When we set out on a journey, even one as unknown as the one to which God calls Abram, we set out with expectations. In Abram and Sarai’s case, those expectations are given as a covenant promise by their God, giving them more reason to set their hearts on a particular outcome for the journey. Yet, when we meet them three chapters and however many years after God called them out of their comfort and away from their family home, a grief has settled over them. It shows privately in Abram’s anger and cynicism. And worse, it shows publicly in the couple’s continued infertility. The serpent’s question from last week’s text must have echoed in Abram and Sarai’s hearts year by year as they remain childless. “Did God really say…?”
Those who have experienced infertility have special difficulty with the miracle birth stories throughout scripture, from Sarai here to Hannah to Jesus’ mother Mary. They have prayed for their own miracles, maybe even trusted that children were part of God’s intention for them, and those prayers and promises remain unfulfilled. It is tempting for us to skip over this painful part of our ancestors’ story, rushing to the promise’s fulfillment. We who don’t know better think that the birth of a child cancels out all the pain that leads up to it. When we rush, when we cancel others’ pain unknowingly, we leave no space in our communities of faith for the aching grief that is all over the stories of God’s people. Those grieving infertility need their preachers to name this grief aloud, to say that even the heroes of our faith experienced it, that there is space for them to be angry with Abram and Sarah before their God.
Whether we have experienced infertility or not, each of us have a story of unfulfilled promises. In my own life, I have experienced this grief in pregnancy loss, in both my marriages, in unsupportive congregations to which I was called, in confidences broken between friends.
There are systemic ways in which promises are not kept also, and it is no stretch to say that our BIPOC siblings in this country have been grieving the unfulfilled promises of white people for centuries. Treaties with indigenous peoples have never been honored. Slaves were set free only to discover that freedom severely limited by a racist system of laws. The social contract between police and those they are sworn to protect only applies to white people.
This text opens space for us to name such griefs, personal and systemic, before the same God who meets Abram with compassion when he is angry and disappointed. God does not shame Abram for his questioning, nor rebuke his anger at God’s seeming faithlessness. God simply calls Abram forth again, this time from the confines of his tent to look at the wide and sparkling sky above him. God waits patiently as Abram counts each twinkle, and when he eventually loses track and gives up counting, God renews the promise. “So shall your descendants be.”
Abram’s faith is renewed because God opens space for his grief, holds Their tongue as he attempts the impossible counting of stars, then speaks the promise again when Abram has nothing else to say. The text calls this moment righteousness, but it is unclear whether the righteousness is Abram’s for believing God’s word or God’s reckoning to Them by an old man whose grief was held and honored.