A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Father’s Day Sunday, June 18, 2017
What prayer have you uttered time and again only to receive no answer? What concern, what dream, what hope, what pain or challenge have you asked God to address only to see nothing come from it? You pour out your heart. You cry. You beg for help, and sometimes, you go on waiting for what you most desire, hoping against hope until hope seems to vanish.
It was a blazingly hot afternoon, where the heat rose from the scorched landscape. So, Abraham kept his eyes lowered to the ground. He had taken a siesta outside his tent, which was pitched near the grove of trees. In the distance, his hired hands tended goats and sheep.
Something caused Abraham to look toward the horizon, where he spied three men dressed in unusual robes approaching his tent. He pushed his aged body up and ran forward to meet them. His run was more like a shuffle. As clan chief, Abraham knew that strangers always approached his tent for it was by far the largest. They knew that he was the one who would offer them hospitality, no matter who they were or whether or not their tribes were on friendly terms. His arthritic limbs ached as he greeted them.
He bowed before the visitors, not knowing exactly why but sensing that these three strangers were somehow of special significance. “Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves,” he said. So, the strangers rested in shade while Abraham entered his tent and instructed Sarah to prepare choice cakes for their guests. She quietly obeyed. He moved quickly on his spindly legs to the nearest flock to select a tender calf. He slit its throat, drained the blood and fileted it. His servants cooked it over a charcoal fire.
Abraham poured water and wine and set curds and milk before his guests. He spread the cakes and brought forth plates of meat, prepared with herbs. It was tasty and well received by the strangers, who sat in the shade not far from his tent. He watched in silence as they ate.
Twenty-five years before, Abraham had a strange encounter with God, which was hard to describe in words. God had instructed him to uproot his family and move to the land of Canaan. “I will make you a great people and your descendants shall outnumber the stars,” promised God. At the age of 75, when most people sense that their life’s greatest work is over, Abraham packed up his wife, his family, his servants and his animals and set out on a journey.
It seemed downright crazy. “Abraham, what are you are doing?” asked his neighbors. “I don’t know,” he replied. Men half his age balked at his adventure. Along the way, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister to save his skin. He had wondered time and again if this had thwarted God’s promise. Yet, God blessed him with much wealth, but not a single child. Decades had passed and the hope that God’s words had enkindled in his heart seemed to all but vanish.
Abraham knew that he could divorce his wife for not producing a son. She was barren, and he had every right to send her packing, but he could never bring himself to do that. Had she, too, not suffered? At night, he heard her pray and sob as she asked God what she had done wrong. Why was Yahweh punishing her?
“Where is Sarah, your wife?” asked one of the visitors. It was an odd question for a complete stranger to ask. “Sarah is in the tent,” Abraham replied. He looked closer at the stranger’s angelic face, which seemed to radiate hope. The visitor said, “I will return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Abraham was speechless, but Sarah, who was eavesdropping from inside the tent, burst out laughing. The dream of motherhood had long ago vanished like dew in the desert. For years, anger at God for her infertility had burned within her. But now, like a woman who had learned to overcome adversity with humor, Sarah laughed inside the tent and said, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
The stranger asked, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Then he added, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Abraham sensed that these strangers were angels in disguise. But Sarah was afraid, as someone becomes afraid when what they have most desired suddenly becomes a possibility and they realize its implications. “I didn’t laugh,” said Sarah fearfully. But the stranger whose angelic face communicated grace, replied, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Sarah’s hope had long since withered like the smooth skin on her face and hands. Like many of us, she had learned to live a life far different from the one that she had imagined. In that unexpected moment, hope was rekindled for this aged couple. In due season Sarah bore a son and Abraham named him “Isaac,” which means “son of laughter.” God fulfilled his promise. Time had extinguished their hope of becoming parents – or had it? Did Abraham not run to greet the strangers? Did Sarah not bake choice cakes? Did they not select a tender calf to feed complete strangers? Perhaps they still harbored hope, and hope keeps us alive.
You can have your health, but if you have no hope your health is useless. You can be rich, but if you lack hope money is meaningless. You can have lots of time, but if your life feels hopeless then time does not matter. John Claypool, an old mentor, used to say, “Nothing is so sad as to see a person die at 40 and not be buried until he reaches 80.” Without hope, our life becomes empty and does not feel worth living.
St. Paul saw hope as one of our most powerful weapons to combat evil, adversity and despair. He called it the helmet of salvation. Paul knew the difference between hope and wishful thinking. He suffered greatly. Five times he was sentenced to 39 lashes of the whip. Three times he was beaten by rods. Once he was stoned. He suffered dangers at sea, dangers on land, dangers from strangers and dangers from fellow countrymen. Three times he was shipwrecked. Once he was adrift for 24 hours on the open sea. Paul knew a lot about suffering. He wrote, “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” (Romans 5:3-5) He said, “abound in hope.”
But how can we abound in hope when we read of daily acts of terrorism, the testing of nuclear devices in North Korea, cyber-attacks from Russia, deception in Washington, turmoil in the Middle East and shootings across America, where 93 people die as a result of guns every day? We can do so by surrounding ourselves with faithful Christians and taking time each day to feed our soul by praying and reading the Bible rather than feeding our cynicism.
The Christian hope is never a vague hope for peace, justice or joy. Rather, it is a spiritual energy within us that motivates, animates and inspires us. It is the Holy Spirit working within us providing a fervent belief that somehow something good will always come about no matter had bad things might be. The God who formed us out of love will never abandon us to a future of despair.
I think of Terry Waite, who preached from this pulpit in 2000. He had been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Envoy, who was sent to Beirut to seek the release of hostages. His friends advised him not to return to Lebanon, noting that he was risking his life. But Terry believed that he had no choice, if he was to follow Jesus, who went to Jerusalem even when it meant crucifixion.
Terry was kidnapped by an Islamic militia in January of 1986. He spent 1,763 days of lonely hell in a darkened cell in Beirut. He spent most of the time in solitary confinement. He was beaten and blindfolded and subjected to a mock execution. Terry spent two years shackled to a wall. When he was unshackled, he walked 6,000 laps around his tiny prison cell each day to exercise. He recited large portions of the Book of Common Prayer that he knew by heart to keep himself from going insane and to draw close to God.
“I came through the ordeal because I was able to maintain hope,” he said. “I was brought up with the Book of Common Prayer. The language of that was very helpful. I had unconsciously memorized it as a choir boy.” Often he would pray a prayer that he had learned by heart:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord: and by thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.
“That was very helpful while sitting for days on end in darkness,” he recalls. “My captors had the power to break my body and the power to bend my mind, which they tried; but my soul was not theirs to possess. My identity, my essential being lay in the hands of God and couldn’t be taken by others. And that very simple belief was enough to enable me to retain hope.”
Why do we go to church? I suspect that we go because we are searching for hope. We come to irrigate our lives, our families and our community with hope, because without hope we cannot carry on. We know that unless we lift our eyes upward, we will sink to something below us. Karl Marx saw religion as a crutch. He failed to see God as man’s greatest hope. God’s task is to make humanity more human, and God offers us our greatest hope. C.S. Lewis wrote,
Hope.…means.…a continual looking forward to the eternal world.…It does not
mean we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find
that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought
the most of the next…. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the
other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you
will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
So, go where there is no path, and leave a trail that will give hope to others. Whatever your age, whatever your sex, whatever your race, whatever your financial situation, whatever your religious beliefs, God can use you to make humanity more human and to provide others with hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.