First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
February 25, 2018
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (NRSV)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Hope was something that was off in the distance, not the distant future but the far distant past. It was a hope that was fading, fading with each year like the sunset on a long summer’s day. Their “day” had begun several years earlier, several decades earlier. The sun that had been shining upon them would soon be setting as they neared what was sure to be the end of their lives. He had lived nearly 100 years, she, not as many but clearly enough that her child-bearing years had come to an end many sunsets ago.
But, the hope had not faded, well, not completely. It was a hope whose seeds were planted in the heart and soul when they were young and they were known as Abram and Sarai. Go, God had told them. Go to a land far away from here. Leave your family. Your kindred. Your country. Your way of life and go. Take your household, pack up your hope and go. Their names were Abram and Sarai at the time but they could have been named “Faith,” or “Trust,” or “Foolish.”
They didn’t really know where they were going, just that God would tell them when they got there.
I wonder if this is where the enduring question, “are we there, yet?” got its start. Yes, children around the world are doing nothing other than channeling these faithful followers of the Almighty as they left their home to travel to this mysterious place that God was sending them, without a map, without a guide, on a journey that literally felt like it was taking forever. Equipped with a promise and a suitcase full of hope they set out. The problem was, there were no children in the back seat to ask, “Are we there, yet?” That’s what part of the promise was… that Abram and Sarai would have so many children that they would be as numerous as the stars. But those children hadn’t materialized. The back of the station wagon was empty. The faithful couple were now living off their retirement and AARP benefits and every year when the thing came in the mail to update their beneficiaries, it was a harsh reminder that there was a part of the promise that had not come to pass.
Yet, they still traveled in hope. The destination would be reached. That which is travelled towards would eventually come into view. The sun will set each day but there will be another on the other side of every night and children….. there would be offspring, there would be land, God would be their God and they would be God’s people.
And then God makes the promise again. I don’t know why God Almighty had to make the promise again. Maybe it had to do with age and time and, well, maybe Abram’s name at the time was “forgetful” and he had to be reminded. Whatever the reason, God makes the covenant again and this time, Abram and Sarai really do get new names: Abraham and Sarah.
It doesn’t sound like a big change but it was enough, enough to indicate that they had entered into a new relationship… or a renewed relationship. It was an indication that they were getting just that much closer to the fulfillment of the promise.
A lot had happened from the time the patriarch and matriarch of our faith had pulled up stakes in the land of Ur to follow God’s travel and family plan. Some good, some, not so good. One of the most notorious of the “not-so-good” was the time when Abram passed Sarai off as his sister to the Egyptian Pharaoh so the Pharaoh would treat them well and the Pharaoh was so taken with Sarai that he “took her into his house.” Which indicates they had a rather close relationship.
And Abram? This is the guy God chooses to make a father of many nations? Yea. This is the guy with whom God made a covenant. This is the guy God stuck with. For his entire, extremely long life. Sometimes his name could and should have been scumbag.
And then there’s Sarah. She wasn’t any fairy tale princess herself. Remember that time when, out of jealousy, she basically sent her maidservant and her son out to the wilderness to die. God looks after them, of course. And, God hangs in there with Sarah, just as God stuck it out with Abram. Sometimes her name could have been …. Well, we’ll just move on.
When we began our Lenten journey, back a few days ago, when ash was smeared upon our foreheads, we were reminded that it is from dust that we come and dust to which we will return and that no matter how dusty, how dirty, how despicable, how down-trodden our lives become, God will always be in our lives to give us strength, courage, faith and hope. There it is again. Hope. It just seems to be one of those things that whenever God is part of the picture, so is hope.
It just goes to show that God has a way of seeing things in us that we have a hard time seeing ourselves. Perhaps because we tend to always zoom in on the negative. You go in for a job performance review and you’re handed the evaluation form with 99 compliments and 1 suggestion for how you can improve and what do you spend your energy on? That one thing that indicates a shortcoming. The thing is, supervisors will always list at least one thing that you can improve upon, even if they have to dig deep to find it. Yet, that’s what we get hung up on and, when we do, all the other 99 things that we do well fall to the wayside and we give our energy to that one thing…. Okay, maybe there are two things. Well, for some of us there might be three… or ten… or a whole lot. But that’s not the point.
The thing is, God doesn’t focus in on the “needs improvement” part of our lives as a measure of whether or not to stick around with us. For God sees within each of us, not the faults and failures but the possibilities, the potential, the capacity that lies within us. And that’s where God places God’s hope. Yea, God carries around a lot of hope, too. God is so excited about all the potential within us to be amazing people that God will keep reiterating that promise again, and again and again, no matter how old we are, no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we stray, no matter what we have done, what we have said, what we have not done or said. When we are named and claimed as God’s it’s a done deal and God will be there our whole lives. Our. Whole. Lives. God will be our God. Period. Perhaps God’s name for us is “Beloved.”
So, then what? So we live into what that means. We take God with us into everything we do, with every word we utter. Every breath we breathe is filled with the spirit, the ruah of God so we should breathe deeply. Every step we take is a step that God takes with us and if those steps lead us up a mountain into glory, it probably has something to do with God helping us along the way – and our name can be “Grateful.” Even if some of our steps lead us into peril, will be there beside us, sometimes showing us the way, sometimes just going through it with us so we won’t be alone. And, I know, sometimes it’s hard to see that when you’re in the midst of crap but those holy footsteps are there. It’s then that we could be named “W hole.”What about those times when we really goof up? Yea, God’s there as well. And our name might as well be “Forgiven.”
So, what does it mean for us as individuals, and for us as a congregation that God is with us in everything we do? What does it mean for us that we are part of this broad, expansive, encompassing covenant that has been handed on down over the generations and across continents? What does it mean for us that the words of promise are spoken in a language we understand and in the tongue of all people across the face of the earth?
It means that we are named anew as God’s beloved. It means that we are empowered to live into that name. It means that when illness and disease take over our lives, our name is courage. It means that when sorrow clouds our days, our name is comfort. It means that when the power of tyrants threaten to consume all that is good and right, our name is justice. It means that when the world around us tells us we should be thinner, more muscular, more sexy, younger, older, wiser, our name is “perfect just as we are.” When we live into that eternal, broad, encompassing, expansive covenant of God, our name is “Hope.” God’s hope on earth. The hope of the generations that came before. The hope of those that will come after us. The hope of the one who loves us enough to create us, name us and stick with us.
Hope, it’s not something off in the distance. It is what we are named as people of God. Let us live into that name this day and always.