My sermon title, “The Arc of the Deal,” may need some explanation. When you first look at it you might say, “Isn’t that a typo?”— a misprint. Shouldn’t it be “The Art of the Deal”? That’s the title of a book that had been getting some attention lately. It is supposedly written by the president of the US ,Donald Trump. At one time, during his campaign for the Presidency, he boasted that it was the second most important book ever written. The first in importance was the Bible. It has become clear in the course of the two-years of his administration that: 1) he did not write the book , but rather, it was cobbled together from his random thoughts and outrageous acts in business by a ghost writer; and 2) He knows very little about the Bible and its value. However, in his self-proclaimed book, The Art of the Deal, which I have not read, I have learned, Trump boasts about his gift and unique talent for making deals. History will be the judge.
Today’s scripture reading from the Old Testament is about making a deal. So maybe it should be the sermon title should read “Art” of the deal, not “Arc”, yes?
No. That is no misprint. The word “Arc” word, I drew from another quote by another famous American, one more worthy, to my mind, of quoting: Dr. Martin Luther King. The word comes from a speech he made back in 1962 to a Trade Union group, workers who were taking action for fair wages and working conditions. They were being beaten by union busting thugs and treated unjustly. King gave these words of encouragement: “Don’t despair. Don’t give up the fight. Keep the faith. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Hear the words again : “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Combining these two ideas brought me to my sermon title—The Arc of the Deal. It might be expanded to say the Arc of the Deal is long but it bends toward fulfillment, fulfilment of God’s promise. The arc of the deal is long but it bends toward faithfulness. Our God is faithful. We can trust in God.
The Arc of the Deal.
In today’s scripture reading from Genesis we have a story about a conversation between Abram and God. Abram is still holding onto his original name. He is not yet Abraham—that’s another story, which comes a bit later. This is a story of a deal—in biblical terms, a covenant.
Abram has a vision in which God makes a deal with him. God makes him a promise. In this reading we aren’t told why God chooses Abram and why he makes this promise. All we are told is that Abram believed God’s promise and for that the Lord God reckoned it to him as righteousness (Gen15:6). Abram believed, he had faith—even though he had no “proof”—no plan.
If we go back a few pages we will read where Abram may have earned his righteousness. He assisted a relative in a battle and together they defeated an evil enemy. But Abram took no tribute or plunder from this victory. Abram took nothing but the security for his people. But being generous in victory is not equal to being righteous. God’s covenant is without merit. God’s covenant with Abram is an act of Grace.
So what is the covenant promise, the deal that God makes? Actually, there are two parts to the deal: 1) God promises Abram a son and countless descendants. 2) He also promises him land. But Abram, who has had a very good relationship with God, is not convinced, and so God enacts a ritual—a deal-cutting ritual. It is from this ritual we get the phrase “to cut a deal” or “to cut a cheque”. It is a ritual that was practised in ancient times to affirm full submission by both parties to the terms agreed upon. Animals were slaughtered and then cut in half. The split carcasses were laid out in a line. The two deal-making partners walked back-and-forth between the split carcasses—the implication is that if the deal is broken, they would submit to the same treatment as the slaughtered animals. The story shows us how Abram actively sustains the deal making ritual. He not only walks between the cut carcasses, he drives away the vultures and ravens, the carrion eaters to preserve the meat and the ritual.
God is at work as well, sustaining the ritual while Abram sleeps. God keeps the bargaining process going, protecting the meat with smoke and making the conventional offerings. The story concludes with a restatement and specifics. To your descendants I give this land. (v.18) The irony here, of course, is that all this time Abram remains childless. There are no descendants. Abram has no heirs. In his day and cultural setting this is an unbearable curse. His life, all his efforts, all pointless. Yet, here it is, Abram maintains his trust, despite the lack of evidence.
Abram has a good relationship with God. He fears God and he bends to God’s will. When God speaks, he listens. When God promises, Abram believes. When God commands, Abram obeys. When God said, “Pack up your flock, all your people and leave Ur, Abram did so.
