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Monday, June 19, 2017
“And Abram believed, and Sarah laughed, and All was Well….”
A Sermon on Genesis 18:1-5 and 21:1-7
By Griff Martin
For the Beloveds of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the Second Sunday Following Pentecost
June 18, 2017
Grace and peace this morning.
Two greetings this morning: I saw a sign downtown this weekend that read: “You don’t have to be a father to love like one.” So to all those who love us like fathers, thank you. You have shaped and formed us.
And on this third Sunday of Pride month, to our LBGTQ community. We love you and thank you for shaping us and forming us. You make us more whole and holier.
Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter. Amen.
This morning we start our summer journey through Genesis, our beginning, our first family, the start of our faith journey. And we are jumping right into the deep end, after the first eleven chapters of the book, which are some pretty big chapters: two creation accounts and then the flood account, after Cain and Abel, after there have been giants in the land and post Tower of Babel…. The world of story has very much begun at this point and it’s a large grand story and we arrive at the end of those chapters, a bit out of breath and not totally sure what is going on and to be honest with way more questions than answers (and some pretty important questions too, questions that if we are honest we will admit we are still struggling with today):
Is God good or bad?
Is God to be trusted or not?
Are we good or bad?
Are we to be trusted or not?
And then suddenly we get to Genesis 12 and this huge epic story zeros in on one person. Think of it as a musical and the opening number is the entire chorus on the stage in a huge chorus line show stopper with a story that is moving very quick and you can get bits and pieces of it, but then suddenly it moves once again until then the spotlight zooms in on one person for their solo and you realize this person is key to the whole narrative. And we have never seen this man before, sure he was part of the chorus but he was not the star dancer or the first soloist, and yet suddenly somehow all the attention is on him. This is literally the opening of Hamilton, fast music and dancing, an entire backstory and much of the musical told in one song that ends with Alexander Hamilton in the spotlight at the center of the stage, ready to guide us on a journey.
Genesis 1-11 leads us to Abram standing in the light. And the only thing we know about Abram is this, “and the Lord spoke to Abram…” All we know is that God has spoken to Abram, that is the qualifier for him, and that fact changed everything, it always does and always will. When God speaks in the story, the story is at a turning point.
And God spoke and told Abram to go, to take Sarai and leave everything they knew, everything they had worked for, all they had built because when God speaks everything changes and what was once so very important is probably not going to matter so much anymore (because if God speaks and everything remains the same, then something is not right). Our God is no respecter of our individual accomplishments and empires. So God comes to Abram and says, “this entire life that you have built, this dynasty that you have worked so hard for, this future you have created for yourself here… well it’s not exactly what I had in mind so you need to go, leave all you know and all you have every known and follow me, journey into the unknown and you will be given children, land and a blessing.” He is given a promise.
And Abram and Sarai might already have land, they might even already have a father’s blessing, but they don’t have children. Their future is not their own flesh and blood and so they go. They trust this voice, according to Genesis, “they believe.” First time that word is used and it’s worth noting how it’s used, Abram does not believe in God, Abram believes God and there is a world of difference in those two… do we believe in God or do we believe God? Because one of those is cultural faith and one is true faith and we better know the difference.
And they go on a journey, twenty years of a journey and it ends with the land, but nothing else.
So they wait and God keeps on coming to them with this Promise, it’s almost like a bad boyfriend you try to get your friends to break up with, “he’s nothing but talk.” And God keeps on talking and promising, at one point God even gives them the very stars that shine at night as a reminder of the promise. And they keep on waiting. Abram and Sarai, individuals who are defined by not what is but by what will be, defined not by reality but hopes and dreams, living on a Promise.
And this gives us someone in the story we can relate to, this gives us folks that we know and understand. Because there are things in our lives that are not yet what we believe we were promised…. Relationships in our families which have not been restored, dream jobs and vocations that have not yet come to be, an empty pillow beside us a night where our partner and spouse are supposed to lay their head, a guest room that we always thought would be a nursery, empty chairs at the holiday meals, a faith that does not feel as real as we once believed, a blank spot on the wall where we thought we would hang that degree, a to do list that has nothing to do with what we promise we would do, a garage full of boxes instead of art supplies, a tumor where we thought there would be nothing, it’s looking in the mirror and seeing someone we aren’t. Life just is not exactly what we believe it is supposed to be and we are defined in ways we never meant to be defined. Our verbs are wanting, stuck, waiting, lamenting, wishing, desiring… these are not the verbs we thought we would have at this point. So we understand Abram and Sarai.
And eventually Sarai has enough waiting, it’s one thing to trust but sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. So in an act of incredible and intimate faith, she gives Abram Hagar her handmaid to bear a child for them. And from that Ishmael is born. And it’s a great few days for the family, it’s a celebration… But the Hand Maid’s Tale is not a dream story. Still things are not right and they know it in their bones, this is not the promise.
And then soon after Ishmael is born, God is back with the Promise. Once again at 99 years of age the Promise is re-promised or reminded. But this time it changes a bit, Abram at 99 years of age must be circumcised…. And maybe it’s best on Father’s Day for us to just leave that one alone, which to be fair is probably exactly what Abram was thinking, “best to leave that alone.”
And that is not the only thing that is changing, Abram and Sarai get new names…. Abram becomes Abraham which means “Father of Many.” Sarai becomes Sarah which means Queen, “Mother of Many.”
And surely this time, the Promise is about to become the reality. But no- it’s not, they do these things and then there is more waiting….
