A sermon on Genesis 18:1-15 preached at First Presbyterian Church; Tupelo, MS, June 2017.

I imagine Sarah, in this morning’s reading from Genesis, sitting in the tent she shared with Abraham. The afternoon heat is heavy in the air, and as she tiredly seeks relief in the covered tent, Abraham sits still in the shade of a nearby tree. Noticing dust rising in the distance, Abraham trains his gaze on the horizon. As footsteps sound closer Abraham notices three figures walking his way. They’re nearby now, and Abraham scrambles to get up, rushing to welcome them. Bowing, he greets them, pleading “Don’t hurry by. Stay. Drink. Wash your feet and rest. Eat and recharge.” Perhaps exhausted from the heat themselves, the travelers agree. Hearing this, Abraham springs into action. He hastens toward Sarah, we hear, and not only tells her to make cakes but the make them quickly. The servant hastens too, to prepare the best calf Abraham could find for his guests. Having gathered all of the food and drink he needs to nourish the visitors, Abraham lingers as they eat. Does he know who these guests really are?1 Does he realize that as he and Sarah welcome these weary travelers, they welcome God? Suddenly, after asking where Sarah is, one of the visitors makes a surprising declaration. “Your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah has been quietly glancing their way, watching out of the tent’s entrance, curious about the visitors and intrigued by the conversation. At this point, she can’t help but react. A laugh escapes from under her breath. And I can’t say I blame her. She’s about 90 and Abraham is 100. She’s been hoping for a child of her own for years — decades even — to no avail. And here comes this visitor, saying “I’m going to come back, and when I do you’ll have a son.” So Sarah laughs.

Writer Anne Lamott has said that “laughter is carbonated holiness.”2 Reinhold Niebuhr said “laughter is the beginning of prayer,”3 and Karl Barth went so far as to say “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”4

Carbonated holiness. Sometimes laughter is laced with hope-filled joy, an expression of the unbelievable finally being believed. Other times laughter might be more of a weary resignation, a sort of cynical “of course this is happening” or “there’s no way.” I imagine Sarah’s laugh might’ve reflected the deep-set pain of years spent wanting a child. Either way, happy or sad, those moments are holy. Laughter is the stuff that bubbles up inside us and can’t help but escape. And if laughter is the beginning prayer, surely there’s room for the happy parts, the hard ones, and the stuff in between.

When one of the visitors asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, he adds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated as “wonderful” can also mean difficult or hard. Is there anything too difficult for the Lord? While this question seems intended to help convince Abraham and Sarah that they will indeed have a child, I’m not sure it’s a question that always has an easy answer. Will we stick to our faith even when it feels like God’s answer is “no” or “not yet?” Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?

When the topic of Sarah’s laugher comes up, she feels the need to deny it. “I did not laugh,” she says, because “she was afraid.” I wonder what she was most afraid of. Maybe she was nervous about being caught eavesdropping, or afraid that the prediction might actually be true and realizing the challenges that would certainly accompany becoming a parent at the age of 90. Perhaps she had realized that these visitors were God1, and was simply intimidated by her proximity to the divine. Whatever the reason, Sarah feels compelled to claim she didn’t laugh.

I wonder how often we do the same. How often do we doubt the ways God is moving in our lives? How often to we feel self-conscious about our reactions to the challenges we encounter in life? Especially in a time when division seems more prevalent than collaboration and violence more common than peace, it can be hard to be confident in our hope for the future. Sometimes, like Sarah, we might get caught up in thinking about all the reasons something can’t happen. I’m too old or I’m too young. I’m the wrong gender or from the wrong neighborhood or that’s just the way we do things here.  In those moments it can be hard to trust God’s movement in our lives. We might laugh out of sheer amusement at the ridiculousness of it, or tentatively let out a weary half-chuckle, because sometimes that’s all that’s left. Sharing our real responses to the world around us sometimes requires a level of vulnerability that can be intimidating to say the least. We may worry about what people with think, feel self-conscious for not being more confident, guilty for doubting God…    

God could’ve gotten angry when Sarah lied about laughing. But instead the divine visitor replies with an almost jovial “you did too!” Kathryn Schifferdecker imagines this response including “a twinkle in the eye and a chuckle at the divine absurdity of it all.”,5

God met Sarah in the midst of her uncertainty, not with judgment or anger but simply by continuing the conversation. Maybe this isn’t so much a story of laughing at God, but one of laughing with God. Even when we are nervous or uncertain or just amused, God is faithful and right there with us.

