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Aug 20 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

August 18, 2013 – Genesis Chapter 23

When to Practice Slow-Motion

Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiriath-arbah (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” Genesis 23:1-4

INTRO: You know how, when hiking or riding a bike up a steep hill, you have to stop and catch your breath?

That’s how I feel at this point in Abraham’s story
– after all he’s been through recently, he needs space to breathe
– but that is not how the story goes

We just read of his shocking ordeal with Isaac, now we turn the page and Sarah dies
– no one’s been with him longer or knows him better
• now she’s gone and Abraham is left to mourn and weep

The storyteller doesn’t linger over the details

There’s no pathetic bedside scene, no last words uttered with her final breath
– only her lifespan briefly stated (in two lines, the second in reverse order from the first)

The life of Sarah, 127 years;
years were life of Sarah.

• then the simple statement, “Sarah died”
– the same succinct style is used of Abraham–he went to mourn and weep–that’s it

But we know these losses leave their mark on us

A few years after my brother-in-law died, I sat with my sister, Janette, and our folks around their table. We knew that Janette grieved his lost, but we never saw it. I won’t say that she handled it stoically, but that it was perhaps too personal to let others see and possibly intrude on her sacred wound. She also threw herself into caring for her grandchildren and to being strong for others.
It was Christmas day and roughly the same time of year that Greg had passed. We were missing Greg and reminiscing on his life when Janette said, “They say time heals, but I don’t believe that. I think you just get used to living with the pain.”

– in To Heaven and Back, Mary Neal makes a similar statement regarding the loss of her nineteen year old son
• she says, it is not something a person “gets beyond” or “works through”
• but it is something we must learn to incorporate into a “new life” and a “new reality”

Vv. 4-16, Abraham had to tend to the business of burial

It sounds harsh to refer to caring for the remains of a loved-one as “business”
– but it’s what we encounter when “making arrangements” — the death industry
– in Abraham’s time, these transactions took place at the city gate (v. 10)

Pay attention to how Abraham negotiated this “deal” with the locals
– he opened negotiations with, “I am stranger and sojourner among you”
• he confessed that he had no rights or ownership in their society (cf. Gen. 19:9)
• this is how Abraham saw himself — how he thought he looked in their eyes
– their response, “Hear us” – hear is a key word in this transaction
• “my lord” is a term of respect – “you are a mighty prince among us”
○ this is how Abraham actually looked in their eyes
○ he had more clout than he knew
• sometimes we need to adjust our inner reality to the outside reality all around us
○ and sometimes it means an upward adjustment of our status
– notice, that what they offer him is use of one of their burial sites
• they haven’t offered him ownership

As the conversation goes back and forth, Abraham moves up and down
– v. 7, “rose and bowed” – now it’s his turn to say, “hear me
• we’ll see that the locals are sitting the whole time he is either standing or bowing (v. 10)
• he lets them know his intentions: he wants ownership and he’s ready to spend money
– Ephron responds, “No, my lord, hear me
• each side wants to make certain they are heard — that their terms are clearly understood
○ by listening carefully, both parties are able to determine their next move
• it sounds like Ehpron is making a very generous offer
○ but notice that he cleverly throws in his field, when Abraham only wanted the cave
○ this, of course, ups the value of the purchase — and the price

Abraham politely insisted that Ephron listen to him
– “I will give you the price of the field
• he realized he had to purchase the whole thing
– Ephron still maintaining a pretense of generosity, now gets down to business
• “four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you?”

“Abraham listened to Ephron” and weighed out the silver
– he understood Ephron perfectly well — he knew the game
• he wasn’t confused or taken in by the cultural rhetoric
– Abraham didn’t try to haggle the price
• perhaps he was too worn out with grief to bother

Two times in the passage the Hebrew uses a different word for hearing; vv. 10 & 16
• both times, it is in regard to the city leaders (who “give ear”)
○ the point is, their participation guaranteed Abraham’s proof of ownership–legal and documented
○ that is the same purpose that the last four verses serve

