Laughing With God
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 18, 2017
This is a season of announcements. Graduation announcements suddenly open our eyes to the fact that a person we thought was still safely a child has a new address in the adult world. Wedding announcements invite us to share the joy in lighting the hearth fire of a new family and birth announcements that let us know the candle of a new life has been lit. Usually we know these people and the announcements make us nod. But suppose we received an announcement that a senior woman had just had a baby; imagine getting a message that someone in her 80’s or 90’s had just birthed a child. That would be a shock—probably most of all to her! This story has just such a moment at its core and a question: do we believe God is serious about fulfilling promises?
Abraham and his family are relaxing in the heat of the day,. There is a moment on hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. It is just then that Abraham, dozing under some oaks, trying to find a tiny bit of shade, opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming.
Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring. Strangers are dangerous in the desert. At the same time, desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets the strangers at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality: what do they want? must be on everyone’s mind.
Abraham offers hospitality and he offers it in humble language we understand. “Don’t get above yourself” is one of our cardinal virtues. Don’t ever announce you are the best cook, the best anything. “Let me bring a little bread,” Abraham says—and then goes back to the camp and orders a banquet. Imagine the rushing around, the measures of meal that kneaded by women sweating and straining, the cooking in the heat of the day, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a whole feast. If it were here, there would be deviled eggs and table decorations. If it were here, there would be sputtering about what does he expect us to do on such short notice—and then a determination to do more than anyone thought possible.
All this takes time and that’s fine. Even today in the Middle East, it’s customary to sit and drink coffee or tea and chat before doing business. So I imagine that when the feast is finally served, it is hours later. The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server of food. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside.
Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behaviors for guests. When the stranger suddenly asks about Abraham’s wife, it is a shocking violation of manners. “Where is your wife, Sarah?”, the guest asks and Abraham tries to cover it by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way one day and Sarah will have a son.”
It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. In a moment this stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple, set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child.
Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says. No child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their hope in their face, opening their most painful wound. For the scar of hope turning into hopelessness always leaves a scar.
Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?
Hope is a scary thing. Hope makes us laugh and the laughter makes us vulnerable. Sarah and Abraham have stopped laughing about their hope. When the stranger makes his announcement, Sarah laughs, but it’s not the laughter of hope, it’s the laughter of derision; the deep belly laugh of all women in all times at the silliness of men who simply don’t understand things, don’t understand about women and babies. Sarah laughs, laughs so hard that in the stillness of that moment, her laughter must have echoed in the tent. “Oh my God,” I hear her saying, “Me, pregnant!” The stranger hears her and asks this simple question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?
It’s a good question: what do you think? Is anything too hard for the Lord? The truth is most of the time we are a lot like Sarah. We think lots of things are too hard for the Lord, so we do them ourselves, best we can. But our best isn’t always enough and our best comes with the certain knowledge that there’s only so much we can do. When Sarah gets too old for children, she knows it, she admits it, and she gets a young maidservant to have a child by Abraham so at least there will be an heir. We reel from a setback and try to make a new plan, we pound on the closed-door of a dream until our knuckles hurt and then we give up. Sarah laughs, not in laughter, but in the silliness of believing.
Here is another plan: here is another hope. The hope is that there are more possibilities than we know. It’s never practical to announce this; practical people, people like you and I, always say to such hope, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It is the simple, deep, conviction that nothing indeed is too hard for the Lord; it is the willingness to stop knocking and wait for God to fulfill the promise. An Peter, Paul and Mary song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.”
Yet we have that possibility; we have that capability: to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. The core of this, the path to it, is to understand that God does indeed deal in fulfillment. God promises and always makes good on the promise; our problem is that we assume God will do it the way we want and the way we expect and on our time-table. But a look at the Bible show is that God’s fulfillment is always more exuberant, bigger, wilder, than anything we had imagined. It doesn’t happen when we expect: it comes as a surprise.
Believing in God’s Fulfillment
It’s not easy to believe in such fulfillment. We are much more comfortable with limits. I used to have a three-year old friend named Leah Miller whose mother owned a café. Leah liked to play cook and she had a little plastic kitchen. A standard meal at Leah’s kitchen consisted of pancakes, french fries and ketchup. Usually the pancakes had sprinkles on them; in fact, it was usual in ordering food at Leah’s kitchen to have the pancakes served and then to say, “May I have sprinkles please?”. If you didn’t ask, she would prompt: “You forgot to ask for sprinkles.” But the one day, when Leah was imagining cooking pancakes and french fries for her grandmother, and I was watching, something strange happened. Leah held out her hands—”there you go”—and served the pancakes. But when her nana asked for sprinkles, Leah looked at her sadly and said, “We don’t have any sprinkles, we’re out.” No imaginary sprinkles today.
We need to imagine more sprinkles. We need a bigger imagination; we need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching, ready to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed, living as faithful people, laughing people, will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow.