A Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the one we are waiting for. Amen.
Before Father Abraham had many sons, before he was Abraham, when Sarah was known as Sarai, the Lord came to this wandering family and made a promise:
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.
And at the time, it seemed like a ridiculous thing to say. Both Abram and Sarai were advanced in age, past their child-bearing years. More than that, they were homeless nomads; who were they that the Lord should take account of them?
As time passed, the divine promise was long-delayed, enough so that Abram and Sarai had reason to doubt. More than that, Abram’s many shortcomings became readily apparent. The family ended up in Egypt, where the Pharaoh took notice of Sarai. Fearing for his own life, Abram asked his wife to pose as his sister; for his own safety, he sent her to live in Pharaoh’s palace as a royal spouse. (Oddly, this part of their story didn’t make it into that old VBS song or the Sunday school felt board, and I don’t think I’ve seen that episode of Veggie Tales.)
When the nomadic family finally arrived back in Canaan, the Lord came to Abram again to re-affirm the covenant, as we read today. And how does Abram greet the Lord? With a complaint. The translation in your pew Bible renders Abram’s first words as “What will you give me,” but the Common English Bible captures a more plaintive – no, scratch that – a whiney tone: “What can you possibly give me, since I still have no children?”
I don’t know if the Almighty sighs, but if so, I imagine God let out a frustrated, beleaguered breath that shook mountains. God took Abram out into the night and said:
Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.
Genesis records that Abram believed the divine covenant and that his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness,” but…
…things go wrong again. Because despite the traditional focus on Abram, he’s not the only one involved in all of this. It’s not like he’s the one who will be birthing nations. Sarai is just as much a part of this promise as her husband, and she has trust issues of her own. Ten years pass after God’s second visit, and nothing happens. They’re starting to get impatient. And then Sarai has a cruel idea. After she herself was handed over to the Pharaoh, she handed her slave Haggar over to Abram. Abram went along with it (so much for his faith being reckoned to him as righteousness.) Haggar conceived through this abusive act, giving birth to a son named Ishmael.
But this abuse was God’s will, so thirteen years later, the Lord returned, gave these doubting wanderers new names – Abraham and Sarah – and renewed the covenant again. Then, finally – after three divine guests visited and predicted that Sarah would give birth within a year, and then that whole debacle with Sodom and Gomorrah, and after cowardly Abraham gave his wife over to a second king – Sarah finally conceived and Isaac was born.
And that’s it. That was the big climax of Abraham and Sarah’s story. All of those ups and downs, and this is the start of a family that would bless all the families of the earth.
After Isaac was born, Sarah got jealous and told Abraham to drive Haggar and Ismael away – which he did, abandoning his own son. Sarah died, Abraham took a second wife, had more sons, but he drove them away as well. By the time Abraham died, he had a number of legitimate and illegitimate children wandering around, but the story and God’s covenant circles around just one. It’s not exactly a stellar start to their heirs “outnumbering the stars in the sky” and blessing all the peoples of the earth.
Both Abraham and Sarah died before seeing the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant with them. And yet this dysfunctional family is the one God has chosen for some unknown reason to bless all the nations and families of the earth.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen, and using this definition, Abraham and Sarah’s faith was mixed at best. Both Genesis and the Epistle to the Hebrews gives Abraham and Sarah passing marks for their faith, but let’s be honest: it’s a mixed bag at best. They spent a lot of time questioning whether or not God would remain faithful. They spent years, decades even, being their own worst enemies. They get it wrong just as frequently as – if not more often than – they get it right. Reading through Genesis is a bit like watching a movie with an anti-hero. You’re rooting for these compelling characters who are so deeply flawed, people you wouldn’t really aspire to be like. Because at the end of the day, Abraham and Sarah are not really the heroes of the story. Their son Isaac isn’t the hero of the story. Neither Jacob nor his twelve sons are the heroes of the story. They are merely waiting around for something better, a savior to arrive and to act. When all is said and done, Abraham and Sarah and their descendants were merely “strangers and foreigners on the earth” “seeking a homeland” who “desire[d] a better country, a heavenly one.”
Dear ones, I need not tell you that we are in the same situation. We are not the heroes in this story, but rather we are waiting for something else, that miraculous event which has already happened and is yet to come on the last day. We desire a better country, a coming heavenly Kingdom.
This new creation will come like a thief in the night at an unexpected hour – but behold! It is already breaking into this world!
What does this look like? It looks like God acting in us and through us to feed our neighbors, to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to welcome the stranger, to act for justice and peace, and to be a blessing to all the world. But it looks like more than that, because we are not the heroes of the story. We are not God’s only hands in the world.
You have often heard me say that we are the hands and feet of Christ sent out to love God and to serve our neighbors. And this is most certainly true. We should never stop acting as though we are the Body of Christ in this world, continuing the glorious healing and life-giving work of our Lord. But dear ones, our faith is imperfect. We will frequently remain silent when we should speak out and yell when we should listen. We will frequently take matters into our own hands without thinking and just as frequently remain still when we should be working to build up the Kingdom. Our discernment in these matters is imperfect. We will continue to sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and by what we leave undone.
Know, then, that the same Lord who fulfilled the covenant with Abraham and Sarah despite their own efforts will also fulfill the promise made to us.
And so when you find, like Abraham and Sarah before you, your faith is failing, when you see the terrors of this world and wonder “How can this ever end up alright?” when you look at your hands and realize that they are not enough to build the Kingdom, when you realize that you have at times been a curse rather than a blessing, when you see the Law reflecting your own need for God’s grace back at you, remember this: Christ Jesus our Lord has come into the world, fulfilling God’s covenant to bless all the nations of the world, bringing healing, wholeness, grace, forgiveness, and life everlasting.
Come, you who have not yet joined, be washed in these holy baptismal waters! Here at the Font is entrance into that better, heavenly nation.
Come, you members of Christ who have fallen short, feast on his Body and be nourished by his precious Blood! Consume the forgiveness of sins and be consumed into the Kingdom! Here at the Altar is the covenant brought to completion!
Here in these Sacraments we are blessed by God’s everlasting faithfulness.