Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some of the reasons why the stories of Sarah matter...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 29, 2012.  We will be celebrating worship outdoors this Sunday - weather permitting - in the small lot next to the church building.  (If it rains, it will be business as usual.) So bring a chair or blanket and join the fun.  I am wrappng up my OT series this week and will head into the 7 Essential Stories of the NT next week.

Today I am going to talk with you about Sarah – the loving, complicated, creative and challenging wife of Israel’s patriarch Abraham – and why she matters to us as 21st century Christians.  As you probably know by now, I believe that knowing the stories of the Bible – the stories of our ancient tradition – is very important. 

Critically important, you see, because these stories help us grasp and nourish an alternative vision to the status quo – a new way of living beyond the obvious – a liberating way of being in a sea of consumerism, fear and violence.  These stories, in fact, are one of the portals into the kingdom of God.

·       They help us see not only how real people like us tend to live in all our messiness – they are excellent mirrors of human behavior – but they also offer us sacred alternatives – ways for us to become healthier in body, spirit and mind. 

·        How did Jesus put it in today’s gospel when asked why some people demand fasting but Jesus favors a party?

"When you're celebrating a wedding, you don't skimp on the cake and wine. You     feast. Later you may need to pull in your belt, but not now. No one throws cold water on a friendly bonfire. This is Kingdom Come!"

I think Jesus is saying: “Come on, there is not a one-size fits all way of living faithfully.  How do our own Scriptures put it?  To everything there is a season, right?  A time to live and a time to die, a time to dance and a time to mourn, a time to feast and a time to fast, a time for war and a time for peace.  So wake up and listen to what is going on within you and all around you for THIS is kingdom come living!”  Do you hear that, too?

The stories about Sarah also offer us some kingdom come wisdom for living.  So I’m going to give you the three that are most significant and ask you to consider why they matter for our lives.  They are:

·       The challenges Sara faced by living faithfully with her old, wild man husband, Abraham as recorded in Genesis 12.

·       The complexity of faith as revealed in the Ishmael stories in Genesis 16.

·       And the assurance of grace made flesh in the birth of her son Isaac in Genesis 18.

Each of these stories portrays a piece of why Sarah matters to us after 3500 years:  in all that time, human nature has not changed a great deal.  Sure, we live faster lives and have more stuff – for good and ill – but we still hurt those we love even when we don’t want to and family members betray one another with regularity.  And there is still senseless death and fear all around us as well as the living, mysterious and blessed presence of God’s grace.

Somebody asked me after worship last week why I didn’t say anything about the shootings in Aurora, Colorado – especially offer prayers for the victims.  And my reply went something like this:  when you look at a culture like ours – obsessed with violence and guns – why does it surprise us when evil pops up and kills innocent people?  This is horrible – and I grieve – but why are we surprised?

I went on to say that because this tragedy just happened, I didn’t yet have anything of grace or wisdom to share so I thought it better to remain silent rather than add to the blather that was already almost overwhelming.   Later that afternoon, for example, I went on line and read a few sermons and blogs about the shooting and to my mind they were either knee-jerk rants about gun control or else mostly incoherent mumblings about the meaninglessness of such violence and our common sense of helplessness.  In a word, it was too soon to speak and silence and discernment were the better albeit more uncomfortable way.

As the week as gone by, however, a few other thoughts have started to take root:

·       One, given the media feeding frenzy about this tragedy don’t you think the time has come for people of faith to unplug themselves from the sensationalistic addiction we have with 24/7 news broadcasts?  Over and over – like the 9/11 video clips of the Twin Towers – we were saturated with bloody images.  In a way that was soul-numbing, reporters gave us one unnecessary fact after another in the illusion that maybe we might understand this horror better by being told that the shooter purchased 3000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet.  Dear people of God, we really don’t need more details about this shooting; and we truly don’t need more visual assaults.  Unplug as an act of prayer and justice – grieve for the wounded and the dead – but don’t let yourselves be manipulated or distracted from living by all hoopla.

