Laughing With God
One of the most important milestones I remember from having a young child was the first time my son laughed hysterically. We tend to honor moments like walking and rolling over and sitting up -- all very worthy of remembrance -- but we don't seem to honor the "first laugh" quite as much. For my son, that moment came when we were at a petting zoo for the first time. You know what was so funny, that his little face scrunched up and he laughed and laughed with abandon?
He saw a goat. That's it - he was face-to-face with a goat, and it was the funniest thing he had ever seen at that point in his life. It's a moment that is etched in my mind forever, because his laugh was also contagious -- before you know it, I and the other people we were with were all laughing at the goat, and my son laughing at the goat. Laughter is contagious! It's a beautiful gift.
Today we catch up with the story of Abraham and there's a famous laugh in this story, as well. By way of background, last week we heard the story of the call of Abraham (then called "Abram") where he, along with his wife Sarah (then Sarai) and nephew Lot and all of his household were called by God to leave their home and find a new land. Abraham and Sarah were "advance in age" (how politically correct!) and did not have children, which was a BIG DEAL in those days. In short, even though Abraham had many possessions and considerable wealth, the fact that they had no children meant that it was the end of the line for Abraham. Not having children was understood in that time and place to be a significant sign of failure -- an example, as we have heard many times in many biblical stories, of how God always seems to prefer to work with people who are in despair or who have been marked as "hopeless" by others.
Our lectionary skips over a bunch of chapters in between last week and this week. Let me give you the speedy version: First, God promises a couple more times that Abraham will have many descendants, and that he will be blessed so that he and his family will be a blessing to the whole world. Not just that Abraham will have kids, but that this family line is going to be the root of a tree of goodness in the world under which all families will be blessed. Second, Abraham and Sarah both have their names changed, which is one of my favorite details, as it illustrates so well that those who are blessed by God are changed in the process. Third, nephew Lot has gone his own way - he will come back to the story later. Fourth, Sarah has gotten fed up with waiting for the promise of children to be realized, and has demanded that Abraham impregnate an enslaved woman named Hagar, who ends up bearing a son, Ishmael. This is a really difficult part of the story that we'll actually get to explore next week, so I won't say anything more about it now. And finally... our story today is about how Sarah laughs at God's promises, but in the chapter prior to where our reading begins today, Abraham also laughs! In fact, it says he "falls on his face" and laughs at the idea of having children at the age of 100. (I'm not sure I would laugh, I might cry if someone told me I was having another child, even at the tender age of 43.)
OK. All caught up? Good. So this week, our story is about 3 visitors who come upon Abraham and Sarah. Abraham rushes to meet them and invites them to eat and rest in his camp. This was standard courtesy in that time and place -- there were no inns, or hotels, or restaurants, so people often formed alliances with travelers by offering hospitality. And these three visitors make a familiar promise: they tell Abraham that by the time they return, Sarah will have borne a child.
Sarah, in her 90s, overhears this from inside the tent as she is making them food, and she laughs at the very idea. (Understandably! She's heard this promise before, and nothing has come of it.)
Now, to really understand the context for this laughter, there's an important cultural situation that you need to know. First of all, in this time and place, not only were there slaves -- people who were considered property of other people -- but also, all women were generally thought of as property as well. Second, a woman's value was deeply connected to her ability to bear children, to produce heirs for the family's wealth. And third, if a woman was unable to bear children, it was assumed to be her own fault, some kind of problem that was worthy of shame. So Sarah is someone who has been handed various narratives of who she was: property, and a failure at the one things that could have made her valuable in the eyes of her culture. Worse yet, it was seen to be her own fault. It's a terrible burden to bear, and a pain that she then allowed to spread to her own slave, Hagar, by demanding that Hagar bear the son that she had been unable to produce.
So when she laughs, it probably wasn't a "ha ha, this is hilarious" kind of laugh. It was probably a laugh colored with despair. And when the visitors ask why she laughed, you'd be forgiven for thinking "isn't it obvious?" But Sarah denies that she laughed, as the visitors ask, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" She was probably scared of seeming rude or unfaithful.
It's quite a question: is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
What would make you laugh, if you heard that God was planning on it for your life?
What have you given up on, that maybe you think God forgot about?
Maybe it's a relationship, or a creative project or skill. Maybe it's finding real joy again after a loss or grief or illness or injury. Maybe it's the state of our country and the world, and how hopeless it can all seem at times.
If that's you -- I want you to here this loud and clear: Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.
Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.
And if that's not you, well, I hazard a guess that you probably know someone who is in that situation who could use some good news. Maybe you're in a stage right now where you aren't on the same page as Sarah and Abraham were, but maybe you are more like the 3 visitors. Is there someone in your life that has forgotten how important they are to the work of God in the world? Is there someone who has given up on ever truly laughing again? Maybe you can remind them.
To be blessed and to be a blessing is something that Abraham and Sarah were not too old for... and neither are you and I, neither is anyone! Thanks be to God!