Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Second Sunday after Pentecost – Thirteenth Sunday in ZOOM Church
June 14, 2020
I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
I kept my faith, even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’
What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
I guess we can all remember a time when we found ourselves laughing at the wrong time. Maybe at school as a kid, or in church. It can be bad. And the more you try not to, the more you can’t hold it in. And if by any chance this is happening to you with someone else, having another person right there with you, also trying not to laugh, makes it worse. You try not to look at them, you try to think of something serious or sad, but no. Whatever it is, that preposterous thing, that silly thought, the sheer nuttiness of the world just keeps intruding.
This is what happened to Sarah when she overheard the strangers talking to her husband. A child, after so many years of unfulfilled hopes. And predicted by these three unknown men. Promised by God. Ridiculous. Not going to happen. Ludicrous. No, I’m not laughing, she said. And yet, although not reported by the writer of Genesis, according to Scientific American magazine, it is likely that God was laughing too. ‘In a study of thousands of examples of laughter’, writes Sabrina Stierwalt, ‘the speakers in a conversation were found to be 46 percent more likely to laugh than the listeners’. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-laugh/)
Sarah laughs ruefully, partly because she so much wishes it were true. Partly out of her sadness that it can’t happen. She chooses to expand her lament to include that crazy little hope she still holds on to.
The things that make us laugh are the things that enlarge the world a little, that bring in the unexpected or incongruous. They take us out of our comfort zone – so we note that laughter and anxiety are right next to each other in our consciousness. But somehow, with laughter, we are able to bestow a positive spin on the unknown. Able to take it in without fear. And in a certain way, that makes the impossible more possible.
Perhaps if three strangers came to our door today, and over lunch they said to us, when we come back this way, you will have overcome racism, and inequality, and exclusion, we might laugh. You will have decentered whiteness, confirmed that black lives matter, they’d say. You will celebrate difference, and love the diversity in you, and never again cause one another to suffer. No-one will ever say again, I can’t breathe.
Of course, we long for it, we pray for it, but we might laugh …as if… And what if it turned out that the strangers were actually God, and said, ‘Did you laugh?’. We might deny it. I didn’t laugh. Oh yes, you did, God would say, and God would be laughing too, because it seems so unlikely, so far beyond our capacity. And we have the history to prove it.
But that is exactly what the promise of the Gospel is. The Gospel says there will be a new heaven and a new earth. It says, crack your mind open. Apply the good news to the current moment. Let a bit of wonder in. A bit of surprise. As you learn more about the history and reality and persistence of exclusion and racial bias, be dismayed. Let it expand your consciousness. When you discover racism, unwanted, in yourself, be startled. Become more aware. And when you see or participate in the public outcry and demonstrations to bring change, be amazed. Let yourself wonder if, this time, it could be more than a performance, more than a little blip in public opinion. More than an excuse to get out in the sunshine. Could it be?
Sarah says, do you think at my age this could happen, and God says, yes. Faith invites us to that larger imagination about our own destiny. We can laugh, as she did, but it’s a big job, and pregnancy and childbirth are no joke.
In our Bible story the outcome is a happy one:
God dealt graciously with Sarah as it had been foretold, and God did what was promised. Sarah conceived and gave birth to a child for Abraham, who was now 100 years old, at the very time God had promised. They named the child Isaac, which means “Laughter,” for Sarah said, “Now God has given me laughter, and all who hear of this will laugh with me.” (adapted from The Inclusive Bible)
Perhaps there is laughter ahead for us on the long road toward racial justice. May we remember as we edge closer to the birth of a fairer world, that surprising things can happen, that the world is full of wonders. May each of us find our piece of this work. And may everything we do to bring about that day be blessed with the spirit of God’s presence, and God’s solace, and God’s encouragement. May God laugh with you. Amen.