Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sermon for June 15: Genesis Stories: Sarah Laughed

Proper 06, Genesis 18:1-15, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

These three lessons we get every third year, according to the schedule of the Common Lectionary. This time around I will not preach on the gospel lesson. I will touch on the epistle, but my focus is the Old Testament lesson, as it will be for the next few months.
We’re watching God gather, protect, and preserve a community of faith. We’re tracing God’s long-term strategy of blessing inside the corruption, a strategy so gradual, so fragile, so limited, and so ambiguous. Why does God do it this way? Why doesn’t God just intervene and fix it all? The strategy of God is never easy to believe. To keep believing in God’s strategy requires the exercise of faith.

Last week we saw that God made promises to Abram and Sarai much earlier in their lives, promises based on having children. Well, that was now impossible. Sarah was in her nineties, past her menopause, and that was that. I guess the promises of God were a joke.
Abraham is now a wealthy bedouin, who lives a life of ease. But when he offers hospitality he has no son to stand with him at his right hand, no son to convey his commands to the servants, so when Abraham runs around like this he acts beneath his dignity and honor. This is a symbol of his shame.
I wonder how much he still believed the promises of God? And when his eyes met Sarah’s eyes, how long did they hold each others’ glance? Did they regard themselves as suffering? They were privileged with wealth, they were blessed, but how much suffering was in their shame?
Do we dare raise such a thing with God, when other people are grateful just for a morsel of food? Compared to Myanmar and Sichuan, what right do we have to consider our own suffering? Or to hold up to God the matter of God’s promises that seem to us unkept?
Sarah had been a beauty. When Pharaoh saw her he tried to take her for a trophy wife. Yet her desirability had faded, and most desirable was that she bear a child, which she had not, and that was shame. Even her lowest slave-girl could laugh behind her back. Was it for shame that she kept herself inside the tent, that she just didn’t want to deal with the eyes of the public?
Both of my grandmothers had cause for shame, especially since they lived in a pious culture that was conservative and critical My father’s mother was born illegitimate. But she had learned to live above that shame. She had a husband who loved her, and a son, and she could show her face in public and be present in their shoe store and go to church and to the Ladies’ Aid and such.
My mother’s mother had to endure the shame of her husband’s long-term infidelity. Despite that in her day she had been beautiful. And whereas illegitimacy is never your own fault, the infidelity of your husband always comes back on you. So in those days my grandmother almost never went to church, where those pious and critical Hollanders would look at her. She didn’t go to Ladies’ Aid, but she worked untiringly at home for her family and neighbors and everybody else.
Both of my grandmothers laughed, but differently. My father’s mother could laugh out loud among church people. Her open and hearty laughter lives on in the laughter of my dad.
My mother’s mother laughed in private with her children, and with her non-church friends, and then with us grandkids. My sister and I loved to listen to her stories and her songs and her jokes. She was a comic, and she could get us all to laugh. Later I also listened to her biting comments and her bitter commentary, and under that I learned to sense her longing.
Both of my grandmothers were women of faith. My father’s mother had a faith like Abraham, and she was known for it. My mother’s mother’s faith was more like Sarah’s, and sometimes, I think, she believed in God because she didn’t know what else to believe in. Amen.
In this story, Sarah gets both judgement and sympathy. Like when she denied that she had laughed. That was a lie, that was wrong, but the story is sympathetic to her in that what she did in private was exposed without her consent. And the story implies her dignity by making Abraham look a little comical. The energy of her laughter, at least in the opinion of one our deacons, is the energy of disdain, like, "Hey stupid, I’m ninety-five years old." The story regards her dignity. But dignity can hinder us, because living by faith can make us look as comical as Abraham.

The story has play in it. It is playful in its editing. The visitors play a bit with Abraham. And hasn’t God been playing Abraham and Sarah for some years now, making a promise and then holding off on it beyond its possibility? And they’re supposed to just keep believing? Is this what God expects us? Doesn’t God show us some regard? Are does God always keep the winning till the very last trick? How can you be the partner of someone who plays cards like this? Why does God choose to win it only in the end and with such a risky strategy, like a suicide squeeze play with two outs in the ninth?
We know that to live by faith is to live with risk, to live beyond the certainties of evidence, and to live by hope is to live in terms of the future. But when we talk about being blessed, doesn’t that include the experience of now? We can believe in a later and greater blessing if we receive some portion of it now. How much present suffering or shame or emptiness can we tolerate and still regard ourselves as being blessed? We don’t want to see life as a joke. That is not to live by faith and hope and love. We do not expect to be exempt from suffering, but we shouldn’t we expect to have enough blessing to mitigate the suffering?

I think the effect of God’s blessing in our lives is not so much to mitigate the suffering as to process it. God blessing engages our suffering in order to process it, and to generate from it the products of faith and hope and love. Not only our own suffering, but the suffering of our spouses, of our lovers and our friends, the suffering of our children and the children of the world, the suffering of the poor, and of the animals, and of the planet. Not least, the suffering of guilt and shame.
The blessing of God is meant to process all that suffering into faith and hope and love.
The process moves through stages, as suggested by St. Paul. You find yourself in suffering, and suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and it is hope that gets us through our suffering. This is one of St. Paul’s circular dynamics, one of his gracious cycles.
Of course suffering can result in a vicious cycle, from suffering to defeat to bitterness to hopelessness and disappointment. What makes the cycle turn the right direction is the wind the Spirit blowing on it, it is the love of God that keeps pouring against it to make it turn the right direction. The addition of love to suffering is what produces endurance, and the addition of love to endurance is what produces character, and the addition of love to character is what produces hope.

We have to submit to that love and even bend to that love, and that bending may be at the cost of our dignity and it may feel like foolishness. We have to not mind laughing at ourselves. And our participation in that love is how we share in God’s blessing of the world. God’s blessing is not the absence of suffering, but how God’s love can process suffering into faith and hope and even greater love.
Oh Sarah, beautiful Sarah. God still finds you beautiful, even in your old age, more lovely than before. God delights in you. And your last years shall be your best. You will not be a matriarch of dignity, you will be laughing and playing with your little baby boy. And you won’t care.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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