February 25, 2018 – Genesis 17.1-7,15-16

    It seems like I have talked a lot about Abraham and Sarah lately.  So I apologize if you’re getting tired of hearing about the importance of the covenant God makes with them.  I promise that today I will at least try to take a different angle on this story.
    We do have the advantage that today’s passage comes from chapter seventeen in Genesis, and not chapter twelve, which is where God first speaks to Abraham.  Today what we have is a restatement of the covenant.  Actually it is a partial restatement.  In chapter twelve God makes three promises to Abraham – he will have a land, he will have many descendants, and through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  By the time we get to chapter seventeen Abraham is ninety-nine years old, and Sarah is ninety.  And still they have not had any children.  So naturally they’re wondering about the many descendants promise.
    Well, sort of.  Abraham has had a son, Ishmael, but Sarah’s slave-girl, Hagar, is his mother.  Later on Ishmael becomes a problem, because in that day the oldest son has certain rights, compared to younger sons.  So when Abraham and Sarah finally have their own son, Isaac, Ishmael is a problem.  But that’s a story for another day I suppose.
    As for today, God repeats only the descendants part of the covenant, telling Abraham, “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.  You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”  And as a sign of this promise, this is when Abraham actually becomes Abraham, meaning father of a multitude.  Up until now he was just Abram.  Likewise, Sarai becomes Sarah, meaning princess.  Names are always important in scripture, so this couple receiving new names is the divine seal that what has been promised will come to pass.  Even though they are in their nineties.
    God’s covenant is still in force.  The rest of the Bible traces the fulfillment of the covenant, with the people becoming numerous, the occupation of the promised land after the Exodus, and, we Christians believe, Jesus becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth.
    But the story does not end with the book of Revelation, at the conclusion of the Second Testament.  Muslims claim Ishmael, and therefore Abraham and Sarah, as their ancestors.  So Abraham and Sarah are the ancestors of various spiritual nations – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Today’s nation of Israel is, geographically, roughly the promised land.  In fact, as I understand it, the current Israelites not only say, this land was given to us after World War II, but it is ours because it was promised to Abraham and Sarah.  The problem with that, which persists to this day, is that the Palestinians say, but the land was not vacant when the Hebrew people arrived after the Exodus, and it was not vacant in 1945.  We were already here.  So if you have a solution to that, let President Trump and the State Department know.  They’d love to hear from you.
    God’s covenant is still in force.  We Christians say that we have a new covenant.  It is based not on a long list of laws but rather on two – love God and love your neighbor.  Like the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, it was initiated by God, who sent Jesus to inaugurate this new covenant.  God says to us, you are loved.  You are forgiven.  It is by my grace that you are saved.  This is a gift to you.
    No matter how many times we hear that, it is still hard to accept, isn’t it?  It sounds like we’re getting something for nothing, and we hear a little voice in our head saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.  But it is true that we are saved by God’s grace, by simply receiving it as a gift.  It is the covenant God makes with us through Jesus the Christ, and it is still in force.  And the Second Testament tells us that it is important for us to remember that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham and Sarah.  God still desires that all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
    But we know we have a ways to go in order for that to happen, in order for the covenants God has made to come to complete fruition.  We know there are still too many people who struggle just to obtain the basics of living every day – food, water, shelter.  They are the homeless, the refugees, the migrant workers, the poor.  We know there are still too many people who are victims of violence – domestic violence, gang violence, war, mass shootings.  We know the list goes on of those who need hope and justice and peace in their lives.
    We also know we cannot help everyone or solve all of the world’s problems.  But fortunately, we can do our part.  Fortunately, we do not always have to strike out on our own to find ways to help people in need.  Fortunately we have local agencies such as Habitat for Humanity and Piedmont Community Impact Organization and Daily Bread and the Gateway and Interfaith Outreach Association and the TEAM food pantry and various other partners in ministry.  We can, and do, contribute to them financially and send volunteers to help with their programs.
    And fortunately, we have a way to reach out and help even people in need who live far away.  On our behalf, the Week of Compassion is at work around the world, helping victims of disasters, helping people get and stay on their feet, helping build better lives so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
    Helping people in places where I cannot go is one of the things I like best about the Week of Compassion.  The Week of Compassion is providing drought relief in Ethiopia and Kenya.  It is providing flood relief in Colombia and earthquake relief in Mexico.  It is helping refugees in the Middle East and helping provide clean water in Haiti.  By far the longest list of places where the Week of Compassion gives assistance is in the United States.  The list includes Hurricane recovery in Texas, fire recovery for Antioch Christian Church in Spencer, Virginia, fire recovery in California and Kansas, storm recovery in Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina, and a long, long list of other responses which can be seen on the Week of Compassion website.  We can’t be in all those places – except through our gifts to the Week of Compassion special offering.
    The other thing I really like about the Week of Compassion is that you don’t see it advertized on tv and you don’t get a mailing from them every other week.  There are a lot of organizations doing a lot of great things for people in need, near and far.  But the Week of Compassion is one of the most efficient, for two reasons.  One is that its overhead, its administration and promotion budget, is very, very small.  They have a very small staff, and you see their promotional material, in the form of posters, bulletin inserts, and offering envelopes.  Period.
    The other reason our gifts to the Week of Compassion go so far is that like us, they have a multitude of trusted partner organizations around the world.  They don’t have to pay to send their own people to respond to all the identified needs.  They work through local Disciples of Christ congregations and Church World Service and a host of other reputable agencies which already have boots on the ground in places of need.  So our gifts go much further in making a difference, compared to some more well-known relief and development organizations.
    The senior minister I worked with when I was first out of seminary used to say that when it came time for the Week of Compassion offering it was time for us to put away our wallets and get out our checkbooks, meaning it deserves more than a dollar or two.  Today concludes our formal emphasis on the this offering, but we can contribute to the Week of Compassion at any time during the year.  So if you didn’t bring your checkbook today, that’s alright.  We won’t send in our collective offering for a few more weeks.
    Meanwhile back at the ranch, we are working to tend to some needs on the home front.  We have made the down payment for a elevator, because there are people who need a way to get from one level of our building to the other without having to climb the stairs.  We are making a family bathroom because there are people who need such a facility.  We hope to begin work soon on remodeling our nurseries, because there are families who need to know their children are safe and well cared-for.  We need youth rooms that will be warm and welcoming for our young people.  We need screens in the sanctuary to add that dimension to our worship and other events which happen there.
    We just need more money.  We’re off to a great start.  We have sixty percent of the approximately $117,000 we need already given or pledged.  We just need the other forty percent, about $47,000.  Remember that this campaign goes through the end of next year, so we have almost two years to complete our pledges.  And remember it would be great to get as many of the projects completed by this September as possible, so they would be done in time for our fiftieth anniversary celebration.
    But we don’t want to go out on too much of a limb in borrowing money until we have the pledges to back up the borrowing.  So give as you can.  Just don’t reduce your giving to the general fund in order to give to this campaign.  All the campaign gifts need to be in addition to our regular giving.
    We want to be God’s partners in being a blessing to all the families of the earth.  We can do that by contributing generously to the Week of Compassion.  We can do that by making a gift or pledge to the facilities improvement campaign.  We can do that by remembering that God’s covenant of love and forgiveness is still in force, and we are invited to accept that amazing gift.  Amen.