Genesis 17:1-8, 15-19; 18:9-15; 21:1-6
October 8, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In a Calvin and Hobbes comic, Calvin says to his tiger friend Hobbes, “Isn’t it strange that evolution would give us a sense of humor? When you think about it, its weird that we have a physiological response to absurdity. We laugh at nonsense….We think it’s funny. Don’t you think its odd that we appreciate absurdity? … How does it benefit us?”
To which Hobbes replies, “I suppose if we couldn’t laugh at things that don’t make sense, we couldn’t react to a lot of life.
When you think about laughter, most laughter falls into one of two categories. There is laughter described in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, laughter that is accompanied by a shaking of the head and an admission that life can be absurd or ridiculous. This is the laughter evoked by late night comedians, satirical writers, and editorial cartoonists. At its darkest, this laughter is tinged with the bite of cynicism that says, “If I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying.” And then there is the laughter that bubbles up from our hearts because of surprising joy, the laughter of delight that erupts when we are struck by the remarkable beauty of the world and the sheer joy of love and life.
In the story of Abraham and Sarah, we witness both kinds of laughter. The story begins with cynical laughter at an absurd promise and ends with the joyful laughter of that promise fulfilled.
But before we get to all of the laughing, we have to turn back the clock to see how we got here, back to the years of Abraham and Sarah’s youth. When Abraham and Sarah were just young whippersnappers in their 70s, God came to them and told them that if they would leave their home in the city of Ur, in the Fertile Crescent and travel south to the land of Canaan, God would make them parents of a great nation. Since Abraham and Sarah didn’t laugh at God’s promise back then, it’s likely that their way of tallying a person’s age was different from ours today. Some scholars have speculated, for example, that they may have reckoned a person’s age based on seasons rather than solar years. Someone in their 70s may have been, by our way of counting, only in their 20s or early 30s. This would explain why in those early day’s God’s promise hadn’t seemed unrealistic at all. Though they didn’t have any children yet, Abraham and Sarah obviously believed that children were in their future; they were still assuming that anything might be possible for them and that the whole world could be theirs for the taking. In fact, it didn’t take much at all for God to convince them to pack up everything and leave city life for the outback of Canaan. God says go and they go, ready for adventure. Ah, youth.
Of course, by the time we pick up the story in chapter 17, Abraham and Sarah are getting long in the tooth. The intervening chapters cover several decades during which the couple lives a nomadic life, driving cattle and sheep across mountains and deserts, surviving famine and drought, and getting into fights with neighboring people. They had even survived a frightening stay in Egypt where Sarah had been taken into the Pharaoh’s household to live as one of his wives. That particular episode was not Abraham’s finest moment: afraid that Pharaoh would kill him in order to take Sarah for himself, Abraham told the Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister and then handed her over to the Egyptian king. The Pharaoh was so happy at Abraham’s generosity that he showered Abraham with cattle, donkeys, sheep, and slaves. In other words, the transaction made Abraham a wealthy man. Meanwhile, poor Sarah was ensconced in Pharaoh’s bedroom and only escaped the King’s tender clutches when God intervened and afflicted the Pharaoh with plagues. Confused as to why he had suddenly come down with a bad case of boils, Pharaoh started asking questions and discovered that he was messing with Abraham’s wife not his sister. Pharaoh, apparently a more upright man than Abraham, was horrified. He kicked Sarah out of his bedroom and both of them out of his country, but Abraham got to keep all of the gifts so the whole sordid episode left Abraham a rich man. It’s a bit disturbing to read that the father of our faith was kind of a pimp, but as I mentioned to the book group this past week, there aren’t many men or women in our Bible who impress us with their purity and moral courage. The biblical authors deliberately show us the pioneers of our faith as flawed human beings because the only hero we are supposed to pay attention to is God. God is consistently the one who saves the day — not Abraham or Sarah, not Moses or David, not even the bumbling disciples. God is the one who makes extraordinary things happen, who leads you through the barren land, who turns your mourning into dancing and your weeping into joy, who keeps promises. God is the one who saves.
God has made a promise to Abraham and and Sarah that they will be the parents of a great nation and God will keep that promise but on the way to fulfilling it, there are a few obstacles God has to overcome and one of the biggest obstacles is Abraham himself. God’s chosen bearer of the covenant has honking big clay feet and here in chapter 17 we again see Abraham live down to our expectations. The man who was willing to give his wife to the Pharaoh to save his own skin is once again all too willing to throw Sarah under the bus. God tells Abraham that God’s promise will be fulfilled and eventually Sarah will bear Abraham a son, but Abraham laughs and says, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And then Abraham makes a suggestion, “God, why don’t we just use my son Ishmael to fulfill the promise.” You see, Sarah may still be barren but Abraham is not. 13 years ago Abraham sired a son by his maid servant and he sees no reason why that son, Ishmael can’t just be the one to inherit the promise.
