Sermon preached at St. Christopher's July 25, 2010
These six words caused a collective cringe as often as they were spoken from within the Melton family of my childhood. And they were spoken, often, from within the Melton family, especially at the end of unsatisfactory meals at any of our favorite, local restaurants. Where's Mom? Where'd she go? Gone to find the manager. Momma simply did not understand the red-faced trauma she brought upon us, I think. Or maybe she did. Maybe she came to enjoy it. In any case, what she could not understand was silence when the meat was undercooked. Or when the chicken looked suspiciously like fish. Or when the french fries had been erroneously replaced with lima beans. These were times for action, she would say. And then she was off - off to find the manager.
I was an awkward middle teenager. My brothers were younger, and not less awkward. We were far too easily embarrassed and, in contrast to our go-get-em Mom, we infinitely preferred fictitious rationalizations to conflict with the management. So we’d say things like, that’s OK, I’ll just eat the fish. It’s not worth the time to remake it. Really, don’t worry, it’s good enough for me; rare is how God made it; e coli is my friend; no, no, really, I like lima beans. That one never worked.
But Momma would not have it. Off she’d go, chasing down the manager, explaining expectations, disappointments, and often coming back with both the manager’s deep regret and a free meal for next time. While the rest of us climbed out sheepishly from somewhere underneath the table.
Like the great theologian Charles Barkley, Sir Charles, says: “The meek may inherit the earth, but they’re not getting the ball.”
So we drop in on the Old Testament world this morning where Abraham is playing the role of the unsatisfied restaurant customer - has it down to a 't'; the thrifty souvenir-shopping tourist in conversation with God. Bargaining with God for the sake of the city that God has given up on and plans to destroy. “That’s just not like you, God,” he begins. “I had come to expect differently - I hoped for better from you.” And later, once Abraham knows he has God’s ear, “If you’ll spare it for 50,” he says, “surely you would go as low as 40. Thirty, then? What about twenty?” All the way down to ten. How embarrassing! Who does that? I’m thirteen years old all over again. Hide me under the table! He’s not even that clever: simply repetitively exploiting an apparent soft-spot with God; milking a weakness; Abraham, it seems, is going to make God say uncle.
“A,” I want to say, “C’mon! This is not a shady border-town bargain bin! This is God Almighty!”
But there’s something else going on here. Something that makes Abraham think the conversation's worth having.
Each time Abraham asks God about the minimum number of righteous for which God will spare the city, God answers like this, “For the sake of fifty I will not destroy it; for the sake of forty-five I will not destroy it; for the sake of forty I will not destroy it,” all the way down, so that when he finally gets the bottom - “for the sake of ten I will not destroy it” - you begin to wonder if what God isn’t really saying is, “For the sake of you, Abraham, I will not destroy it.”
I wonder if that's what Abraham hears.
After all, God had found Abraham when he was a young old man called Abram. He had called Abram and Sarai away from their hometown, out of Ur, to an unknown land; made a covenant with Abraham, that his children would be like beach sand in his minivan on vacation. Abraham had said, “yes,” and years later, they’re still wandering, wondering if, when, the hot sand on their feet will mean more than blisters and well-worn calluses. Wondering when the wandering will end.
When will a promise become more than a promise?
I wonder if St. Christopher’s, sorting through ashes and tears and postponed expectations, down through the years, ever had a wonder like that.
So later on, when things go from wicked to worse, and the city attacks the messengers of God, when God does smite the city (it seems even ten was too ambitious) we read that “Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham...”
Maybe God had been truthful. There just was no one good. In fairness, God had saved Lot, Abraham’s nephew, his family; but Abraham had hoped for more; he had told God as much; I wonder if he was tempted to take it personally. Surely God, for his part, wasn't naive of what their conversation had meant; God knew the hope and expectation hid in the heart of Abraham. And so in that soot-filled moment, we’re told that God remembered Abraham.
God's promise had first inspired his boldness; now God's promise would inspire his perseverance. And this is the life of prayer.
Abraham bargained with God; and his bargaining looked a lot like his wandering: apparent progress - even promise - born of bold petition, honest conversation, in relationship with God. Unrelenting expectation of God. Even disappointment with God, which is the greatest sign of expectation - real belief that God will deliver what God has promised, with the honesty to say He hasn't yet. Abraham's expectation is the source of his sadness as he watches the smoke rise up from the city. And at every moment after that moment, we're told that God remembered the expectation, the faith, of Abraham. All of God’s plans connect back to that promise. The promise He intends to remember. And the memory of God is good.
So some thousands years later, when Mary holds a baby in her arms from somewhere in a barn, it’s like Isaac all over again. God smiling; still remembering the Son that He promised to Abraham.
Thirty-some-odd years after that, the Father making the sacrifice He stopped short of asking of Abraham, God’s only begotten, His Son, on a cross, it’s God painfully remembering His long-standing promise to Abraham.
And fifty-plus days later, the defeat of death and the season of the glory of God, it’s the Spirit sent on the twelve, poured out like fire, the grafting of strangers in the promise of God; three-thousand converted and just the beginning - like blazing stars in the sky. And you can bet God remembers His promise to Abraham.
One disappointing day, Abraham got up for dinner, said he didn’t like the taste of the meal. He bargained with God, reminded God of His promise, and his boldness made a lasting impression - and we are a part of that lasting impression: the expectation that God would bring light to the world.
St. Paul says that “if you belong to Christ, you are the children of Abraham.”
So here’s my prayer this morning: I pray that we are still children with the boldness to hope great things of God.
A few weeks back, when Anders and Kate made their visit from England, I gave them a tour of the church. When we came to the cross wall in the parish hall, I explained that members were invited to bring a family cross to the church, have it blessed and put on the wall as sign of their place in our common life in Jesus. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “What a marvelous symbol.” Suddenly very earnest, he added, “But Jonathan, you only have three walls.”
Like the stars in the sky.
Anders had an imagination like Abraham - one that believed God and expected - even leaned into - God’s promise. And the expectation of God’s People reveals the faithfulness of God.
It’s easy to get discouraged on days when the smoke seems thick. Easy to talk ourselves into settling on lima beans because it’s just not worth the fuss. Who knows, maybe God is teaching us to stop grousing and only learn to appreciate our lima beans! (No way.) We begin to lose boldness to remind God of the dream that He first planted in our hearts. Resignation.
What was the dream God first planted in your heart?
Here's my dream: families like mine and families like yours coming together and, here, in this place, learning an alternative to a world that says your next mistake will be your last; that your image is one you must consume, with the help of Master Card and Visa. The dream of God in my heart is for freedom from fear and courage for life, found in the fellowship of holy friends, united in worship, finding the life of this fellowship and the nourishment of Christ in Word and Sacrament for us and our children; leaning into the new and unending life promised and found in the food of His table and the foot of the cross. Forgiveness. Truthful speech. Mercy. Redemption. Passionate pursuit for the needs of the poor. Born-again hunger for the daily re- shaping of your life and mine in response to the earth-shattering news that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And yes, out of wall space. Like the stars in the sky.