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The Power of the Possible

Honoree Marie Whittaker, of Peoples UCC, accepts a certificate of recognition from the Rev. Freeman L. Palmer. Photo by Michele Egan

On May 4, 2022 some 200 members of area Episcopal and United Church of Christ congregations gathered at Washington National Cathedral for the Seabury Celebration of Service. Thirty-four older adults were recognized for their service to church and community. The Rev. Freeman L. Palmer, Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference United Church of Christ, honored the assembled with a sermon, taking Genesis 17:1-7, 15-19 as his text. You may read it here.

“The Possibilities are Ageless”

By the Rev. Freeman L. Palmer

A television show that quickly won my heart and faithful viewership instantly this year was the ABC television comedy Abbott Elementary. Abbott Elementary follows a group of dedicated teachers and what one internet reviewer called a ‘slightly tone-deaf principal’ in an inner-city elementary school in Philadelphia. Despite being underpaid, underfunded, unacknowledged, and unappreciated, the teachers hilariously do all they can to help their students succeed. I am hardly alone in my love of this show. Abbott Elementary was so popular that people were emotional about its first season finale on April 12. But if you, like me, fell in love with this show, don’t despair. TV has list of eight television shows you can watch to tide you over the summer until season two of Abbott Elementary airs in the fall.

One of the wonderful cast of characters on Abbott Elementary is kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, a god-fearing, no-nonsense, ‘been there-done that’ kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Howard is both foil and mentor to the eternally optimistic second teacher Janine Teagues, played by the show’s creator Quinta Brunson. Undisputed as the queen as Abbott Elementary, Ms. Howard is played with all the appropriate majesty and stateliness by actress Sheryl Lee Ralph. I was struck In a recent article about Abbott Elementary in The Huffington Post, where Ralph talks about this role at this particular time in her acting career. Ralph is 65 – perhaps a ‘young’un’ to some of you being celebrated today, but still - a senior, an elder. In an article, she speaks about cable in another show that was a meaningful working experience. While standing in freezing cold weather, Ralph says she prayed for a role that in her words had something strong to say. She hoped there would be kids so she could go home early from scene takes. The next week, Quinta Brunson called saying she wanted Ralph Howard, and the rest, Ralph says has been sweet surprise- a possibility that Ralph did not expect at her age and at this stage in her career.

Today’s text from the book of Genesis, the story of Abraham and Sarah, contains some similarity to Sheryl Lee Ralph's story in that there is a surprise. But unlike Ralph, one might not necessarily consider a son born to Abraham and Sarah as a sweet surprise. One might consider it absurd, ludicrous, and totally impossible because of the disclosure in the very first sentence of the text. Abram, named later in this chapter, Abraham, was ninety-nine years old. And later, the writer lets us know that Sarai was ninety years old. Given this preposterous promise, who can blame Abraham for asking these questions. Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?

Tuere Marshall, of Peoples UCC, participates in worship at the 2022 Seabury Celebration of Service. Photo by Michele Egan.

Yet my friends, I think it is important for us to understand today that as reasonable, and rational, and logical as these questions were, Abraham clearly underestimated who he was asking these questions to. Abraham was asking these questions to God. And in asking those questions, Abraham made a fundamental mistake that people have made about God ever since, and that is this: limiting the presence and power of God to the probable and not the possible. Looking in hindsight almost 3000 years after the writing of the story, I want to caution us not to be overly harsh in any criticism of Abraham, because simply put, he was being a human being, and living in probability is a natural way of being for human beings. Probability in and of itself is not inherently a bad thing. Probability theory has many applications in our daily living ranging from forecasting tomorrow’s weather to analyzing political races to predicting the gender of a child.

But as useful as probability can be in our daily living, living in probability has little to no use in our faithful living. That is because probability lies is often confined to what we see, what we think, what we in our limited human imagination believe is likely to happen. And simply put, God has never been, is not, and never will be, a God of probability. God has always been, is, and always will be a God of possibility. Scripture time and time and time and time again testifies God doing a miraculous possibility when the probability of that miraculous possibility was zero; a sea turning into dry land as read in today’s Psalm, manna and quail in the wilderness, a Philistine giant felled with a rock and a slingshot, five thousand people satisfied after a meal of five loaves and two fish, a man named Lazarus walking through Jerusalem after being dead and buried for four days, a young rabbi named Jesus resurrected after being crucified, a small sect of Jewish believers, later named Christians, without whose faithful witness we would not be here today. My siblings please make no mistake. When it comes to asking God about anything: the operative question is not whether it is probable - It is whether it is possible.