·       Two, remember the arc of the Good Friday/Easter story.  My friend and colleague, Rick Floyd, recently posted these words that warrant repeating:  The Christian faith is built upon the conviction that God has acted, and continues to act in the midst of humankind’s repeated lapses into senseless violence. God joins us in our tears and grief, yes. The first heart broken on Friday morning was God’s. But God has done more than that, physically bearing the worst that humanity can dish out, and rising from it, to make a way for us to withstand the darkness and become bearers of the light.”  The violence and the evil – while very real and ugly – are NOT the end of the story, beloved.  What did we sing at the start of worship?  Christ the Lord is… risen today:  alleluia!  We don’t have to see it to know that it is true. 

We are, you see, people of the Cross – people who live by faith that the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ – are the deepest truth God has offered the world.  And this love and grace is not dependent upon our accepting it or understanding it:  God offers us grace because God is God.
What Jesus did upon the cross, he did for (all who suffer and know pain and sin) for us all. He did it for the shooting victims in Aurora, for their families, for the casualties of history’s wars and conflicts, for all the times we as human beings sink below our humanity. He did it for the victims and, yes, he did it for the perpetrators. He took upon himself all the brokenness in our lives, and did it with no guarantee that we would ever respond. This unconditional gift, beyond all price, reveals what love truly is, and shows the heart of God to be filled with knowledge and compassion for our condition. It was not done in folk tale or myth, but in the midst of our history. Over a century ago George MacDonald said, “The Son of God suffered unto death, not that we might not suffer, but that our suffering might be like his.” (To Speak of God Now, Howard MacMullen)

Our culture doesn’t know – maybe has never known and certainly if it did know has forgotten – the truth of the Lord in our stories of faith.  No wonder the vast bulk of what has been spoken and said about the shootings is so empty.  And so, my friends, like a broken record I want to go back to the stories of our faith tradition over and over – and invite you to join me – as we listen for God’s deepest truth – a way into the very kingdom – through them.

First, a reminder of the complexity and consequence of living by faith from Genesis 12…

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan….But there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.  When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.  And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

This blows my mind:  at the ripe old age of 65 instead of receiving Social Security Sarah follows her wild and prophetic husband out of civilization into the wilderness according to a plan and inspiration only he had comprehended.  Then when they arrive at their unknown destination there is a famine so they have to take a detour to Egypt.  And when they get to Pharaoh’s land Sarah’s beauty spooks Abraham so he lies about their marriage and gives her as a concubine to the political Lord and Master of the land.

What do you even DO with such a story? Think of the fear – and confusion – and pain and shame Sarah experienced.  What strikes you about this story…?  Let me make two observations knowing that there is a whole lot more we could and should discuss here, ok?

·       This story of Sarah speaks to me of the ways we often hurt our loved ones – make stupid and even ugly choices out of fear – and expect others to follow and obey.  Abraham had his reasons – we all do – and while we may not have sold out our spouse for safety and a whole lot of sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels” I bet you can name ways you have made some choices that have wounded those you love.  Life is messy and this story invites us to careful with our judgment:  like St. Paul says, “All of sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – all and every one of us.”

·       This story also speaks to me of Sarah’s abiding trust in the Lord – not necessarily Abraham – but God.  Yes, she obeyed her husband because that is what women did in those days.  But she was also willing to endure challenges and uncertainty because she trusted God’s grace even when there was no obvious evidence.  Do you know what I am saying?  In this, she is not unlike the Virgin Mary who says to the angel Gabriel before the birth of Christ, “Ok, I don’t get it but I am going to be open to your love by faith and let you work even miracles through my flesh.”

Sarah speaks to us of an abiding faith that accepts uncertainty because her trust is so deep – and let’s be clear that this is a faith not simply for women – but for men and children and congregations, too.  That’s one reason why I believe the story of Sarah matters for us today.

The second story involves one of Sarah’s servants, Hagar, the wild man Abraham and an unexpected child named Ishmael from Genesis 16..
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived… the angel of the Lord said to her,
‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,

for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’

One of the unexpected consequences of Sarah being given to Pharaoh as a concubine in Egypt is that Abraham was given a huge dowry. And in addition to the sheep and oxen and all the rest – Sarai – which means princess – was given some slaves – one of whom turned out to be Hagar – which means stranger.  The tradition of the Jewish rabbis even suggests that Hagar was the daughter of Pharaoh. Now three things are important to remember in this part of the story:

·       First, Sarah gave Hagar to her husband because at age 75 she still hadn’t conceived.  You might say, Sarah grew tired of waiting on the Lord and decided to take things into her own hands – and it didn’t turn out to be such a great idea.  Waiting on the Lord is tough – most of us need a lot of encouragement – and time and again we grow impatient and try to move things along and this story suggests that is almost always a problem.

