Harris Athanasiadis June 18, 2017
WHAT IS FAITH?
Genesis 18: 1-15, Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-12
Why did Sarah laugh? The mysterious strangers visiting Abraham and Sarah seem to be preoccupied with Sarah’s reaction to their words. She actually laughed! Well, on the surface it is impolite to laugh at one’s guests, and especially if one’s guests are trying to say something rather serious. But given Abraham’s and Sarah’s history and what the guests were saying, Sarah’s laughing is not surprising at all! I mean, if she didn’t laugh, she would probably cry given a history of failed promises and dashed hopes.
God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have descendants as numerous as the particles of sand on a many-kilometre sea shore. But all they experienced was repeated failure to get pregnant, and now that they were well past the child bearing and rearing years, it was all well past the point of tears. Laughter was appropriate, no? They had been promised an abundant land to call their own, rich in vegetation and wildlife, but all they got was a struggle to make it, and repeated opposition in claiming any land by those who already inhabited it. Laughter is a constructive way to deal with disappointment, no? And now, to top it all off, some strangers come by and predict in all seriousness that Sarah will actually conceive and bear a child... and soon! Come on! Sarah needed a good laugh. How else could she respond to the ludicrous?
But behind Sarah’s laugh there was pain, the raw pain of never having had the chance to bear the children she had dreamed and hoped for. The prediction of the strangers was like salt to an open wound. How insensitive to say such things so nonchalantly as if it’s just some casual piece of information easily digested and believed. But it only gets worse when you think about it. The strangers who are treated as guests not only make an insensitive and unlikely prediction, they even have the gall to get offended at Sarah’s laughing. Could they not see for themselves how old Sarah and Abraham were? Had their long journey under the hot sun clouded their thinking?
But then again, this story is not a story about human possibilities. It is about divine ones. This story is a story about miracles. After all, these strangers who are guests are no ordinary strangers. At one point in the story we are told it is ‘The Lord’ who is addressing Abraham, not just some strangers. The Lord, hidden within the words of these strangers, the Lord speaking through people and through circumstances, the Lord God is addressing Abraham and Sarah once again with a fresh promise and new seeds of hope.
But, can such hope flower? Can such a promise take root and produce faith? Is faith possible at this point? Can it be resurrected? Such words, such promises, and such hopes, were now clearly beyond the likelihood of ordinary human possibilities, more so than ever before. Only a miracle could make it all happen, only a divine possibility. But what is faith if it is not about divine possibilities rather than merely human ones. Faith, after all, is not fact. Fact is about human possibilities. Faith is about divine possibilities. Faith is about the impossible made possible, the improbable made real. How does this happen?
Well think about it. We know the outcome of this story. Sarah does conceive and bear a son and his name is Isaac. God’s promises do bear fruit and their descendants do in time become as numerous as the sand on a many-kilometre seashore. And it does take some time but these descendants do inherit a promised land rich in vegetation and wildlife. But what are the conditions for such events taking place? What did Abraham and Sarah have to do in order for such impossibilities to be made possible and for such improbabilities to be made real? Again, the answer is faith. Without faith none of this would have happened. Without faith, we would have no story of the people of Israel, no promised land, nothing! And so it behoves us to ask more seriously, what is faith? How does it take root and grow?
First of all, faith is about openness. And openness comes in many forms. Think about it. You can believe something is going to happen and yet be closed to the ways it may happen, ways which transcend your expectations, ways that do not fit your preconceived notions of what’s possible, what’s probable, what’s realistic or likely. I mean, miracle of miracle, Abraham and Sarah believed God when they left their family dwelling and homeland in Haran and made their way toward a new promised land under the direction of a God they as yet knew little about. And miracle of miracles, they believed that through them a nation was to be born and their descendants would be as numerous as the sands of a many-kilometre seashore. But how was this to happen? And how was this to happen when all the conventional avenues for it happening seemed closed?
I mean you can’t have children when you’re old, can you? And you can’t inherit a promised land when there are other people living there who don’t want you there, can you? So, the most common response to the cold, hard facts of life is to become closed. How many rough knocks does it take in life before we become guarded and suspicious, cynical and mistrusting? How many disappointments, hurts or let-downs do we have to experience before our expectations of life and the world become dim?