Let’s back up

When someone we love dies, our first question is “Why?” — especially if it is painful, sudden, or the death of a child
– we feel like we need a reason
• this death must serve some purpose, that there’s a just cause or that it must have a meaning
• it is like we assume that if there is a good enough reason, it will make their death easier to take
– the truth is, we have to be okay with not knowing
• it is learning to trust God and let life and death happen and retain their mystery
• the western mind believes it has to figure things out
○ we panic at thought that there are some things we can’t control

Even when we give up trying to control the outside world, we still try to take control of what’s inside
– “we must learn to manage our feelings”
• as if there’s a correct way to experience emotions
• but some feelings are too powerful to “manage” and we can only create illusion that we manage them
○ it also becomes too fatiguing to have feelings and then have to manage them
– is there another way to be with our feelings? to make peace with them?
• we can observe our feelings — typically, we either do not do this at all or we do it too little
○ it takes no more energy to observe our feelings than to have them
○ and observing them makes our choices clearer and easier

Gerald May, “I am … humbled by how much of my previous life I had spent trying to tame fear and other emotions, keeping them under control, civilizing them. . . .
In my psychiatric practice how many times did I help patients cope with their feelings, tame the power of their emotions? I no longer believe that was helpful. Even when I assisted people in uncovering long-buried emotions, I seldom encouraged them to savor the life-juice of the feelings themselves . . . .”

• our feelings are often the very point at which we connect with life — connect with our bodies
○ and our feelings are great for revealing our inner thoughts and assumptions

CONC: Did you notice that there’s nothing supernatural in this story?

No divine encounter or conversation – it’s just the normal business of life
– yet it takes up a lot of space – and much more space is given to the business transaction than Sarah’s death
• the silly details of ancient bartering reveal a very useful insight
• careful attention to details is one way to discover the present moment
○ we assume that it is easy to be in the present moment
○ but when we try, our thoughts take us everywhere but here
○ past regrets or resentments, future responsibilities and worries
– we have to slow down to catch up with the present moment
• if we try to rush into it, we’ll fly by it
• we have to really listen – just like the characters in this story
○ if they missed one of the subtle clues, the negotiations would have failed
• the present moment is calling to us, “Here I am”
• even in the city, in business–we can cross the threshold into the sacred moment

I hate speaking through interpreter, (a friend of mine refers to them as “interrupters”)
– but part of my brain serves like a “Department of Interpretation” – it has to figure everything out

Sometimes, standing or sitting in front of me is a person whose face and body language are saying, “Please don’t interpret me, or try to figure me our. Just listen and try to hear me!”

I once went to Russia by myself, where I spent a night in an orphanage out in the countryside
– we had to leave early for Kostroma, so we were on the road as the sun was rising
• suddenly its brilliant light was reflecting from the tops of frozen birch and pine trees
• too beautiful to be real, it was like a fairytale — a diamond-studded forest
– I wanted to say to the driver and my escort, “Do you see that?!”
• but they were talking and concerned with other things
• they had seen it many times and it meant something different for them — another long, cold winter, etc.
○ but I was content to be alone in what became for me a sacred moment

There was a time when I led a project to purchase a bowling alley and turn it into a “church.” Our architect enjoyed exercising his creativity and designed a beautiful inner space. He also made a suggestion that we chose to reject. He wanted to create square, shallow recesses in the walls of the long hallway and have artists in our church paint scenes or symbols in them. Then, after a few months, paint new scenes and symbols over the old ones, and continue to do this two or three times a year. I remember the reaction of one celebrated artist (his work had been shown in New York). At first he asked, “You mean hang a canvas and then later replace it?” “No,” the architect replied, “I mean paint right on the wall and then later paint over your painting.” The artist was horrified. He intended for his work to last many generations.

Every moment God creates a new masterpiece, then slides it into the extinction of the past and creates a new one

We need to find the handle that opens the door to the present moment
– to breathe it, taste it, feel it before it is lost
– we do not want to sleep through the best moments of our lives
• it could mean that we stop listening to our thoughts and listen, instead, to ambient sounds
• it could mean that we slow ourselves down and begin to take in the details of our beautifully imperfect world

And then, rather than running after our thoughts and away from God, we could run to him

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