But this time Abe says, “Hey, wait a minute—how am I to possess this land? I am old. I’m too old to work it, too old to manage it, I have no real successors. I’m too old to produce a successor. My wife is too old. How will this be?”
Rather than debating the point, God tells Abram to go outside and start counting the stars. “When you can’t count any longer, that’s how many descendants you will have.” God doesn’t engage in a discussion—“Go outside. Count the stars.”
This story is about faithfulness. It asks a question that all of us ask when it comes to issues regarding our faith lives. Can I keep faith? Why do I doubt? Can I trust in God’s promise? What is the character of faithfulness? So often we face difficult times and we ask, “Where is God?” Sometimes our doubts are so deep that we even abandon God. We take God out of the equation. We become sceptical. We lose faith. This story underscores the validity of God’s promise. The promise is not fulfilled then and there. The promise is made. The appropriate rituals are completed. The conversation continues. Even as he has doubts, Abram continues the conversation with God.
Sometimes we think that faith means we are not allowed doubts. Sometimes we believe that we are required to submit to doctrine of faith silently, without questioning. Some people hold that doubt is sinful. Abram questions, and God responds. God does not roll out the plan and convince him through a detailed argument about how it will be done.
What about doubt? Our little green book, Living Faith, a summary of our Presbyterian Reformed beliefs, deals with Doubt in a separate section. Doubts, questions that arise when living through times when we fail to see God’s presence, are part of an active and engaged life of faith—part of our relationship with our God. See Section 6 , p16. Doubt is not evil. Questioning may be a sign of growth, it continues to say.
We have all gone through periods of doubt. We have all questioned the nearness or effectiveness of God and our faith in God. Think about your own life. When I think about my own life and my presence here before you today, I can only marvel at God’s faithfulness. The Arc of the Deal is long, but it bends toward faithfulness. It bends toward fulfillment of the promise—the Arc of the Deal. Abram questions God: “Hey, wait a minute….” He stands outside the tent, looking up at the stars.
Last week I celebrated by birthday. Birthdays are a time for celebration. Birthdays are celebrated universally among people. people sing songs, eat especially prepared food, like cake, and sometimes make speeches or offer toasts. All this to acknowledge that we were born, given life on a particular day. Before that day there was no “Me.” There was no “You.”
There was no “ONE”—no person. And then suddenly, miraculously there was a “One” – a unique one. On that day each one of us became another actor, perceiver and responder to all the wonders of life in the universe.
Birthdays are not only about celebration. They are also about contemplation. Where did I come from? How did I get here? How do I fit into the “arc”—the arc of history. At this time, this past week I’ve been thinking about that.
I’ve also been thinking about the refugees. There’s so much going on in the news about people on the move these days. The American preoccupation with the “Wall.” “Keep them out – the refuges, the asylum seekers. “The invaders.” The British too are bent on “keeping them out.” Brexit was mainly about the influx of non traditional people.
I ‘ve been thinking about refugees from Syria a lot lately. Maybe you have too. Cathy and I are part of a small group helping a Syrian family move onto the North Shore. After two years of raising money and working through the bureaucracy, they are about to land. The group has raised over $70,000 to help get them on their feet. These people, this Syrian family, are people of faith—they are part of the great tradition of Abraham—monotheism, one God, one true God, the same faithful ancestor in faith that we have and share with Jews, and with Moslems.
I can imagine a Syrian mother and father questioning their faith. “Here we were, our family, living normal lives in our homeland, and suddenly everything started exploding around us. We had no choice. We had to leave for the sake of our family.” The Syrian family that we are sponsoring has been languishing in a refugee camp in Jordan for almost three years.
Refugee camps--that was my life when I was born just before the end of the War. WWII.
I can imagine my own mother, standing outside the school house in which she had been placed by the refugee agency in Germany. It was there that she, her husband and two kids were sharing an assigned classroom in an abandoned schoolhouse with three other families. They had fled the horror of war in the Ukraine, their homeland.
