Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?

This is my sermon for last week. I love preaching from Genesis because it shows God involved in the nitty-gritty of life and does not avoid dealing with the flaws and sins of its protagonists. These particular verses also speak to my two small congregations because almost all us are over 60 and well-acquainted with disappointment.

Genesis 18: 1-15; 21:1-7
“Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?”

Our faith can slip away from us at any age, but surely the challenges of aging are among the most daunting of threats.

This is especially so if we are forced to look hard at or to go through the experience of caring for someone ravaged by Alzheimer’s, some other form of dementia or by the many other physical or mental maladies that can arise.

At those times, caregivers, loved ones and, of course, those afflicted by the illness, can almost feel their spirits weaken and, at times, their faith ebb.

Before we look at these verses about the two old codgers Abraham and Sarah, we might first consider the life of one of the most unique seniors I have seen.

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Julia Hawkins, 101 year old sprinter

This week, the Washington Post told the story of Julia Hawkins, who lives down in Baton Rouge, La.

It begins by explaining that Ms. Hawkins is a specialist in running sprints and is in training for competition in the 50 meter dash.

And then it informs us that Ms. Hawkins is 101 years old, and that she just started running last year.

She runs the 50 meters in just over 19 seconds, which oddly enough is about the time it takes me to get from my recliner to the refrigerator.

But, friends, the story of Ms. Hawkins is one that tells us to never lose hope at any age over anything.

Unfortunately, most of us do.

Let’s pray.

Startle us, O God, with your truth and power and grant us the gift of your life-giving presence. As we hear your word read and proclaimed, we pray that you touch our hearts with your grace; strengthen our spirits with your love; and, deepen our faith with your word. We pray these things in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah nearly that old when the Lord visited them that day.

God was bringing them a message: they would be blessed with the birth of a child.

I’m 64 and Maurie’s 57.

She might be happy if God gave us that news, but I would tell him, “Lord, no. Please no. Why are you punishing me? What have I done?”

But when Abraham and Sarah were at the age they should be moving into a nursing home and not buying a crib, God told them to get ready for a child.

Surprisingly, at least to me, they wanted a child.

We need to put God’s promise that day in perspective to appreciate what Abraham and Sarah felt at the birth announcement.

You see, God had promised a child to Abraham and Sarah well before that day.

As a matter-of-fact, God had first made the promise 25 years earlier.

Indeed, if you pull out your bible and read Genesis 17, right before our verses begin for today, God appeared to Abraham and made the promise again.

Let’s look at a little background to that day. At that time, and for the first 100 years of his life, the man we know as Abraham was named and called Abram.

But, in Chapter 17, God came to Abram and told him that his life was about to change.

First, he told Abram that he would have a new name, Abraham, which means “father of many nations.”

Second, God told the newly-named Abraham that his wife Sarai would also have a new name.

God said that Sarai would henceforth be known as Sarah, because she would be mother of many nations.

Third, God said, “And, Abraham, you need to get a baby room ready because Sarah will soon bear a son.”

When he heard that news, Abraham could not believe it.

He thought it was a knee-slapper of a joke.

Genesis 17:17 says that he fell facedown and started laughing.

He thought to himself, “Good grief, Lord, I’m 100 and Sarah about as old as I am. That ain’t gonna happen. We are too old.”

God said, “Oh, it is going to happen and you need to name your son Isaac.”

Abraham and the AngelsRembrandt, 1630

“Abraham and the Angels” Rembrandt, c. 1630 (Sarah is visible in the left foreground)

After a bit of time passed, a few days or weeks or months, the Bible is not clear, who should come pay the two old geezers a visit but the Lord and two unnamed men.

Abraham was thrilled to see them.

He was sitting at the entrance to his tent when the three appeared.

When he saw them, he ran over, greeted them, and asked them to rest under the tree while he got them some food and water.

They rested under the big oaks while Abraham ran to his tent and told Sarah to start whipping up some bread.

He told her to do it with 36 lbs. of flour.

Sarah probably went with a bit less.

Then he went outside and ordered a servant to prepare a calf.

He returned to God and the two others with a feast.

The visitors chowed down.

It was then that one of the men told him, “I’ll be back next year and by then Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was old, but not hard of hearing.

She was listening in to the conversation, kind of like a FBI wiretap except in person.

She heard the news of her having a son and she laughed and thought to herself, “After I am worn out and my husband old, will I now have this pleasure.”

I read that word “pleasure” in verse 12 and thought “Pleasure? You’re 99! You already have your share of aches and pains.

But, friends, you might know how she felt because maybe something like what happened to her has happened to you.

