So Sarah laughed to herself saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Genesis 18:12
18The 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.
9They 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.”
Genesis 21:1-7 Cal Chinn
21The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7And 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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I came home to our Chinatown apartment after a week at Westminster Woods, attending a Junior High Church Conference. I asked my dad, “where’s mom?” “She’s in the hospital.” “What? Is she all right?” “You have a baby sister!” I didn’t even know my mom was pregnant when I left for camp! I was 14 at the time; and I had an older brother and a younger brother. For my parents to bring into the world a 4th child after these many years was the last thing I expected. And then when my youngest brother was born 2 years later, the circumstances of how I learned of his birth was the same. This time I came home from a weekend retreat and I had no idea that my mom was pregnant. Years later, my uncle Ernie explained why my parents had more children even though they already had 3 sons. Uncle Ernie explained, “Your parents wanted security in their old age.” They wanted the assurance of a daughter to take care of them in their retirement years. I asked, “What about my youngest brother?” “They wanted added insurance; they were hoping for a second daughter!” In the minds of my parents’ generation, it was not social security or a pension or investments or long term care insurance that they looked to for security in their old age, it was their children, especially daughters. In ancient and rural societies, it was children—the more the better—that provided long term care and security. There was no such thing as Assisted Living facilities and Nursing Homes, or Retirement communities like the Sequoias that provide life time care. It was your children you relied upon for life time care.
Sarah and Abraham uprooted, left their native soil, leaving behind neighbors and family; and in exchange, God promised them blessings of land and wealth, of ancestors and offspring. But as the years passed, God’s promise of land and a child of their own did not happen. In Abraham’s society, children were seen as a blessing from God, particularly male children who would provide protection for the family. It was expected that the younger generation would live and care for the older. To be without children was a devastating and hopeless situation, particularly in a desert culture, where death was quick and certain without protection. Abraham and Sarah, despite all of their wealth and belongings, were pitied by all who knew them. For no wealth could buy a family. No amount of belongings, prestige or power could give a couple a child, the only possible security for their futures.
As we pick up on the story of Abraham and Sarah in this morning’s reading from Genesis, Abraham is now 99 and Sarah is 90 years of age. They have long given up on the promise that they would have any children. Their future, quite frankly, is uncertain and desperate. Social Security has dried up, the company Abraham worked for has gone bankrupt, taking the employees’ pension fund with it, and even if he could afford it, neither long term care insurance or retirement communities that guarantee life time care are available. On this particular day in our reading, Abraham is about to experience an unexpected visit from 3 strangers that would change his life forever. Where you and I are suspicious and guarded when a stranger rings our door bell, nomads in the Bedouin culture are dependent on another’s hospitality to survive such severe conditions. Hospitality is a survival custom that all honor. In this era of tightened borders and heightened restrictions on strangers seeking asylum in countries not their own, we are reminded of the contrasting values we live by. And in the face of today’s coronavirus alert—where quarantines and maintaining safe distances from each other are the order of the day; and the shut-down of schools and public libraries, sporting events and concerts, museums and broadway shows have been ordered—hospitality in Abraham’s time is something we will long for as the weeks and even months of uncertainty drag on. Abraham offers a meal and rest in the shade with a sense of excitement and urgency, offering these 3 visitors the best of what he has. When the strangers finished eating, they announce the purpose of their visit. They have come to deliver a birth announcement! These strangers tell Abraham and Sarah that they’re going to celebrate Sarah’s 91st birthday in the maternity ward!
And Sarah laughed. Who could blame her? At 90, way past menopause, low in energy, suffering from arthritis and most likely a bit of osteoporosis. The biblical writer says it best. After over-hearing what the strangers had announced to Abraham, Sarah laughed to herself saying: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure (meaning ‘shall I still enjoy sex’)?” Sarah wasn’t even concerned about post-partum depression, about sleepless nights, about chasing after a 2 year old at the age of 93, and a 102 year old husband who could barely move. Of course Sarah laughed! And as a woman, Sarah’s laugh perhaps contained a hint of bitterness and cynicism, after the long years of disappointment—what do men know anyway? They don’t get it! It is an outrageous announcement. The announcement was so outrageous that Sarah wasn’t even thinking about the security that the child would bring her and her husband in their retirement years, like my parents had hoped. Sarah had reached the point in her life where she had given up all hope that God’s promise—of many descendants, that she and her husband would parent a great nation—would be fulfilled.
And then, we come to this wonderful sequence in the narrative, which I believe every single one of us can identify with, an exchange between the strangers, one of whom by now is identified as the Lord, and Abraham and Sarah, who tries furiously to deny that she had laughed. “The Lord said to Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old’? IS ANYTHING TOO WONDERFUL (meaning—difficult, extraordinary) FOR THE LORD? And the exchange continues: But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh’ (for she was afraid). The Lord said: Oh yes, you did laugh! Isn’t that the way it is with God? We reach a dead-end in our lives and we’ve adjusted to it, settled down to the conventional wisdom of the day. It has become the new normal. Like Abraham and Sarah, we’ve accepted the hopelessness of our circumstance—that’s life, that’s just the way it is—we’ve accommodated ourselves to the barren places in our lives where the call to believe in a new thing that God will do seems quite frankly NONSENSE! Then something wonderful, extraordinary happens. Just as you are getting ready to settle into retirement, your spouse comes home one day and tells you that she wants to go to seminary. You’ve committed yourself to living a single life, and the next door neighbor calls you up for a date. Alex, a refugee from Honduras, separated from his family, walking down Fillmore Street one day, spots the Sanctuary banner in front of Calvary, and cannot resist coming into the church to inquire what we mean by offering sanctuary. And the rest is history, culminating with Alex, reunited with his family, together standing here in our chancel on Christmas Eve.
I want to remind you that the Book of Genesis, and most of the stories contained in it, were first heard by ancient Israel at a time of chaos and despair and hopelessness. Israel was a small nation, surrounded by larger, powerful nations. Yet it was to Abraham, married to a barren wife, that God made the promise—that they were the people through whom God blessed all nations of the earth. How can this be when their survival seemed so tenuous? Isn’t that our question too! Look at our world, our community, and hear again the promise of God. We, the people of God, are uniquely blessed to bring God’s shalom to the world. Yet, the world is getting less and less blessed, less and less shalom-like every day. We face great fear and anxiety in this year’s Presidential election. The slogans “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” are still prominent in our lives. The dangers of climate change and economic inequality are getting worse by the day. And the world-wide coronavirus pandemic further exacerbating the inequality, how can it be that we can bring justice, righteousness, and peace to a world like this? Can the church really make a difference? Do we dare live in the hope promised by God’s word? Or do we laugh?
But you see, it is God who has the last laugh. IS ANYTHING, ANYTHING, TOO WONDERFUL FOR THE LORD? I didn’t learn about this until the Hollywood film, “Hidden Figures,” told the story about the small cadre of black women—perhaps 3 dozen—who at mid-century served as mathematicians for the space agency. Katherine Johnson, who died earlier this year at the age of 101, was the only one still living at the time the film was released. Wielding little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the finest mathematical minds in the country, Katherine Johnson, calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth. A single error, she well knew, could have dire consequences for craft and crew. Mrs. Johnson was rigorously educated, supremely capable, yet largely unheralded who, well before the modern feminist movement, worked as a NASA mathematician. But it was not only her sex that kept her long marginalized and long unsung, it was also because she was African-American. In early 1962, a few days before he prepared to orbit the Earth in Friendship 7, Astronaut John Glenn made a final check of his planned orbital trajectory. The trajectory had been generated by a computer, which were starting to supplant the agency’s human calculators. Electronic computation was still something of a novelty at NASA, and Mr. Glenn was unsettled by the use of a soulless mass of metal to divine something on which his life depended. He asked that Mrs. Johnson double-check the machine’s figures by hand. “If she says the numbers are good, he declared, I’m ready to go!” (NY Times, 2/25/20). And this year, the SF Giants hired Alyssa Nakken, the first female coach in all of Major League Baseball! So why not a woman President of the United States one day?
As for Sarah, the word of God was fulfilled with the birth of Isaac, whose name in Hebrew means laughter. The fulfillment of God’s promise does not usher in a utopia. Far from it. It does, however, confirm yet again that in the midst of humanity’s capacity for messing things up, God remains faithful. God keeps promises and turns darkness into light. God changes mourning into dancing, and transforms weeping into joyous laughter! AMEN.