Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Walk in Promise

A Walk in Promise
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 2, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 17: 15-22

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” 19 God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” 22 And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. [1]

Abraham laughs when God says that Sarah will be the mother because they have gotten old. It has been a long time since they took that first step outside of Ur. Last week we talked about how with Abram the story of redemption begins. God issues the call for Abram to take the first step and he does. He leaves Ur, all for a promise, a promise of blessings, but it is all in the future. Along with Abram on this path is his wife Sarai. She is an amazing woman of faith, even though she falters, but you have to be impressed, she kinda has to have double faith. She has to believe in God, like her husband, but she also has to believe in her husband because it would seem that she doesn't have any contact with God herself, or at least the Bible doesn't mention it. She goes along, and sometimes, as we all know going along is harder than being the one to go. For some reason the movie Field of Dreams comes to mind, you know the movie where Kevin Costner hears a voice that tell him to plow under his major crop, putting his family's financial future in serious doubt. So he does it, and all along, his wife, who might be my favorite character in the movie, she's fiesty, there is the scene where she picks a fight at the PTA meeting over censorship in the schools, she's great, but most of all she really believes in her husband, and so goes along with it. She says, "If you really think you should do it, then you should do it." There are actually some real parallels with the Abram and Sarai story. You have to think that Sarai had her doubts, she shows them at some different points, but for most believes just enough.
Think of the journey they are on, it is not just plowing under a field, but to leave everything you know to go to some land. So you go, and then while you are in the land, the promised land, a drought happens and you have to leave. There is the first bump on the promise. So we are supposed to have this land but it isn't what you hoped. It's barren and ravaged by a drought. But faith drives you on, you don't head back to Ur, if you still could. But it isn't really even an option. So you head on further south to the land of Egypt. The biggest aspect of the story that always blows me away about their sojourn into Egypt is that Sarai is supposed to be so beautiful that Abram is afraid for their safety in the court of the Pharoah, so he lies and says that she is his sister, rather than his wife. Could you imagine such a situation, where it is so dangerous that it is better to pretend your wife is your sister just to keep the two of you safe. Pretty tough sell for Sarai, right. Could you imagine? Ok Sarai, so you've come with me to this new place, it didn't work out like we planned, so now we have to go into this foreign country, but it's not safe there so I'll have to tell everyone that you are my sister. Could you imagine going through with that as Abram? Could you imagine going through with that as Sarai? But they do, and somehow it all works out. They go through it, come out on the other side, and grow ten times richer in the process. Faith and then struggle and then growth, seem to be the pattern. But what a difficult pattern, because the promise is still lingering in the future after all that.
And there was still no child. How is Abram supposed to be Abraham, how is he supposed to be the father of a great nation living in the land if there is no child. Abram starts to wonder how it is all going to work out, he asks God, should I just make Eliezar, my heir. . . but again God doubles down, no I will make  of your direct stock a line of descendants, a great nation, living in this land. But not only is the land prone to drought, it's also inhabited by others, and crowded. And Lot and Abraham have to split up, and then Lot gets in trouble because he is living in Sodom, and Abraham has to save Lot from Sodom, but does so without becoming beholden to the king of Sodom, and there are also, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,  the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites, and all other ites, inhabiting the land. And this is what they are given in promise? And still no child? What is this journey we are on?
The temptation to try to take control and make something happen, to try to make the promise come true in your own way would be so strong. The next step seems so far off, why not just cheat a little and take it now, and so we understand where Sarai is coming from, we get it. She wants to bring about the promise, she wants Abraham to have that real heir, the real child of promise. I might not be able to clear this land, and I might not be able to lay claim to it, I might not be able to have my own child, but I can make this promise happen. Abram, take my slave girl, Haggar, make the child with her. What other choice do we have? God is not listening to us, his promise just can't happen anymore. It is impossible. I wrote the prayer of preparation, thinking about what she must have felt:
How can it be so that I should have a child, since
Years ago I passed my prime?
When Lord, When? Is your promise real, since
Nothing changes but the time?
How can I believe beyond what I see, since
Days and years come and go?
Why should I listen to what you say, since
All my hope in you died long ago?

