that house, but I can’t see the stars that he saw. What feels like darkness to me would have felt eerily cloudy to him. We’ve put so much work into avoiding the darkness that we can’t even have it if we want it.
But as much as we might fear and avoid it, darkness is absolutely crucial to our well-being. Our circadian rhythms won’t work without it. We need these rotations of dark and light in order to bring us awake and to bring us to sleep.
I think most of us know that common practices like being on the computer before sleeping or keeping a light on in the bedroom can wreak havoc on our sleep patterns, but I hadn’t given it much thought before in terms of secular spiritual practice.
And yet here we are, drowning out the darkness with bright chandeliers and smartphone screens and reading lamps and Netflix, and then needing blindfolds and Ambien before laying ourselves down to sleep. What are we running from, if not from darkness?
Avoiding the darkness is a cultural norm for us, a seemingly holy pursuit.
If you don’t believe me, come to my backyard at night and see how restless it looks, lit up by my neighbor’s eleventy-billion watt lamp. There’s no peace to be found, in that artificial pool of light.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about what she calls “full solar spirituality.” It’s the keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side version of religion. It’s the kind of spirituality that cannot accept the existence of darkness, and therefore has little to say to those who are walking faithfully in the dark.
She encourages us, instead, to try living with “lunar spirituality,” with a recognition that the light wanes and waxes. This appeals to me here in September, as the summer light is fading, but she means it both more literally and more metaphorically than that.
Draw the blinds. Flip off the lights. Close your eyes. What do you see? How long can you stand it?
This feels like an odd thing to say in a Quaker meeting. Light is one of our primary metaphors for speaking about God. We’re children of the Light, we walk in the Light, we hold each other in the Light.
So let’s go back to a bright scene. Picture Abram and Eliezer in the great tent, with warm lamps bathing their rugs and pillows and faces in yellow light. Here in the cozy brightness, Abram strikes a deal that makes sense to him. Eliezer will run the household well. Perhaps this is what God meant all along.
Then, God shows up. God says that Abram’s reward will be very great, which must cut a little, since Abram just offered to sign everything that he has over to a servant. Abram asks his question, and receiving no answer, he makes it sharper, makes it a statement rather than a question, and gives it again:
Look, to me you have given no seed, and here a member of my household is to be my heir.
God, in response to Abram’s rational dealmaking and doubting, leads him out into the darkness. Abram gives voice to his doubt, and in return is invited to journey into the dark with God.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how we walk out into darkness. For some of you, it’s failing eyesight, or tangling with depression, or the onset of dementia, or the loss of a partner. For others, it might be setting a dream aside, or letting a child go, or losing one’s freedom, or some other quiet grief.
All of these are journeys into darkness. We love the light, but one way or another whether we like it or not, we walk into the darkness. And while honest doubt opens up faithful opportunities, it’s a trick of the light to think that those opportunities are easy to grasp in the darkness. It’s hard to trust what you can’t see.
Abram is deep in the darkness of infertility, and God leads him out into the night. Here he is surrounded by a deeper natural darkness then most of us will know, without even a hand to hold- just the voice that calls him.
And in this deep darkness, God asks Abram to look for the light that remains. Our eyes naturally search for light, so he sees it: the stars.
The stars are the sign. God challenges Abram to count them all, but from this perspective, the deep darkness has become a dazzling display of light, too much for Abram to ever count. And God said, “So shall be your seed.”
The stars were there the entire time – the promise hasn’t changed – but Abram had to be called out into the dark in order to see it. Otherwise, the glory of the sun blots out these stars. Stepping into the darkness enables us to see light that was never visible before.
All of that is not to say that the darkness isn’t really dark, or isn’t really scary- just that it might not be all bad. Because look: you could build a new Tower of Babel from the dark rubble of our broken promises to each other.
We let our spouses down, and we let our families down, and we let our friends down. We can’t be everything that they need. And even if we could, there’s a cancer awaiting, a car accident coming, something well beyond our control.
It’s tempting, when we’re walking in the dark, to seek out some kind of anesthesia- some way to cover over the darkness until the light returns.
And yet, even in our own light-polluted time: step outside on a cloudless night and you won’t be able to count the stars.
Here’s where you’ll have to take me on faith, either that or on the strength of the stories that you’ve seen and the stories that you’ve lived- when you learn to step out into the darkness, when you start trusting what you can’t see, walking by faith and not by sight, then you start to twinkle, just a little bit.
It may not make your black corner of the galaxy much brighter, but it lights up someone else’s sky. Not in a full solar display, exactly, but stars are navigational tools.
The light you put out helps someone else make their way through the darkness.
That scattered brightness: that’s what the family of God looks like. It’s enough to navigate by.
Our God flings stars into space and says, “See! You are all my children, each and everyone.” We come, the stars in the skies, the sand on the shore, all God’s children everywhere, drawn to God, drawn to love, drawn to worship.
[Benediction from Spill The Beans, issue 20.]