Tag Archives: sarah

WIlderness and Pandemic – Doubting the Promise with Sarah and Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21
8The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Read the whole passage)

My son, with all the gravitas that a 6-year-old can muster, frequently refers to the COVID-19 Pandemic as the “Time Period.” 

“When this time period ends,” he will say, “we can see our friends again.”

While his confusion with pandemic terminology is smile inducing, there is a heartbreaking earnestness as well.

I also think there is something to his unintentional term… While many others have referred to this pandemic experience as an extended Lent, an extended time of sacrifice, I am not so sure that is what we are experiencing. 

Not all experiences of sacrifice and loss are the same, and this pandemic isn’t a short, defined time of sacrifice with a known end point like Lent is. 

It is a time period, a new way of being people and being communities and being society that we are going to have to live with for quite some time to come. A time period indeed. 

This is a transitional time period, a time when everything is being changed around us, whether we agree or not. 

Last week, we set out into the Wilderness with Abraham and Sarah. Their journey was not a short one. In fact, they began a journey that kept on going for generations, as Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth, yet then saw the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac. 

This wilderness journey of Abraham and Sarah feels like it is a story that is telling our story today. When so many of the familiar stories we hear on TV or in books or in movies fail to speak to this pandemic yet, this story of faith is an ancient version of our current reality. 

No, they weren’t trying to avoid a plague, but they were people who were set out into the unknown with no map, no instructions other than occasional updates from God, on what to do and where to go. And things that they never imagined possible happened to them. It was messy and complex and things often didn’t go right and they often showed a lack of trust or faith in the covenant, the promise that set them out on their journey in the first place. 

Their story sounds a lot of like ours doesn’t it? A story where we can see the same feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties that we are bearing. An immediacy that they were forced to live in… not knowing the plan for the future means you have to live in the moment. And living in the moment, just surviving day-to-day can make it hard to trust God.

Today, as we hear the next chapter in their journey, we are reminded that the promised Isaac who arrived last week was not, in fact, Abraham’s first son. Ishmael, whom Abraham conceived with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, was Abraham’s first born. 

And Sarah who laughed at the absurdity of bearing a son in her old age, is fearful that the child of promise would not receive God’s promise made. 

So she implores her husband to send Hagar and Ishamel away. 

Which Abraham does by God’s direction. 

And so cast out in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael go. But it isn’t long before they are in dire trouble… and facing an impossible choice, to die with her son, or to at least have one of them survive, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and walks away. 

Filled with unimaginable grief at her impossible choice, Hagar implores God to least spare her watching her son die. 

Two women in the wilderness discover new complications, new unimaginable circumstances, new impossibilities, new absurdities. They are in not just in the wilderness, but wilderness upon wilderness, complication upon complication, mess upon mess. 

How could either Sarah or Hagar be expected to carry on in faith, to trust that God’ promises would hold true? They were both human beings. 

Like Sarah, we too have been living in wilderness upon wilderness. Even though it seemed like the whole world was put on pause in the early stages of this pandemic we soon discovered it was not. Violence, house fires, gun shots and a shooter dressed like the RCMP in Nova Scotia cracked open the heart of a nation. George Floyd was murdered underneath the knee of a police officer, causing protests to erupt around the world. Accusations of racism and discrimination have tarnished the reputation of one of the crown jewels of our city at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And the one party leader of colour in Canada was kicked out of the house of commons after he called another MP a racist after that MP scuttled the passage of bill declaring the existence of systemic racism in the RCMP. 

Wilderness upon wilderness. Complication upon complication. Mess upon mess. 

Even though Sarah had been given a child of the promise, she couldn’t keep up the faith. She was human after all. 

Even though Hagar had been given a child of the promises she couldn’t keep up the faith. She too was human. 

And even though we are made children of the promise in the Waters, even though we are given a new identity and belonging in the bread and wine, even though we are given forgiveness and new life in the Word, we too cannot believe the promise, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is simply not in us to keep the faith that way…. The wilderness gets us every time. Ever since the garden of Eden, ever since Adam and Eve trusted themselves above God. We hear the promise, but cannot keep up the faith. 

And yet, the promise does not depend on us. 

When Sarah laughed, God still brought new life into a barren womb. 

Almost casually, God waltzes into Sarah and Abraham’s wilderness and declares that the promise will be fulfilled. 

When Hagar was at the limit and prepared to give up, God answers Hagar’s pleas with gentle assurance, with water and the renewed covenant.  

When these women cannot keep the faith, God’s promise does not rely on their ability to believe it. 

Instead God’s promise holds true, God promises includes wilderness moments, wilderness upon wilderness moments. God’s plan for Sarah and Hagar, for Isaac and Ishmael extends beyond their present wilderness into future generations. God’s plan for these first families of faith begin in wilderness, in transition, in wandering through the unknown. 

And the convent extends through generations, through kingdoms, through exodus and exile, from judges and prophets, all the way to Messiah. And Messiah’s promise of Good News comes through fledgling communities to empires, institutions and faithful generations upon generations to us. 

And even with all of that. 

Even as we laugh at the absurd promise that we are God’s Body, knit together in water, bread and wine, when we cannot even be in each other’s presence, let alone share these things… God comes into our wilderness with the Word, the Word of promises given for us, week after week. 

Even as we are prepared to give up, unable to keep the faith in the face of pandemics, and shootings, and police brutality. In the face of generations of racist systems, and hypocritical institutions, hypocritical leaders who do not get it… God deals gently with us, granting promise  in the word, relief for parched and cracked souls nearing death. 

And in the wilderness that keeps us from seeing beyond the present, God’s declares that God has plans for our future, plans that span generations and that include multitudes more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

God promises that God is not done with us, wether we believe it or not, whether our wilderness upon wilderness is more than we can bear or not. 

And in this wilderness, this transition, God reminds us again our story is being told again, told in ancient stories of faith, told in the present moment that we can see today. 

And so like Sarah and Hagar we fail to keep the faith…

We cannot help it. 

But God can.

And God does. 

And God declares that God’s promises will bring us through the wilderness, through the wilderness upon wilderness, to when this Time Period is over and we will see our friends again. 

In the meantime, God’s promises will still hold true, even when we don’t believe them…

Promises that will carry us through the wilderness to the promised land. 

Recency Bias, Laughing at God, and Birthing New Possibilities

Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Read the whole passage)

This is the first Sunday of green. Which means that the green banners and paraments are out, and I have put on my green stole. A number of other clergy online remarked about the change. Keeping track of time in the church isn’t always measured by the same calendars. And in this case, many folks noted that the last time we gathered for in person worship it was in Lent, and the colour was purple. Since then we have worn Red, White, Red and white again, and now finally green. And for many this new season of green will be another few months of online only worship. 

In that realization there is lament. Lament at what has been lost, lament at what is now, lament at what might not be recovered when and if things “go back to normal.” 

And so we enter into the next season of the church, the long season of green or ordinary time. A time for hearing the stories of the bible and hearing our own stories in them. Because while we have been experiencing something that no one alive has really known, we are certainly not the first people of faith to face trial and tribulation… in fact there are more stories about that than just normal boring everything-is-fine stories in the bible. 

This season begins with the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah, then Abram and Sarai, who were called by God to pack up everything they had and follow God’s call into the wilderness. 6 chapters later the pair are well into their journey when they are met by three strangers asking for hospitality. So Abraham and Sarah welcome these passing strangers into their tent. Abraham and Sarah care for their visitors — mysterious messengers from God, with a message to deliver. 

Once the strangers have received the good grace and care of this wandering couple, one stranger promises to Sarah that she will bear a son in due season. 

At this Sarah laughs. 

Sarahs laughs because it is an absurd promise. She is old, she is past her child bearing years. She cannot have a child at this point in her life, that ship as sailed. 

Yet, when Sarah laughs, the stranger hears it and he wonders why. She denies it but stranger says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

It is mean to be heard as  comical interaction with between an elderly couple in the desert and unknown strangers. 

Sarah and Abraham, remind us of ourselves. As they follow God’s call to faith, God’s call to go out into the world, they give of themselves trusting that God will care for them as they go. At the same time, they struggle to trust that God’s promises of them are true, that there is something more for them than just waiting for the end of their lives. So as this stranger and unknown messenger promises something unimaginable happening, Sarah cannot help but laugh.

