Twickenham URC 7 Oct 2001
Death of a Princess (Gen. 23; Ecclesiasticus 44 1-14; 19-21; John 11, 32-36)
Why entitle this part “Death of a Princess”? For two reasons, the first being that Sarai means ‘princess’, the second that she is the wife of Abraham, addressed in our reading as a mighty prince.
Today, with two parts of this series to follow, the story of Abraham starts to wind down. Sarah, Abraham’s companion since they were young, dies at the age of 127. We are told nothing about the cause or manner of her death, just that it happened – but, if the commentator is correct, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age, death and burial is recorded. She had been a partner in the decision to leave Ur, twice had found herself in danger of being taken into a Harem, had seen Abraham risk his life to rescue Lot, had come up with the idea of Abraham having a child by Hagar, laughed at the idea of her having a child at such an advanced age and made three strangers (and no doubt many others) welcome in her home. And over many decades they must have shared so many other things that we know nothing of.
Those of us who are not married cannot really imagine what it must be like to have shared so much over such a long period. Jemima McCrum who died a few weeks ago had been married to Sam for 64 years. Reg and Eva Stickley, who I knew well, were married for a similar period – their life together went back to the closing days of King George V’s reign. When Eva was so ill and in hospital, Reg was struggling to cope with the thought that he might lose her. And yet – and you might find this strange at first hearing – he hoped that she would be the first of them to go, as he could not bear the though of her being left on her own. He didn’t get his wish, but no one was suprised when she died just weeks after he did.
It’s not surprising that on hearing of Sarah’s death – some commentators suggest that he may not have been with her when it happened – Abraham was distraught. Earlier this week Tony Blair made the observation that when a mother of someone who had died in the World Trade Centre asked him, ‘Why?’, he didn’t feel like the most powerful man in the country. At this moment Abraham, rich and powerful, felt totally impoverished. Any of us – probably all of us – who have experienced the death of a parent, brother, sister, child, close friend will know the feelings that go with such an experience: the denial, anger, depression, resignation and, finally, new hope and strength to face the future. To a lesser extent we may have gone through a grieving process following any one of a number of events: losing a pet, being confronted with a bad medical diagnosis, losing a job, seeing a hoped-for relationship come unstuck and so on.
As the quote from F.B.Meyer on your order of service reminds us, it’s not wrong to grieve. Indeed we must. The shortest verse in the Bible was in our last reading – Jesus wept. Wept at the death of a good friend.
A long while ago I heard a talk by Peter Meadows, who went on to found Premier Radio, in which he mentioned a man who had suffered a major tragedy – I don’t remember the details, something like his children being killed in a car crash – but had turned up at church the following week all upbeat and positive, claiming that in Christ he had the victory. People were impressed by his faith. Within months he was needing psychiatric help. If you bottle up the feelings that should come out, they’ll come out another way. We must laugh with those who laugh, and much as we’d like to make our excuses and cross the road, weep with those who weep: in giving them freedom to do so, we can become an instrument of healing in their lives.
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Well that’s the first two verses covered! At a time like this practicalities have to be attended to.
Abraham approaches the community leaders of the area with a view to buying a piece a land to use as a burial site. They have seen his wealth and importance. So the reply comes: “You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead”. It’s a wonderfully generous gesture to someone in distress, but one he cannot accept. He does not want to have a tomb in their equivalent of the municipal cemetery, but has identified a separate cave and piece of land that he would like to use for this purpose, the cave of Machpelah, property of Ephron son of Zohar. He would like to buy this piece of land. Its owner does not want to sell: “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
No, says Abraham, I want to buy it. But it’s only worth 400 shekels comes the reply, implying that the current owner considers this amount to be too small to worry about. At Abraham’s insistence the money is weighed out and passed over in front in witnesses. The field and cave are his, and everyone knows this.
There are times to be generous, and to accept other’s generosity in a gracious manner. But there are times when unthinking giving and receiving may be the wrong thing to do. We were discussing the other day the dilemma of parents who are asked to help out when their children get into financial difficulty: sometimes it’s obviously the right thing to do. At other times such generosity may mean that hard decisions which should be taken are put off. There’s a time for being willing to receive, which can be harder than giving: the New Zealand hymn we’ve used several times in this series starts “Brother, sister let me serve you” but goes on to ask the “I may have the grace to let you be my servant”.
In this case, accepting what was freely and generously offered did not seem to be the right thing to do. Abraham wasn’t just looking for a place to bury Sarah, but for a place where he, Isaac and those who followed would also be laid to rest – in time Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. His title to this land must be established beyond doubt. And paying a fair price, eschewing the temptation to bargain down the price, as would have been normal practice, was the right thing to do.
I hope that not too many of us are currently being exercised by the need to buy cemetery plots or make funeral plans – but what about the things we buy each day. Margaret spoke to us last week about fair trade products. When you and I deal with coffee farmers and tea pickers – which nearly all of us do every week – through numerous intermediaries of course – are we hoping they will be overawed by our wealth and power. Are we interested in seeing how low we can screw the price, knowing that in their desperation they will agree. Or are we with Abraham, saying that if x is a fair price, we will pay it. At his lowest point, Abraham managed to do the right thing. Let us, likewise, always strive to do so.
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Hymns: R&S 104: Praise my soul, the king of heaven; 658: For all the saints who from their labours rest; O Lord you lead me through all the darkness; 599: Christ for the world we sing; 553: To Abraham and Sarah the call of God was clear
The Cave of Machpelah, or Tomb of the Patriarchs, is the world’s most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The cave was purchased by Abraham as a burial place for his wife Sarah some 3,700 years ago, along with the trees and field adjoining it, the first recorded transaction of a Hebrew buying land in Canaan. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah were all later buried in the same place. The building covering the cave was constructed roughly two thousand years ago by Herod. The 40-60 foot high walls are similar to those of the Temple Mount. Since Herod’s time, the structure has been used by foreign conquerors as a shrine to their own religions. Thus, the Byzantines and Crusaders transformed it into a church and the Muslims converted it a mosque. About 700 years ago, the Mamelukes conquered Hebron, declared the structure a mosque and forbade entry to Jews, who were not allowed past the seventh step on a staircase outside the building