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Sun, Jun 14, 2020

A Way out of No Way

Duration:16 mins 49 secs

“A Way out of No Way”

Sermon on Genesis 18:1-15, Romans 5:1-5

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

                Almost everyone knows someone who has waited years and years for a baby that never came. That is a special kind of heartbreak. A long time ago, I heard a story about a woman who went to Ethiopia to adopt a baby after years of trying to conceive. The woman’s attempts to work through the Ethiopian bureaucracy were thwarted over and over again. Every time she thought there would finally be a baby for her, she was told there were no babies, even though she could hear babies crying in the orphanages she visited. She finally got a baby boy, but then the birth mother changed her mind, and the orphanage took the baby away.

            Sarah and Abraham must have felt that same choked sense of despair during the years they waited for the promised baby that never came. When we meet them in their tent, at the beginning of Genesis 18, they have been waiting for twenty-five years. That’s how long it has been since God first appeared to Abraham and promised that he would be the ancestor of a “great nation.” In those twenty-five years, Abraham and Sarah have heard this promise three times. They have moved from their homeland, wandered down to Egypt and then come back north again. Paul, remembering the story of Abraham, says that he “did not weaken in faith” when he considered his age and Sarah’s barrenness (Rom. 4:19-20). Genesis, though, says that Abraham fell on his face laughing the second time God made the promise to him (17:17).

            By the time Abraham and Sarah welcome the three visitors into their tent, they seem to have resigned themselves to a dead-end existence. Abraham has given up hope of an heir; Sarah has given up the hopes of her reproductive years and all the vitality she knew. They are old. Life hasn’t turned out the way they had hoped. There is an emptiness to things. Still, they’ve done well in one area: they are rich, so Abraham is able to do his duty as a host with some style when the three angelic visitors arrive at their tent. Abraham is extending ordinary Middle Eastern hospitality by offering the best food and drink to his guests, but these are not ordinary visitors, and they have some startling news to impart, news that breaks the boredom of the desert midday: “I will return to you in due season, and…Sarah shall have a son.”

            This time it is Sarah’s turn to laugh. She is perhaps more discreet than Abraham, as she’s hiding behind a tent flap, but the announcement sounds so absurd she can’t suppress her laughter. We don’t know what Sarah’s laughter sounded like – soft and cynical, maybe, or perhaps a snort of derision, the way people laugh at something preposterous. She is heard, she is questioned, she denies laughing, the men are not convinced, and they go on their way. And then we find out three chapters later that the men were right. Sarah conceives and in the springtime she has her baby. They name him Isaac, meaning “laughter,” a wonderful name that is both a commentary on his parents’ earlier laughter of disbelief and the sound of pure joy. As they sometimes say in the African-American church, God has made “a way out of no way.” 

            Is this a story of faith or disbelief? In the Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the story of Abraham to say something about faith, endurance and hope. Abraham, Paul says, never wavered in his belief that “he would become the father of many nations,” but the Genesis account itself suggests that he had his doubts along the way. That’s not surprising: repeated disappointment and persistent heartache can make anyone have doubts. Suffering can be a killer of faith.

But, Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Yet getting from point A, suffering, to point D, hope, is a hard path to follow.  There is no guarantee that the suffering will produce anything but despair. All too often resignation sets in, the conclusion that nothing will ever be any different, or any better. Hope just keeps getting squashed, and it’s tempting to decide that it’s better not to expend any more energy on keeping hope alive, because it hurts too much when it’s disappointed yet again. “What happens to a dream deferred?” asked the poet Langston Hughes. It can dry up “like a raisin in the sun,” or it can “just sag like a heavy load,” or it can “explode.” [i]

            Dreams deferred over and over again can strain the limits of human endurance. Even so, hope has a way of bubbling up at the slightest encouragement.

I see hope bubbling up in our country right now. In spite of all the turmoil in our American cities over the last three weeks, and all the grief and outrage that sparked it, many of us are filled with the sense that things really are going to change, especially for the African-American community. We are seeing a hopefulness now that perhaps hasn’t been seen since the civil rights era of the 1960s. It really does feel like we are at a transformational moment. Condoleezza Rice, who was Secretary of State under George W. Bush, had an article in the Post last Sunday about the shock, grief and rage Americans have been feeling over the death of George Floyd. Past experience tells her that “these feelings will fade and we will return to our lives.” But past experience is not always determinative. This time, she says, will not be like those other times.[ii] This time will be different. That is hope speaking, the kind of hope that can come out of suffering and endurance. Rice goes on to say that we could be at a moment like the moment when Rosa Parks defied segregation orders on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, or after the bombing of the church in Montgomery that killed four little girls and galvanized the world in support of the American civil rights movement.

            When people, especially oppressed people, get “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” to quote a saying from that earlier movement, things begin to happen. African Americans are sick and tired of dying young in disproportionately large numbers; suffering the worst effects of environmental degradation; receiving inferior health care, housing, and education; being infected with covid-19 in disproportionately large numbers; being treated as if their lives don’t matter as much as white lives. They are sick and tired of swallowing what seems like more than the average share of the cup of suffering.

            But “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I think of that great hymn by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” the hymn goes, calling on singers to remember “the days when hope unborn had died,” coming “out from the gloomy past “over “a way watered with tears,” but persistently following “the gleam of our bright star.” This is a song of suffering, endurance, character, and hope, all in a context of faith.   

            What is faith? Is it simply the opposite of disbelief or skepticism? Or is faith the ability to persevere when the odds seem stacked against you? Is it the stubborn, abiding conviction that things can be different? The Bible says faith is confidence that God can make a way out of no way – that even in the most seemingly hopeless situations, God is waiting to act. Faith is the conviction that where God is concerned there are no dead ends. Our God is someone who chooses to dwell at the intersection of possibility and impossibility, and who constantly seeks to remind us that a past of trampled-on hopes does not close off the future. Where God is working, there is always the shimmer of possibility and new life.

            Faith is the ability to look for miracles where most people might just see dead ends  – miracles like the turning of the tide in great social movements, or in the more ordinary situations of daily life: simple miracles like someone new to love, a great kindness when you least expected it, a future that suddenly opens. Mostly, faith is a refusal to say that if something looks hopeless to us, it must look hopeless to God, too.

            “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the angel asked. And far away a baby cried, and Sarah laughed, for joy. 

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

June 14, 2020      

 

[i] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Copyright@2002 by Langston Hughes.

[ii] Condoleezza Rice, “This moment cries out for us to confront race in America,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2020, A27.

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