Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2016
Friday evening and Saturday was the Presbytery’s “Leadership Development” Conference. This year’s keynote speaker was Michael Jenkin’s, the president of Louisville Theological Seminary. After one of his lectures, he was asked about being Christian in a society where a lot of “self-proclaimed Christians” don’t act like it. His response: “Our message as Presbyterians is to show the world that one does not need to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus.” I like that. It’s reflecting the face of Jesus!
Our Annual Meeting is two weeks away. Next Friday and Saturday, we will have a Session retreat. It’s time again to look ahead, to get our bearings, to explore and dream about where God wants to involve the Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church in his mission. Too often we think about our mission, or the church’s mission. But both are putting the subject in the wrong place. It’s not our mission nor the church’s, but God’s. God can do some incredible things through us.
It all started in a desert, back in what used to be called the “Near East” with a man named Abram. Abram, like a lot of us, was getting on up in years, yet the best was still ahead! As long as there is life, we can still accomplish things, as our own Lucy Barrett reminded us as she published her first book, Salad Days in the Golden Years, on her 90th birthday. By the way, if you haven’t read Lucy’s book, I recommend it. It’s delightful!
Now let’s listen to what happened to another man way past social security age… Our text comes after Abram led his men against a group of kings who had kidnapped his nephew, Lot. Abram’s men defeated the kings and rescued Lot, quite a feat for an old guy. Read Genesis 15:1-18a
Our passage starts with God appearing to Abram in a vision, telling him that familiar first line we hear from heavenly beings throughout scripture, “Don’t be afraid.” Of course, the appearance of God should be enough to make any of us afraid, but in Abram’s case, there’s an ironic twist. Here’s a guy who’s just defeated a much larger force on the battlefield. Abram is not just a sheepherder, he’s a warrior. And God tells him, “Don’t be afraid.” The time for fear is over, his enemies are defeated! Then God continues, saying, “I’m your shield.” Maybe God doesn’t want Abram to let all this commando stuff, of his leading a group of men who rout a much larger army, go to his head. Following up on the fourteenth chapter, it’s as if God is saying: “Don’t depend on your military skill, don’t depend on your equipment; don’t depend on your men; depend on me.” And then God makes a promise.
Abram is now bold enough to complain to God. “Great,” he says. “I’m an old man and without an heir, what’s good is this when I have no one to give it to?” In those days, one of the customs for those without a male heir was for the patriarch of the family to adopt a male slave. The slave, as an adopted son, would then be in charge of seeing to it that the man and woman of the house would be cared for in their old age and who would, upon their death, receive freedom and his adopted father’s property. It seems Abram has this in mind when he mentions Eliezer as his heir. But God isn’t finished with Abram. God invites him to step outside and look up into the heavens. In the desert, at night, the sky is brilliant. “Abram,” God asks, “Can you count the stars? If so, you can count your descendants! You’ll have a big family.” Abram believes and God reckons him righteous. God is willing to bless those who believe.
Growing up, I spent many nights on Masonboro Island, a nine mile long strip of sand that so narrow that it has never been developed. Most of these nights were in the fall, when the bluefish were running. In the day, we’d be in the surf fishing, but at night, we tend to bait fish, casting our rods into surf and sitting in lounge chairs as we wait for the big one to come and sample the fillet of mullet that’s speared on a stainless steel hook.
When the fishing was slow, there was a lot of time to look up at the heavens and in the fall you’re treated to a show. All the bright winter constellations rise, one after another: Taurus, the bull whose bright horns are visible; Pleiades, the seven sisters, a tight cluster of stars; Orion, the great hunter who is identified with his bright belt and sword; Canis Major, Orion’s dog, which boasts the brightest star in the sky. Being out there with the stars overhead, you feel a thousand miles from anything even though you could see the lights of the piers and water towers on Wrightsville and Carolina Beach and those on the Loran towers at Snow’s Cut. Although I may have felt a thousand miles away, I never felt alone for I had a sense of God’s presence that existed not only with me but throughout the cosmos. The God who invited Abram to look into the sky and to consider the possibilities was with me.
“Reality-check” is a two-word concept often used to kill great dreams, dreams that may have been realized if only attempted. To call for a reality-check is often akin to sticking a needle into a balloon. Just when great ideas are being generated, someone comes along and tells you why it can’t be done and you lose faith and sure enough, the naysayer is then proven right. Abram didn’t need another reality-check. He’d done that himself and, as anyone would have told him, he was washed up. He was old; he wasn’t going to have any children. He didn’t need so-called friends to tell him this. He knew it. Instead of a “reality-check,” Abram really needed a “God-check.” God turned Abram’s eyes to the skies and saying, “Count ‘em, if you can.” Like Abram, we sometimes need our horizons expanded. Certainly, the God of creation, who set the stars in the universe, is more powerful than us.
