Sermon: Laughing into despair (June 18, 2017)

2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11)
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 (Semi-continuous)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sarah had lost all hope. God had tagged her and her husband Abraham to be the mother and father of a great nation. God had promised them many descendants, even as many as the stars. And yet, Sarah’s womb remained barren. Her empty womb was an echo of her empty heart. Though Abraham seemed unshakable – and oh, did she love him for that – her pain was too great to hold hope any longer.

One day, in a moment of desperation masked as faith, she said to Abraham, “Why don’t you take my slave-girl, Hagar. Have children by her, and, since she is my slave, I will call her children my own.” Clearly, God wasn’t coming through for them, and Sarah would have to take matters into her own hands. Did it pain her to give up in this way, and to see her beloved husband with another woman who could give him what Sarah never could? Of course. It broke her heart. But if God wasn’t going to make good on the promise, something else had to be done. She would take care of it herself.

Maybe a part of her had hoped it wouldn’t work… but it did. Soon enough, Hagar was pregnant with Abraham’s child – pregnant with the promise Sarah had so longed for.

Sarah thought she could be brave, even, that she could be happy. But every time Hagar lovingly touched her swelling belly, every time she smiled her joy to herself, it was a dagger in Sarah’s aching heart. In her pain, she took it out on Abraham, blaming him for what had been her idea. Oh, how heartache can wreck havoc in life, destructively worming its way into all of our most important relationships! Abraham urged Sarah to deal with it, and Sarah did. She sent Hagar, the awful daily reminder of what Sarah did not have, away – and with her, she sent away her fractured hope that God’s promise could ever come to be.

Here is where we find Sarah in the part of the story we hear today. To me, that backstory makes all the difference in how I understand Sarah’s words and actions in today’s story. Every time the Bible has been meaningful to me, it is when I can see my own story in the story of scripture, and when I see Sarah’s story here, I recall all of my own dashed hopes, all of my own resentment that God didn’t deliver when and how I wanted, all of my own insecurities. Do you see yourself in Sarah? Whether you had hoped for a child, or something else in life that you had been certain God wanted for you, but found yourself wondering if God would ever come through – have you felt the despair, that sadness, even that resentment toward others who got what you so badly wanted?

When three mysterious visitors arrive at Sarah and Abraham’s home, she thinks little of it. Though Abraham is excited enough, Sarah doesn’t have much left to give. Since her bout with Hagar, God had promised again that the covenant would be fulfilled. God had changed their names (from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah), and instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant, but Sarah remained doubtful. But, as she goes through the motions of offering hospitality to these men, something does begin to stir in her. Could that be – hope? She dares not enter into it; too many times she had been hurt. Yet the stirring cannot be stilled.

Abraham meets with the three men under a nearby tree. Sarah knows her place is in the tent, but she can’t help but feel drawn toward them. She hides just inside the door – under that tree is where hope resides, where a plan, even a date for the fulfillment of God’s promise exists, but Sarah is unwilling to enter fully into this possibility that has been kept from her for so long. She still holds all the resentment of her past, even as she creeps toward hope, hiding just at its edge. And there, on the brink between hope and despair, as she hears the impossible and wonderful news that so many years of hope is not in vain… she laughs. Her laughter is the sound of resentment cracking, of pain beginning to

Sarah laughing, detail from “Angel Appears to Sarah”
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

dissipate. Her laughter is the sound of healing. Her laughter is, indeed, the sound of hope, and of belief that nothing is too wonderful for God. Her laughter is the name given to her son, Isaac, because he lives as the proof that with God, hope is never lost. Nothing is too wonderful for God.

Here, too, we have the opportunity to see our own story in the miraculous story of Sarah. Hope and despair are a part of the human story, the church’s story, and our individual stories. Even when despair is dark and dense, the laughter of hope-revealed can crack it, shed light into it, dissipate it.

Where do you see your story in Sarah’s story? When have you crouched on the brink between despair and hope, and fallen onto the side of hope, laughing at the goodness of God?

Where do you see the life of this congregation in the story of Sarah’s despair and her laughter?

In 141 years, this story has surely made an appearance in the life of Bethlehem. Though I wasn’t here at the time, I suspect there was a sense of this when your long-time pastor, Pastor Zajac left, and with him, the organist. Suddenly Bethlehem found herself without a pastor, a musician, or a budget to call someone else into those roles. And suddenly, the possibility of an intern fell into your laps, and with a laugh, the congregation painted the walls of the parsonage – right over the wall paper – to prepare for her imminent arrival. An organist in need of a loving community showed up, on a day that the supply pastor did not – a story Bethlehem members now remember with a laugh. Nothing is too wonderful for God! Some years later, it was still clear that a fulltime pastor was not a possibility for this congregation. How easy it would be to fall into despair. But Bethlehem did what she does best: she prayed. And in the midst of that prayer came the possibility of a covenant, partnering with another congregation to share ministry and a pastor. On the day of my call sermon, a toddler who was here for a baptism pulled the fire alarm – and laughing, we all stood outside to greet each other while we waited for the fire department to arrive.

Laughter has played a role in many of Bethlehem’s most uncertain moments. Laughter has broken into what would be despair, to remind the good people of Bethlehem that God’s promise is good, that God will deliver, that nothing is too wonderful for God.

This past year in the life of Bethlehem has presented its own challenges. Like in the story of Sarah, myriad emotions have been embedded in those challenges. Speaking personally, it is not lost on me that, through those struggles, I was pregnant with a child I would soon know as Isaac, who smiles and laughs more than any baby I’ve ever met, whose existence in my life is a daily reminder that laughter can be born into difficulty.

That is what God does, again and again: God takes despair, and laughs into it. God takes our hurting hearts, our resentments, our insecurities, and says, “Believe me: nothing is too wonderful for me!” God takes death on a cross and turns it into resurrection, forgiveness, and new life. God takes suffering, and turns it into endurance, and character, and hope – and hope does not disappoint us, because, as Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Sarah’s son Isaac, laughter, did go on to become a great nation – his offspring was Jacob, who had twelve sons, who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people, a people that still exists some 6000 years later. Sarah’s laughter, the sign that God’s promises do come true, exists throughout the generations, even to ours.

How will this laughter, this promise, make itself known in your life? How will it make itself known in the life of Bethlehem? How will God take suffering and turn it into endurance, character, and hope? How will God turn something difficult into something life-renewing? How will Bethlehem’s story continue to be grafted into the story of Sarah, as it is grafted into the story of Christ’s own death and resurrection? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that: God will. Because nothing is too wonderful for God.

Let us pray… God of laughter and hope, make us ever confident in your promise, because in your promise we find the hope of life renewed. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen