Sermon - 18th June 2017
Scripture - Genesis 18:1-15; Romans 5:1-5
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
We are all on a journey, one way or another. On our respective, individual, personal journeys through life, our journeys take different forms.
Our first reading concerns Abraham, the great ancestor shared by the world’s three monotheistic religions, sometimes call the Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like other significant people whose lives are narrated in the books of the Bible, Abraham was on a journey that took place on many, different levels.
*Sometimes, those journeys are geographic, as we move from one place to another: for some, that can mean moving to a new local area, or to a new part of the country; for others, that can mean moving to a new country, or, like for many in our church, even a new continent!
The reasons and motivations behind why we make these journeys are many and varied: sometimes good, sometimes bad.
As LGBT people, our lives have another form of journey: as we began to realise that our own sexual orientations were not that of the heterosexual majority, or that our gender identity was at variance with our birth gender.
From these first thoughts, through to giving voice to them to others – a process we call “coming out” – then dealing with others’ reactions to our revelation - whether that be a good, bad or mixed experience – coming to terms with and being at peace with being LGB or T is a journey in itself, and as people of faith, because of the various church traditions’ attitude towards LGBT people, to reconcile this aspect of life with one’s faith is an added leg to that journey.
For many in our church, being known as lesbian or gay has been the reason why you began a geographic journey, leaving the countries of your birth, seeking a safe place – asylum – in the UK. We are pleased to welcome you here in our church and join with us in our journey.
Other types of life journey include careers, where the type of work we do changes. This has been a significant journey in my own life: I used to be a secondary school teacher until 6 years ago; now, I co-own and run an IT services business with my best friend, Wes. Without that change in my life, I would not have the time to do all the things I do in church each week. Nor would I be able to work with the many excellent charities our company supports. Like other types of journey, this journey has not been easy.
Relationships and friendships will also take us on journeys, bringing joy, companionship, closeness, intimacy, commitment and new connections with others. Break-ups of these for whatever reason will also have an effect on our journeys through life.
The last type of journey I want to mention is our faith journey. Most, if not all, of us did not begin our faith journey in the United Reformed Church. Some were Roman Catholic; others, Anglican; and others, evangelical, Pentecostal or even of other faiths like Islam, or of no faith.
Our faith journeys will have been influenced by our other journeys in life. Rejection in your previous church or faith background for being LGB or T will probably be a significant factor in you being here in our church today.
And so, back to Abraham…
*The first mention of Abraham, or Abram as he is named for much of the account in Genesis, can be found in chapter 11 at the end of a long genealogy or family history going to back Shem, eldest son of Noah. The Bible tells us that the family lived in one of the world most ancient cities, called Ur, in Babylonia – modern day Iraq.
Without being told the reason why, we are told that Abram’s father, Terah, set out with his family on a journey to Canaan, but they got as far as Haran and “settled there” (Genesis 11:31). Again, the Scripture is silent as to why the journey stopped, maybe it was due to Terah’s age.
We do not know how long they were in Haran, before God spoke to Abram with a three-fold promise: to have many descendants, the “father” of a great nation; to inherit the land of Canaan; to be a blessing to the whole world. Keep this in mind, however, that we are told that Abram’s wife, Sarai (or Sarah) was unable to have children.
*So God gives the family a push to continue their journey, but when they get to Canaan, there is a famine, so they keep going and end up in Egypt. After the famine, they return to Canaan and thrive economically, so much so that the family has to split up: Lot goes off to live in the city of Sodom, but that is another story for another sermon…
Abram's geographic journey that began with God’s call may have reached its end, but the journey of God’s promise to make him a “father of a great nation” seems to have gone off the rails somewhat: Sarai is barren; they have no children. It is difficult to be a “father of a great nation” without even one child!
There is one thing about Abraham/Abram that stands out in the Bible: he is not backwards in coming forwards when it comes to speaking with God and asking difficult questions. In Genesis 15:2, Abram bluntly to God: “What good will your reward do me, since I have no children?”
*God’s reply is unequivocal (Genesis 15:4-5): “`…your own son will be your heir.’ The Lord took him outside and said, `Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.’” If you have ever seen a truly dark sky, not like the light-polluted night sky of Manchester, you will know for yourselves the point that God was making.
Now one of the problems with many of us humans is that we are impatient. Despite God’s promises, Abram and Sarai try to take things into their own hands. We are told that it was after being in Canaan for about ten years.
The modern equivalent of what happened next is called surrogacy: Sarai gave her slave, a woman called Hagar, to her husband Abram, to have a child on her behalf. Using a “handmaid” was common practice in those days for the childless. The child who was born – called Ishmael – is considered to the great ancestor of the Arab people. We are told that Abram was 86 when this happened.
*Thirteen years later, when Abram is 99, God appeared again to Abram and, for the third time, promises that Abram will be “the ancestor of many nations”. It is at this point his name gets changed. Names and the meaning of names are important in the Bible: Abram means “exalted father”; Abraham, “father of a multitude”. The name is either ironic or prophetic!
Even so, Abraham, in his third encounter with God, struggles to accept God’s promise and tries to push for his and Sarai’s human solution to the problem: Genesis 17:17-18: “Abraham bowed down with his face touching the ground, but he began to laugh when he thought, ‘Can a man have a child when he is a hundred years old? Can Sarah have a child at ninety?’ He asked God, ‘Why not let Ishmael be my heir?’”
The account we heard in our first reading continues the story, or it may be re-telling of Chapter 17 by a different author, when Abraham and Sarah are visited by three men. Being hospitable to travellers and strangers was a very important social imperative in those days. Abraham greets them; they are served bread made with the best flour and meat from the best of the herd. Despite having many servants and his considerable age, Abraham serves them himself.
To us, the detail into which the account in the Bible goes, might seem over the top; however, it emphasises the importance of hospitality and the honoured status of the three guests, and it is into the atmosphere at this meal that God’s plan is revisited and given a definitive timetable: (Genesis 18:10) “One of [the men] said, ‘Nine months from now I will come back, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’”
The account then somewhat graphically asks us to consider a 90-year-old woman who menopause was likely some 40 years ago having sex with her 100-year-old husband! And of course, Sarah will have heard what the visitor said – after all, tents are not known for their sound-proofing!
Like her husband, Abraham, Sarah did not believe what she heard: she considered it foolish and she laughed. I mentioned previously that the meanings of names in the Bible are important. If you know the rest of the story, Sarah does conceive by Abraham and they have a son, whom they call Isaac, the Hebrew for which is “yitz-hak”, meaning “he laughs”.
So, what can we learn from Abraham and Sarah’s story?
Firstly, we learn about the generous hospitality they showed to the strangers, welcoming them into their home. If you read on in Genesis from this point, you will read about the complete opposite reception the three visitors had when they reached Sodom. The welcome of the stranger, the extending of the love of one’s own home to show hospitality, the feeding of the hungry: these are Gospel values, the very values Jesus taught.
Secondly, we learn that God had a plan for Abraham and Sarah: it took them on a geographic journey and on a journey of faith that called upon them to suspend their human assumptions about infertility and progeny. That was the plan God had for them, and God has a plan for us all, too. The prophet Jeremiah wrote (29:11): [The Lord says,] “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.”
Thirdly, God’s plan was a long-term one. From the time we meet Abram in Chapter 11 to this encounter in Chapter 18, almost thirty years have passed. We know that Abram and Sarai were impatient and tried to bring about their own solution to their childlessness, but impatience is not just a 21st Century human trait.
As children, we may have asked parents for things but not received them for various reasons: while in some circumstances this may have caused us to lose our trust, it does not negate their parenthood. In the same way, if we ask God for something, and we perceive there to be no answer or that God is saying “no”, this should not negate our faith in God.
If there is one clear lesson throughout the accounts in the Bible, it is this: God is in it with us for the long-term; God works in years and decades across our whole lives, not in minutes and hours. Prayer is not a spiritual form of Whatsapp, Facebook or any other instant messenger. The lesson is patience.
The final lesson we learn is hope. In Genesis 15:6, we read that Abraham’s faith in God was credited to him as righteousness. Saint Paul in Romans 4:22 revisits this and makes it ours, too: and, in verse 24: “[The words] were written also for us who are to be accepted as righteous, who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from death.”
Our brief second reading from Romans 5 summarises the journey of hope: we have the hope of sharing God’s glory. Like Abraham and Sarah who had they share of troubles, so do we, but this produces endurance. Their endurance brought them God’s approval: through Jesus, we have God’s approval, and this brings us hope. Hope is a powerful concept, and the hope that God causes to well up with us is God’s love alive within us.