Sermon preached on March 1, 2015
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
Baseball spring training began this week. For those of us who really enjoy the sport, there is a measure of excitement and a modicum of hope. The hope comes from knowing that a game played on green fields is not long away.
Among other things, baseball has a rich history, and a rich history remarkable athletes and of notable characters. Among the best catchers to play baseball is also a man known for his rather interesting phrases, Yogi Berra. “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.” "I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did." “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.” “I never said most of the things I said.” Of course – “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
When you come to a fork in the road, take it. What about when the road seems to come to a complete dead end, when there seems no good way forward. Yogi Berra was from St. Louis, and here is a St. Louis song that helps express what I mean.
Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, “St. Louis Blues” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNWs0LsimFs
I hate to see that evening sun go down. The singer laments lost love and the accompanying loneliness. We know something of that experience. I hate to see the evening sun go down. Friday morning I was at the doctor’s office for my annual physical exam. Prior to the exam the nurse takes your vital signs and asks some questions. One series of questions goes something like this: Have you recently been feeling sad, depressed, lonely, hopeless. I have often thought of answering, “You mean beyond what’s normal for the human condition?”
In preparing for this morning, I entered “dead-end” into an internet search. Here were a couple of gems I discovered. “Aspirations – trying to remember what yours once were helps pass the time on the commute to your dead end job.” It is meant to be funny, but some experience it as too true. “Dead-end bolt: no one’s getting in and no one’s getting out.” That is also meant to be funny, but here are some stories about dead ends that are heartbreaking.
When I completed my Ph.D. in 1994 I returned to Minnesota and was appointed one of the pastors in an experimental cooperative parish arrangement on the Iron Range. There were two full-time pastors, one half-time pastor, and a regular lay speaker who would staff seven congregations. Within my first year there I was asked to visit with a woman from one of the churches named Audrey. Audrey was in her early eighties. She was a widow with no children and no relatives close by. She had been a successful nurse and was a real leader in her congregation. Audrey was also a cancer survivor, but the reason she had asked to visit with me and with the other full-time pastor in the parish was that her cancer had returned. While undergoing treatment for the cancer, Audrey’s kidneys had failed, and now she was faced with the prospect of dialysis for the rest of her life, something she was finding quite draining physically. She was thinking about her choices and wanted someone to think with her, and pray with her.
Within my first couple of years here I had a woman come to my office. She had been driving most of the night from someplace down south. She had grown up in Duluth and had a sister here who she was on her way to visit, but she needed to talk to a pastor. The woman was married with a couple of children. Her husband worked summers in Alaska as a fisherman. She had recently come to discover that he had another family up there. Part of the reason she wanted to talk with a pastor was that she had friend’s telling her that her husband must never have really been God’s match for her, and that now she could find that person.
I recently had a conversation with a clergy friend of mine, someone not from Minnesota or this area. We were simply visiting when he said, “I don’t think I’ve told you about my wife, have I? “ I had met his wife once before. “She is a raging alcoholic and has run off with another man. When he found her too out of control, she found yet another man to be with. I have wondered if I could still function as a pastor.”
Last week, at the funeral for Tristan Seehus, the thirteen year-old boy who ended his own life I pondered with those gathered: Where is God in all of this? Where was God for Tristan? I had to pose that question, and had to attempt a response. I believe God’s voice was the whisper trying to help Tristan see some other way, but it was a voice difficult to hear, seemingly drowned out by the white noise of pain.
Where is God when life hits those moments when there seems no good way forward, when life seems on a permanent pause, when we confront what seem like dead-ends in the road? This Lent we are asking, “Where is God?” questions. My response will always be that God is present, but it is important to ask, “How is God present, and how does God see in fresh ways?” God is always present, and there are things that seemingly God alone can see.
I believe God is present in those difficult dead-end moments as that whisper that is pointing a way forward. The whispered voice of God can be drowned out by our noisy world, and even by the noise in our lives, so we need to cultivate capacities to hear that voice. Yet God is always present, even when there seems no way forward.
Abram and Sarai were no longer a young married couple. They were not a young married couple when they first heard the whisper of God to leave home and country (“Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” Genesis12:4) Sarai had not given birth to any children at that point in their marriage, and now Abram is ninety-nine. The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous…. You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…. I will make you exceedingly fruitful…. As for Sarai your wife… I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.
At this point, Abram may have thought that God had rather forgotten anything about Sarai giving birth to a son, or about making Abram the father of many. Abram may have looked at himself and thought such things impossible. Sarai may have wanted to curl up with more than a good book, but was he able? His response to the whisper of God seems quite reasonable. The Abram fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?” Imagine the chuckling at the kindergarten round up? Whose great-grandparents are these?
But God sees something. God doesn’t see Abram, he sees Abraham, the ancestor of many. God doesn’t see Sarai, he sees Sarah, a princess. In our lives, God does not just see what we sometimes see in our own lives, especially when what we see are dead ends, God sees in us new life, courage, resiliency. God sees who we are at our beautiful best.
Audrey called two pastors to her room to ask about her life and her choices. She was feeling that maybe life on dialysis multiple times a week was not the life she wanted. Perhaps it would be o.k. not to continue treatment and let go. To some of us, that may seem like giving up. What I think God may have seen was a woman of courage and determination who trusted God in life and in death, and was not afraid to say that she had lived a good life and now it was coming to an end. Her decision need not be everyone’s decision, but it was a decision made with courage and hope. She was able to see something of who she was in God.
God is with us. God is with us always. God is with us at those moments when we don’t see much of a way forward. God is with us, and God sees in every Abram an Abraham and in every Sarai and Sarah, even when that seems laughable. In each of us God sees a beautiful person capable of love and generosity and courage, and God sees a way forward, and God invites us to see what God sees. Amen.