Have you ever wanted something your whole life and never gotten it?

Think about that.

Is there something you always wanted to do but never did?

Or was there something you yearned for and, as the years passed, it just seemed it would never be and finally your dream just went into the place where we stuff things we want to ignore.

I have, but it was not to be.

Father’s Day is a bittersweet day for me.

The children who I talk about, they are not mine.

They are Maurie’s.

I love them and claim them as my own, but I never had any children.

So, in the back of my mind, there is something missing in my life, something I wanted to do but never did and someone whom I wanted to be but never was, a father.

Sarah was like that.

She had wanted a child, but had never had one.

It was worse for Sarah, though, because back in those days, a woman was supposed to have children.

A woman’s worth was based on having children.

People believed that a woman without a child was . . . less.

Not quite as good.

Sarah carried that burden of shame with her for months and weeks and years and decades.

Oh, how she had wanted a child and especially a son, a son surely for Abraham, someone to carry on the family name and the family traditions.

Worse, she had been remembering God’s promises for 25 years.

You can imagine her praying, “When, God, when?” until she could pray no more and hope no more and finally tucked her dream and desire into that compartment in her mind.

So that day, when she heard the man talking about her having a child, she laughed.

There are different types of laughs.

There are belly laughs, that happen when something strikes you as hilarious and the laughter erupts and starts down your belly and flows out of you.

There are chuckles at small jokes or things that happen during the day.

There are giggles like small children might have when they have put one over on mom or dad.

I think Sarah’s laugh was more like a snort, a “no way, no how,” sarcastic kind of laugh.

Like, “Hah, no way.”

And, with that snort, Sarah also showed her doubt about God.

God had promised. God had failed. Now, she was too old. So, “Hah, no way.”

When God heard that laugh, he turned to Abraham, apparently kind of surprised.

God said, “Why did she laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Then he said, “I will return to you next year and she will have a son.”

Remember now that first Abraham laughed at God’s promise.

Then, Sarah laughed, too.

Both had given up on God and doubted God and lost any hope that had that the promised would be fulfilled.

Of course, all of us are like Sarah and all of us are Abraham.

We’ve lived with pain, barrenness, bitterness.

Who among us, at our age, has not felt crushing loss or devastating disappointment?

Like them, we wonder if God heard our prayers, or if he will answer them or maybe, it enough time has passed for us, we have given up and locked into that compartment.

So, we forget about it ever happening or ever receiving an answer.

In such cases, maybe a little chink is knocked off our faith.

But, Abraham and Sarah still had faith or at least kept some form of faith alive.

Clearly, they still believed in God and were surely in direct relationship that day.

You note that twice in these verses, Abraham called himself God’s “servant.”

Note, too, that God didn’t punish any doubt that they had.

You see, for Sarah and Abraham, the unbelievable happened.

Sarah had a child. God’s promise had come true.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of two people, parents of us all, moving from hopelessness to hope and from hope to fulfillment.

But, there is something in these events for us.

Friends, however down or doubtful you may get about God, hold on to your faith and to your hope.

Understand, it is a mistake to base our faith in God upon fulfillment of our desires, dreams, wants or prayers.

Instead, we need to keep our faith in God open to the amazing and surprising grace of God, a grace that can come to us in the most unexpected of ways.

And, we need to keep remain aware of the daily graces of God that we that we take for granted.

Even the beating of your heart and the breathing of your lungs are signs of that grace, as are your food, shelter, clothing, health and the rising of the sun and breezes in the air.

Our faith in God’s grace, surprising and daily and constant, needs to wrap itself around our doubt and disappointments and say that it is okay and God is still with us.

And remember that our God is full of power and surprises.

God raises the dead.

God brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

God broke the back of slavery here and when hate and prejudice persisted, ended the laws of segregation and separation and is calling is people to join him in showing the miracles of love in the midst of the hate that swirls around us.

God won’t do everything we ask and hope for.

But God will be God and God will do God’s will and what a wonderful, grace-filled will it is.

Even in the ups and downs and fears and regrets and disappointments and devastations of life.

Is anything to wonderful for God?

No. Nothing.

May we all hold on to that kind of faith.

Amen.

Damn the Poor!?!

Trumpcare and the administration’s budget submission propose slashing the social safety net by about $1.7 trillion over the next ten years.

Most of the savings would be stuffed into already bulging pockets of the well-to-do, the top 1% or 2% of income earners.

Meanwhile, the cuts would not only target the poor, but more particularly those who are children, disabled, sick or hungry.

These proposals show the lie that were Trump’s campaign contentions not to cut Medicaid.

