One of the books on my shelf is a dictionary of sorts, written by Presbyterian theologian Frederich Buechner, describing in alphabetical order some of the people and beliefs that have shaped the church. There is an entry for Abraham, and this is all it says: see 'faith'. Abraham and his wife Sarah, as our holy scriptures tell it, were the first to embody faith in their willingness to trust God's word, to leave their home and their family and set out on the journey of their lives with nothing but a promise to guide them. I will bless you, God had said. I will go wherever you go. I will make your name great, and to your offspring I will give the land to which you go.
Abraham and Sarah had no children of their own. They could only watch with wrinkled, wistful smiles as nieces and nephews played games in the dust and dirt, whatever versions of hide and seek, duck duck goose, red light green light, and ring around the rosy. Perhaps once in a while Abraham and Sarah even joined in, their old bones creaking a little as they danced in a circle and sang, Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!
In the ancient near east, though, children were worth far more than simply their giggles and games; children represented a hope and a future for a family name. As long as there were succeeding generations to inherit what land a family possessed, that family would survive. What a thrill of hope God's promise must have sounded in the aging hearts and dreams of Abraham and Sarah. I will bless you. I will make your name great, and to your offspring I will give the land to which you go.
Problem was, they had been going for quite some time now, passing right through the promised land and beyond and still going. Now far away from home, far away from those nieces and nephews, far away from anything familiar, doubt and fear were creeping in where once hope and trust had taken hold. Abraham and Sarah had been faithful in their journeying, but there were no signs of stopping in a land intended for them, and still no children of their own to give that land to anyway. I will bless you, God had said, but they didn't feel blessed - just weary of walking and waiting and wondering if God's promises would ever be fulfilled.
So it was that late one afternoon as Abraham slid the sandals off his aching feet and closed his dust-dry eyes, the word of God came to him in a vision. Do not be afraid, Abram. I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward. Such powerful words that God intended for comfort, but to Abraham it sounded like one more empty promise, and he cried out, What good is a reward without children? You promised... Abraham, the great father of many faiths, sounded for all the world like a child himself. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
He probably braced himself for a reprimand; but God, like a mother hen, nudged Abraham to his feet and out the door, where he saw a sight that silenced his squawking and smoothed his ruffled feathers. Look toward heaven, God said, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be. Abraham didn't have to number each twinkling light to understand God's meaning. Countless as the heavens were that star-bright night, he knew that God was revealing not so much a glimpse of Abraham's future glory as of God's power to bring into being that which seems improbable, even impossible. For surely the One who created the heavens and the earth, who created such an abundance as the number of stars in the sky, could also work wonders in Abraham's old life, constellating generations of faithful children in his starry eyes and sending them all on the journey of their lives.
Seeing God's power to bring light and life in dark and barren places, Abram believed, says the writer in Genesis. He put his trust in God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. It was a significant moment in Abraham's journey, as was the next moment, when God spoke more powerful and comforting words: I am God who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess. But again, Abraham heard a promise too good to be true, and again like a child he complained. O Lord God, how am I to know that I will possess it? You promised... Prove it... And again trust gave way to doubt; hope gave way to fear; the promise of abundance gave way to the apparent reality of barrenness. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
The Lord is my light and salvation, said the psalm we read together just a moment ago. The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? The truth is, there is a lot to be afraid of as we, like Abraham and Sarah before us, journey through our lives. We worry about health. We worry about money. We worry about the people we love. We worry about earthquakes and tsunamis and blizzards. And we worry about everything else under the sun, or under the stars of night. Sometimes we are full of trust and hope, other times doubts and fears creep into our hearts and we, too, forget about God's power and God's comfort. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Perhaps it is what Abraham and Sarah faced that we fear most of all: barrenness that persists even as we hope, even when we trust, even when we believe, all evidence to the contrary, that God saves, that God redeems, that God breathes life into ashes and dust and calls it very good. Yes, Abraham had faith, but it wasn't, theologian Walter Bruggeman writes, a peaceful or pious acceptance; rather, Abraham's faith was a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction, with generous room for questions and fear and wonder and humility and hope. "It is part of the destiny of our common faith," Bruggeman writes, "that those who believe the promise and hope against barrenness nevertheless must live with the barrenness."
In the midst of it all, though, in the midst of the long journey, in the midst of the walking and waiting and weariness, in the midst of what we experience as barrenness, God goes with us. Abraham and Sarah are still childless at the end of the story we hear today. They are not yet settled in a promised land. But God is not absent. God is near enough for Abraham to hurl his questions and doubts and fears. Like a mother who loves her petulant child, God does not reprimand but rather reminds Abraham just who is God, and who is not. In the midst of what we experience as barrenness, the One who created the heavens and the earth is with us. Perhaps it isn't so barren after all: faith is growing there.
How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, Jesus said, lamenting over the city of Jerusalem, where the faithful were so fearful they could not hear the powerful and comforting words of God, let alone see God in their midst. But the promise, handed down to generation after generation of Abraham and Sarah's children, was still good - I will be your God, and you will be my people. I will go with you wherever you go. And God did. In Jesus, God went down into ashes and dust, but this time with a new promise. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down, but the dance no longer ends there.
The One who created the heavens and the earth, the One who made Easter morning, is the One who hovers over us still, nudging us to our feet and brushing us off so that we might start living again, start walking again, start waiting again, start hoping again. Like Abraham and Sarah before her, like all of us from time to time, Dame Julian of Norwich despaired at the enormity of doubt and fear with which she struggled. Jesus, whom she called "Our courteous Mother in all things," spoke powerful and comforting words to her in a vision. Julian writes, "He did not say, 'you will never have a rough passage,' 'you will never be over-strained,' 'you will never feel uncomfortable,' but only 'you will never be overcome.'"
See, 'faith'. Amen.
Artwork: "Ring Around the Rosy," by Lindy Burnett; "Abraham and Sarah," by Marc Chagall; "Look Toward the Heavens," by He Qi; mosaic, unknown artist.