In other words, Abraham argues, “I’ve got mine; who cares about Sarah? She’s holding us back so let’s ditch her and fulfill the promise through me alone.”
I spent several minutes with a thesaurus trying to find a phrase that adequately describes Abraham at this moment but couldn’t find anything that was polite enough for a public sermon so I invite you to fill in your own description in your head. Abraham’s callous disregard for Sarah is appalling but what is more appalling is that at this very low and deplorable moment, Abraham is probably more real, more true to life, and more recognizable than he is in any other place in his story. While few of us would pimp out our spouses like Abraham did back in chapter 12, there are an awful lot of us who have to confess that we too might be willing to settle for half a promise as long as the half we are settling for benefits us. How many Americans proudly proclaim America to be a land of opportunity where all people are created equal, but when it comes to the hard work of ensuring those tenets are applied to every person in our country regardless of color, age, gender, sexual orientation, income, or political affiliation, we are quick to settle for an imperfect society as long as we have got ours? Though our motto as a nation is E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one — many have noted that we are more pluribus than unum these days. We are a country of factions each striving for our piece of the promise and each all too willing to leave behind the others once we have gotten ours. And the saddest thing is that for many Christians, settling for half a promise has become built right into their belief system. The pastor and preacher, Dr. Ironside, told of a time when he was visiting a town where a small Christian group was holding its annual convention. The group practiced a very exclusive sort of theology and on their sign announcing the convention, they had included the phrase, “Jesus Only.”
Ironside said, “It was very fitting that the wind that day blew the first three letters of the phrase off of the sign leaving it to proclaim, ‘Us Only.’”
We, like Abraham, are too often willing to settle for half a promise as long as that half includes us and leave the rest to fend for themselves. Sometimes that willingness arises out of real selfishness and a disregard for others but for most of us, I hope for those of us in this sanctuary, the temptation to settle is born of fatigue, doubt, and disbelief. It is born of the same cynicism that causes Abraham to laugh when God asserts that the promise is still possible. I’d like to give the man the benefit of the doubt and assume that Abraham really does cherish Sarah but is willing to leave her out of the promise just because he is so tired of waiting that he can’t summon up the energy to keep believing anymore. We know what that’s like. As Christians, we proclaim God’s vision of a society where those who mourn will be comforted, where those who thirst for righteousness will be satisfied, where the peacemakers will be called children of God, where the hungry are fed, the stranger welcomed, and the sick made whole. We hear week after week that God calls us to that vision and that with God anything is possible, but after awhile, when the bombs keep falling and the guns keep killing, when the hungry keep starving and the refugees keep knocking at the door, we begin to doubt that God’s vision can ever come to fruition. Like Abraham, we become cynical as the years pass and the dream is constantly deferred, and like him, we are sorely tempted to say, “Well, at least I’ve got mine.”
God, however, will not leave Sarah behind. God insists that the promise can only be fulfilled through both husband and wife, which is, for that time, an incredibly radical move. Later faith leaders, influenced by the patriarchal culture of the era, would once again shove Sarah into the background and talk about “the God of our father Abraham” but God makes it clear to Abraham that Sarah is just as important to the promise as Abraham. God will not settle for half a promise. God will insist that the forgotten, the least important, the neglected and demeaned, the most unlikely and most overlooked, will be lifted up in God’s eyes and God’s vision will be fulfilled for them as well, in fact through them. Our God is a radical God who promise is a wonderful promise for all people, and God…. will…. not… settle for anything less.
And what we fail to realize when we settle for half a promise is that the joy we so crave comes not just at the end when God is finally able to knock some sense into the thick skulls of human beings and get us to live peaceably with one another, but will come to us even as we work toward that promise. A dream deferred can still bring us joy if we insist on committing ourselves to the dream of welcoming all people into that promise, giving ourselves to the ongoing work of God’s vision and refusing to ever settle for less.
In 1985, researcher Bernard Rimland asked people to list ten people from among their acquaintances and then rate how happy those ten people seemed. He then asked them to rate those same ten on how selfish they appeared to be. After exhaustive surveys, the results were clear: all of the people who were rated high on the scale of happiness also rated high on the scale of unselfishness. Rimland’s study is not the only one that has found that no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, joy is found not in hoarding what you have but in giving yourself away. Joy is found not in circling the wagons but in taking risks on behalf of others. Joy is found not in protecting your own rights but in working to ensure other people’s rights. The story of Abraham and Sarah tells us that no matter how tempted we are in our weariness and discouragement to settle for half a promise, that will lead us only to the cynical laughter of a wounded heart, the snorting laughter of despair. Truly joyous laughter arises from a heart bathed in the wonder of love for others, and the radical goodness of God.
God calls us to embrace a vision of love and wholeness for all of God’s people and refuses to settle for anything less, and God promises that when we commit ourselves without reservation to that promise, when we open our hearts and give ourselves to ensuring peace and wholeness for all people, refusing to settle for anything less, we, like Sarah and Abraham, will be surprised by joy.