This is the sermon from Sunday morning worship on July 21, 2019. The Rev. Susan Mozena was set to preach a sermon based on Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 when we were surprised by a power outage at the church, and we had to cancel worship. The text of the sermon “Surprised by Joy (or, Are You Kidding Me?)” is available below.
Surprised by Joy (or, Are You Kidding Me?) by Rev. Susan Mozena
So, Sarah laughs to herself, there hidden in the shade of the tent entrance, not seen by the strangers, but hearing every word of this very strange conversation. She laughs to herself.
I think that is too mild a description. On my mother’s side of my family, there are women who are known to snort in a moment of spontaneous, incredulous laughter like that, a snort that is the perfect sound for, “are you kidding me?!” We are told that Sarah did that in silence in the tent. I am imagining that she must have almost choked on her laugh of complete doubt, doubt tinged with fear in the midst of this highly unusual encounter, three men apparently speaking words of outrageous impossibility as the one LORD.
Join me in this scene in the heat of midday, Abraham dozing in the doorway of his tent. This is indeed a mysterious moment. The LORD, God, that is, appears to Abraham. The LORD appears to Abraham as three men, three strangers, rousing Abraham from his old-man nap in the sun. He doesn’t just notice them and wonder about them, slowly, stiffly getting up the way old people get up off the ground.
He sees them and runs to greet them, bowing low as he does so, deferentially. Don’t pass by here, he says, let me get you some water for you to wash your feet, he says, and here, sit under this tree right over here, he says.
Water, shade: welcome comfort in the heat of the day, before they continue their travel.
In the midst of this effusive welcome, what one old friend recently called a radical and urgent act of hospitality, Abraham identifies himself as their servant. And he doesn’t stop. “A little bread” that he suggests will be brought to them turns into Sarah whipping up choice cakes, while Abraham runs into the field and chooses a perfect calf, telling the servant to prepare it quickly. He stands by the big tree while they eat, not joining them in the meal.
And, Sarah remains in the tent. She hears the words about having a son. She knows it has been a very long time since she has been able to conceive a child, and she also knows that Abraham is very old. They are highly unlikely potential parents of a newborn, to put it mildly. So, she laughs to herself. “Are you kidding me?” At this point, the three men, the strangers, are again referred to as one, the LORD, Abraham and Sarah’s God, our God, the God who has been in covenant relationship with Abraham and Sarah for some time, calling Abraham—and Sarah with him—out of their home, far south into the land of Canaan, promising them well-being, including descendants, the descendants about which they, Sarah being barren, have despaired. Sarah laughs to herself: Sarcastically? Sadly? Are you kidding me?
But the LORD hears her, her laugh to herself. (Notice that the three-strangers-now-the-LORD knows Sarah’s name.) “Why did Sarah laugh?” the LORD asks Abraham? “Is anything too wonderful,” is anything too full of wonder, is anything impossible, for the LORD? The LORD asks Abraham the question, but Sarah hears it, presumably still there in the tent, and she denies it. “I didn’t laugh.” Speaking directly to Sarah, “Oh yes, you did,” says the LORD.
Despite Sarah’s negative, untrusting, faithless reaction there at Mamre, God eventually makes good on that promise, and Sarah does indeed conceive and bear a son, who is named Isaac. In English, we don’t hear the word play, but in Hebrew, the name Isaac means “he laughs.” No longer barren, this old woman’s laugh is transformed, welling up in joy: Is anything too wonderful, is anything impossible for the LORD?
For those couples who desire to have children, barrenness, the inability to have children, is a profound sadness. In the ancient culture into which the Hebrew Bible provides us a window, barrenness also carried with it a rather large dose of the element of shame for the woman. That was true for Sarah, and she had already gone to great length, in a very nasty way, to see to it that Abraham would have an heir. She had given him the suggestion, even given him permission, if you will, to take and lie with her slave girl Hagar, who conceived and bore to Abraham his first-born son, Ishmael. That is how desperate Sarah was, how desperate they both were, for Abraham to have an heir. It is not a pretty story, forcing Hagar into the surrogate role.
By the time of today’s narrative, Abraham dozing in the son, Sarah in the tent, they are resigned to their barrenness, their imagined future devoid of a child whom they share. Their lack of hope for a child is now their normal state of mind.
Enter the LORD.
This mysterious story is just one of many stories in Genesis which illustrates the way that God and God’s creation are bound together, the theme that presupposes everything else that follows in the Bible. Of course, this binding goes all the way back to the act of creation itself, and it intertwines with Abraham and his wife, Sarah, and the great covenant promise given to Abraham, that he would have land and descendants, real well-being, blessing Abraham so that he might be a blessing to future generations. I will be your God, and you will be my people: that is the covenant God made with Abraham. The covenant was at risk more than once, Genesis documenting the frail faith and bad behavior of God’s people, including Abraham’s very real frailty and bad behavior on more than one occasion, including Sarah’s abuse of her servant girl, while also documenting the unbelievably gracious patience and power of God. In this particular story, however, Abraham did succeed in being faithful to a key precept which we find throughout the Hebrew Bible, and which Jesus, our brother, an heir of the covenant, manifested so perfectly in his ministry, and that is that Abraham did not fail to offer quite radical and urgent hospitality to three strangers who just happened to come upon him in the heat of the day. What might have happened, what might not have happened, had he ignored them or shooed them on their way?
Sarah might well have put the covenant at risk with her doubting snort of laughter, in the shaded interior of that tent. Sarah’s God was very patient, because given the way Sarah behaved, despite what God had already done for her and her husband on more than one occasion, it is very clear that God truly desired to be in relationship with Sarah and her husband, as frustrating as they were. It didn’t happen immediately, but Sarah had her baby boy, as promised: Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, who was the father of the twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel, the human stock from which Mary, Jesus and Joseph came.
There is more than one kind of hopeless barrenness that we sometimes weakly faithful humans experience, truly hard life situations which threaten to crush us with sadness, fear, anger…you name it (and you probably can name it). As we come to this communion table today, let us acknowledge that we, too, are imperfect, complicated, frustrating people, like Sarah failing to trust God as we should, not able to imagine a future that is open to outrageous possibility. Yet, we are welcomed here each time, God continuing to be in covenant with us, continuing to want to be in relationship with us. That is God’s grace, my friends, God’s love continuing to be poured out for us, when we have done nothing, when we can do nothing, to earn it. Heeding his command to his disciples, we remember our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at this table, Emmanuel, God with us, the perfect revelation of God’s love for us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, at this table we are brought into Christ’s presence by the communion we share with him and with one another.
This table is a place where God’s promises make a difference to us. May our trust in God’s endlessly patient faithfulness be nourished by this holy communion, and may we live each day in full gratitude for God’s faithfulness, even with joyful laughter, as loved and forgiven people, welcoming strangers, freely sharing that love and forgiveness. Departing from this table, let us be open to being surprised by joy.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.