Regina Brett is a journalist from Cleveland, OH, and one of her books is titled, Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible. Lesson #4? “Interruptions are divine assignments.”

In this lesson, Brett tells the story of a teenager named Terrance. She’d gotten lost on the way to an interview, and stopped at an ice cream shop to ask directions. That’s where she met Terrance — after he’d helped her with the directions, he ended up sharing part of his story. “What do you want to do?” Brett asked him. “Oh, I am going to be a neurosurgeon” the high schooler replied. But Terrance was having to leave his current school, because his parents could no longer afford the part of tuition not covered by scholarships. His mom was out of work and dad was a postal clerk, and the two had recently gone through a divorce. “We’re not poor,” said Terrance, “but we’re not well off.” Brett writes that “when he first told people he wanted to be a neurosurgeon, they laughed.”6

But after Brett left that day, she started working on a piece about Terrance for her newspaper, and in the process of fact checking, called the school Terrance was having to leave. As it turns out, the school had been trying to get ahold of Terrance’s parents all summer, but they hadn’t returned the calls. The school agreed to cover the remainder of his expenses.

Then the newspaper column came out, and a neurosurgeon read it. Before long, Terrance was meeting Dr. Luciano in a conference room at the Cleveland Clinic, and not long after that, Terrance was on his way to observe his first brain surgery. Brett writes: “Rows of white lab coats hung on the walls to his right and left. Each bore the name of a surgeon. He glanced at them then dug his hands deep into the one he was wearing. ‘It looks so much different than you see on TV,’ he whispered. Dr. Luciano hustled back. ‘Let’s go,’ he announced. Terrance stepped over the line. They headed to the metal sink where surgeons scrubbed in. Dr. Luciano told him how cool the brain and spinal cord look, then casually shoved open the door to the operating room, and Terrance followed.”6

Interruptions are divine assignments. There are a lot of things that could prevent Terrance from becoming a neurosurgeon. And still, someone’s willingness to embrace an interruption got him started on his way.There were also plenty of things that should’ve prevented Sarah and Abraham from becoming parents — age and apparent barrenness at the top of the list. Yet the interruption of a few visitors brought life-changing news, and some carbonated holiness to go with it.

Those of us who claim the Christian faith can also look to Christ for reassurance in the midst of our uncertainty. Whether our laughs are full of confident joy, laced with weary worry, or somewhere in between, Romans reminds us that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” We mess up, over and over again, and still God is faithful. Still God knocks at our door again and again. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? This is the good news, to be sure, but it’s not a promise that things will be easy. “We also boast in our sufferings,” reads Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” We must be diligent in not letting these words be our pass to allow the suffering of others when we are able to help, but this hope might also give us confidence in the midst of our own struggles. “Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Even when we laugh at God, doubting ourselves or where we’re headed, still God is faithful.

Fredrick Beuchner describes part of the “high comedy of Christ” as “the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than…their tragic expectedness.”7

God has a tendency to flip things upside down. Expectations, the limits we put on ourselves, what we assume about other people. As we wade through the occasional uncertainty our own stories, together navigating a changing world and a changing Church, may we keep our hearts and minds open to the carbonated holiness that might be bubbling just beneath the surface. Amen.


Notes

  1. Terence E. Fretheim, “Genesis,” New Interpreter’s Bible vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), p. 463-464.
  2. Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006).

  3. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebhur: Selected Essays and Addresses (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 49.

  4. Robert I. Fitzhenry, The Harper Book of Quotations (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 223.

  5. See this post from Working Preacher.
  6. Regina Brett, Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Possible Possible (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012) p. 38-43.

  7. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row, 1977), p. 61.