Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Genesis 18: 1-15; 21: 1-7)
That’s what jumps out at us in this story, don’t you think? More than the three strangers who mysteriously showed up one day, catching Abraham’s attention. More than the over-the-top hospitality Abraham extends them, welcoming them into his life and his home, imploring his wife Sarah to make three of her finest cakes. More than the abrupt and odd shift when one of the strangers asks where Sarah is (how did the stranger even know her name?) and proclaim matter-of-factly that she in due time will have a son.
It’s all pretty odd, to be honest, but it’s Sarah’s laughter that stands out. And why is that, exactly? There’s nothing all that odd about laughter. It’s a perfectly normal human response. We hear something funny, we laugh. What’s so strange about that?
Laughter may not be odd but there is something different about this kind of laughter. Psychologists call it “nervous laughter.” Back in the 1950s a professor at Yale conducted one of the earliest studies on nervous laughter. People were asked to give electric shocks to a stranger, shocks that became increasingly more powerful. Thing is, the “strangers” weren’t actually strangers but instead were researchers in the study. More importantly, they weren’t actually being shocked at all. Despite that, the study found fairly consistently that as the “strangers” reacted to the “shocks,” and especially as those reactions increased, people were more likely to laugh.
Which seems contradictory, right? Why would someone laugh at something like this? The study suggested that laughter can be a way to regulate emotion or serve as a defense mechanism against emotions that make us feel weak or vulnerable. Which means nervous laughter is more or less a way of reassuring ourselves that whatever it is that’s making us uncomfortable isn’t really all that awkward.
Even when the truth is, it is very awkward.
Sarah was feeling awkward. She and Abraham both. The promise had been made to them long before – for us, just a few chapters; but for them, decades upon decades. God had led a much younger Abraham out into the night and told him to look up at the stars. A multitude, more than the eye could count. Which was exactly the point. It was then and there the promise was first made: your descendants will number more than the stars you see, the stars you could never count. It would follow, then, that Abraham and Sarah would need to have a child for this promise to come true. And yet, no child came.
Time goes by, life went on, and still no child. Sarah has an idea. She has a slave girl named Hagar and suggests that Abraham have a child with her, which technically would be theirs. It was an accepted practice of the day. It is also as horrible a proposal as it sounds, for all the reasons we can think of. Hagar gives birth to a son, Ishmael; and immediately there is tension in the family. It blows up in their face, and Hagar and Ishmael are forced to leave.
More time passes and Abraham and Sarah are now 90 years old. No spring chickens. Still no children. God comes to Abraham again and promises him a number of things, reiterating the promise of a child. Want to fathom a guess how 90-year old Abraham reacts to this? He laughs – in fact, falling on his face laughter – that’s literally how the Bible describes it. Falling on his face, nervous laughter.
And now we come to today’s story – of three strangers and the over-the-top hospitality and the abrupt and awkward segue to the arrival of their long-awaited and long-promised son and Sarah’s nervous laughter at hearing it. It is completely understandable. After all this time, after all this waiting, almost a cruel waiting, after everything they’ve endured and put up with in light of a promise that seems less and less likely with each passing year, it is no wonder that Sarah laughs. We’d fully understand if she chose to scream instead.
Now scripture, at its best, is meant to resonate with us, mirror our lives, be relevant; and it’s for that reason that I always engage passages like this with a bit of trepidation. The Bible has many stories of women finally giving birth to a child they’d long been waiting for. We can assume, however, that there were plenty of instances where it did nothappen and that it deeply affected women and their families then, as issues of infertility still do today. According to the CDC, around 10 percent of women in the United States, roughly 6.1 million, have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant – and, given recent and anticipated decisions from our nation’s highest court, that number is likely to rise. This issue is closer to us than we might think, it touches many of us at a deeply personal level, and we’d be wise to keep that in mind as we consider this passage.
Along with the fact that, like so much in the Bible, there is more going on than what we might see at face value – and here, more than a long-anticipated birth.
Let me ask you something: what in your life have you longed for, hoped for, dreamed of, but has yet to come to pass and in fact with each passing day seems less and less likely to happen, like a pleasant dream that is clear in your mind as you wake but dissipates into fragments as the day wears on? A broken relationship that has yet to mend. A preferred career path that hasn’t materialized. A response to a voice mail or text that hasn’t come. Divisions in our communities and in our culture that only seem to grow deeper and wider. A lack of clarity on the way forward. How many times have we been tempted to throw in the towel and let those hopes and dreams go? What is it that compels us to hold on to the possibilities and promise when everything around us seems to be suggesting they are simply not there?
It’s awkward, isn’t it?
Sarah laughs and the strangers are taken aback. Why is she laughing? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? A rhetorical question; the obvious answer is “no.” Although it seems tad insensitive given the context, don’t you think? One imagines one of the strangers imploring his counterpart to read the room a little better next time.
Although it is interesting to note that, in Hebrew, the word for “wonderful” – the word used here – is the same word used for “difficult” and “hard.”
Which means that oftentimes, that thing which is wonderful is also hard and difficult. We know what that thing is. We call it hope.
