I trust you are all at least a little bit familiar with Abraham. Father Abraham, the one with all of the sons. Father Abraham the Patriarch of Jews and Christians and Muslims alike. Many sons had Father Abraham. But before he was Abraham folks called him Abram, and before all of the sons there was just a promise.
God promises Abram, “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” God tells him that his descendants will form a great nation; that they’ll be the ones who show all the nations of the earth how to deal justly.
It’s a great promise and Abram is very happy with it. The only problem is that so far as he can tell it doesn’t seem likely. Forget about “offspring as the dust of the earth.” Abram and his wife Sarai can’t conceive at all. They’re starting to get up there in years and they have no one to look after them in old age or tend to the management of their properties. Abram thinks, “Where’s my kid? God’s favor is supposed to bring me a kid.”
A couple of weeks back Abram goes to war. Some neighboring tribes take his nephew Lot and all of Lot’s stuff captive. And since Abram is such a good uncle he goes to get him back. Everything turns out pretty well so far as military campaigns go. Abram gets back Lot and Lot’s people and Lot’s possessions. Then afterwards Abram runs into the local kings and they say, “Abram you’re quite a warrior. Why don’t you leave the captives you’ve reclaimed with me and keep all of the spoils of war for yourself?” And Abram says, “No, no. You’re not going to be the one who makes me rich. God is going to make me rich with descendants; he promised. As many as the dust of the earth. And all the riches in the world aren’t really anything at all compared to descendants.” And so Abram refuses the spoils of war and waits and waits for the promise. Abram and Sarai wait month after month and no baby. The promise is seeming like an empty one. And Abram starts to get afraid and he says, “Where’s my kid? God’s favor is supposed to bring me a kid.”
God comes to Abram and says, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you. Your reward shall be very great.”
And Abram says, “I know, I know. More descendants than anyone can count. But you know what, though? I made a backup plan, just in case. You remember my servant Dammesek Eliezer, right? Well since I’m probably going to die childless, I decided he’s going to be my heir.”
Abram is desperate. He’s running out of options and God’s promise of a son is nowhere in sight. So he starts to make this backup plan. It’s hard to live into God’s promises when God’s promises are going unfulfilled. It’s getting tiresome and Abram is getting old. And it’s out of necessity and compulsion that Abram names an heir. It’s not really what he’s hoping for but someone is going to have to take care of him when he’s old. The promise is still there but Abram’s faith is dead. He’s not living as if the promise is anymore a possibility. “Where’s my kid?” he says. “And why should I live faithfully when you haven’t kept your promises, God?”
God says, “Abram I promised what I promised. You’ll have as many offspring as the stars in the sky. Trust me.”
Abram puts his trust in the Lord, which means that he starts living as if the promise were true. That’s how biblical faith works, and it’s here that we get one of the oldest examples of faithful living. Very often we think the content of faith is about making claims rather than living our lives as if the claims were actually true. So we can imagine Abram’s neighbors approaching him and asking, “Hey, I thought you believed in that promise from God?” And Abram says, “Oh, I do, I do. It’s definitely, almost certainly going to happen. But I decided, you know, just in case…” So I have to think that when the text says Abram trusted God’s promise what it means is that he started living as if it were true. He stopped making contingency plans out of a place of necessity and desperation.
God says, “I see your faith, Abram, and the promise is coming. You’re going to have to wait but the promise is coming.” Then God makes another promise. God promises land because what good are descendants if they have no place to live? God says I’m very serious about this and I want to prove it to you. And then God and Abram do an old, strange magical rite. They cut in half a heifer, and a goat, and a ram, and they walk in between the two halves. So far as we know, the idea with this sort of thing is that you invoke the fate of the animals on yourself in the event that you fail to upkeep your side of the promise. This isn’t really what people are talking about when they speak of Old-Time, Biblical Religion, but there you go. God is serious about this. God is saying, in effect, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” The promise is true.
Abram says, “Alright, but hurry. I want a kid. It’ll be easier to live into the promise when I have a kid.”
Some ideas die hard, don’t they? A lot of folks still believe just like Abram. The idea is that you aren’t really living into God’s plans or promises until you’ve had a baby. That is what is natural. A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh and they are fruitful and they multiply. Just like God intended. And so God looks favorably on these nuclear families with 2 or maybe 3 or 4 children. And we are meant to view other folks suspiciously if they aren’t living into the promise. Sure, it’s great to love single mothers or our gay brothers and sisters, so long as you’re still aware of what it really means to live according to God’s plans and promises. A truly terrible minister once said something like, “Show me a poor person and I’ll show you a sinner.” The thinking in this case is, “Show me an alternate family structure and I’ll show you sinners.”
And then there’s countless couples who are doing their best to be fruitful and multiply. They would like with everything they have to live into this divine plan for marriage and procreation, but they can’t. Churches do not talk about infertility and that is a shame, because our expectations about marriage and children cause a great deal of hurt that is never named, acknowledged, or rejected. Some couples have trouble conceiving and they start to think that there must be something inadequate about their faith, or that God is withholding something from them. And that’s something we ought to reject. Infertility is a medical problem, not a spiritual deficiency. Or we say innocent things like, “So when are you two having a baby.” Words that hurt despite a lack of intended ill-will. Or we get so lost and uncomfortable that we say something like, “Oh, I’d be glad to give you one of my kids.” Or we make couples justify their desire to parent—something we rarely ask of anyone else. And on and on and on and it all adds up until couples are angry with themselves, angry at their neighbors, angry at God. “Where’s our kid? God’s plan is supposed to bring us a kid.”
But wait a minute. Do we really want to pin that much importance on biological reproduction? It’s part of the Biblical story, sure. God promises Abram descendants, and eventually God delivers in miraculous fashion. Well, fine. It’s part of the story. But so are strange covenant ceremonies that require their participants to cut animals in half. That’s part of the story, too, but it doesn’t mean that’s what we should take from the story.
I have to think that God’s plan for the Creation is bigger than traditional, nuclear families and biological reproduction. Don’t get me wrong. Families are great. Babies are great. But families and babies are not the point in and of themselves. It is not as if our duty as humans is exhausted once we have created a new life in our own image. What about “faithfulness, loving kindness, forgiveness, patience, and hope?” (Margaret Farley) Traditional, fertile families cannot guarantee any of that. And don’t we see those traits—love, kindness, faithfulness, patience, hope—don’t we see those traits every day in the lives of non-traditional families?
There’s a quote I like very much from Margaret Farley’s book about Christian sexual ethics. She writes, “For those who object to same sex relationships because they cannot be procreative, their objections represent either a failure of imagination or a narrowness of experience that disallows an appreciation of all the ways in which humans bring life into the world, and all the ways that the world needs new life from those to whom the gift of love has been given.” New life from those to whom love has been given. That sounds more like it.
We are asked right along with Abram to live into the promises of faith. God made a promise and Abram believed. He stopped making contingency plans out of desperation and necessity, and he started living his life as if the promise were actually true. Today, we have a different understanding of the promise, but the task of faith is the same. God’s plan for the creation is bigger than fertility. God has promised justice and the mutual flourishing of the entire creation, and we see God’s promises wherever we encounter faithfulness, loving kindness, forgiveness, patience, and hope. The task of faith is to live those promises as best we can even when they do not seem within reach.
God’s promises are bigger than traditional, fertile families. God’s plan is accomplished in all the places where we can say:
Here is our faithfulness; God’s plan brought us faithfulness.
Here is our patience; God’s plan brought us patience.
Here is our love.
Here is our hope.
Here is our family; God’s plan brought us family.