by Rev. Sarah Buteux
March 8, 2020, Lent 2, Year A, Genesis 12:1-9 John 3:1-6
“The difficult is what takes a little time.
The impossible is what takes a little longer.”
– Fridtjof Nansen
I voted this past week and I wore a little sticker to prove it. Did you all vote if you were able? Good.
Like many of you, I thought long and hard over these last few months about who I would vote for when the primary finally rolled around. And like everyone else in America, I wrestled with the question of electability vs. each candidate’s ability to do the job and do it well. And until this past weekend, I still wasn’t entirely sure who I was going to vote for.
But then Tuesday came and – thanks to all the winnowing that occurred after South Carolina – my choice was clear. For the second time in my life, I filled in the bubble next to the name of a woman.
I didn’t vote for her because she was a woman. And I certainly didn’t vote for her because I thought she had the best chance of winning. I voted for her because I thought she would make the best president.
I didn’t just vote with me head. I voted with my heart. I didn’t vote according to what I thought was probable. I voted for what I still believe is possible. And it felt good.
Then Wednesday came and I woke up to realize that I live in a tiny little bubble. Heck, I don’t even live in it. Amherst went for Bernie. I commute to work in it – a tiny little bubble dominated by college educated women of a certain age who listen to NPR, sip oat milk lattes, and embrace their natural grey.
My girl lost.
But I can stand before you today and say that I didn’t. At least not entirely, because here’s the thing: when you hold true to what you believe in, you still have something to hold on to even when things don’t go your way.
Now, that’s not the message you’ll hear in every church. There are plenty of churches out there who will tell you that if you just believe the right things, follow the correct program, buy this book, donate to that cause, or pray this prayer, things will start coming up roses. But you all know we’re not that kind of church, and this book we hold dear, is simply not full of those kind of stories.
Take a look at the heroes of our story for today, Abraham and Sarah. God planted a vision in Abraham’s heart: a vision of a new life in a new land where Abraham would become the father of a great nation that would bless the world. And Abraham – from the get go – was all in.
He held fast to that vision.
He held fast in spite of the fact that what God promised had never before been done. He held fast in spite of the fact that what God promised seemed impossible.
And he held fast in spite of the fact that from the moment he agreed to follow God, almost nothing went his way from that point forward.
Abraham’s story, at least as far as the Bible is concerned, begins at the ripe old age of 75, when his name was still Abram. God told Abram to leave his homeland, his family, and his family’s gods in order to move to a promised land that God had prepared for him.
And, to his credit, Abram believed God and went. He told his wife Sarai the good news that she was finally going to be a mother – at the age of 65 – and they moved their whole entourage in the direction God had pointed.
But no sooner did they reach the Promised Land than they had to leave it again. Famine forced them all down to Egypt where things got a bit dicey when Pharaoh developed a romantic interest in Sarai, and Abram, not wanting to offend, let the Pharaoh go ahead and marry his wife.
Suffice it to say that God was not pleased with this arrangement and intervened to get Sarai and Abram back together. From there they found themselves in the midst of battles, lots of negotiations, and – what with one thing leading to another – a lot of time passed and Abram started to get a little nervous about this whole promise thing. After all, neither he nor Sarai were getting any younger.
So Abraham prayed one night, “O Lord,” he said, “you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” And God took Abram outside, under the canopy of the night sky, and said, “Look up, toward heaven and count the stars…so shall your descendants be.”
God made a covenant with Abram that night, and Abram, well…Abram held on. He trusted in the promise God had made. He held fast to the vision of himself as the father of a great nation that God had placed on his heart and he waited… and waited… and waited.
Now I know this is a familiar story, and I know that most of you know what is coming next, so I want to pause here and ask you to really consider how hard this waiting must have been.
I want you to imagine for a moment what it would be like if Abram and Sarai were members of our congregation. Perhaps newly retired to this happy valley like so many of you. Imagine Abram getting up one Sunday before the pastoral prayer and telling us that he has had a word from the Lord that he and Sarai are going to be parents.
We all know that would take a miracle, but he is so confident. He has waited so long. He has been so faithful – not just to God but to Sarai – that we can’t help but cheer him on. We all exclaim that with God anything is possible and join him in praying that God’s promise will be fulfilled. Kind of sweet. Until Abram gets up the next Sunday and the Sunday after that.
How many Sunday’s before the old man’s words start to get on your nerves? How many years before you dismiss the poor guy as crackers? I bet you I’d have people complaining to me about Abram within 2 months and probably calling for some sort of intervention before 9.
But years…years and years and years? Abram had to wait for twenty-five years. Imagine that. Imagine waiting that long; how painful that would have been; how hard it would be to keep following God without feelings of bitterness or resentment or mistrust creeping in.
How tempting it would be to simply give up. It’s no wonder that Sarai got tired of waiting and told Abram to at least have a baby with her slave Hagar.
They must have been desperate. And in fact I think they were. So desperate that years later when God Almighty, the creator of the universe, deigns to repeat his promises once again, Abram laughs.
He laughs right in God’s face. You don’t do that. At least I don’t think you do that. But Abram did. He laughed and then said: Come on God. “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety…bear a child?”
Lord have mercy, enough is enough. Let’s be realistic, and call it a day. I have my son Ishmael by Hagar. Let’s talk about him. But God had other plans for Ishmael and God had yet more in store for Abram and Sarai. In fact, on this occasion he renames them: Abraham -“Father of a great multitude” and Sarah- “Princess of God.”
