July 10, 2011
God said to Sarah, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
It’s said that if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.
Listening to this morning’s story from Genesis, it seems that when God wants to make us laugh, we are told God’s plans.
In a basement hallway at Harvard Divinity School there used to be a series of line drawings painted on the wall. The drawings depict various biblical stories.
One shows a woman, slightly smiling, her hand held to her lips. It is Sarah, laughing in her tent. Perhaps it was there as a message to everyone studying so earnestly. If you were told what God has in mind for you, you would laugh.
Sarah laughs because she hears the most ridiculous good news—a gospel that brings giggles: In her old age she will bear a son.
Can God do the impossible?
Can God bring hope out of hopelessness?
Can God bring fruit out of barren situations?
Sarah laughs, as Abraham did when he was told the same news.
Sarah laughs to herself in the privacy of her tent, Abraham's tent.
In her wonderful book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt tells the story this way:
It is the hottest hour of a very hot day. The heat rises in waves off the sand, bending the blazing light so the earth and the sky become one. Though the tent is pitched in the shade of a great tree, Abraham chooses not to venture outside. He is comfortable sitting quietly at the entrance.
Abraham closes his eyes against the glare of the sun and is pleasantly surprised to feel a light breeze caress his face. A bird's cry stirs Abraham from his reverie.
He looks up and sees three men standing in front of him. He hadn't seen them approach, and he can't tell from what direction or by what means they had journeyed. He doesn't recognize these strangers, yet Abraham knows them to be sojourners like himself in this arid land.
We know Abraham to be a leader of great vision—able to see the promise of the future and brave enough to set out toward that promise.
Here he exemplifies another strength: the virtue of hospitality. He enthusiastically welcomes his unexpected visitors. Abraham falls all over himself to extend every comfort to these three strangers who have wandered out of the desert. There is no time to be lost in offering hospitality.
He runs to greet them and offer them shade and water,
He hurries to have Sarah make cakes,
He then runs again, this time to get a calf and gives it to a servant who hurriedly prepares it.
Abraham acts quickly to provide his guests with the best of everything that he has. Abraham gives no indication that he recognizes these three strangers as the angels, the messengers, of God that they are. He is simply responding to the arrival of these three in his camp. When the food is served, Abraham stands nearby as they eat under the shade of the tree.
Rabbis recognized in this scene an illustration of how we come closest to God: not by isolating ourselves in distant desert places or high on a mountain; not by or communing with our souls while cut off from others in meditation. We come close to God as we tend to the everyday needs of other people, face-to-face, in the most ordinary of settings. While we are not always able to identify the presence of God in the midst of life, God assumes flesh and blood in the neighbor that we encounter. Abraham reaches out to these strangers because he recognizes the face of God in everyone he meets, because he perceives all humans as created in God's image.
Like any enduring virtue, hospitality in the desert culture is grounded in pragmatism. Among the desert nomads, offering a stranger food, water, and shelter constitutes a policy of enlightened self-interest. The desert is a fearsome place to find oneself alone without shelter. The stranger you feed and house today may well be your lifeline tomorrow should you become lost in the dunes with no food or water.
If we are honest, we will confess that there are still places in this state, even in this city, where people are not welcome, places where people are regarded as strangers, looked upon with suspicion.
If we are honest, we will confess that churches have often allowed such conditions to continue, shrugging our shoulders, doing little work toward understanding, justice, and compassion.
And if we are honest, we will recognize that we let these conditions continue in our world, our churches at our own peril. In a changing world, enlightened self-interest will learn to welcome the diversity of people we encounter. In a diverse world, the children who are raised to comfortably deal with differences will have the advantage. Inability to do so will lead ultimately to irrelevance, inability to fit into the new society that is developing around us.
As is often the case, we in the church are given the opportunity to learn hospitality on a small scale so that we might be hospitable on a larger scale.
A couple of weeks ago we baptized Justine Baker—[and she is here this morning, helping to usher]. Next Sunday we’ll baptize Dean Woodhouse, Amy and Cyndy Woodhouse’s new son. The sacrament of baptism gives the chance to learn what it means to welcome someone.
A stranger comes into our midst—perhaps a helpless child, perhaps a capable adult, needing the care and nurture of a community of people. In baptism we welcome the stranger and promise to walk together in the life of faith. We do so, really, not knowing who this person is, who he or she will become.
We welcome the one baptized because, like Abraham, we recognize in all people the image of God.
It is a small welcoming that we do in baptism. But it is no simple task. To welcome even a child is to welcome change. Children bring with them the promise and the threat of the future, of a new and different world.
So when through baptism we welcome someone into this community, we are acknowledging that life will not remain the same forever, that our community will not remain the same forever, that we will not remain the same forever. We are acknowledging that life is filled with change and challenge.
In welcoming new members into this congregation through baptism, we become that much more able to welcome other strangers into our church, into our lives, into our communities. We learn once more that God will be found in our neighbor—even when our neighbor is different from us.
Baptism, welcoming, looks innocuous enough, but it is a subversive act. It undermines our old ways of looking at people.
It brings us a little closer to the realm of God.
This is the same God who asks Abraham: "Is anything impossible for God?"
This is a fundamental question for everyone. And like most of the questions in the Bible, it isn't answered—at least not directly. We are left to decide for ourselves. Like the good news of God's love for us in Jesus Christ, this question waits for our response, our answer.
Can God take outwardly successful lives that are inwardly barren and make them fruitful?
Can God work in the painful places of your own life and bring healing?
Can God make our hearts large enough to welcome the stranger?
Can God take a congregation and do something great with it?
I believe the answer to such questions is "Yes," that the answer has always been "Yes," and that the answer always will be "Yes." That "Yes" is central to my ministry here.
But my answer alone is not what matters.
Your answer is.
Inside the tent, Sarah laughs.
She laughs to herself the ways Abraham laughed out loud when he was told that he and Sarah would have a son. The thought of Mother's Day and Father's Day celebrations had long passed them by.
Abraham and Sarah laugh because, well, because as much as they want to believe that nothing is impossible for God, it's all getting just a little too silly. They laugh because they think they know the limits of what is possible.
They laugh—and God knows it. "Yes," God says, "you did laugh."
We laugh, too. This life? This congregation?
God shatters our world of barrenness, God offers hope and brings life from our dead ends. It's not what we would expect. It's not what the rest of the world says is possible.
And so we laugh.
Sometimes we laugh out of disbelief, saying: “God, you’ve got to be kidding.”
Sometimes we laugh because if we didn’t we would cry.
Sometimes we laugh for the sheer joy of it.
We laugh when we hear God’s plans.
We laugh to discover that out of the old, barren dead ends of religious strife God is bringing about a new time of interfaith cooperation even as some would build greater walls.
We laugh to discover that out of the old, barren dead ends of environmental degradation God is calling us to reclaim our role as stewards of the earth.
We laugh to discover that out of the old, barren dead ends of prejudice God is leading us toward a new time of respecting and maintaining the rights of all people.
God knows it.
And still God is faithful. Offering us new life if we would take it. Offering us second chances--and third and fourth and fifth chances, too.
Nothing is too wonderful for God.
So laugh all you want.
And be ready to encounter and welcome the God who will be found in the most unlikely places, doing the most unlikely things.