Proper 6

June 15, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 18:1-15
Reading 2: 
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
Reading 3: 
Romans 5:1-8
Reading 4: 
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23)
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
Amidst extravagant promises and terms of endearment in the Genesis text, God renames Abram, now Abraham, and Sarai, now Sarah, to signify the new state of the relationship between God and this couple. Could a marriage ceremony be any more solemn or life-altering than the promises exchanged between God and Abraham and Sarah? Each is given generous blessing; Abraham land and fame for generations, and Sarah, children, and many of them. Together they will produce nations and kings. In the heat of the moment, we must not forget that this couple is well beyond child-bearing age, and the promises are predicated on a simple and stubborn biological impossibility. Abraham laughs, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (17:17) Yes, comes the answer, and the child will be the one who carries the promises.

Today’s text opens with a visit by three visitors who, as it turns out, are no ordinary men. Abraham greets them with enthusiastic hospitality, as is expected. When the story settles into this agreeable scene, the visitors ask “where is Sarah your wife?” The story then identifies the speaker as “the Lord,” who informs Abraham that he will be back in the spring and Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears this and can hardly stifle a hearty laugh. The Lord asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Sarah denied that she had laughed but the Lord said, “Oh but you did.”

The way the story is told is a riff on the statement “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” There is a playfulness between the characters--the way Sarah laughs at the promise, and the denial that she had laughed, and the Lord having the last word, “Oh, but you did laugh.” The comedy of the characters points to the deeper comedic reality that the story, which appears to be headed for tragedy without God’s help, will turn out well.

Sarah behaves naturally. The promise is preposterous and even cruel, promising someone their heart’s desire with no possible way to fulfill it. Yes, it is laughable and tragic, because this is a tragic couple. They have no future because they have no children and they are well past child bearing years. But Abraham has already responded to God’s call by pulling up stake and moving. But this? The comedy of the scene makes a theological point: that in God’s hands, all things are possible, sometimes contrary to what seems to be inevitable tragedies.

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is a statement that requires trust in the one making the promise. The reader knows the text is speaking about the Creator, the one who brought things out of nothing; this God who makes a way out of no way. But Abraham doesn’t know this and his whole future depends upon these words of promise.

This is an existential moment for the old couple. How are they to regard the future? Already they tried to force the promise on their own terms and by their own efforts when Sarai offered Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child. What a sad, desperate, effort. It doesn’t end well, but even then, in God’s hands, there is blessing. But should we be surprise that human efforts to force a future out of a future they do not control fails?

Paul chews on this theme in his letter to the Romans. He offers Abraham and Sarah as a meditation on the nature of hope and what it means to be right with God. He acknowledges the desperate human efforts to secure their own future on their own terms and the mess that ensues; let’s call those efforts sin, he says. God lets us have our own way. It feels like freedom, but it’s only freedom to screw up the future on our own terms. There is a sense of human helplessness regarding the future and our in ability to have much control over it.

In the text for today, after discussing Abraham and Sarah, Paul concludes that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what leads to hope for the future. From the human point of view, the future is very scary. Out of fear we buttress and hedge and throw up barriers to it. We make every effort to secure our own future. Of course the irony is that the more we try to secure the future on our own terms, the more we mess it up and then the scarier it becomes, and then the more effort we put into protecting ourselves from our own mess, and on and on, where it stops, nobody knows. It’s like “Scary Movie” on an endless loop.

It is in the very nature of the future that we cannot control it or predict it or guarantee outcomes. We do our best, but we are often surprised by emergencies and contingencies and unforeseeable possibilities. The story of Abraham and Sarah, especially in Paul’s hands, focuses us on the impossibility, even the laughableness, of us trying to control the uncontrollable. There is tragedy in the relentless effort of trying to produce a different result by using the same approach; God watches us beating our heads against a wall.

It’s through Jesus Christ that we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, Paul claims. Let’s tie this back to the Matthew text for this morning. Jesus is going about all the cities and villages teaching and preaching and healing. He is teaching about the kingdom of God. He embodies a different kind of power and authority. He authorizes his disciples to embody the same kind of kingdom of God power. There is a different path into the future, and it doesn’t require our total control freak attitude. In fact, it requires trust in something other than our fright-filled selves, in this case, God. At least that’s what we are supposed to take away from the story of Abraham and Sarah. Grace is a word relevant to the future.