I must take it into my own hands, but not for me for my husband. I can handle it. It will be okay. So Hagar and Abraham conceive Ishmael, but Sarai can't handle it. She thought she could but she can't. She thought it would be enough but it isn't. She thought she wouldn't be jealous, but she is. She thought she was strong enough but she just isn't. So she despises the child, despises the mother, despises herself, despises Abraham, and despises God. Interesting how it all started with her trying to take things into her own hands.  I get where she is coming from completely. I feel her pain. I've been there, not exactly, but similar, because walks of promise, all tend to  be the same: walks of doubt and worry, at the same time paired with promise and faith. They are this type of mixed bag.
But eventually, when the time is right, God's promise is actualized. Sarai, the barren, become Sarah, the mother. And her child will be named Isaac, he laughs. The joy, the laughter, the completeness of the story is there waiting at the end of the journey, or at least at the culmination of these first steps, journeys don't really end, promises kept, lead to more promises made, God's love and power, and promises abound, but the journey to that place as we have seen is all over the place, not just one step, but many, and in many directions, all toward the promise, but seeming to us anyway, not in the direction of the promise. Faith is needed, and faith is hard.
I said last week that this story is like chapter one of the story of redemption and that all up to this point is the prologue. The question I want to ask is, would you keep reading, with this as chapter one? Would you keep reading? I was listening to sports radio yesterday and they were having an argument about watching tvshows on HBO and on demand and all that, and whether you have to start with the first episode. One of the hosts was saying that he likes to watch one in the middle first to see if the story is worth watching, then will go back to the beginning if he felt it was. The other host was flipping out, he said it was a violation, that you have to always watch from the beginning, otherwise you'd lose the context, that the context is the key, it makes it all important. So many of us, in our journeys start with the Jesus stories, we start with the middle and we like it. It makes sense to us. It is the redemption of the redemption story. But the walk of faith, the story of redemption begins here with chapter 1. If you had to start here with no knowledge of the rest of the story, as Abram and Sarai have to do, would you keep reading?
One of the ways that scholars look at ancient texts to dicipher which parts of them are authentic and which parts are later editions or changes is, how embarrassing the story is to the movement. This one must be authentic because it is quite embarrassing. You have a God who is all powerful, offering a promise, but the promise just doesn't ever seem to materialize, and you have people trying to be faithful amidst all the doubt and worry over just whether or not the promise is real. Whether God is real? Whether God is strong enough to fulfill promises if he is real? And whether God doesn't just do it all as a cruel joke? We get all of these questions here in chapter one. In some ways it is quite embarrassing. In someways if this were a novel we'd probably stop reading, but the magic of this story is that it is real. It is our lives played out.
God has promised us a lot. The redemption story itself is one of tremendous promise, but like God's promise to Abraham, it all is just a few steps away, into the future with the steps between there and here hidden, crooked, winding, and frightening. We often feel like we want to take things into our own hands. We often feel like we know how to get there better. We often feel like if we were just to take this one short cut we could handle it, that if we cheapen ourselves just a little bit it can all work out, just as if we didn't. We think that each step should be blessed and work out perfectly but it doesn't. We think that if we are good people our entire venture should work out and be comfortable, but it just isn't. So many people throughout the history of the church have promised this type of faith. That the rewards for faith are good and pleasant, ease of life, but chapter one of the redemption story says otherwise. Chapter 1 echoes the rest of the story, that we should never waiver in our faith just because the path turns, is rocky, or seems to be endless. Christianity is not a means to an end, but rather a journey to no end, with the promise of a loving God to walk it with you, leading your steps, onward, through anything, through everything, growing closer and closer, with each step. It is quite a promise, though one that we often have trouble with. It only gets harder for Abraham and Sarah, but with each new step God is right there.
I chose to pair this text with Mary's song from Luke, "The Magnificat" because in both there is a promise of a child to an unlikely or impossible parent. In both there is a blessing, but in both there is also trial. We will talk in the next weeks that there will be sacrifice for and of both boys. But  yet through it all there is the promise. I said of Mary and her journey, her promise, her calling, a few years ago, that she is a testament that to be called is to be favored, to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned. It is true for both of these mothers, for Sarah, and for Mary, and though this world seems difficult and cruel, it is also true for each one of us. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 17:15-22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.