June 14, 2020
This Sunday we move into what is known as ordinary time in the church’s liturgical calendar. Which… even as a minister… I’ve always thought was an odd name. Ordinary time. Most of the liturgical calendar is full of this ordinary time. But that word “ordinary” doesn’t mean mundane. Ordinary time is the time of the church going out into the world. It is… to use the words from last Sunday’s reading from Matthew… it is the time that we go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… teaching them (teaching one another) to obey everything that Christ has commanded. That is what is ordinary to discipleship. Every day ordinary discipleship. Growing in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Living out our faith in ways that honor Christ… that may make us uncomfortable or challenge our own status quo… that may even reveal the idols and other gods we have put before our fidelity to Christ.
Like in our Old Testament story today where Sarah can’t help but let out a derisive laugh when she’s told that she will have a child in her old age. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from the book of Genesis chapter 18
READ Genesis 18:1-15
Let me remind you of a few things about Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah left their home in Ur on a promise. That’s it. A promise from God. God said, “I will…” and off they went into the unknown. Their story so far in Genesis has been one of Abraham and Sarah trying to live according to that promise… and not doing a really good job of it so far.
This story about Sarah being told she is going to have a son is a great example of that. God has long promised this son to the both of them. But as time passed… no child came. After awhile Abraham and Sarah decided that they couldn’t wait any longer for this promised son … that they needed to help God out in ensuring that there would be an heir… so to fulfill the essence of the promise they decided to designate an heir… Eliezer of Damascus, one of Abraham’s trusted servants. God says, “No. I made you a promise.” Still nothing happens. Abraham and Sarah then decide to help God fulfill the promise by having a son through a surrogate… Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave. And Ishmael is born. God says, “No. I made you a promise.” Still nothing happens. And Sarah and Abraham just get older and older and their hope in that promise grows dimmer and dimmer.
Saints, how hard it is to live according to a promise from God when it seems like nothing is happening. Isn’t that part of the challenge of being a disciple of Christ? We are trying to live by a promise that seems so far away from our reality. Will that promise ever come true… the promise of God’s kingdom? We talk about love and peace in a world that throws such values to the side in favor of control and greed and dominance. Love and peace are surface surefire advertising words that make us feel good for a moment… but don’t reach that far down into the depths to the core of things. As disciples we talk about communities where those in need are valued… where justice is a constant… where everyone is made in the image of God and is imbued with gifts of the Holy Spirit for the common good. Our world is divided into winners and losers. We despise the weak and the needy and we blame them for being so. We love our neighbors in a token manner… if we even designate the other as our neighbor. Usually we find more reasons for securing our tribalism than we do for living by grace… or through showing mercy… or even allowing ourselves to be changed by forgiveness.
In our story, Sarah hears the men speaking saying again that she will have a son. And she can’t help but laugh. Of course she laughs. It’s ridiculous. The story makes the ridiculous of the situation quite clear. She is too old. Abraham is too old. It’s just a fact. A simple biological fact. A reality that she has accepted. She is too old for such things. The time has passed for this promise to be fulfilled. It’s time to let go of such fantasies and foolishness. If she hasn’t become pregnant by now… it’s not going to happen. She is a woman without hope… so, of course, she laughs.
Hope is hard to maintain. Hope in the face of consistent disappointment. How do you keep going on the hope of a promise? I see these protests happening around the country and I listen to these black leaders saying again what was said the last time these protests happened… and the time before… and the time before that. Standing and speaking from the same vision… the same promise that has been there all along. A vision of human dignity… of human dignity that keeps getting pushed down and pushed aside… that keeps being obscured in political and social distractions and half-truths and empty actions of reform that don’t have enough depth to them to make a real change that goes beyond the surface. Systemic change doesn’t happen through the quick fix… or the one time gathering around the table for coffee and conversation. Systemic change is the rending of your heart and not your garment to us a phrase from scripture. I see all this happening… and I also see all those Sarah’s out there laughing. Laughing because they are so stuck in the way things are. It’s too late. Nothing’s going to change. Any thought at things being different is a waste of time. This is the way it is. Any other idea or way of being or doing things… will lead to nothing… has no hope of succeeding. It’s time to let go of such fantasies and foolishness. If it hasn’t happened by now… it’s not going to happen. Accept it and get over yourselves.
But then… then I think more about where this story goes and you know… Isaac was born. Sarah had a child. She might have laughed at first. But later… something happened. Maybe she had given up inviting old Abraham into her tent… so to speak. Maybe somewhere along the way they had both given up trying. But something happened. Something happened to give them enough hope to try again. Something happened to get them to act once more on a promise… to live toward a vision that still seemed impossible… that still went against the facts as they understood them. Isaac didn’t come about by a miracle of immaculate conception. Something happened and they tried again… and the promise was realized.
I have to wonder and be amazed at the hope that gets you to the point that maybe… maybe this time something is going to happen. Let’s try this again. Despite the failures that have happened before. Let’s try this again. It’s as Paul says as he writes about this situation between Abraham and Sarah… “Hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
Hope. It was Paul’s hope in the reconciliation of Christ… in the justification that came from God… it was Paul’s hope that led him to give witness even though at times he too was as good as dead. It was hope that led him to keep going forward through rejection and failure. Beatings and prisons and hardships could not weaken Paul’s determination of faith. When Paul writes to us… as we heard in our call to worship… about boasting in sufferings… those sufferings were real. It’s not a rhetorical flourish. The endurance that came from those sufferings was hard earned. It was his knowledge of grace that helped those sufferings to build a character within that kept him so firmly in hope… in the hope of things unseen… in the hope of things that could be. And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. The recent and yearly celebration of Pentecost reminds us of God’s Spirit always being with us… of the constancy of God’s love… of gifts given so that we can go out to be the body of Christ in the world… the body that brings kingdom change… the body that doesn’t give up on the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Our discipleship ought to be filled with such hope. This ought to be us in ordinary time… in everyday lived out ordinary faith. When I shared on Facebook recently what our denomination has to say about racism in our Book of Confessions… we confess such things in the hope that someday this promise will be ordinary.
To remind you of that hope… from the Confession of 1967…
"In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations."
"God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess."
And from the Confession of Belhar…
"We believe... that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and seek the right; that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as the possession of God must stand where God stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Therefore we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel."
We may hear these words and our first response may be to laugh. Laugh at how naïve it may sound to our worldly ears. Laugh at how impossible these words are… how they may describe a promise, but these words will never actually find life in such a world as ours.
But then… after we laugh… I hope something will happen. Maybe we will hear the voice of God through the Holy Spirit. Maybe we will be nudged through our own discipleship and move down that path that leads to fulfillment. Maybe something will happen to bring us back to this hope… and we will try… we will try to give birth to a world where this is no longer just a promise waiting… but the ordinary truth in which we live. Amen.