As Numerous as the Stars  a sermon on Psalm 8 and Genesis 15:1-6
Rev. Joe Cailles, pastor Trinity UMC
March 17, 2019, The Second Sunday in Lent


Genesis 15:1-6

After these things 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.

My sons and I had to have a “serious” conversation earlier this past week in the wake of the FBI sting nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues, in which 50 people, including two fairly famous TV stars, were charged in a multi-million dollar bribery scheme that enabled privileged students with mediocre grades to attend prestigious colleges and universities. One set of parents was accused of paying upwards of $500,000 to secure admission spots for their daughters at a California university.

I had to tell my sons in our “serious” conversation that even if I were inclined to bribe and cheat so that they could get into a top-notch school, their mother and I did not have the $500,000 for each of them to do so. My sons will have to rely on hard work and good grades and much more modest financial support from their families to get into their colleges.
I have had a lot of thoughts and feelings about this scandal, few of which I’m proud to have had. I felt satisfaction that those who had used money to game the system had been caught and exposed. I’m not proud of that. And, if I’m being real, there was also jealously that these families had the means to game the system, and I don’t even come close to that level of wealth. I’m not proud of that feeling either. If I had to bribe a college admissions officer, the best I’ve got are killer recipes for the world’s best chocolate cakes and loaves of pretzel bread. They are good cakes and loaves of bread but probably not Harvard acceptance letter good.
And of course, we all know that this sort of thing has been going on for ages: the rich and powerful using their wealth and privilege and connections to get what they want when they want it. I think what is so stinging about this particular scam is that we want so badly for this country to be a perfect meritocracy, which is the promise where hard work and good grades and supportive families naturally lead to higher education of your choice and good jobs with good pay and financial well-being forever. And we know that promise does work particularly well for families like mine, and families like most of ours. My kids, our kids, have excellent schools to succeed in, encouraging families and if not great wealth, then most of us have economic stability. By and large, our kids are going to be fine. The promise that by working hard and doing right and playing by the rules leads to success does work for many of us here.
Our passage from Genesis is also about a promise and children and success and stability in the future. As I said, just prior to this passage God has called an older couple named Abram and Sarai. God promises them that if they will leave their homes, God will give them lands of their own and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abram and Sarai accept the challenge and follow God. They end up in Egypt for a time and acquire wealth and servants like Eliezer, who becomes their chief steward. Abram and Sarai settle in the land God says will be theirs and their descendant, but so far — no children.
As our story this morning opens, Abram has some not insignificant doubts about what God has promised. Perhaps sensing Abram’s doubts, God speaks first to him. “I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” Abram points out, reasonably, that God’s promise seems unlikely. Abram and Sarai are closer to grandparenting age than new parenting age and no storks have shown up nor have any new stars emerged or wise men from the East or shepherds and angels shown up either.
Will God’s promise be fulfilled? Will God do what God has said God will do? It’s a question that repeats through the scriptures.
When the Hebrew people are slaves in Egypt, they cry out for deliverance. Will God rescue them?
When the ancient Israelite’s enemies surround them and threaten them, will God save them from their enemies?
When Jesus dies on the cross and is buried, his followers wonder, if Jesus’ promise of life and new life are also dead and buried with him.
Will God’s promise be fulfilled? It is a question we ask ourselves all the time in all sorts of ways.
When bad things keep happening in our world and we cry out for God to deliver us from evil, will God recuse us and rescue the world?
When we are surrounded by failing health and financial hardship, when abuse and addiction and violence threaten us and our communities, will God save us?
When we feel life has no meaning, when we feel we can’t succeed because we can’t compete against the powerful and well-connected, is there any hope, any point to our faith?
Hear the good news:
When Abram expressed his doubt that God could and would deliver on the promises God had made, God took him for a walk under the evening sky. “Look to the heavens, Abram, do you see all the stars? So shall your descendants be.” Abram and Sarai, soon to be renamed Abraham and Sarah, would have descendants, and while we may not yet equal in number to all the stars in the sky, the Jewish people, the Muslim people, and we Christian people, billions and billions of us, all look to Abraham as the spiritual father of all of our peoples.
As we wonder about God’s promises in our own lives, we remember that those stars that shine on Abram centuries and centuries ago are the same stars that shine on all of us today. God’s promise is as constant as the stars in the night sky. Our challenge is to remember what God is and is not promising us.
For most of us, particularly those who look like us and have the education and financial resources that most of us have, the promise of meritocracy still holds true: work hard, study hard, support your family, and we can reap the rewards. For too many in this community and in our world, no matter how hard they work, no matter how good they are at following the rules, they are targeted because of their race, their faith, their orientation, their poverty or their immigration status.
In Christchurch New Zealand, Father Abraham weeps today because some use deadly violence against his descendants.
God does not promise to love us more because we are Christians, God does not love us more because we are legally living in our nations, and God does not love us more because we have a financial security. God’s promise of love knows no boundaries or legal status. God’s love is not a meritocracy. We don’t get loved by God because we got good grades, got a good job and pay our bills on time. We don’t have to work hard to get God’s love; we can’t spend $500,000 to bribe God into accepting us. God promises to love us and we accept that love with joy and gratitude and then live our lives with God’s love directing our words and actions and choices.
God’s promise to us do not include good health and immense wealth. For a handful of people in scripture, the sign of God’s love was a promised child. For Sarah, for Hannah, the mother of Samuel, for Mary the mother of Jesus, a promised child was the sign of God’s love and care. With Jesus, who’s is God’s love incarnate, the signs and promises of God’s love often came in the form of healing: Just in the Gospel of Luke we meet a woman bent over, unable to stand. Lepers who are ostracized because of their sickness. A man paralyzed on a mat. Jesus touches them and heals them not because they were wealthy and powerful and made good grades in school but because they were in need and they accepted what Jesus offers them. God does promise us today healing and wholeness but that does not always come in the form of cures. Sometimes the disease disappears, thanks be to God, but healing also means accepting the love and support of the community around us when a cure is not coming. God’s promise of healing spiritual, emotional, physical healing is made real when we let God’s love so radically reshape our lives that everyday that we do live, whether it’s 30 days or 300 days or 300,000 days, we seize opportunities for mercy and generosity and justice.
God does not promise an economically comfortable life, but God does promise a life full of meaning and purpose and truth as we let the Spirit of Christ fill us and mold us and move us to identify the pain and need in our community and in the world and then to unite together to offer hope and help. When bad things happen to us and when really bad things happen around the world, God uses us the descendants of Abraham to unite with all of God’s children to be people of good will and to be voices of hope and compassion. We do all of this: healing and offering hope and striving for justice and peace in our individual lives and in our church family lives.
When Abram doubted the promises of God, God showed him the stars and said, as numerous as the stars so shall your descendants be.
As numerous as the stars are in the sky are the ways God’s love showers down on all of us.
As numerous as the stars are in the sky are the ways that God is calling us to live lives of love and mercy and justice and peace, to love one another, to love and serve our neighbors and strangers, to overcome hate and violence with peace and justice.
As numerous as the stars are in the sky are the opportunities that we have, each one of us, and as the church family united, to love and worship God, to follow the teachings of Jesus, and to let the Spirit of Christ open our eyes and our hearts to be a blessing to the world around us.
As numerous as the stars are in the sky are the ways that God makes God’s promises real in our lives. Thanks be to God.