Chaplain Mel Baars
March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Not every church includes a “children’s sermon” as a part of worship which is a shame. More often than not, the children’s sermon turns out to be a moment of real comedy, no matter how much work and effort the pastor has put into preparing. Long before I, myself, was saddled with the difficult task of coming up with a children’s sermon, I remember a children’s sermon on God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. Too add to the potential for comedy, our assistant pastor’s name was “Sara.” This turned out to create a bit of a stir with one of the children. When the minister mentioned that Sarah was 90 years old, one little girl jumped up and said quite loudly, pointing to our Sara, “You don’t look THAT old.” Of course, the congregation erupted in laughter. There wasn’t much chance of recovering the rest of the children’s sermon at that point.
The story of the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah is full of surprises, the greatest surprise, no doubt Sarah’s, that she would have a son, at 90 years old. Our lectionary for today only gives us bits and pieces of this incredible journey with God. Particularly, in these verses, Abram and Sarai are given their new names. It is an exciting moment because not only do Abram and Sarai get new names, so does God. For the first time in scripture, God says, “I am God Almighty.” These new names, all three of them, have a solidifying effect on their relationship. Now that this naming as taken place, there is no going back. God, Abraham and Sarah belong to one another from this point forward until forever.
We can’t really understand these particular versus about frutifulness and blessing without looking at their whole story. This was not the first time that God had called upon this couple. This was not the first time that God had made a promise about progeny. It was actually the third instance that God called and promised that this aged, barren couple would be ancestors to many nations.
Twenty-four years had passed since Abraham and Sarah first heard God’s voice. Some might say, twenty-four very long years. Twenty-four years of waiting for God to make good on a promise. And it’s not like Abraham and Sarah had been sitting around in these years, relaxing in their Cracker Barrel rocking chairs, living the good life. In their seventies, they up and moved to a strange land away from everything and everyone they knew, which wasn’t like moving to Florida to live in a retirement village equipped with an option for 24 hour care. This was like moving to the Mohave Desert with without the camper, just a backpack and a tent. It took a great leap of faith for them to go in the first place. And, it took even more faith to continue believing in God and God’s promise, day after day, for these twenty-four long years.
It should be no real surprise to any of us that during this time they experienced moments of serious doubt. The whole scenario was pretty farfetched from the outset. And then, as days turned to weeks, and then weeks into months, and then months into years with no sign that God’s promise was going to be fulfilled, they must have grown tired of waiting. In our day and age, waiting has become an almost impossible discipline. With our smart phones, constant email, texting, and more, I find it hard to wait even a twenty-four hours to hear back from an email or a phone call. So twenty-four years is just about unfathomable.
It’s no wonder that along the way Abraham and Sarah experienced their shares of doubt, so much so that they each took matters into their own hands. Abraham, fearing his life at the hands of Pharaoh, convinced Sarah to lie and pretend that she was his sister, instead of his wife. That didn’t turn out very well. Sarah, about a decade after God first made the promise to her, persuaded Abraham to “hook up” with her maidservant Hagar. In doing so, Abraham had a son, Ishmael. None of us could blame Sarah for her impatience. She was in her eighties, after all, not really in the position to bear a child, even with God’s help.
In this story, it is important for us to acknowledge just what is divine versus human action. Giving Hagar to Abraham was Sarah’s idea, not God’s. And, sure enough, her plan didn’t work out as she hoped. Later in the story, from a place of jealousy, Sarah tries to do away with both mother and child. While she has no concern for them at all, God’s care remains steady. In fact, God also makes Hagar and Ishmael their own promise, that they will be a great nation, too. A blessing for Issac AND a blessing for Ishmael, it seems that God has more than just one blessing to give.
The text for the second Sunday of Lent seems rather fortuitous in the wake of our last few weeks here, the lack of understanding between religion and culture and the violence which has ensued because of it. Thousands of years later, here we are, struggling over what some might deem as the aftermath of Sarah’s actions so long ago. But as much as Sarah and Hagar appear to be at odds with one another, enemies per se, God loves both of them and their offspring just the same. God blesses both of them.
Some of you may be wondering why God decided to save Hagar and Ishmael that day in the wilderness. Without God’s intervention, they may not have survived. Subsequently, we may not have been faced with conflict between Islam and Christianity over the last 1500 years. If Ishmael had not lived, maybe this region would not have the same conflict and strife. Maybe we wouldn’t even be right here today.
But, if the story sheds any light on why God does what God does, what we see is no matter what difficult, even unjust situations that we humans mastermind, God remains faithful to life, any life, making something out of nothing, fashioning something good and new from what we have discarded and trampled. What we see in this story is this-- God honors life, whatever life there is, because that is what God does. God’s love is not merely available to whom we would choose. The ranks of God’s people are not contained by our idea of who is good and who isn’t, of who is worthy and who is not. It is a multitude of people and nations which God projects will come from Abraham, not just one one kind of people with one kind of opinion. And this is where God’s grace becomes a hard pill for some of us to swallow. Grace is not ours to bestow. It belongs to God, and God does what God sees fit. Even when Sarah didn’t think that Hagar and Ishmael’s lives were worth saving, God disagrees. God’s vision for this multitude of peoples and nations extends far beyond what Sarah can imagine.
Think about it for a minute. We are so busy wondering about what would have happened if Hagar and Ishmael never existed that we fail envision an even better end to this story. What if, in a moment of contrition, Sarah would have realized the damage she had done when she cast this mother and child out of the protection of Abraham’s tent? What if Sarah would have gone out to them and welcomed them back home. What if Sarah had asked for forgiveness right then, reconciling herself with Hagar and Ishmael? What if she would have opened her heart and loved Hagar instead of throwing her away?
We can’t really know whether or not such kindness would have smoothed over the wounds that had been made. One thing is for sure, such a gesture would have made space for peace between the two women and their sons. It would have been ground for something good. It would have been walking in God’s way. It would have been faithful to the spirit of God’s blessing.
The good news is the covenant that God made with Abraham and by extension with us, can’t be broken by our waywardness, by our inability to truly “walk before God and be blameless.” In our weakness, in our times of doubt when we take matters into our own hands, instead of waiting and trusting that what God has promised will come true, God continues to reach out to us and make a way for us that is good and right and just.
Part of what we discover in Abraham’s saga is that as much as God has promised us blessing, God also asks something of us: our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Nothing less than this. And, when we fail to give this freely, God doesn’t just accept our terms, our haphazard efforts. Instead, God reframes our story, based upon divine terms. God gives us a new chance, a new way, to reconcile all that has gone awry by our action and, in some cases, our inaction. This is the opportunity that God gives us, even now.
This is what Lent is all about, turning back toward God by making right what we have done wrong, by moving back toward God and the gifts of God’s kingdom, all the while shedding those things which only make our lives darker. God promised Abraham and Sarah a blessing of abundant life manifested through many generations, many peoples, and many nations. With this promise of blessing also came a call by God to “walk before me and be blameless.” Neither Abraham nor Sarah could fully live up to it. They failed on many days just as we fail, neglecting to honor God’s blessing in our lives, choosing to cast away instead of love, damaging others rather than building them up. But, even when our human ways are destructive, God doesn’t take the blessing back. This promise, this covenant, is forever, not dependent on us or our obedience but given to us through a grace which has no end. May we so believe it. Amen