(Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7) By Rev. Rick King–Today, we’re recognizing those in our congregation who have graduated and are moving into the next chapter of their lives, whether that’s college, or graduate school, or work, or an internship. These “threshold” moments are fraught with a certain amount of anxiety for parents and children: we have to trust them to meet the challenges of this next chapter, and we have to entrust them to others, to the world, the Universe and an unseen Power greater than us. They have to deal with their parents’ trust issues, many times, as well as the balance of confidence and misgivings they have about the next steps they are taking in their life. And there’s always uncertainty involved.
Add to that the uncertainty of this particular graduation-time—with having finished school online, without milestones like Prom and with modified, online commencement ceremonies due to the pandemic—as well as the upheaval around the nation and the world as we confront the grip of white supremacy—and trust becomes even more challenging.
And yet, there’s a way in which life inexorably goes on, and we have to find a way to walk this path that doesn’t yet have a name, and somehow learn to have just enough trust to take those next few steps in spite of the uncertainty.
The story of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors is a story of radical hospitality, of promise, and fulfillment, and trust. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get to thinking it must have been easier for people back in the Ancient Near East, or in first-century Galilee, to trust God or Jesus, just because they lived back then and were somehow closer to them, like a friend you just call up when you need encouragement, and they remind you, “You can do this!”
But how do you trust a God you can’t see, a stranger whom you feel so unacquainted with, and who acts in ways you’re not used to? It helped me to find out that it was difficult for Abraham and Sarah, too. Here they were, in their 90s, having been raised in the polytheistic, nature-based religion of their nomad ancestors, with whom they knew the terms of the relationship, what offerings to give which local gods in order to get what they needed: good weather, abundant crops or grazing land, and water, enough children to carry on the family line.
And suddenly they’re thrust into a relationship with only One God, Yahweh, who was invisible and who they couldn’t control, but who had appeared to them in visions and a mysterious voice that said, “Go to the land that I will show you and I will make of you a great nation, with descendants as numerous as the stars in the skies and the grains of sand in the ocean.”
Trust took a little while, for them. God visits them several times over the course of the chapters leading up to our story this morning, and one particular night when God was visiting and talking to Abraham, the two of them had it out. You see, the main thing God had promised to Abraham and Sarah, if they followed God to Canaan, was a child, an heir, who would be the seed from which their great family tree with all those many descendants would grow. And so far, no heir had come. Abraham had even slept with their slave, Hagar, in order to ensure a son to inherit the family name, and she had given birth to Ishmael. But God had disqualified Ishmael.
So, on the night they had it out, God had come, reiterating the promise, but Abraham wasn’t having any of it: “Offspring? I don’t see any offspring!” was essentially what he said when he told God off. Before the visit ended, God had made a covenant with Abraham, sort of a down-payment on the fulfillment of the promise. But for two more chapters, all we hear, along with Abraham, is God continuing to promise, and Sarah, who had never been able to have children and who was now well past her childbearing years, continuing to be childless.
And so by the time our story opens in chapter 18, they’ve all but forgotten the expectancy they once had for a child, and have resumed their daily lives of living in a tent, moving their flock of sheep to new pastures, cooking and eating and sleeping, and welcoming the occasional visitor wandering through the desert wilderness.
And yet, there’s something almost Buddhist in what happens next, and by that I mean that it’s in the midst of their daily chop-wood-carry-water existence that a theophany, or as the Buddhists would say, samadhi, an enlightenment occurs. Because of the extremity of what they’d been through and the hardships of their daily life, they had somehow been made ready for what comes next, even though they didn’t know it.
In the first verse, the writer of Genesis makes it really clear that what comes next is important, and we should take notice: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” the story begins. But God appears buried in an encounter with what seem to be three traveling strangers who arrive in the heat of the afternoon; and it’s Abraham’s gracious, enthusiastic hospitality that makes a space—and holds that space open—for this to become the divine encounter that it is.
So often, God lies buried in the everyday: occasions provided by people needing welcome or help; in our first, halting steps toward a daily prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practice, like yoga or tai chi; in saying “yes” to engaging voters to work for change; or in having a fearless conversation with our child, partner, or parent about a life matter.
And as we live out our routines in the midst of having become used to a pandemic, and what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now” forcing us to finally have the conversations and take the actions on racism that we’ve been avoiding, we need to be alert to where God is showing up. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “The only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Right now—in the very instant of groundlessness—is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness.”
And, I would add, rediscovering trust in God’s capacities, and our own. It’s in this discovery, and this rediscovery, that we hear the promise of God with us as more trustworthy than before—that God’s capacities are greater than we ever imagined. And it can be the source of great joy, even laughter at the audaciousness and ridiculousness of God’s goodness.
And we may hear God ask, “Is anything too hard, or too wonderful, for God?” May you see God show up this week, in the ordinary, and in some surprising ways. Amen.