·       Second, when Hagar becomes pregnant she starts acting haughty – like she is superior to Sarah – and this infuriates the matriarch.  This might be one of the first stories about the doctrine of unintended consequences:  Sarah’s motivation and intention was good – not patient – but pure, but the result of her actions was totally unexpected.  Reinhold Niebuhr says that faithful people must always know that there will be surprises – ironies – to everything we do that we cannot even imagine.  And these ironies will cause us to act with humility to correct them… and on and on it goes forever.  Hagar’s acting “uppitidy” was not part of the plan.

·       And third, Sarah’s response to her own hurt feelings – banishing Hagar to perish in the desert – is a problem, too.  She sends her pregnant slave-girl out into the desert to die of thirst until God comes along as an angel to rescue the outcast, right?  How many times have we been hurt by someone we loved and trusted – and rather than go to them and ask why things have become so messed up – we react in cruel or destructive ways?  This story reminds us that while it is human nature to do stupid and mean-spirited things when we are hurt, it is not kingdom living.  God goes to Hagar and brings her healing – what’s more the Lord returns her to Abraham and Sarah’s household – until the child, Ishmael is 13.  And just to add insult to injury, Abraham (as you might expect) comes to love and cherish his first born son…. Ouch!

There is a ton of other insights to bring out about this story – including how it is treasured in Islam – but for now maybe that’s enough.  As the prophet Isaiah once said:  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Human beings have always had a problem with waiting on the Lord – and Sarah shows us just one layer of the difficulty we create for ourselves when we fail to practice waiting on the Lord. 

Do you know the old gospel tune that comes from Isaiah?  Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as the eagle; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint:  teach me, Lord, teach me, Lord to wait. I think the ancient stories of Sarah have incredible contemporary value.

So one more – the great story of the birth of Isaac – from Genesis 18…

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes… And as they ate the said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’
Let’s say out loud just a few of the obvious blessings from this story:

·       God comes to Abraham in an unexpected way – as three strangers travelling the road – and this happens so often we are asked to pay attention:  in fact, you might be wise to say that MOSTLY God comes to us in unexpected ways,  yes?  As a baby in a manger, as a crucified loser on a hill outside Jerusalem, as an unexpected guest in need of dinner.

·      And what is God’s request when the Holy One shows up as a stranger?  Hospitality, right?  Not fear or judgment or uncertainty.  Abraham welcomes the three strangers into his tent and nourishes them.

·      And in the midst of this hospitality, God’s promise is revealed:  Sarah will bear a child.  So many blessings are multiplied and revealed when we feed one another and welcome one another in peace.  In some ways, it is a no-brainer but it is so counter-cultural in our fear-based generation.

And finally, most of us find God’s promised blessings hard to imagine:  what does Sarah do?  She laughs – who wouldn’t – it doesn’t even make sense.  But our limited imaginations and short-sighted comprehension doesn’t limit God’s grace – and eventually Isaac is born just as God promised.  The other night I was reading about one of the English mystics in The Cloud of Unknowing and came across these words:  Although God eludes the intellect, this does not mean that God in unknowable. It means, rather, that God is not a concept. What cannot be thought may still be known by love.

We are not in charge, dear people of God, the Lord is – and that is good news.  We can’t comprehend the fullness of God’s promise and grace – and that is good news, too – because that means God doesn’t have to depend on us to understand or always get it right.  And even when life seems the most perplexing and frightening – when we do our worst to one another and ourselves – that is not the end of the story:  God’s love is greater than our actions and sin.
Spending time with the stories of God in action can not only train us to live by faith when the outward evidence isn’t clear, it can also lead us into kingdom come living right here and now.  We might be surrounded by stupidity and cruelty – and we are – we might be afraid and alone – and that is probably true, too – we might even laugh in the face of God’s promise.  But none of that stops the Lord our God from advancing the cause of grace in Jesus Christ our Lord.  And this is the really good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

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