Sunday, June 14, 2020
Second Sunday after Pentecost
"No Laughing Matter"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
The story of “God” visiting Abraham and Sarah (in the form of three men) in the middle of the day by the Oaks of Mamre is both strange and strangely instructive. Unfortunately, we pick up the story a bit out of context and midstream. It’s important to to get the back-story in order to see how we got to this point in the unfolding drama of how God keeps God’s promises – even when it seems impossible.
God makes an initial promise to Abram and Sarai back in chapter 12 of Genesis, when God states clearly that they will be given land AND they will be the origin of a great nation – that is, they will bear many descendants. In fact, the scriptures tell us that they will be “blessed to be a blessing.”
Years go by – and none of these promises seem to be coming to fruition. Nevertheless, God visits Abram again. This time inviting him outside, to look up and see the thousands of stars in the night sky – stars so numerous they could not possibly be counted. “Your descendants will be even greater in number,” God promises yet again. It’s a promise that is becoming increasingly difficult to believe as Abram and Sarai keep growing older.
Tired of waiting, Sarai encourages Abram to lie with her servant – Hagar – the result of which is the birth of a son, Ismael. Could this be what God had in mind? Obviously not. God appears yet again, renames the couple to Sarah and Abraham, and assures them that they will have children just as promised.
By this time Abraham has had about all he can take of God’s promises. He cracks up – falling on his face in laughter saying, “No need God. You can keep your promise. I figured it out on my own. Hagar was a good fill in. See, I have a son – Ishmael.
But this is not what God had in mind. Which brings us to our story today.
The promise is not a new promise – which makes it even harder to believe. So, when she hears it again (or overhears it in this case as she hides in a nearby tent) this time it’s Sarah who loses it. Laughing at the impossibility of having a child at her age, she discounts the words of God and is likely pretty perturbed that God keeps showing up in a variety of ways making the same ridiculous promise.
The text says she “laughed within herself” which is a poor translation to laughing inside herself – or, in her guts. In other words, Sarah had a real “belly laugh” trying hard not to be heard by these three visitors posing as God just outside her tent. It’s a belly laugh that ended up as a painful laugh – a mocking laugh AT God rather than with God. It’s a laugh that started out with a sense of hilarity and ended in tearful reality as she was certain God had dangled a possibility in front of her – a dream of something she always wanted only to have that dream snuffed out yet again.
She tried to keep it to herself – that deep biting pain that could not be thwarted – but God heard both Sarah’s laughter and her tears as he asked Abraham, “Is anything too difficult for God?”
Sarah, made cynical by the passing years, was exhausted by God’s unkept promises. Sarah, afraid to begin to hope again, clearly thinks there are plenty of things that are too difficult for God – and her plea was just one example.
It’s pretty easy to understand Sarah’s pain. Many of us have been in the very same situation or one quite similar. While we may believe that with God all things are possible – that indeed there is nothing that God cannot do – that nothing is too difficult for God, our experience my suggest otherwise. And that reality may have resulted in lack of hope or greatly weakened faith.
If the dreams we carry, our hopes for the future are yanked away from us too often, we begin to lose all faith in God – our hope is greatly diminished and we may fall away or seek other means of strength or support – ones that appear to be much more reliable. And then our prayers weaken. We may distance ourselves from our spiritual ‘ohana – our fellowship. We don’t want to be near those whose faith appears to be strong because ours is not like that. You may know of that situation all too well. You may be facing it right now? [Pause]
I’m actually quite intrigued by the differing responses to God by Abraham and Sarah in this short vignette. In this scene, Abraham does what one would expect given the customs of Ancient Near Eastern hospitality. He goes out of his way to attend to the three visitors (who we presume to be God) meeting their every physical need. While Sarah – once she figures out who they are and who they represent – is beside herself with cynical laughter.
Without judging either response – I wonder if you might find yourself identifying with one or the other? How do you respond when repeatedly confronted by something that comes in the form of an expected and hoped for change – a promise that continually eludes you? [Pause]
Following the deaths of several more African-Americans as a result of apparent police brutality, (ones made very public through videotapes played repeatedly on our television news), I became somewhat overwhelmed and deeply distressed and then somewhat paralyzed regarding what to do.
Given my privileged status, I wanted so badly to believe that real progress was being made. That slowly but surely systemic racism in our country was being erased. Like Abraham, I was running around attending to everything I could, in part, to absolve my own guilt – participating in anti-racism training, attending Black Lives Matter rallies, listening and attending as best I could to the hopes of my African-American friends – and like a good progressive Christian, I believed it was all working – after all, I was doing my part.
While persons of color, just like dear old Sarah, just shook their heads in laughter – a cynical laughter that quickly turned into anger and painful tears. Echoing the familiar lament of the Psalmist I rarely payed attention to their cry:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Ps 13:1-2)
These are words that Sarah new all too well – and words she had a right to shout and confront the God who had apparently forgotten her. [Pause]
There is so much pain and anger and tears and even cynicism coming from persons of color today – and who can blame them? For so long promises have been made – promises that have not been kept and the mess we are in is evidence to that reality.
I think we all need to hear, very clearly, their words of deep frustration while we also hear a word from God – words embedded in this passage – words that remind us that we need to turn to a power that can open us to renewed possibilities even in a time of total frustration. We are asked to consider “Is anything too difficult for God?” [Pause]
It’s easy to give up. Losing hope is understandable. But we must return to the origin of our strength – the God who reminds us that nothing is impossible if we humble ourselves, repent of our selfish ways, and seek a renewed path that is committed to new ways of being civil with one another – ways that appear to be emerging. Might this be the time the promise is fulfilled?
It requires of us a new way of being. We must commit ourselves to a new path and a new possibility. It is the path of compassion. It is a path of justice. And ultimately, it is a path of peace.
I believe we are at a tipping point in our nation’s history. It is an uncomfortable place for many of us because it demands change in the lives of each one of us. We cannot live – really live – until all are granted the same rights and opportunities and all are affirmed as beloved children of God. This message is central to the biblical story and is one that we must embody and insist be the basis for all our relations.
I want to close today with the translation of the song that Taka led us in just before I began my message. Based on the 1 Corinthians 13 it serves as a reminder and a prayer for our way forward:There are three important things in the world,
Faith, Hope, and Aloha – Aloha is the best
And everything is blessed.
And everything is blessed.
May we carry those words in our heart as we seek a world where everyone is blessed.