I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen +
From our Genesis passage this morning, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name…I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you…for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
While I was in seminary, I spent the summer between my first and second year of school doing my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE for short). This training is required for priesthood and most people do their CPE in a hospital setting, doing the work of a hospital chaplain. Because of my nursing background, my bishop wanted me to do my CPE in a non-traditional/non-medical sight…she wanted me to have a completely new, and hopefully, challenging experience. So instead of my classmates who spent their summer days in the trauma filled Emergency Rooms, I spent the summer of 2017 completely out of my comfort zone at Goodwin House, which is an Episcopal owned Continuing Care facility for the elderly.
While there, I met Father Jack, a retired Episcopal priest. When in his room, I noticed there were a lot of mementos on his wall, as you would expect from a 90-year-old. So, I tried to get to know him better and look around at his belongings and you know, learn a little from his pictures and souvenirs and mementos, you know, his “stuff”, learn a bit about who this man was and is. I was drawn to one particular image framed on his wall, like an old illustration or painting of an old man with a big, long beard – it looked like God actually. I thought, this is interesting. So, I asked him “Who’s this person? Someone close to you?”
The man chuckled and said, “no, actually, believe it or not, it’s Abraham.”
No, Abraham, like, the father of fathers, the old testament Abraham.
“Why do you have a picture of Abraham hanging on your wall?”
“I haven’t always. I put it up later in my life after I realized how important his story was, for those of us who start to think that God’s work with them was finished in their elder years.” You see, for Father Jack, Abraham was a reminder that not even in advanced age, God wasn’t finished with him. He knew that God returned and returned, over and over again to Abraham, despite his old age, and he shared in the hope and faith that God wasn’t done with him yet either.
And why does God return again and again, in the Old Testament? To covenant.
Last week, we heard the story of Noah after the great flood, and how God made a covenant with Noah to never again flood the entire earth. Stephen did a fantastic job of explaining God’s covenantal relationship and how it differs from a simple legal document. A covenant is a promise that can never be broken, and when we make covenant a verb, when we say “TO covenant” we are speaking about the actions on our part and God’s part to continually maintain the promise.
This week, we are reminded yet another covenant—the promise God made to Abraham, that he and his wife Sarah would be ancestors to a multitude of nations.
Why does Abraham endure in the hearts and minds of some of us? And why more importantly, if he doesn’t…should he endure with the rest of us?
It’s not that he’s the first person to covenant with God – that was Noah.
It’s not that he’s the first person to push back against God – that was Cain.
What we learn from Abraham’s story is that God loves the unexpected—even the late bloomer, the one who needs a second chance, and especially the old person who is young at heart.
Earlier in the narrative of Abram, as he was originally named, God tells him to leave his home and everything he once knew to be familiar in order to follow God…in return, God promised him land and power, but in the story of we hear today, the covenant is solidified by the changing of the names of him and his wife Sarai —a clear illustration of how things used to be are being replaced by what things will be ,moving forward. Abram is now Abraham, and Sarai and now Sarah, but God isn’t done yet…God will take this covenant a step further – the Almighty will prove God’s might by promising a child to a couple who can no longer have children. God will tell these 99-year-olds, “Not only am I NOTdone with you, but you still have lots to give – and I’ll prove it: presto, you’re pregnant!” Sarah will laugh in God’s face, and yet that is exactly what winds up happening: that child is born and named Issac and he will continue the lineage which will grow and spread for generations.
Not to say that covenanting with God is easy by any stretch of the imagination – first and foremost, bearing children at an older age is a huge challenge. Then there’s the problem of Ishmael, the child out of wedlock with Hagar who will forever haunt this family (and rightfully so). Indeed, Abraham symbolizes that God’s covenant with us isn’t a one-way street, but that God seeks out the ones who God can dialogue with, converse with, argue with, and debate. Think about the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham bargains with God about the smiting of innocent and non-so-innocent lives, bravely asking, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”
Later Abraham’s covenant will be put to test in a gut-wrenching way with Isaac’s near sacrifice, perhaps testing Abraham’s faithfulness. This, again, shows that challenging nature of covenanting—the difficulty associated with discerning what God is truly calling us to do—and yet, it is the struggle and the maintaining of the relationship that strengthens the covenant and brings God’s reign closer and closer to world in which we live.
It is no mistake that we hear this Genesis passage during Lent. Lent is a time of reflection that actively calls us to remember the ways we have covenanted in the past, and how God is calling us to covenant now and in the future. No matter how old or how young, the covenant that began with Abraham still exists today—it is not broken—but God yearns for us to hold up our end of bargain…to continue to covenant, through good times and bad.
Why did that retired priest have a portrait of Abraham? Who has a portrait of Abraham? Why not Jesus? Or Paul?
The reason he had Abraham on his wall was to remind him, in his advancing years, that the story is not over. The same is true for all of us…no matter how difficult life is, no matter how hopeless a situation may seem, God wants us—God needs us to remember that the story is not over. And that is the blessing and the challenge of entering into a covenant with God – when God isn’t through with you, there is more work to be done, and then….there is more to your story to tell.