Their past, their experiences of life thus far are telling them that new life in this way, in Sarah’s body in impossible. They believe that the things that have just recently happened to them will continue to happen forever. 

There is a name for this phenomenon , it is called recency bias. 

We as human being tend to think that whatever has just happened to us will continue to happening forever. Sarah knows she cannot bear children because her body is no longer fertile. 

Recency bias affects us too. 

It is the reason why change is so difficult, our brains convince us that our recent experiences will be our truth forever. It is why people so often buy high and sell low on the stock market despite the adage. It is why when our favourite sports team wins a few games at the beginning of the season we start planning the championship parade. Or why when we have a bad meal at our favourite restaurant we might choose to stop eating there altogether.  

It is why we had such trouble believing the coronavirus was much worse than a flu, when the flu is what we already know as respiratory virus. It is also why with a few days and weeks of low case numbers,  we think we are quickly on our way back to normal and the end of this pandemic. 

We simply cannot stop ourselves from believing that whatever our most recent experience of something is will become the new truth forever.

And it is one reason why we  struggle so much with change and we struggle to anticipate what is coming next for us.

And it is also why declining churches cannot seem to turn things around despite trying “everything,” because they believe that their recent decline is their only future.

We simply assume that whatever has just been happening to us will keep happening forever. 

But now, like Sarah, we are being confronted with a different promise for our future… we are being told that what will come next for us cannot be determined by what just happened, but instead it is mostly unknown to us and rather known only to God. 

Only 6 chapters into the story of their call,  Sarah and Abraham have already forgotten the covenant. The covenant with God, where God made promises to Abraham. The promise of blessing, a relationship with God. The promise of land, a promised land for God’s people. And the promise of descendants. 

Descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

A promise that was going to have to start somewhere. Start in someone’s body, someone’s womb. 

Even when Sarah and Abraham cannot imagine a different future, God has already set it into motion. Even when it seems as though all possibility for life has been taken away and all there is left is faithfulness to death… 

God has different plans. 

God brings the promise of a nation into the world from Sarah’s frail and old body. God brings new life into existence when all there seemed to be was waiting for death. God brings Isaac into the world to be the next generation to receive the promised covenant. 

And all of sudden, everything is different. Sarah and Abraham’s recent past no longer determines their future (it never really did…), instead everything is unknown, unpredictable and impossible to anticipate… but also life-filled and hopeful and on the way to something new. 

Yet, it took taking Abraham and Sarah away from everything they knew, to unknown places and unknown path… 

And in that place of the unknown, in that place where the even the past was left behind, God begins the first steps of the new thing. The first steps towards the birth of a nation, to a chosen people constantly turning and returning to God, and to the eventually sending of the Messiah, to the one sent to save God’s people and all creation. 

And so here we are in our own wilderness. Here were are with our own laughter at the idea that God might have something new and unexpected in mind us for… 

And even as world longs for our recent past, for those pre-covid halcyon days when the world was great…. (it wasn’t that great).

And even as our recent past as the church makes us believe that slow decline is our only future because nothing we have tried has got the young people to come back…

We are discovering that in this moment, when so much has been put on hold, taken way and changed, that our future is unknown to us. That the people we will become on the other side is known only to God. 

And in this opportunity when we are in unknown places and on unknown paths, God just may be planning to birth something new and totally unexpected in us, in the church. 

And yes, this is laughably absurd. 

But look at what happened to Sarah and Abraham. 

That in the just a few faithful servants waiting to die, God began a chosen people, a promised and chosen people to whom the Messiah – the savour of all – would come. 

If Sarah’s laughter and this pandemic have taught us anything, it is not to trust our recency bias, not to trust our limited vision of our future… but to expect that in this moment of unknowns God just might be making us ready for the next thing. God just might be beginning in us something so new and unexpected that we too might laugh. 

So today, on this first Sunday of green, as our way forward is as uncertain and unknown as it may ever have been, and when all there seems to be is lament about what is lost…

God is inspiring us to laugh… to laugh at the absurdity of it all… And God is also beginning in us, something new and unexpected that will change us and change the world.