Process Theology and the text
Process thought understands that the future is unknown and it sees God as the source of all possibilities that come from the future. We are lured into the future by the possibilities that God provides to each moment. Instead of fearing the future, there is a sense of trust and peace that God will provide a way out of no way, and will continually create newness of life. If we trust God, we can expect unanticipated possibilities, options that we can’t even see from where we are in the present moment. God calls us into the unknown future in much the same way that God called Abraham and Sarah into an unknown future. Only God’s call comes to each moment, continually adjusting the possibilities offered.

Preaching the text
The promise to Abraham and Sarah is central to both testaments and could easily be the focus of the sermon. A sermon could explore the nature of the future. The relationship between the past, present, and the future could be described. The past is knowable and dead. The present is the place where life is in the process of unfolding. There is a sense of immediacy and vividness about the present moment. The present is where power is. Eckhart Tolle describes this so well in his book, “The Power of Now.” This is a book I highly recommend. The future is an abstraction and has no definition or concreteness. The only thing we have is the present moment. The past can create guilt from what we have done. The future can create fear from what is unknowable. And both fear and guilt can pull the mind away from the present moment, where, ironically, life is being lived. To be fully alive is to be fully in the present moment. There is no “time” in the present moment. There is only transition from one moment to the next, giving the illusion of the reality of time. Time is an abstraction. The Gospel of John implies this dimension of time in the concept of “eternal life,” that is, life lived outside the stream of time, or, in the present moment.

When we get down to it, fear of the future is actually not living in the present moment. Fear distracts us from the present moment. The present moment, where there is life, is actually the hardest place to live. Look at Abraham and Sarah. They had given up living life because they were convinced they had no future. Faith is how we respond to the possibilities impinging upon the present moment. We are called to trust, in the present moment, the one who is providing the possibilities.

The goal of such a sermon would be to refocus our thinking on the present moment as the place where God is meeting us by offering possibilities. Being attentive to the present moment then puts into perspective the problems of the guilt of the past and the fear of the future. Peace is found by simply trusting the power of God in the present moment to lead us into an unknown future.

Or a sermon could lift up the idea of God’s call in life. What is the nature of this call? How do we discern it? How do we respond to it? Again, the nature of the call comes in the form of possibilities that God offers to us each moment that we experience. And God’s call will be different for each person because the possibilities that are offered are continually being adjusted based on so many factors: our past history of choices, our talents and capabilities, our social and economic context, and so many more conditions.

The place of prayer and meditation are important in someone’s discernment of God’s call for them. Talking with family and friends also helps us by giving us “outside” feedback on what they see going on in our lives. Sometimes one’s call is more apparent to a loved one or friend. Spiritual guidance is a way to let another trusted person lead someone through a process of discernment. Clarity can be gained by entering into a process of deliberate focus on where the presence of God has been leading someone and where that might be orienting us to our future.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the primary model for this trust to which we are called. Study his life--how he conducted himself with others, how he faced conflict and his own death. What was God calling him to do? There was a strong sense of “call” in his life?

Or a sermon could focus on the peace that passes human understanding, peace that the world doesn’t understand. Again, this peace is attained with the knowledge of God’s loving care luring us from the present into an unknown future. There is a palpable lack of anxiety in this kind of peace. A sermon could unpack what causes anxiety. Usually, trying to control the uncontrollable produces anxiety. Being attached to an outcome produces anxiety. Anxiety about the slowness of the promise provoked Sarah to force the outcome by offering Hagar to Abraham. Sure, Sarah laughed when she first heard about the promise of a child, but I’m sure it was an anxious laugh. A feeling of powerlessness over the unknowable future produces anxiety.

Children and the text
What are you afraid of? I’m afraid of heights. I’m also afraid of the dark. It’s hard for me to go into a dark room. I don’t know what might be there. Or, it’s hard for me to be in a strange place, like another country. I don’t know what to expect. Are you afraid of things that might happen in the future? I am sometimes too. But the Bible tells us that we can relax about the future. We don’t know what will happen, but the Bible tells us that we can trust the future to God. We can do the best we can in the moment, but then let it go. Have you ever heard the story of Abraham and Sarah? Tell the story simply to make the point that they had to trust God for their future. Trust is the opposite of fear.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.