There is a scene in the first Hunger Games movie that I was reminded of at the Montreat Youth Conference I led music for last month. My pastor colleague and friend Gail Henderson-Belsito, from Caldwell Presbyterian was the keynote speaker. She showed a clip of a conversation between President Snow, the leader of the fictional country Panem and architect of the horrific hunger games; and Seneca Wallace, the one tasked with running the games themselves. If you’ve seen the movies or read the books, you know that the games pit the children of twelve districts against each other in a televised battle to the death where one victor emerges – all part of a sinister system that divides the people into manageable factions and keeps those in power at the top.
President Snow and Seneca Wallace are chatting about the games in the president’s rose garden. Clipping a rose stem, President Snow asks, “Seneca, why do you think we have a winner?”
The question puzzles the game master. “What do you mean?” he asks.
Slightly annoyed, Snow repeats, “I mean, why do we have a winner?.”
Silence. Seeing that he’s stumped, in his best mansplaining voice Snows answers his own question: “Hope.”
A slightly bewildered Seneca says, “Hope?.”.
“Yes, hope.” And then Snow says, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous.
For decades upon decades, Abraham and Sarah were asked by God to hold on to a dangerous hope. A hard, difficult, hope. A hope big enough to transform themselves and their world as they knew it. And they were asked to do this as opposed to settling for a lesser hope; a hope that would’ve kept things just as they were, not changing a thing. Which, of course, isn’t really hope at all.
The kind of hope you and I are called to embrace as people of faith is a dangerous, hard, difficult, and wonderful hope. The kind of hope that causes us to laugh, a good nervous laugh. It’s what we need in our own lives, to live into our God-given potential, to exude the image of God that’s within each one of us. And it is precisely the kind of hope that the world needs from us now.
People of God, are we prepared to hope like that?
Tomorrow is July 4, a day we celebrate our country. Now I’ve always loved this time of year – it’s the summer, it’s near my birthday, and I dig the whole hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, potato chips cold watermelon, red white and blue scene; and fireworks to cap it off. But I got to be honest, I’m not feeling much like celebrating these days, and I wonder if you feel the same. Our nation is a broken nation right now, defined more by our divisions than our unity, more by our inequality than our equality, more by our violence than our peace, more by our lust for power and money than our love for our fellow human.
And it’s not just that this brokenness has set up residence in our nation’s seats of power. It is that it’s being spearheaded by those who claim to follow the same Jesus that you and I do. There’s a name for it; get used to hearing it: Christian nationalism – the belief that America is an explicitly Christian nation and its government should work to institute it as such – used to be whispered about behind closed doors and in code. Not any more. It is the reality we are currently living in, forced upon us by people who adhere to a warped ideology of Jesus and the church that happily embraces exclusivism, white supremacy, patriarchy, privilege, and hate. It is not about Jesus. It is about power.
And it has become the predominant view of Christianity in our culture, whether we like it or not; which is in part why large swaths of our populace want nothing to do with the church. And can we blame them? If that is the predominant view of Christianity, and if we are not doing anything to counter it, can we blame them?
You know, I’ve had a really interesting conversation with a number you over the past few months. Interesting because it’s pretty much the same conversation from person to person, down to the same word that’s used: frustrated. Many of you have come to me and said, Steve, I can’t imagine how frustrated you must be with things – folks slow to come back to church, slow to re-engage, all the empty pews on Sunday morning. I know it must be so frustrating for you.
So allow me to go on record in this sermon and be clear with all of you that I am not frustrated. I am not frustrated. What I am is curious – curious if our church is willing to be the kind of church it needs to be in this particular moment and time, curious if we’re willing to seize the amazing opportunity before us to lift up the Jesus we love and serve that is far, far different from the one others are seeing and hearing.
I’m curious if we are willing to accept the fact that this means we’ll have to redefine what it means to be church, how we do church. That now is not the time to play it safe when it comes to our ministries and our mission. Not the time to simply recycle things we used to do that worked back then in the hopes that, somehow, they might work now. I’m curious about a new vision for a new Trinity, something our Way Forward Task Force is working on now; one that meets the world where it is and boldly shows them the Jesus of love, the Jesus of peace, the Jesus of equity and healing and humility, the Jesus who in fact is Jesus.
I’m not frustrated, I’m curious. And I want to invite each of you to be curious with me. Because beloved, if we are going to resist being forever defined by Christian nationalism, a perversion of our faith that is causing people great harm and setting up shop in our legislative buildings and courtrooms, if we are going to not simply survive as a church but thrive – and I want to be very clear about this, I have no interest in surviving, I want us to thrive – if we are going to do all these things, beloved, we cannot just hope a little. A little hope isn’t going to get us anywhere. A little hope is exactly what the powers-that-be are counting on from us.
No, we have to hope big. A dangerous, difficult, hard, wonderful hope. The kind of hope that, frankly, can be a little awkward. The kind of hope that dares to elicit some nervous laughter at the preposterousness of it all. The kind of hope that comes about when we, like Abraham, go over-the-top with our hospitality towards God. Do you remember that? Abraham went crazy the way he welcomed those three strangers into his home, into his life…. What might happen when we do the same with God? What dangerous, hard, difficult, wonderful promises will God have for us then?
The stranger asked, Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Of course not. Perhaps the real question is, is there anything too wonderful for us?
Well, is there?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.