What is it like with all those reminders constantly around them? Every time your name is called it hurts like hell because it reminds you of who you aren’t instead of who you are…. To look into you partners eyes and not see what you have done together but what you haven’t yet done… To look up at the stars and be reminded of what has not happened yet in your life…. To look at the very land and to even see that as just part of what was promised…. To look at the tent across the way where Ishmael slept and to see something so close and yet so far from the ideal and yet something you love with all your being.
To be constantly reminded of what has not yet been….. We know this too. It’s looking at the photos and seeing that person with whom things aren’t right, it’s the empty pillow, the guest room that is still not a nursery, the empty chair, the prayer journal covered in dust, the blank spot on the wall, the boxes in garage, the never ending to do list, the line of medications that help fight the tumor, every time you look in the mirror….. reminders of what is not longer, what is not yet all around us.
And then one day a few months later it’s hot, it’s Texas heat and on this particular day Abraham is outside his tent, just sitting because it’s they type of heat where all you can do is just sit and wait. And at this point in his life what else does Abraham have to do but sit and wait, waiting has become his default position and move.
It’s noon so Abraham and Sarah have already done the morning chores, they have already made small talk for the day and now it’s just time to wait until the cool and refreshing breeze returns once again later in the day. When suddenly as if from nowhere three messengers appear and we already know these are not ordinary humans. A great deal of theology has been written about who these three are, but honestly does that really interest us? Is it God already in Trinitarian form, is it heavenly messengers, or is it God in disguise? I don’t know if it really matters, what I know is that when God shows up it might not matter as much how we describe God or even what name we call God, what matters is that we listen and pay attention.
Abraham invites them into his life and home with open arms, which is what you do when you have had encounters with the Living God in different disguises, suddenly everyone is a possibility and you see the Divine Spark everywhere you look and your life is one of seeking. So you invite the stranger in. Their feet are washed. Water is provided. Lunch is prepared for them. And then in midst of this lunch one of the men asks, “Where is Sarah?” and then says, “When I come back next year, your wife Sarah will have a son.”
And Sarah who has been listening inside the tent, laughs. In the words of Genesis: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed…” it’s three of my favorite words in all of the Bible: “So Sarah laughed….”
And then God speaks: “Why did Sarah laugh?” Which is not my favorite of God’s questions in our book because I knew exactly why Sarah laughed: Sarah laughed because God is a little bit slow in keeping this promise, Sarah laughed because she is tired of waiting, Sarah laughed because it seemed impossible, Sarah laughed because sometimes it’s easier to laugh than to cry. And Sarah laughs because despite all of that, she still somehow hopes and believes. Sarah’s laughter is our laughter.
And no matter what you have heard before about this laughter, this is a holy laughter and it’s a laughter that we all know so well. It’s the laughter of despair over what is broken and the laughter of hope over what can be. It’s brutiful laughter…. The mixture of beautiful and brutal, which is the very place most of our lives are lived. It’s the words of Anne Lamott from her TED talk this week: “Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it's impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It's been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It's so hard and weird that we sometimes wonder if we're being punked. It's filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together. I don't think it's an ideal system.”
It’s the type of thing that makes you laugh.
“Why did Sarah laugh?” Of course that question is nothing compared to God’s follow up: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything impossible for God?”
And there is very question that all of Scripture hinges on, the central question of the Gospels (one Jesus even asks), the questions that all of our life hinges on, that our very being pivots on: Is anything impossible for God? Think about it, doesn’t every question in your soul somehow lead back that to: Is anything impossible for God?
Can that broken relationship finally be restored?
Can we finally face the empty pillow and let our tears of grief out?
Will the guest room ever be a nursery?
Can I face the grief and find solace in remembrance?
Do I have the courage to go back to school and to really do what I want to do in life?
Can I be honest about a faith that is lacking?
Can I scrap the to do list and finally start living the life I want to live?
Can I make room in my life to create?
Can I give this diagnosis over to God?
Can I be who I was created to be?
Is anything impossible for God?
And don’t rush for an answer. Don’t let this be one of those times that the church answer, the one that seems right, is the one you give. Is anything impossible for God? If you answer yes, well the good news is you have just gotten a little bit of control in your story because if you believe that there are things impossible for God, well at least you don’t have to dream and hope too much. You don’t have to worry about the unknown future that might be and can instead settle down into what you already know so well. But with that yes, you also risk closing your world down and limiting what God might do.
On the other hand if you answer no…. Is anything impossible for God? No… you open yourself up to a world of possibility: a world where couples have babies on their 100th birthday, a world where God walks among us in many disguises, a world where death is not the ultimate, a world where love conquers fear, a world where everyone is equal and all are beloved children of God, a world where justice is victorious, a world where the last are first and the first are last, a world where Spirits show up like winds and fire…. You open yourself up to a world of possibility, but it’s a world you don’t control and it’s a world built of faith and hope and trust and waiting.
Do you believe that anything is impossible for God? Don’t answer. Because in God’s very grace, God does not let Abraham and Sarah answer either. They are not given the time, God just keeps right on talking…. “Do you believe anything is impossible for me? Wait and answer that question for me in a year.”
Again it’s more questions than answers but I am learning that it’s there that God does God’s best work in that in between space of do you believe or not.
It’s the prayer that is the very prayer of my heart, as found in the Gospel, the father who cries out “Lord I believe help my unbelief.”
Because with God nothing is impossible and with God today might finally be the day for Abraham and Sarah and for me and you.
And Abraham believed, and Sarah laughed, and God was God and all things were well. Amen and Amen.
*artwork: Abraham and Sarah, Lithograph by Marc Chagall, 1956