But Abraham didn’t know any of this about God. All he knew was that a mysterious being in Hebrew named Jehovah told him to leave his country and go to a land that would be shown to him. And to be fair to Sarah, who after today’s lesson laughed at the idea of bearing a son, she, as a woman in biblical times, may have had no say in the matter. Even if she did, the writer of Genesis clearly did not include it. So, presumably, Abraham and Sarah did not know who they were dealing with in questioning this improbable promise of a son at their ages. But later, they knew. At age one hundred and age nine-one respectively, the impossible happened in Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent. Isaac, against all probability was born. And I imagine that that miraculous moment of birth, Abraham and Sarah, perhaps understood a little more that with God, the possibilities are ageless.

My friends, that's a reminder that I think is very relevant for why we gather here today. We live in a society tends to look at people well along in years solely through a lens of probability. Consequently, the world tends to venerate the physical vim and vigor of youth. And instead of reverencing our passing years and the gifts they bring of life experience, insight, wisdom, we live in a dominant culture that all too often denigrates the experiences of aging and older people. This Ageism manifests itself not only in belittling jokes, subtle condescension, even “anti-aging” products we might see in commercials during Abbott Elementary. But this ageism also results in societal structures that make older people more vulnerable to job discrimination, healthcare disparities, and all forms of neglect and abuse. Consequently, the possibilities of elders and seniors are all too often dismissed by limiting their potential only through the lens of probability. But the movement of God in the world has always been profoundly counter cultural to the movement of human beings in the world. And today’s celebration of service is no exception. Each honoree today is a testimony to the possibilities that God believes are in every person of every age. Each honoree today follows in the footsteps of elders throughout Scripture, before and after Abraham, people like Noah, Moses, Joshua, Naomi, prophets Anna and Simeon, John the Divine and follows, after the writing of the biblical witness of Scripture untold people who did great things because they had the audacity of faith to believe their purpose, their destiny was not limited to the human limitations inherent in probability, but to the ageless possibility always imaginable always conceivable, and always realizable, in God.

Honoree Elnora Cobham, of Faith UCC, with well-wishers at Washington National Cathedral. Photo by Michele Egan.

So, to you who are being honored in today’s service of celebration, thank you for modeling by your faithful witness to your churches, to your communities, and to the world, that in God the possibilities are ageless. Yet if there is anyone here, at any age, who wonders how you might tap into the possibility God has for your life, I would like to suggest to from today scripture lesson a way that you might do that. When God appeared to the ninety-nine-year-old Abraham, God said to this elder, I am God almighty, walk before me, and be blameless. The Hebrew word for walk, hãlak, means not just to walk physically, but to walk figuratively. And the word before in Hebrew, pãnim, means to be in the face or presence of, often used in the biblical times in the context of obedient subject to a king or queen. So, to walk before God means to walk in the presence of, or in the face of God, as the head and ruler of your lives and your destiny. And let me be clear in saying walking before God is not hardly one that limited to walking with our feet. Such a walk contains neither an age maximum nor a minimum of physical prowess or dexterity. It is a spiritual walk. It is a walk with our hearts. It is a walk with our minds. It is walking with our souls. In 1940, composer Kenneth Morris heard a porter sing a song on a train. The song impressed so much that he got on another train to find that porter and to write down the lyrics and melody. When Morris later published the song as Just a Closer Walk with Thee, he understood that our walk before God need neither be the briskest of walks, nor a jog, nor a four-minute mile for God to the impossible in one’s life. A closer walk can be a shuffle. A closer walk can be with a cane or walking stick. A closer walk can be one with a knee or hip replacement, A closer walk can be aided by a walker or a wheelchair. For God to do, as the apostle declares in Ephesians, exceedingly and abundantly anything above all we ask or think, it is not our physical walk, but our spiritual walk sets the space for God defy all human probability to do the impossible for our lives, no matter what age we are.

By a simple prayer of faith, Sheryl Lee Ralph walked before God, and by being cast in the role of Mrs. Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary, received at a certain age a sweet surprise. That hardly surprises me, because I am reminded in this Eastertide season we of the surprise of Jesus’ resurrection, the greatest testament to a God that has had a way of surprising people throughout the course of history. My friends, however long God grants us the grace to live, our call is to be the faithful spiritual ancestors of Abraham and continue to walk before God, in God’s presence, and in God’s way. In God, the possibilities are endless. In God, the possibilities are ageless. May we walk by faith and not by sight and let’s see what sweet surprise God may have in store. Amen.

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