Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38

In our Old Testament passage for today, we find Abram – soon to be Abraham – at 99 years old and God appears.  For those of us of a certain age who might feel like there’s not much left that God can do with us; that there may be little to no potential of fruitfulness – we could probably stop right here.  To be honest, we could look a little closer to home at those among us who appear to be in the sunset of their lives – Beatrice Frazier and Anna Delson – to realize that our lives can still bring meaning and great purpose.

Abram was 99 and his wife Sarai – soon to be Sarah – was 85.  God spoke to Abram and said:  “Walk with me and be trustworthy.  I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.”[1]

This was not the first time God had made this promise.  During their senior years when so many people are reeling it in; shutting things down; perhaps thinking that they have little to no relevance in the world, Abram and Sarai set out on a journey of faith and something completely new and different because the Lord said so.

Fifteen years have now passed.  It’s a long time, isn’t it?  A long time to wait for a promised child, especially when you don’t see any hope.  Maybe God had made a mistake.  Maybe God is not who God had claimed to be.  Maybe there is no God at all.  Can you imagine?

And so, like we so often do, Abram and Sarai got tired of waiting.  They decided to take matters into their own hands.  He was 86 when Ishmael, son of Hagar the servant girl, was born.

Now at 99, God repeats the promise and changes their name to Abraham and Sarah – perhaps as a sign both of the fruitfulness and to mark the permanence of a promise.

There were a whole lot of things that happened to Abraham and Sarah.  There were a whole lot of hard knocks along the way.  He had to leave the country of his birth and become a refugee in a strange land; travel to a distant place not knowing.  When they arrived, there was a great famine and people struggled for food and livelihood.  The Egyptian people looked on the beautiful Sarah and sought her for Pharaoh’s house.  This son, Ishmael was a response to their fatigue in waiting on a hope too long coming.  And even after Isaac was finally born, it was that long awaited child that God said to make a sacrifice of; offer him up to the Lord.

Yet, Abraham is called the Father of the faithful.  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all recognize him as the first prophet.

And I’m grateful for their story because they teach us some things about what it means to journey with God: hard knocks and laughable moments.

In chapter 18 of Genesis, we find Abraham and Sarah visited by strangers who once again announce that the season is near when Sarah will have a child.  And the text says that “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with her 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?”[2]

Sarah laughed perhaps because she realized the impossibility of what she had just heard.  She had been at a dead end all these years, and there was no real reason to expect that anything would be different now – especially since that thing that was promised was even more physically impossible than before.  Sarah lived in the real world – the same world that you and I live in.  She knew the reality of the world in which she lived and she knew the reality of her own body.  She knew that it was simply too much to take.

Who would not have laughed with Sarah?  I know that I would have.   And I have laughed at the absurdity of hopeless promises as I have journeyed along this path of faith. I have laughed because answers were so slow in coming.  I laughed because I was afraid to start crying.  I laughed because my eyes could not see and my heart could not feel, and despite all of the faith and good hard work and all the things I claim and hold dear, there seemed to be little to no hope-filled answers.

Sarah laughed.  She had had enough hard knocks to know that life is not always easy peasy.  Not always fun and games.  Sometimes we laugh because the hard knocks are so severe that we just can’t do anything else.  Laughter, like alcohol and opioids, sex and over-eating and hoarding, mask so many things.  They mask the ridiculousness of life; tears and fears after so much waiting.  She laughed at the hopeless absurdity of it all.

Pastor Clarke could have laughed all those years ago, but he didn’t.  I’ve heard over the years how some believed that he had been sent here to close the church.  He could have laughed at the absurdity of it all; but instead, he went to work and had a heart and mind for the people of God in this place, and because of that we are here. (Reference is made to the Reverend Phillip A.C. Clarke who served Park Avenue United Methodist for 43 years and passed away on February 13, 2018)

Abraham and Sarah remind us that what might seem laughable, impossible, absurd, and ridiculous still has sway.  That’s why they are counted as the faithful – not because they were perfect.  Lord no.  Not because they did not panic or get ahead of themselves.  Not because they were not afraid to make mistakes.  They were counted as faithful because no matter how ridiculous things may have appeared and though they were discouraged along the way and often took matters into their own hands, they stayed the course.  They somehow found the courage to keep trusting God.

In a divided country, a divided world that we live in, so many things seem impossible. Do they not?  The thought and hope of existing together as one shared humanity seems almost laughable, doesn’t it?  I mean, really.  We keep trying and working and thinking and hoping and praying, but it seems like it’s never going to be right.  Not possible.  We laugh because we’re tired and weary and there seems to be nothing else to do.  We laugh because the very thought that we might actually lay down our weapons – all those weapons, all those words and phrases, those things that kill not only the body but also the mind and spirit – seem so impossible.   And yet…

Jesus said if you want to be one of mine, if you want to be a disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.  What could be harder than that?  It’s almost laughable.  What could be harder than denying that self that yearns to be satisfied at every turn?  That wants its own way all the time?  That self that refuses to step outside our comfort zone and see the perspective of another or walk in their shoes?

It’s hard to hear that in order to be a true follower of Christ, one must give up certain controls when we so like to be in control; give up their way in exchange for his way, which is almost never ever the way we want.  Who wants to hear that we ought to embrace suffering when we try so hard to avoid suffering at every cost?  Suffering and sacrifice for the greater good.  We want all of our indulgences and a little more if we can get them.  Hard knocks that takes years and years, trial and error, practice and practice to overcome.  In order to save one ’s self, we have to lose ourselves.

What good would it do to get everything, Jesus says, and lose yourself – the real self for which we were created?  And you know, it is easy, isn’t it, to lose one’s self?  To get caught up in all the fray.  To adapt a view of one’s self and what we ought to be like, look like, have, entitled to?  What we [and everyone else is].

Our world view says that might makes right.  Dominance, power, money, and control are the order of our day.  Privilege is for me and mine.  It’s hard to give up those things or the pursuit of them.  And it’s almost laughable.  Except that we are in the Church.  And it is the season of Lent where we commit ourselves once more to walk the road less traveled; the road overgrown with weeds, thistles and thorns where we have to cut through and cut out things in order for our path to be made clear.  It’s almost laughable except that we are headed toward Calvary, and what awaits is not just a cross for Jesus but a cross for me; and a cross for you.

No better time than the Lenten season to take such matters into account.  To look deeper and to ask ourselves more honestly what it means to be a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ in today’s world.  In today’s political and social climate.  What does it mean to look around and be an advocate for fairness and justice at a time like this?   To listen – really listen – and see those who are calling to us.

To find good laughter – not as the absurd, nor the impossible – but laughter of joy for the kingdom that is emerging and coming to pass.  Resurrection joy, on the other side of the hard knocks – come what may!

[1] Genesis 17:1-2
[2] Genesis 18:11-12