Sunday 18 June 2017
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Sarah has had a long and difficult time of things. She has been married to Abraham for quite some time now, and he has dragged her all over the known world with him, thousands of miles, far from home and family. Once, when there was a famine, he took her with him to Egypt, where the Nile ensured there still was food. But Abraham forced Sarah to say that she was his sister, not his wife. And because of that, Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s harem and Abraham received a huge dowry for her. If God had not cursed Pharaoh, Abraham might have left her there. But as it was, they left Egypt together, along with the dowry Abraham had gotten for her. That is how he started his fortune.
Time went on, and though Abraham and Sarah were trying, she did not become pregnant. Issues of fertility can be extremely emotional. It can bring up questions of worthiness, fairness, faith in God, faith in each other. In the ancient Middle East, if anything, it was even more difficult. Women were seen as property and their worth was determined by their ability to produce a male child, an heir. Failure to do so was a great shame. And to make matters worse, Abraham kept telling Sarah 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, though.
By the time she was about 75, Sarah had had enough. Enough of the shame and unmet expectations. Enough of God’s promises that never came to be. She had a slave girl named Hagar. Hagar had been a part of that enormous dowry that Abraham had gotten from Pharaoh in exchange for her. And she was so tired of not measuring up to expectations, so tired of not being able to give Abraham what he wanted that, in her desperation, she told Abraham to have a child with Hagar.
And what seemed like a good idea in that moment of desperation turned out to be a whole new mess. When Hagar had Ishmael, everything turned into a soap opera, a telenovela, a reality show: The Real Housewives of Ancient Palestine. It did not turn out well. Sarah became jealous and abusive. Abraham became distant, refusing to take responsibility. Hagar suffered alone.
It is 15 years later now. Sarah is 90 years old. She has long given up her dream of ever having children, biological or otherwise. She has given up on ever being close to Abraham. After all, he already has the son that he wants. No, Sarah has gotten used to the idea that she is irrelevant, useless, just waiting to die. There is nothing left for her.
So when those three visitors show up, and Abraham asks her to prepare a 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 arthritic 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 than that she has been past menopause for decades now. We have quite a few ladies in the congregation who are at or near 90 years old.. I’m guessing that it’s been a while since any of them have tried on maternity clothes. So after all of these years of trying, of praying, of hoping against hope, now after it has become impossible, someone she doesn’t even know tells her that she’s going to give birth to a child. I would say that laughter was a rather gracious response on Sarah’s part.
I just returned last night from a gathering of United Methodists. It was the clergy and lay representatives of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference meeting along with the clergy and laity of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. There were even several representatives from the Alaska Missionary Conference. United Methodists from all over Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, coming together for our annual gathering. It is a time to celebrate the joys of ministry in our various places, a time to reconnect with old friends, a time to struggle with the important issues facing our society right now, a time to do the administrative work of the church.
Each year, we hold a memorial service at Annual Conference. We remember the clergy and clergy spouses who have died in the last year. This year we memorialized 25 clergy persons and 16 clergy spouses.
But we also memorialized ten churches that have closed or been discontinued in the last year. Clatskanie, Fern Hill in Tacoma, Grace in Walla Walla, Jason Lee in Salem, Korean in Olympia, Rocklyn Zion in Davenport, Spirit of Grace in Everett, Whitebird, East Anchorage, and Pine Grove-Odell. There were United Methodist congregations in all of those places a year ago, but not now.
It’s not just The United Methodist Church. Every year the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America closes congregations. Every year Presbyterian churches close, along with Episcopal churches, Disciples, UCC… I could go on. We might be tempted to call it a crisis, except that it isn’t anymore. Now it is normal. Church decline has been the norm for my entire lifetime.
Some of you have longer memories than me. Some of you can remember when church was at the very center of the community, when people’s social lives revolved around church. Some of you can remember when church was the place to see and be seen. Some of you can remember when every church was wondering how it was going to manage to build a new sanctuary big enough to house all of the new people who were showing up for worship. Now most churches are wondering how they can manage to keep up with the routine maintenance on buildings that are much too large for the current congregation.
And so it’s no wonder that so many Christians feel like Sarah. It’s easy to start thinking of ourselves as a dying church. It’s tempting to just settle in for the decline and 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 sometimes we feel so withered that it is hard to imagine hope for the future.
That’s not just a church thing, either. There are other big societal issues that can leave us feeling hopeless. A changing economy in which it is hard to feel any sense of certainty or security. The grinding pain of never-ending wars. The escalating political polarization in our country—I was preaching about it 11 years ago when I was commissioned for ordained ministry, and it just seems to be getting worse and worse. The ever-growing threat of climate change and our reluctance to take it seriously. Immigration, inequality, refugees, housing markets, education funding, health care, racism, sexism, prejudice… It can become overwhelming. It can be hard to have hope.
If someone were to suggest that we could give birth to something new, beautiful, liberative, transformative, healing, 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. If you look closely, you’ll notice that there is no condemnation. Remember, 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. It’s more than a little disconcerting to come across someone who can look into your soul like that. And so she lies. She denies that she laughed. But God simply says, “No, you laughed.” 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? Sarah’s doubts were entirely reasonable, entirely justified, and yet ultimately unnecessary. A year later, at 90 years old, for the first time, Sarah gave birth to a child. 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 child.
And do you know what she named him? She named him Isaac. In Hebrew it means “he laughs.” And she said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it 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 had done.
When someone first suggested that Our Redeemer Lutheran and Asbury United Methodist could come together and form one congregation, there were a variety of reactions. One of the more generous reactions was laughter. Okay. That seems impossible, but let’s give it a try. When someone suggested that we could raise the money and build a million-dollar food bank on the property, there were a variety of reactions. One of the more generous reactions was laughter. Okay, that seems impossible, but let’s give it a try. And yet, God turned that laughter of incredulity into laughter of joy.
Right now, we are listening for what God has in store for us next. If God is anything like the God we have come to know, it will probably be something that sounds just as absurd as a congregation that relates to two different denominations, or a church that gives over it’s land for a community food bank, or a 90-year-old woman giving birth to a child.
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 new, that we will be the mothers of something that will be a blessing for 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 inexplicable 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 those words, “Is anything impossible for God?”