My task this morning is not an easy one.
When I agreed way back in August, that I would offer a Stewardship sermon on October 15th, I could not have known that on this day – which looked on the calendar, like any other Sunday – we would be coping with the horrifying reality of a Holy Land that is broken and bleeding.
The competing claims upon this morning’s sermon seem incompatible. Our shared effort to maintain the fiscal health of this church is a distinctly local effort – one that, arguably, affects only the small collection of souls who have chosen to make this sanctuary their second home.
For my part, I think that the survival of this church is bigger than just whether or not you and I are content in this building…
I have to admit that the other claim: the crucial need to address the developing conflict between Israel and Hamas feels, to be frank, a great deal more pressing.
To report that the paroxysm of violence that has seized Israel/Palestine has already claimed thousands of lives is, unfortunately, just to scratch the surface. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that this crisis is uniquely dangerous – that if any war is likely to spin out of control it might just be this one.
That said, it is my job, as your settled pastor, to address your needs, as a community of Christians trying your best to live in this world, and I acknowledge that, in keeping with this responsibility, I cannot easily dismiss the fiscal needs of our church.
I intend, therefore, to try to address both concerns. I will do my best to make the case for your continued financial support, while at the same time keeping our eyes on the dire realities of this historical moment. Not an easy task, as I’ve said, but with the help of the scriptures, I hope I can pull it off.
Allow me to draw your attention to the first of today’s scripture lessons – the passage from the 25th chapter of Genesis that Owen just read for us.
You may be wondering how this rather boring passage can do the heavy lifting that I am asking of it.
It is not a terribly inspiring passage.
On first read, the most fascinating detail to be found here is that Abraham was 175 years old when he died. The text says that he died “in a good old age, an old man and full of years.”
That’s for sure!
Of course Methuselah is said to have lived 939 years! Compared to Methuselah, Abraham was a mere child.
As fascinating, and improbable as these ages are, its not what I want to focus on.
After the text reveals how old Abraham was when he was “gathered to his people” it goes on to report that:
His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites.
This one sentence contains within it a convergence of people from all over the Ancient Near East.
Abraham himself, was an immigrant in the land of Canaan. Chapter 11 verse 31 of Genesis tells us that Abraham (then named Abram) lived in Chaldea, in a place called Ur. (The red arrow on the map on the bulletin cover shows his journey) As a young man, Abram left Ur because, as it is told in the Chapter 12 of Genesis:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
Abraham, an immigrant from Chaldea, bought some land from a man named Ephron, who is the son of Zophar the Hittite. In order for this transaction to happen Zophar emigrate from far north in the land of the Hittites (this journey is described by the black arrow).
Finally, Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael have to come together to bury their father. Isaac did not have to travel, but Ishmael came from Egypt, where he had settled and taken a wife (this according to Genesis 21:17-21). This journey is depicted as a blue arrow.
The sentence, which it would be easy to miss, indicates that the Ancient Near East was, during Antiquity, what it continues to be today – an area where people move from place to place in search of what is best for themselves and their families. The matter of fact reporting of this sentence suggests that the business dealings that occurred between Abraham and Ephron were a matter of course. That Abraham’s two sons – Ishmael and Isaac – came together, in spite of their differences – this too is reported quickly, as if it’s no big deal.
But their differences were a big deal.
Ishmael was the older of the brother’s but he had been exiled because he was the son of Hagar, not the son of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael had been abandoned in the wilderness, when Ishmael was still a child, and but for their wits, and God’s help, they would not have survived.
And yet the two brothers – both of whom would become the fathers of nations – they came together.
They had a shared purpose, greater than themselves. They came together to honor their father.
Early week I received a beautiful email from Debbie DiTomasso. I asked her if she would let me share it with you today, and she said that I could.
Responding to our pledge season request to write a little note about why she is a part of the United Church of Jaffrey community, Debbie wrote:
I serve our church with love, enthusiasm and commitment, as I deem a Christian would. What makes this so fabulous is this relationship is totally reciprocal. Our lovely congregation loves and supports me when I need it most. Through bouts of depression, personal challenges and celebrations, everyone lets me be me. Others share their personal trials, offer an ear or a shoulder to cry on, or just give me the space I need with no judgment or scorn. Where else in this world does such care and respect of human beings exist?
Debbie D’s words eloquently demonstrate something that has always amazed me about church. When we get together, faith happens. It is almost as if faith itself, is the energy that is created when humans join in community.
The community, though, cannot be dedicated to the self.
This is what Jesus meant when he said “When two or three are gathered in my name.”
When a community gathers, and dedicates itself to something greater than the self we create faith.
And when we create faith, we give each other a gift beyond measure.
Now it came to pass, a little bit later last week, that the other Debbie – Deb Weissman – also sent me an email. Deb was responding to the same pledge season question. In her email, she wrote:
Coming to church gives me hope. It’s the place I come to get myself put right, to calm my fears and worries, to readjust my priorities for the coming week, and to give thanks for the blessings and joys that I have received. The United Church of Jaffrey is a light, a beacon of hope and love, in a sometimes too dark world. I can’t imagine not being part of this church. The world is a scary place and it feels like it’s becoming scarier by the minute. And yet I get great comfort from listening to and pondering the ancient stories. The world has always been a scary place. But we are NOT alone. We have the power to change things if we truly dare exercise the power of love. And so, that’s why I continue to do what I can with my time, energy, and money to support our UCJ.
Deb speaks the truth.
It is true, as we acknowledged at the beginning of today’s sermon – that the world is getting scarier and scarier by the minute.
But it is also true, that the old stories have great meaning – and that they bring us together.
It is also true that we are not alone!
We have each other.
And we have God.
I once saw a computer simulation of the earthquake/tsunami event that happened in Japan in March 2011.
The graphic showed the initial shock of the undersea earthquake, and then a ripple moving outward from that point, crashing into Japan, of course, but also moving out across the entire Pacific Ocean, to the Philippines and Australia to Hawaii and eventually Peru and Chile. As I watched, it occurred to me that the ripple looked exactly like the ripples in the rain puddles that I tossed pebbles into when I was a kid.
Can it be that the laws of physics that govern the motion of water in a puddle are exactly the same as the laws that govern the movement of water in the Pacific Ocean, and that the only difference between the two is that one is much bigger than the other?
I like to think of this principle at work in human history.
It can be said that the present crisis that has exploded in Israel/Palestine is the result of the intentional actions of a handful of men – they were no doubt men who were in charge of Hamas. They threw some pebbles, and now we are seeing the ripples. Ripples of violence, fear and death.
I like to think, though, that God is also throwing pebbles. We are God’s pebble throwers.
Thousands of God pebbles are thrown all over the world, at every moment creating ripples of love that, in some mysterious and incredible way, move around the earth, saving us.
We don’t know how these ripples work.
Say a young woman smiles one day. A young man sees her smile and falls in love with her. 50 years later, their child is the chief negotiator who stops a war from happening.
Was it the smile? Was that the pebble? Or was it the memory of her grandfather taking her out for ice cream after school one day – the memory that made her smile – maybe that was the pebble…
What saved the world from that war? The smile? The father? The person who opened the ice cream store?
If the world can spin out of control because of a pebble, it can be saved by a pebble.
It seems to me that the moment when Ishmael and Isaac came together – a coming together that required the convergence of people from all over the AncIent Near East…
I think that was a pebble… a pebble made possible by so many acts of faith, over generations.
church, I tell you…
This place that we faithfully keep afloat…
When it is dedicated to something greater than self, Church can be the place where God hands you pebbles.
Create more love
and do your small part.
You just might save the world.