It’s fine to be open and trusting, wide-eyed and believing when one is a child, but things change as we grow. We know that people too often can’t be trusted. We know that we have to look out for number one because no one else will. We know that life is unpredictable and hard and that misfortune is just around the corner waiting to ruin the unsuspecting traveller through life. Open your heart and it can get hurt. Open your soul and it can be crushed. What risks are worth taking and what leaps are worth making? We have to calculate, reason and plan our way as best we can, and then we have to take our chances with the rest.
Now even though this may be a sensible and wise perspective on journeying through life, it is not the perspective that governed the actions of Abraham and Sarah. Sure they had their moment of laughter - Abraham in another story as much as Sarah in this one. Laughter is a way of relieving the worry and disappointment. But they didn’t alter their course, did they? Abraham continued to welcome strangers and Sarah continued to host them and follow through with the plan. Even though there were times when the door of faith was open a mere crack, neither Abraham nor Sarah ever closed it. Faith as openness, openness to the impossible made possible and the improbable made real.
At times we may feel that we can never get through a situation or circumstance with grace. At times it may seem that we can never change things in our personal lives, our work lives, our health lives. At times we may get totally demoralized about the state of our world. At times it may look like we can never grow in a relationship that seems to be going in circles, or a relationship imprisoned by conflict or misunderstanding. Things may change here and there, but let’s face it, too often they just stay the same. Openness is about overcoming sameness. Openness is about transforming world-weariness into child-likeness. Openness is about anticipating new ways in our movement toward God even when the circumstances of life bear heavy on our souls.
Faith as openness and openness as a basic trust in the generosity of the universe yet to bestow blessings upon us, blessings in ways and means that have yet to unfold. Are you open, open to God, open to the future, open to a new way of living with your past and carrying your present? Sarah may have laughed. Abraham may have wondered. But neither of them closed the door to what God could yet do: the impossible made possible and the improbable made real. Faith as openness, faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Do you have faith? Are you open to God working in you to bring about fresh blessings in you and through you to others and to the world? Ask yourself….
Finally, Faith is not only about openness, it is also about waiting. Waiting requires patience. O how hard it is for us to wait. How long must we wait? Abraham and Sarah had to wait. Maybe they had lived with a sense of destiny. Maybe they trusted the promised conclusion of their lives. But how was it all going to be achieved? Many of us know the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A prediction tells of him becoming King. But how is it to happen? He ponders this, wonders about it and worries about it, so much so, that he becomes obsessed by his worry. He resorts to scheming, plotting and planning. After all, if he’s to become King he must make it happen himself. And so, with some precipitous action he kills the existing King and sets off a chain of events that ultimately lead to his own demise.
Abraham and Sarah, too, knew something of Macbeth’s Dilemma. At one point in the story they take it upon themselves to produce an heir by having Abraham sleep with one of the servants. The plan backfires for everyone and God is not pleased. Faith is about trust and trust is about waiting patiently, allowing things to unfold, being open to witness and experience how God’s blessings will be realized in our lives. God promises blessings, always. How these blessings will come, however, requires openness and it requires patient waiting. Yes, it’s hard to wait sometimes. We struggle with worry. We struggle with doubt. We struggle with discouragement and disappointment. But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s possibilities cannot be imagined or known by our narrow view of ourselves, our lives, our world.
Abraham and Sarah discerned wonderful promises from God. From them God would nurture a whole people and they would inherit a prosperous land. But in order to receive such promised blessings there was a basic requirement, a requirement that was itself a gift - faith. Faith is openness, and faith is waiting trust upon God. These two qualities can make all the difference in how we live our lives and prepare our spirits for the blessings God has in store for us. Are you open? Are you willing to wait with trust in your heart? Have you prayed for the gift of faith to surround you and fill you as a child of God?
Let us pray: Give us openness of heart, O God…. Sustain us as we wait on things with faith… May we know things are happening within us even when we cannot see them or feel them at the moment…. Amen.