A Sermon for the First Congregational church of Albany, NY
By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020
Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 14, 2020
Many years ago, when computers began to connect to each other, someone invented a way to have a conversation online. Of course, it wasn’t a regular conversation, there were no voices, just text that was typed in. The problem was that conversation is more than words: it’s feelings, as well. But we tend to share some of the same feelings over and over and it would be difficult to type them out each time.
Thus was born L-O-L, a term for “laughing out loud”. When your friend said something funny, you could type in LOL; when someone said something surprising, you could respond with LOL. LOL became an internet way of expressing that thing we do when someone surprises us in way that is good beyond expectation. Now, many of you know all this, and maybe you’re thinking, why are you wasting my time? I wanted to explain about LOL because I want us to all be together as we set out to understand the story we read from Genesis. You see, it’s all about an LOL moment.
In the heat of the day, Abraham and all his family are relaxing. There is a moment on really 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. Abraham is dozing under some oaks, trying to find any bit of shade, He 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, getting ready for strangers.
Strangers are dangerous in the desert. They might be raiders; they might be guests. 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 them 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 in a 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 preparations. Imagine the rushing around, the cooking in the heat of the day, the measures of meal that must be kneaded by women sweating and straining, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a 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. it must be hours later when the feast is finally served,.
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. 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 the tent.
Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behavior for guests. “Don’t talk about politics or religion,” we know and it’s the same here. “Don’t bring up anything personal.” It’s the same here. When the stranger asks, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” it is a shocking violation of manners. Abraham tries to cover the rudeness 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 in a year or so 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.
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: o 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 dashed hope in their face.
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 certainly 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 and real faith depends on the answer. 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, the laughter of despair
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” What do you think? A folk song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.” Practical people ask, “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 often involves waiting when we want to act; it often means listening when we want to speak. Yet our whole faith is precisely believing in possibilities we haven’t seen. And sometimes they happen.
About 20 years ago, I was the pastor of a church with an old building enclosing lots of space and very few children. We had a large endowment; of course, the point of a large endowment is not to use it. So when a couple of new families suggested we create a Montessori preschool, everyone knew we couldn’t afford it. I knew it wouldn’t happen; I knew that despite all the meetings and plannings, the bedrock members of the church, who were closer in age to Sarah than to the two or three young moms wouldn’t agree to use the endowment for such a thing. But we went through the process and ended up, as Congregationalists always do, at a meeting, a meeting most of us expected to turn thumbs down. Then something surprising happened. One of the oldest, most bedrock women in the whole church got up to speak. She never said much, so this alone was new. What she said was even more surprising. She said she didn’t see what the fuss was about. The church had always had schools for children, and she talked about the 19th century school the church had founded. She pointed out that the local high school was started by that church. Finally she said that she guessed we’d have to vote but she didn’t see any reason not to use the money for God’s children; that’s why it had been given. There was silence when she sat down and when the Moderator called the vote, it was unanimous. The school opened; the school grew. Some of those kids from the first classes graduated high school this year. It had to make you laugh: LOL.
Now we’re being challenged as a culture and a nation to take up the hardest, darkest hurt in our history, our fundamental racism. We know it was wrong to work Jews to death so we don’t have Nazi flags or schools named for Auschwitz. But we haven’t always understood there’s not a lot of difference between what happened there and what happened to slaves on American plantations. Some wonder whether we can actually make progress on racism. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is this? The thing that gives me hope is that in our history, I know that every once in a while we lurch forward. The slaves were freed and when they were re-enslaved in segregation, that fell as well. God’s justice isn’t immediate but it is relentless and like a glacier slowly moving down a mountain, it finally finely grades down everything that resists it. The violence of racism may look like a mountain but it is a mountain being turned into pebbles
Is anything too hard for the Lord? We have the capability to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. Somewhere today, a baby will be born. Maybe his forebears were slaves; maybe they came from Africa or Haiti or Santo Domingo. His mother will laugh, like Sarah laughed but she’ll worry, too. What will life be like for him? Somewhere today a black baby will be born and I hope and I believe that by the time he is grown, he will walk without fear, he will live out his promise without being bound by the bonds of prejudice. His life will matter because black lives matter. That isn’t a slogan; it is the word of God. When we hear it, we ought to hear it as a reminder from God and act like it. And if we do, the promise of the gospel and the promise of that life will be fulfilled. I have that hope; I hold onto that promise because nothing is too hard for the Lord.
I read this story of Abraham and Sarah and this laughter and I want to add something. I want to type something in at the end: LOL. Because this is a story of laughter, a story of how the laughter of despair became the laughter of hope. We need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need the LOL of Sarah’s moment. 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. We need to listen for God to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed, our laughter will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow, echoing God’s delight.