You can find articles on the impact of these cuts here, here and here. Here is a rather sad article on the rationale behind the cuts and how a Russian news reporter schooled Trump’s budget director on some aspects of it.

Christians who support this war on the poor don’t even have a fig leaf to wear in justifying these actions.

If you believe scripture, while we may not like it or understand it, God wants fairness and justice for the poor.

Bible verses attesting to God’s concern for the poor:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land . . . buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” Amos 8:4; 6-7

“Jesus answered, If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'” Matthew 19:21

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” Mark 12:40

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” Luke 4:18

“So he replied to the messengers, “‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.'” Luke 7:22

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” Luke 12:33

If Trump’s budget and healthcare proposals are enacted, tens of millions of Americans will be worse off than they are today.

According to the latest Census figures, about 45 million Americans live in poverty and over 16 million of those are children.

According to the same figures, about 30 million Americans live just above the poverty line and, again, about one-third of these are children.

Some, such as Franklin Graham say in earnestness, and with faith and hope, that Trump is sent by God.

If that is true, my thought is that if these proposals are to be believed, God sent him not as a blessing but as a curse.

 

An American Mean Streak

Many Americans are proud of our individual freedoms and acclaimed generosity.

However true these qualities may be, our continuing struggles with racism, nativism and xenophobia indicate we still struggle how far those freedoms and generosity extend.

Indeed, racism, nativism and xenophobia are on ample and sometimes heart-breaking display in the Trump administration’s enforcement of immigration laws. Some of those actions are hard-hearted.

Last month, a mother of four was ripped from her family and deported to Mexico. Maribel Trujillo Diaz had lived in Fairfield, Ohio for the post several years. A native of Mexico, she is the mother of four children, ranging in age from three to fourteen, including one with special needs.

Interviewed earlier this year,  Trujillo said that she crossed the border in 2002 to flee threats from a drug cartel and “find a better way of life.” She has been living here since then, and has had work permit for the last several years. That permit was due to expire in July.

That made no difference to ICE, which arrested her in early April, irrespective of the work permit, her job and a clean criminal record. After her arrest, a trio of high-placed Ohio officials, Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Sherrod Brown asked ICE to reconsider their decision to deport her.

ICE declined and proceeded with its action. Trujillo has now been “removed” from the country and become another statistic, while her children apparently remain motherless in Ohio.

Two articles covering her deportation are here and here.

It was reported this week that immigration arrests increased 38% over the first 3 months of 2017 compared to the same period last year. The Administration contends that its policies have emphasize the deportation of criminals. An article on that is here.

That is false as ICE “criminal” figures include anyone charged with an offense. Moreover, one of offenses included within the figures is being in this country without proper documentation. In other words, the government includes arrests of suspected immigrants without papers in its statistics. These things obscure the truth.HOew

There are now scores of reports like the one about Ms. Trujillo.

It is true that Trump’s deportation policies are working as he intended. Their consequences include arresting mothers at home in front of their minor children, ripping families apart, ridding the country of the “menace” of high school valedictorians without proper papers who hope to attend college here; and, hauling away people recognized as pillars of their community.

This is a national shame.

I say this because of personal and religious views.

My mom’s lineage is pure Anglo-Saxon and rather well-to-do. It is family lore that her father’s line in America began when a forebear was sent by England’s king sometime in the early 1700’s to serve as a royal official in the Carolinas. After that, the family became prosperous farmers, well, to be honest, plantation owners in South Carolina. We don’t like to talk too much about that odious slave-owning history.

Instead, I consider with some pride that I am from my father’s line of Scotch-Irish-English mutts.

We have no idea when that line began in the United States, although my theory is that a an ancestor was on the lam from the law in England and stowed away on an American-bound ship to get a second chance at life. There is something mutt-like, populist and hopeful in seeking to improve one’s life through radical risk and hard-work.

I view most immigrants out of this lens. My interactions with undocumented immigrants have been consistent with this. To a man and to a woman, they have been friendly, hard-working, humble and hopeful.

My Christianity also reinforces my inclinations toward sympathy and understanding.

There are some Bible verses to the contrary, but the heavy weight of both testaments emphasizes just, fair and even generous treatment of the foreigner, stranger and alien.

This is easily seen with even a casual reading of the Bible or the simple consideration that, in their own ways, Jesus and the early evangelists were at one time or another “foreigners, aliens or strangers.”

I deplore the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented workers. It has led not only to the deportation of so-called dreamers, but split families, swept up innocents and weakened local law enforcement.

You will find several hits on these items if you google “deportation of mother,” or “deportation of dreamer,” or “sanctuary cities.”