Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sermon for McCabe and Dundee UMCs: Sarah Laughs

Genesis 18:1-15
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ 13The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” 14Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

Sarah has had a pretty tough time of things. She's been married to Abraham for quite some time now. He's dragged her all over the known world with him, far from home and family. Once, while there was a famine, he took her with him to Egypt, but he forced her to say that she was his sister, not his wife. She was taken into Pharaoh's harem and Abraham received a huge dowry for her. If God hadn't put a curse on Pharaoh, Abraham might have left her there, but as it was, they left Egypt together along with the dowry Abraham had gotten for her.

Time went on, and Sarah was still childless. This was no small problem in the ancient Middle East, where women were mostly seen as property and their worth was determined by their ability to bare an heir. To make matters worse, Abraham kept telling her that God had promised that he would be the father of a great nation, that he would have more children than the stars in heaven or the sand of the seashore. No pressure, of course.

By the time she was about 75, she'd had enough of it. She had a slave girl named Hagar. Hagar had been a part of that enormous dowry that Abraham had gotten when he gave Sarah to the Pharaoh. In any case, Sarah was tired of not being able to measure up, of not being able to give Abraham a son, so in her desperation, she told Abraham to have a child with Hagar.

Well, life in the household became a regular soap opera when Hagar had Ishmael. How could there not be jealousy and rivalry in such a difficult situation.

Now, it's much later. Sarah is 90 years old. She has long given up her dream of ever having children. She's given up on ever being close to Abraham. After all, he already has the son that he wanted. No, she's gotten used to the idea that she's just waiting to die. There's nothing much for her.

So when those three visitors show up, and Abraham asks her to prepare an enormous feast, she does it, in the same way she always has, from the seclusion of the tent. What else is there for her but to keep kneading bread until her bony fingers finally give out?

And when she overhears one of those strange visitors telling Abraham that the two of them are going to have a child in the next year, what else can she do but laugh. Sarah laughs. If for no other reason, she has been past menopause for quite some time now. I don't know if there are any 90-year-old women in the congregation today – I won't ask you to raise your hands – but I'm guessing that it's been a while since you've tried on any maternity clothes. So after all of these years of trying, of hoping against hope, now after it's impossible, someone she doesn't even know tells her that she's going to have a child. Laughter was a rather gracious response on Sarah's part, I'd say.

You know, this story reminds me a bit of our church, especially at this particular point in history. It seems like a lot of United Methodists feel like Sarah did. You know, once upon a time, Methodism was the largest and most powerful denomination in the country. We were on top of the world.

But lately, our numbers have been dwindling. We have fewer members. Attendance is lower. We're taking in less money. Our preachers are getting stretched thinner and thinner across more churches. It's really easy to start thinking of ourselves as a dying church. Especially in smaller churches (and I grew up in small churches), it's tempting to just settle in for the inevitable closures that must be coming sooner or later. We start to feel like Sarah, who was once a queen of Egypt and now feels rejected, abandoned, and worthless, just waiting for time to pass us by. It will never be like it used to be, and we're so withered now that it can be hard to imagine any hope for the future.

If someone were to suggest that we were going to give birth to something completely new, wouldn't we be tempted to laugh? If one of God's messengers told us that we were going to be the mother of a great movement that would bless all people, wouldn't that deserve a chuckle?

It's interesting to see how God deals with Sarah's laughter. So far as I can tell, there doesn't seem to be any condemnation of Sarah's laughter. Now, Sarah had only laughed quietly to herself, but God must have been listening to her soul, because the messenger let's everyone know that Sarah's laughter has been perceived. Sarah is frightened, and quite rightly so, I would think. It's more than a little disconcerting to come across someone who can look into your soul like that. So she denies that she laughed. But God simply says, "Oh yes, you did laugh." No harsh words, just an honest statement of God's awareness of her shock and surprise. And God says, "Is anything impossible for me?"

Is anything impossible for God? Apparently not. Sarah's doubts, even as reasonable as they were, were proved to be unnecessary. A year later, at 90 years old, after a lifetime of barrenness, Sarah gave birth to a son. Sarah, the old woman who had pretty much given up on life, who had resigned herself to her unhappy and fading existence, who was just waiting to die and be forgotten – Sarah gave birth to a son.

And do you know what she named him? She named him Isaac – in Hebrew that means "he laughs." And she said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me." God turned her laughs of disbelief into laughs of joy; and Sarah laughed at the incredibility and absurdity of what God's grace h
ad done. I have a feeling that God laughed with her.

And it makes me wonder. I wonder if when we are visited by God's messengers, and when they tell us that we are going to give birth to something completely new, that we will be the mothers of something that will be a blessing for everyone in the world, I wonder if when we are offered that kind of absurd news if we will have the grace that Sarah had, not to resist, not to deny, not to despair, not to give up, but simply to laugh… to laugh with Sarah at the absolute absurdity of God's miraculous and surprising plans for us? I wonder if we will be able to carry on and see to what kinds of unbelievable places God will lead us? I wonder if we will be able to laugh with God until God turns our laughter of disbelief into laughter of pure and unexplainable joy at what God has done in, and with, and through us? Are we ready to have God create something new in us? Are we ready to let God make a way where there is no way?

Are we ready to hear the words, "Is anything impossible for God?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like where you went with this, David.

I do keep finding it tiresome how Sure people are that Nothing that Hasn't Happened Will. You wouldn't expect to find that all over a liberal seminary, but by God, it's rampant at Iliff, too....

Colorado is being cool and even rainy these days. Did you send us some Oregon?

Oh, picking up Thomas Chun Woo today. Wish you and Melissa could meet him before September.

Mary Ann

7:17 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

David - another great sermon. When is your next preaching gig? Maybe we'll be able to come and hear you.


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