Beautiful, strong, promise filled names to be sure, but also, I would think, rather painful ones. Imagine Abram coming to church and telling us, 25 years after that first announcement, at the ripe old age of 100, that God wants us to call him “Father of a multitude now.”
How people must have sneered or pitied them. I bet Sarah just shook her head …and still, still, no baby. Sarah doesn’t give birth for another 3 chapters, 3 long chapters in which time Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, Abraham pulls up stakes yet again, Sarah gets married off to yet another foreign king… blah, blah, blah blah blah.
The wait is interminable. God made this promise 25 years ago, a promise that would have been miraculous from day one, but now? Now what once seemed impossible sounds downright insane.
Abraham and Sarah are old. They are tired. They’ve been through so much: so many detours, disappointments, and false starts that I think he could have been forgiven for giving up.
But Abraham didn’t.
He didn’t always understand God. He got in God’s way more often than not. But Abraham, God bless him, Abraham kept faith with God, because Abraham understood that keeping faith is not about hanging in until God does what you want. Faith is about hanging in long enough to accomplish what God wants.
I would love it if I could stand up here and say that if you just wait long enough and keep on believing and doing what’s right that you’ll eventually get what you desire, just like Abraham did. But that simply isn’t true, nor is it how the story goes. The truth is, Abraham didn’t get what he wanted.
Abraham wanted to have children while he could still run after them.
Abraham wanted to settle down and make Sarah happy.
Abraham wanted Ishmael to be his heir.
Abraham wanted to avoid pain and doubt and discomfort just like the rest of us.
He wanted to go to family reunions in his old age and watch a mini-multitude of grandchildren run and laugh and play, secure in the knowledge that his work was done and his legacy would carry on.
Secure in the knowledge that he had blessed the world and left it better than he found it. Abraham didn’t get what he wanted, not by a long shot.
But Abraham still had faith. He still had something to hold on to in spite of the fact that things were not going his way, and hold on he did. Abraham held fast to the God he believed in. He weathered disappointment after disappointment. He kept living as if the promise was true and because of that he eventually got something far more precious than what he wanted.
Abraham got what God wanted… Isaac; a beautiful baby boy named “laughter” from whom would rise the 12 tribes of Israel, King David, Jesus the Christ, and, not for nothing, but hundreds of thousands of faith communities full of people like you and me who go out everyday and do our best to bless the world in God’s name.
And friends, I know that the fulness of that blessing still feels a long way off. In fact, in days like these it may feel well nigh impossible. I have to tell you that I know all of these brilliant, courageous, dedicated, people of faith who are holding on hard to what they believe in right now.
Just like Abraham, they are doing all the right things for the right reasons, trying with all of their might to be faithful to the call God has placed on their hearts.
They are using their very lives to make a way for God’s blessings to break into the world, for God’s justice and righteousness to roll down like water… and for whatever reason things just aren’t coming together for them the way they want or the way they should or the way you would think they would.
At least not yet.
And the wait is long.
And the wait is hard.
But I think back 55 years ago yesterday to the march in Selma, Alabama – that infamous day known as “Bloody Sunday.” I think back to the 600 brave souls – men like Congressman John Lewis, women like Amelia Boynton – who put one foot in front of the other in an attempt to reach the state capitol and demonstrate for the voting rights of African Americans.
600 brave souls who were beaten down and pushed back by local law enforcement before they had even covered 6 blocks.
They knew the violence and the hatred they would face. They knew the chances of reaching Montgomery were slim to none. But they stepped out anyway, because being true to what they believed was right was more important than settling for what they had been told was possible.
They did the right thing… and they lost. They lost something awful that day. They didn’t get what they wanted. They didn’t accomplish what they set out to do. And it was tragic and bloody and violent and painful. But God hadn’t given up yet and in an act of remarkable faithfulness, neither did they. Their faith filled failure cleared a way where there was no way.
Two weeks later, thanks to their courageous persistence, 25,000 people led by Martin Luther King Jr. marched all the way from Selma to Montgomery. This past week, thousands gathered again with Congressman Lewis, because the walk may be possible now, but the work is far from done.
There are no guarantees that if we do the right thing or walk the right way that we’ll get what we are hoping for, but I am reminded that every step we make toward God’s kingdom, even when we falter, beats a path toward a more just and generous world.
I am reminded that sometimes it’s enough just to set out – even if you know you’re not gonna make it, even if you know you’re going to fail, because you’re marking the trail for someone else.
Elizabeth, Kamala, Tulsi, Amy, Hilary, Carly, Geraldine Ferraro – remember her? because I do. Shirley Chisholm? Victoria Woodhull? – none of these women will ever be president, at least not in 2020, but every woman who runs, even if she doesn’t make it, makes it just a little bit easier for the ones who will come after her.
Watching Elizabeth Warren concede this past Thursday was hard. But I have to believe that somewhere out there is a little girl who wrapped her pinky around Elizabeth’s and that little girl is going to be president someday. Because the impossible is only impossible until it’s not.
So my friends, for the love of God:
Keep showing up for what you believe is right especially when it seems impossible.
Keep in mind that faithfulness is not about getting what you want. It’s about working toward the world God wants.
Keep voting with your head and your heart.
And keep fighting the righteous fight, “because then,” as Warren so wisely said, “when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.”