Laughing into the MysteryRead Now
Genesis 18.1-15 & 21.1-7
Pentecost Season, Proper 6
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The stories of Genesis are rich and mythic. Ancient when they were first committed to writing around the 6th century BCE during the crisis of the Hebrew people’s exile to Babylon. How do you keep your sacred traditions when you are separated from your homeland? You begin to write them down. Your three pastors are embarking on a preaching series of the stories of Genesis for the next three to 4 weeks. Today we jump right into the midst of the oldest patriarch and matriarch stories, those of Abraham and Sarah. Years before our story, in chapter 12 of Genesis, Abram is called by the One God “to go to a land that I will show you. And there I will bless you and make of your descendants a great nation. We will be in covenant.” The couple has been journeying with this God leading them for many years with this promise of abundant fertility hanging over their heads. Yet the first thing we learn about Sarah in this long story is that she is barren. Just before our story, in chapter 17 of Genesis, God has given the promise again along with new names, Abraham and Sarah. They are really old now and when God reiterates that Sarah will have a son, and soon, Abraham literally falls on his face laughing. He has a son by a second wife, Hagar. Why, asks Abraham, won’t God consider this son, Ishmael? God says that son will be blessed, but the divine covenant will be with the son of Sarah. And with that final word from God, Abraham goes to complete his part of the covenant that God is requiring, the ritual of circumcising all the men and boys of his household. Then our story begins.
Genesis 18.1-15 1
The Holy ONE appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He 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. 3 He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let 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." 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then 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." 10 Then 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. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" 13 The Holy ONE said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too wonderful for the GOD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." 15 But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. God said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
Genesis 21.1-7 1
The Holy ONE dealt with Sarah as was said, and the Holy ONE did for Sarah as was promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me." 7 And she said, "Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age."
Years ago I gave a friend a card to cheer him up; if truth be told, to give him a bit of a kick in the pants. He was one of those folks who approach life with a furrowed brow and a bit of melancholy. Intense, deep feeling. The card said, “Life’s too mysterious. Don’t take it serious!” I don’t remember the picture on the card but with it I gave him one of those toys that is a figure put together on a string with moving limbs. You hold the string coming out of the top of the head and pull the string that is comes down between the legs and then the figure’s arms and legs move up and down as if its dancing. This figure was a vegetable man….he was completely clothed in all kinds of vegetables. Not a serious figure! A laughing one! I wanted my friend to laugh…to know that the deep seriousness of the world was such a deep mystery that in always pondering it with the deep intention of figuring it all out, we sometimes missed the deep joy that was also present in the mystery.
Life’s too mysterious! Don’t take it serious! Can we take this advice in considering the mysterious story we just heard from the book of Genesis, the Book of Beginnings? The mysteries of our own lives, of the world we live in now?
The three visitors in our story are, at first, a mystery. Appearing out of the shimmering desert heat to bring a mysterious message. They remind us of the invocation of the author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Was the writer of Hebrews invoking this story from Genesis? Perhaps. The ancient tradition of Middle Eastern culture is to always show extravagant hospitality in the desert. There it can be a matter of life and death. Does Abraham know upon first glance that these visitors are messengers from the Almighty? That they are actually the Almighty?
We soon learn that their visit is really for the woman behind the tent flap, the wife, Sarah. Whom we never see. We only hear her laugh and her voice. This is Sarah’s first personal encounter with the God her husband has been following all these years. Sarah has been the wife along for the ride. In earlier stories, she is portrayed not only as barren, but also as beautiful. We discover she is very canny. More than once she gets her husband out of a jam, including the times she is willing to be a sexual pawn with a more powerful tribal leader to protect her husband and her family.
The beautiful, but barren, Sarah also takes action after years of God’s promise to make of Abraham’s heirs a great nation. She gives Abraham her maid, Hagar, as a second-tier wife, in keeping with the cultural custom of the time. Hagar gives him a son and heir. Ishmael is born. But you heard how God dealt with that. Ishmael is not the son of promise.
Now God is dealing directly with Sarah. After all these many, many years of infertility she laughs in the face of seemingly miraculous news! If she has always lived under the stigma of being barren, why isn’t she laughing for Joy! Miraculous news! But is it wanted news? I don’t hear joy – yet – in Sarah’s laughter. I hear scoffing – “ A son? Yeah right!” I hear an incredulous laugh – “Oh, now you’re coming through with the promised son after I have suffered all these years!” I hear a laugh that hides rage and tears – “I have come to terms with my barren state! I put that grief behind me. I provided Abraham a son with the Hagar. Do I get any respect here? I should risk having a child in my advanced years….I should risk my life and the child’s? I should risk disappointment again if the pregnancy fails? Do I have a say in anything? Am I just a pawn in this relationship of my husband to his god? A tool used when convenient?” “This really is preposterous!” Sarah laughs and I imagine tears of anger and frustration and grief come down her face.
Laughing into the seriousness of mystery, into the face of God, is not a lark. It is a way to deal when life deals us unexpected hands in its game. Currently the mystery of two pandemics are staring us in the face – Covid-19 and Covid 1619 as one of our African-American UCC clergy colleagues named the long pandemic of racism in America. 1619 being the year that African slaves were first brought to the Jamestown colony in what is now Virginia. We are scrambling to face the mystery of both these pandemics. Mysteries that overwhelm our hearts, our minds and our ability to know what right actions to take. And laughter is probably not the first thing that may come to us as we look their crises simultaneously in the face – unless we laugh with Sarah, in incredulous, scoffing grief and angry frustration. Like Sarah we cannot change what is happening. It feels so tragically surreal.
We do not know, understand, why we are suddenly and mysteriously facing these two crises in our world. Both are born of deep pain and the loss of sacred lives. They are serious. With a pregnancy in old age foretold by a personal announcement from this mysterious God, Sarah had much to think about. It seems she chose to listen to herself, to this God, as the new life stirred within her amidst all the fears and physical discomfort of pregnancy. Would the baby really be born alive and well? It takes faith to be pregnant.
Like Sarah we are invited to “listen” through the pregnant pain of these two pandemics: to the hurt of those who are still dying from Covid-19, the hurt of their families, for those out of work, for businesses closing. We listen to the hurt caused by the disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters of color who have died in this pandemic. We listen to the ache in our bones for the pandemic of deaths caused by racial violence also staring us in the face. This has been a much longer season of pandemic that we have tried to ignore, or smooth over, without going to the root causes of greed and abuse of power. It’s time to defeat this racial pandemic, to heal its deep wounds. And there are actions to take.
But first we listen. To the history of centuries of our brothers’ and sisters’ pain. We listen to follow their lead in the birth of a new life of racial equality and economic balance that will bring justice for all. Just as a woman listens to her pregnant body’s promptings in labor and delivery, to the promptings of the new life within her. We listen and we pray without ceasing as we listen. Every pregnant woman knows the depth of deeply longing prayer for the new life within. And we trust in faith the Holy One’s words…”Is anything too wonderful for God?” Is anything too wonderful for God?
This is the serious mystery we are invited to co-create with, to laugh into, to wrestle and rejoice with…Life is too mysterious not to take serious in its pain and its joy. Too mysterious not to listen to before we jump to fix its pain. Sarah did not laugh with great joy till she held the newborn Yitsak, Isaac, in her arms. His name means “he who laughs.” She gave thanks and rejoiced, “Who knew I would nurse a child in my old age?” Is anything too wonderful for God? May we listen in the struggle of this mysterious pandemic time, may we find the moments of joy in the pain, may we take God’s promise seriously in the mystery of faith. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. Please do not reprint with out permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.