Impossible Promise

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Philippians 3:17-4:1


You have to give Abraham credit for keeping the faith with God’s impossible promise. But he had his moments. Our reading is one of those moments.

Here’s Abraham and Sarah, an old couple settled in their ways. Sarah is unable to have children, and, no doubt, they’ve come to terms with this. There lives are just marking time, with no vision of a future.

Then out of nowhere comes this strange God and confronts Abraham with this impossible promise that his old, barren Sarah would have a baby. And by the way, God says, get up and go from your home. I’ll eventually tell you where and maybe why. So Abraham, dragging Sarah and all of his kinsmen, pulls up roots and heads off into the wild blue yonder. I wonder how he justified this move … on faith that an impossible promise would be fulfilled by an unknown God.

Well, now its years later. They are still wandering and Sarah is getting older and even less likely to be able to be pregnant. So Abraham calls on this God and complains. God affirms the promise with an exciting vision. But still doesn’t do much of anything concrete. Abraham keeps the faith despite the impossibility and irrationality of it all. Sarah must be thrilled!

The epic of Abraham and Sarah is one of the most detailed and moving stories in the bible. It is also one of the most mysterious and problematical. Why would Abraham follow this God who really is offering anything concrete? Everyone around him expect the gods to provide prosperity and fertility in the current season. Their gods don’t tell them to go wandering into strange lands. So why did he believe? Why did he have faith?

We don’t have an answer to that. But I’d like to suggest a possible reason.

Abraham and Sarah were stuck. They had no future. In their day and time, your children were your future. All the land and animals you accumulated was destined for your children. If you went into a more fertile land, it was for your children. Immortality was through your children. Abraham and Sarah had no children, therefore; they had no future. They very well may have been living in quiet desperation.

And now God shows up for the first time with a proposition. Abraham, if you will go where I tell you and put up with how I do it, you and Sarah will have children. Maybe he – and Sarah – were desperate enough to believe. And off they go.

But having faith alone isn’t enough. Abraham was expected by God to live and act as if the promise was already fulfilled. There was no point in Abraham wandering around looking for a better place unless he expected children. He didn’t wait for Sarah to bear a child, and then find a good place for his family. He assumed that the promise, no matter how impossible, would happen. He was to go now … not wait until the promise is fulfilled.

Had he not presume the promise and stayed home, our reading today would have had him in the same old place and he probably wouldn’t have even bothered to ask God … after all he didn’t do anything and his life is at least in a familiar place. But he did act on his faith, and so wanted to know why is it taking so long? His faith became incarnate in his actions.

Today, in this Lenten Season, we are confronted with an impossible promise by God. We Christians have now entered the season where we reflect on the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. Already we are challenged to have faith in the impossible. We are called to believe that God was incarnated as a human being who was executed and then raised from the dead. That’s pretty impossible.

But beyond that we are called to have faith in the Kingdom of God coming among us. After 2000 years we are still waiting for it… somewhat longer time than Abraham and Sarah waited to have a baby. Our “baby” is yet to show up.

God as Jesus promised that if we follow the acts and teaching of Jesus, the Messiah, our lives and the lives of everyone and everything would turn from death to life.

And we are not thinking of physical death and life. Indeed, we are called to consider the richer, deeper issue of spiritual death and life. All around Jesus and all around us are the powers and principalities that kill the soul. If anything, they have grown more powerful, more ubiquitous, and more intractable than they were in Jesus’ time.

How can we even to imagine a world where no one is hungry, no one is homeless, no one is neglected, no one is abused, no one is persecuted, and no one is cheated of an education or the opportunity to find fulfillment in their God given talents? We’ve talked and talked and talked about this; we’ve worked and worked and worked at it, since I can remember. And we seem to make next to no progress at all. The promise is indeed impossible.

The powers of greed and wealth accumulation are in full force all around us. The powers of coercion and domination are all pervasive. The powers of exclusion and hate are everywhere practiced.

We understandably live in an age of cynicism. We can trust no one. We can rely on no one. We can believe in nothing. The world is drowning in selfishness, violence, and fear. We huddle in our secure communities praying God that the next attack won’t be on us. We fear our neighbors. We mistrust our neighbors. We can lean nothing, because we can borrow nothing. We cannot trust banks, government, or even churches. We cannot trust the media for facts and a measure of treat. We cannot trust doctors who are probably more concern for making money than for making healing. We cannot trust politicians who also out to make money. Everyone wants to make money … There’s nobody to turn to, except to ourselves. I can trust only me and me alone.

So this glorious and wonderful promise of Jesus to save the world from violence, hate, and greed evaporated on the Cross.  All we can do is try to make the little bit of land we have safe and sound.

So we become as Paul said to the Philippians enemies of the Cross. Our god is our bellies, our glory is our shame, and our minds are set on earthly things. And our souls are dying.

But … Paul reminds us that our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, not in the earth. We are citizens of that impossible, irrational, promise. That is what our lives are to be about. That’s where we cast our votes.

A couple of Mondays ago, I visited with a Sister in St. Joe’s in Elizabeth. St. Joe’s is no longer a parish, but a outreach community that takes care of people who have fallen on hard times, many of which are homeless. St. Joe’s has been around a long time and I spoke with the Sister for about an hour of the work they do. They provide food and clothing for families and after school programs. They work with the Coalition for the Homeless to provide job training and ESL programs.

They are a bit of the promise come true. They are an arm and a leg of the promise enfleshed. In their small community the Kingdom of God is a reality. The Sisters there are angels … they work very hard, selflessly to provide for over 800 families which on average translates to 3200 people. They worry over them, they keep track of them, they provide for them, and help to give them a boost up.

We talked of one family, a grandmother caring for four grandchildren. She can’t pay her bills, because she can’t get a job. And if she found a job, how would she care for her grandchildren? The expense of paying for child care would most likely eat up her income and she couldn’t pay the bills! I suggested caring for those children is her job. She should be paid for that with income and benefits.

Sometimes the impossible promise is not out of reach. It’s just waiting for us to reach out to it. George Bernard Shaw once said, “You see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things as they never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”

The Sister told me how 2 of the 3 hospitals in Elizabeth have been closed. One was just a vacant ruin not far from them. That planted a thought: a vacant ruin and the homeless: a match made in heaven. What if 20 homeless families took that ruin and removed the boards from the windows and let the light shine in? What if they painted the walls and swept the floors? What if they turned on the electricity and the gas? What if they moved in furniture and lived there?

I know it raises all sorts of barriers. I know it requires commitment on their part. It requires help from the community. And it’s probably illegal. But sometimes the impossible promise calls his to glean on the Sabbath and break open the Temple granary to find and house the homeless. Sometimes reaching for the promise is a dangerous thing … but sometimes out of that danger comes new life.

I suggested this to a lawyer who knows the situation. She was uncomfortable with it, but then in a low voice said, I think the mayor would like that …

Think about it.

God’s grace and love be with you …