Some 9 weeks ago God and I had a fight. It was a heavy fight. A drawn out, angry kind of fight. It was not a good time in our relationship. I was -- perhaps even still am -- mad at God because my friend from seminary died of cancer.
It’s a real shame that you never got to meet the Reverend Jae Chung. He was a genuinely good guy. He was a real disciple of Christ and seemed to have this sense of holiness about him. If we had had “most likely to” designations in seminary, he would probably have been the most likely to be made a saint kind of guy. I think you all would have really liked Jae.
When Jae was young he got cancer. But he beat cancer and went about his life. He got married and had two kids. Then he went to seminary to pursue his dream of being a priest. While in seminary he had two more kids--twins! The family was the joy of the seminary. Mostly because wherever they went they were an instant party!
A week and a half before he died Jae wasn’t feeling well so he went to the doctor. They found that the cancer was back and it was already stage 4. He was given less than two weeks to live. And indeed in less than two weeks Jae died.
His death hit me hard. I questioned a lot. And two long flights in less than 24 hours (going to NY and coming back) gave me a long time to think and to talk with God. I just didn’t understand why God would let this happen. Especially to someone like Jae. I just didn’t understand it. I still don’t.
And so God and I had a fight. And I stopped talking with him for a while.
I still don’t have any concrete answers. I can still picture sitting at the funeral looking at Jae’s casket in front of me and looking at his kids right to my left. Sometimes they cried and sometimes they were sleepy. Come to think of it, that also was me.
God and I are better now. Even without the answers. But I have faith that Jae is with God and that God’s promises to us, promises to Jae are still true.
Someone else who sometimes didn’t quite get God’s movements is someone we got to hear about in the readings today from the Old Testament: Abram. (Yes, he will become Abraham, but that’s still a few chapters away.)
In today’s reading from genesis 15 we get to see Abram in his older years (even though he had many more years to go). He was 75 when God first called to Abram and gave him some instructions. That was chapter 12. He told him that he’d have many descendants and to get moving. Until today’s reading the relationship between Abram and God went something like this: God speaks, Abram listens. God promises, Abram believes. God commands, Abram obeys. But today the whole relationship changed. This is a turning point if ever there was one. But also in an instant, their relationship matured.
God tells him, “Hey, don’t be afraid. I am your shield. Your reward will be grand.”
Abram responds, “Really Lord? Because right now my housekeeper is going to get everything you’re promising me. You have yet to give me one child, much less a whole bunch of descendents.”
So God reiterated his promise and Abram reminds God that he’s old, still has no kids, nor signs of any kids no matter how much geriatric sex he’s having. So, what good is the promise the Lord made?
If this was a movie I’m sure we’d see a close up of God’s face as he’s about to smite and delete Abram from the face of the earth. Instead, God is assuring to Abram. No condemning here. God is even tender with Abram: “Don’t worry, he says. I made you a promise. You will indeed have an heir.” Further, he’s like “let me show you what I have planned. Look at the sky,” God says. “Your family will be so big that like the stars you won’t even be able to count them.”
So God wasn’t mad that Abram questioned. Rather he welcomed this sign of a maturing faith. A true relationship has questions and has challenges. Abram has finally started to fill his part of the relationship. It’s not a marionette and his puppeteer. It is a relationship of two beings who care for one another and they can ask questions of one another.
We are told that after the chat Abram believed. And to seal the deal there will be a sacrifice that same day. But by evening Abram fell asleep with a sense of dread. Abram’s fear probably once again crept up on him. He probably doubted God once again.
Then we get to the part of the story that the editors of the revised common lectionary left out and I think is so important: 15:13-16. This is what it says:
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
To recap, God tells Abram: “Oh yeah, by the way, your descendants will live as slaves and will be oppressed for 400 years. And also, you will die of old age but will never get to see the fullness of my promise to you.”
So, God basically said: “I know this may sound like an odd way to fulfill my promise but it is what it is. And by the way, you won’t even get to see it it happen.” And the lesson for Abram is that just because it’s not your way and on your timeline it does not mean that God isn’t there working it out.
And that’s also a lesson for us still today: God’s promises to us will be fulfilled but NOT necessarily how we might think or want or like or when we might want it to happen.
All of us live our lives under the assumption of certain promises from God: perhaps it’s that good will always win. Or that good people will be ok and bad people will get what's coming.
Or maybe it’s the more basic promise from Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (M 6:26)
Or from Luke: “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (L 12:7)
Many times the bible tells us not to be afraid because God will take care of us. And I think we believe that. We want to believe that. But then sometimes things happen that make us question those promises from God. And I’m here to tell you that is it ok to do that. That is a sign of a healthy relationship. It’s the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us. God yearns for more intimacy with us.
But when we are in that place, when we are in a fight with God because we don’t understand God’s ways, because we just can’t imagine why God’s timeline is so much slower than ours and the seeming delay is just causing more pain, in those moments, it is hard. Just ask Abram.
I firmly believe that is why God gave us the Holy Spirit and especially the sacraments. Those physical things that we can hang on to to remind us that the promise is real. That God so loves us that he lived among us. That belief that in the end, perhaps even after we have died, the promise will be fulfilled.
I still don’t understand my friend Jae’s death at such a young age and leaving behind such a beautiful family. But I do believe (and I have seen in happening) that God’s angels will take care of the family (as they have been in the form of friends and family).
The pain is still there. But God and I are better again. And I do trust in God’s faithfulness to us. It just may not be in the way I imagine or when I want it. But, like the stars in the night sky, I know God’s love is vast and sometimes, it’s enough for the two of us.