You know, we worship and serve an awesome God. Yet, we tend to put everything on our own shoulders, thinking we must carry the burden. We have a hard time trusting God, but when we step out of our comfort zones and decide to follow a hunch, God can surprise us in incredible ways. In my e-newsletter this week, I linked to article by Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary. Craig was writing about the “anxiety” in the church. All over, people are worried, anxious, about what will happen to the church. Are we going out of business? Certainly, there is evidence for it in the Europe and North America, all the while the greatest revival ever is ongoing in the southern hemisphere. Listen to what Barnes wrote:
When I was working through my way through a graduate program in the history of Christianity, I became convinced that there is no rational explanation for the church’s survival over the past 2,000 years—there were many compelling political, intellectual, and social reasons for it to have gone out of business long ago. And none of those threats were ever as dangerous to the church as it was to itself. We’ve always been our own worst enemy when we fail to live out of the gospel we proclaim. But still the church perseveres. The only possible explanation for the church’s survival is that Jesus Christ chose to use it to continue his mission of bringing the kingdom of God to earth.
It’s not about us, it’s about God and when we trust God, and ignore the “it can’t be done” voices that surround us all the time, incredible things can happen!
Let me tell you a story. When I first went to Utah, the executive presbyter was a man named Ken Tracy—a great man who was very compassionate and who helped match me to that congregation. They were small and struggling and had great dreams. But after I was there about two years and we came to presbytery with our proposal for a new church, Ken was one who called for a reality check. “You’ll never do it,” he said. “It’s beyond the ability of that congregation.” Luckily (it really wasn’t luck, it was providence), we prevailed and sold presbytery on the idea. Shortly after that, Ken was called to Alaska. But his father was in St. George, a town that shared a daily newspaper with Cedar City, and he’d send Ken clippings from the newspaper about what was happening in Presbyterian Churches in Southern Utah. The week we dedicated the new building, Ken called me to congratulate us and to say he was happy to report that he had been wrong.
Understand this, it wasn’t because of any great thing I did or that anyone in the congregation did, although a gallant effort was made by all involved. God wanted that church built and saw to it that we had the resources. Yes, at times we had to struggle; at times we worried about running out of money and having to put the project on hold. Our new home wasn’t presented to us on a silver platter. But we held to the vision and, despite the naysayers (and Ken wasn’t the only one), the building was built and the congregation moved to a new site and continues to flourish.
After Abram believed, God established the covenant through what, to us, appears to be a bizarre ritual. There was the sacrifice of a heifer, a goat and ram, along with a dove and pigeon. The large animals he split in two and he watched over them to keep the vultures away. A covenant is an ancient form of a contract. Scholars suggest that what probably happened is that the two parties would split an animal and then together walk between the split halves to signify their covenant or contract. The split animals also served as a warning (or as a curse) as to the consequences to breaking a covenant. Of course, that’s speculation and we don’t fully understand all these bizarre rituals, except that they implied a covenant, this bond, between God and Abram.
Interestingly, after Abram believed and when he set forth to seal the covenant, he then learned more details about the future and the land. God was going to take time to fulfill everything. There would be a period when his descendants would be slaves; when this nation promised to him would labor under a foreign power. We’re not told here that it’s Egypt, but those of us living on this side of the story know that. In other words, the fulfillment of the promise won’t necessarily be easy for Abram’s descendants.
As for us, for our understanding of the passage and implication for our lives, we should remember a few things. First of all, we have a God that is in change and in control of the future. This means we can give up some of our attempts at being in control and trust God to take care of those things over which we have no control. If we are willing to trust God’s providential care, we will be a lot happier and also less anxious. Secondly, this passage reminds us that with God, the future is not limited to human comprehension. God is not bound by human limitation. Finally, this passage reminds us that just because God is with us, we will not necessarily have an easy time. In fact, we may have a rough go of it and face many challenges as we strive to fulfill the visions and dreams we have. But the rewards are also great.
Let me close by asking you some questions to ponder this week. What things have gone undone because we have failed to trust God? What dreams have we killed with our reality checks? What could we do, if we trusted God and grasped at the possibilities? Look up to the stars and dream. Amen.
 The quote is from Alan Hirsch, as quoted by Stephen M. Franklin in a blog post titled, “The Mission has a Church” at the Pittsburgh Seminary Blog: http://www.pts.edu/blog/pittsburgh-mission-conference/
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), 143.
 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, revised edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 186-7.