As she stands there looking at the stars, it is mid-February, 1945. Earlier, in November of ’43, she and her family had been loaded into boxcars with others fleeing the Red Army. They had been moved west with the retreating German army.
My mother, a Volksdeutsche, a German by heritage because of her Mennonite roots, was included in the evacuation. She, her husband, her five-year-old daughter and her six-month-old son were loaded up into the boxcar with what they could carry in their two hands, leaving behind everything else.
Now she has somehow arrived in Germany, near the Czechoslovakian border. There she stands looking up at the stars. She is holding her extended abdomen. She carries a child ready to be born. She doesn’t know where or how, but her time is near. She looks up at the stars that twinkle in the sky overhead. Then suddenly the sky lights up, it erupts like a volcano, with flashes in the distance. She is less than 20 kilometres away from Dresden. The unprecedented bombing of Dresden has begun—the most intense non-atomic bombing in history. She is pregnant with me. I’m that awaited child. She is trying to stay away from the Russians who are advancing, but the Allies have brought plane-loads, thousands of planes – loads, tons of bombs to destroy the city of Dresden, a cultural and industrial city well inside Germany.
She is a person of deep faith. She is a believer, born and brought up a Mennonite in a strict colony in the south of the Russian Empire.
Like other Mennonites of her day, when she was a child and youth, she has lived through the Russian Revolution as it played itself out in her homeland. She has lived through the violence, abuse and pillaging of the villages. She has seen the break-up and scattering of her people, many sent off to Siberia and Asia by Stalin. All through these horrors, she has maintained her faith. All through these times she has prayed and kept up her relationship with God. And now this.
Suddenly, she is taken by her arm and rushed to a basement bomb shelter. She finds it difficult to breath. She stumbles on the stairs. What if the baby comes now? She is praying, please, not now. She is also asking. Why now? She is questioning her faith. What was the point? We might all be bombed, killed in any moment. Why now, God? I’m sure she has some doubts. How could she not?
But God is faithful. She does not know what will happen in the next few minutes, hours, weeks. She does not know what will happen in the next month and year. But she keeps the faith. She believes her God will keep his promise. She trusts that her God is a faithful God. The Arc of the Deal is long but it bends toward faithfulness.
The story of my birth, my family’s journey out of the Russian zone and into the American Zone, our deployment from one refugee camp to another; our final contact with a relations in Chilliwack, and our life in Canada, my own life as a young man growing up in this country . All that, all of my history, it is a long journey. It is my personal example of the statement that the Arc of the Deal is long, but it bends toward faithfulness.
I challenge you to look at your own life’s stories. Look at your own challenges, disappointments, doubts and fears. Look, and I believe you will see that God has been faithful.
I challenge you to look at the life of this church from its formation by a small group of believers and the building of a modest church on Trafalgar Street. Look back at the history of this building, the beautiful sanctuary the we now call Kerrisdale Presbyterian Church. Imagine the anxieties and risks of the people who conceived of this building. How could they not have had doubts? Look back at the people who kept the faith. Again, you will not be surprised when you see God’s faithfulness at work. Then think about the future. The future of this church. The Arc of the deal… Think about what role we have to play in that future. We are coming out of our “wilderness” and we are looking toward a new definition of who we are as people of God in this neighbourhood. Will we remain faithful?
In this Lenten period, we are invited to look at God’s faithfulness. In his desert trials, in the wilderness Jesus’ own faith is challenged by the devil.. In our New Testament reading Jesus recognizes his limits. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills its prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:43) Jesus doubts his own effectiveness in a world of evil. He has just been warned that there are those who want to kill him. Where is God? Where is God’s power?
God’s power is in God’s faithfulness. We are living under the grace of a sovereign God— a Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Sprit. Today, in our AGM we will reflect on the past year. We will report on the past, and project to the future.
When we look to the future, when we look to the future of our world, our community, our families, our church, the message of our faith, our Christian message, begins with the words with which Abram’s story begins: “Do not be afraid Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. (Gen.15:1). The Arc of the deal, my covenant with you, is long, but it bends toward faithfulness. Trust in the Arc of the Deal…..