Faithful Presence

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, February 26, 2013
Dwight Zscheile

 Gen 15 1-12, 17-18

If you’ve ever been to a wedding at St Matthew’s, you will have heard from Blair or me somewhere in every sermon a message: it’s not about you. Being married or being in covenant relationship isn’t ultimately about fulfilling our individual desires or dreams, though that is part of it. It is for the sake of others. The Book of Common Prayer talks about relationships in terms covenant community that echoes or reflects God’s covenant with God’s people. Think of the typical wedding cake image of two figures standing face-face. But what these relationships do at their best is to allow us to stand back-to-back and so face the world. Covenantal partnerships allow for the creation of community.

So many decisions in our lives are about the creating or breaking of community. For instance, how we treat spouse/partner, children, neighbors, or co-workers. Are we exploiting others, using them for our gain? Or are we recognizing their intrinsic, God-given worth, and seeking their growth and flourishing? We live in an age of dissolution—the erosion of trust, the breaking down of institutions and settled patterns community, belonging. The tendency is for us to seek our individual interest above all else.

I want to focus today on trustworthiness in a world of broken faith. You may be listening feeling haunted by ways you have broken faith or violated trust, or had your trust violated. You’re not alone. This is a time in the church year to name and confront these realities. But it isn’t anything new, as today’s reading about Abraham and Sarah makes clear.

One of the peculiar things about the Bible is that God chooses to redeem humanity by working through people as complicated and flawed as you and me. God calls Abraham and Sarah, when they are already senior citizens, to get up and go on pilgrimage, and blesses them to be a blessing. They’re given the promise of descendants and prosperity, but off in the future. In the meantime, they’re on an ambiguous journey in which their faith is tested. Even though the promise is that they together will have descendants, Abraham puts this in jeopardy by passing Sarah off as his sister twice. It’s hard to live in the face of a promised future when the present is uncertain. Can anyone relate?

In today’s text, God reassures Abraham in a vision when he’s getting exasperated, for they continue childless. Abraham even suggests that his household steward, Eliezer of Damascus, is going to be his heir because there is no child evident. God takes him outside and opens up his horizon, using the stars to portray a different future. Abraham believes or trusts in the Lord in spite of all circumstances to the contrary. This could mean that God deems Abraham righteous because he trusts; or that Abraham recognizes God’s faithfulness in continuing the promise and accompanying him.

Then there is that weird thing with the animals. This was an ancient way of symbolizing a covenant vow that means: may I be cut in two if fail to uphold my promise. Notice that God does this, not Abraham. It is a unilateral covenant: God upholds God’s side even when humans break theirs. Abraham is not obligated here.

Most days, when I wake up, I try to focus on one phrase through the day: “faithful presence.” What does it mean for me to be faithfully present today to God, to my family, to my neighbors, to my vocation and tasks, within my spheres of influence? More often than not, I catch myself failing to do so: when I’m distracted by multitasking, for instance, rather than being fully present to my son. When I hold back parts of myself rather than risk vulnerability in speaking up in social or work situations, even when I know I would contribute an important voice. When I turn my back on a neighbor in need rather than pausing and reaching out.

Faithful presence is not easy. It is easy for us to get caught up in seeking our own interest at the expense of others. Paul’s language for this in Philippians is having one’s ‘mind set on earthly things’—ultimately bent toward destruction. But our citizenship is in heaven. In other words, we belong not just ourselves, but to God, and to God’s promised community. If so, we’re not on our own to hold ourselves up. We’re held up by the one who carries us through the ambiguity and struggle of living in the between times.

For God’s promises and blessings create community. They enable Abraham and Sarah to be faithful, and through them, others in turn. “Belief” here is a relational term; it’s about trust and belonging, not agreeing to certain ideas.

We live in a world full of the destruction and distortion of community. We see it in own lives, homes, neighborhoods, nation, and world. We can’t fix it all. We don’t need to. But God remains faithfully present to us, even and especially amidst our unfaithfulness. God takes our unfaithfulness into God’s own self and redeems it. God restores us to community with God so that we might restore community with others. God has our backs so that we might turn outward to face others in love.  

My prayer this Lent is that we may know and trust God’s faithful presence to us, so that we might be faithfully present to those around us. Amen