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The sermon for week July 17, 2016

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A Guffaw Life

Genesis 18:1-15

Today with this sermon, like with many others, I want you to consider which character you are in this scripture. But this time, I want to direct your attention to Sarah. Imagine that you are she. You are roughly 90 years old. It has been many years since you went through menopause. You know your body, and your body is long past child bearing age. Yet you are married to a man who is a dreamer. He says that he had an encounter with God and that God has told him that he will have so many descendants that they will number more than the grain of sands on the beach. As a result of this dream, he even changed his name from Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, which means “Father of many.” Yet you are barren and unable to have a child. Many years have past since this oracle, yet there has been no pregnancy. And now, the biology of old age has set in and his dream will be only that, a dream. It physically cannot happen. It is what it is.

Now add to this the fact in that culture having a child meant that you were blessed by God. Not having one meant that you were not only not blessed but that you were less than, you were inferior. You have this dreamer husband, who is nuts to believe this dream of progeny. But for you, your ego has been bruised for the 75 years or so of marriage because you are childless. I can imagine Sarah not being a happy person. I can imagine her to be very cynical about life. For her it has not been a bowl full of cherries.

That is the setting for the story we read today. If you were Sarah, how would you receive the news that the guests say will happen.

Let us consider the story. First off, Abraham does what is expected in his culture, he welcomes the strangers, he feeds them, gives them something to drink. What Abraham did became a central teaching to the Christian faith. Consider Matthew 25:40 where Jesus told a parable about the end times and said, just when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. When I was hungry…you gave me food. When I was thirsty…you gave me drink. When I was a stranger…you welcomed me. We too are expected to follow this teaching. Despite living in a time when a number of politicians make statements about treating all Muslims as other and to bar them from entering our country, members of this congregation, because of their Christian faith, chose instead to welcome Muslim refugees, opened our church kitchen to them during Ramadan and shared an evening meal with them after spending a day in the park with them. “When I was hungry…you gave me food. When I was a stranger…you welcomed me. And now today, when I needed a place to park you found me a place.

Let us now consider Sarah’s part. Sarah is listening at the door of the tent. She is in a position to over hear the conversation. All of a sudden the conversation shifts. One of the visitors inquires of her. He asks about her by name. How does he know her name? Abraham has not mentioned it. We now have a clue that this visitor is someone special.

The guest then informs Abraham that before the year passes, Sarah will bear a son. What does Sarah do when she hears this? What would you do? She laughs. I can imagine her laugh being a big guffaw. She is incredulous. Is her husband that gullible to believe that this could happen. So she laughs. Literally, “Sarah laughed in her middle, her belly.” It could also be translated, “Sarah laughed in her womb.” Her womb laughs at the suggestion that this could take place. She not only doubts, she knows that it cannot be so.

This is where Sarah and I have a kindred spirit. Like Sarah I have “laughed” on a number of occasions. (I am using laughter as a metaphor for my doubting, for my cynicism about the Christian faith.) The first time I remember “laughing” was at the time of my Confirmation. For me, Confirmation was a two year process of something that I had to go through as a member of my family. It was a rite of passage. My older brothers went through it. I will have to go through it. There was no choice in the matter. Finally the day of Confirmation came, my trial would soon be over. But on that day, a classmate was so moved by the service she was in tears. I had been laughing for two years. But her tears brought me up short. What was she experiencing? She clearly was seeing meaning where I could not see it.

A year or so later a friend and I made arrangements to spend the evening together. Since neither of us could drive we were dependent upon our parents and their schedules. On this particular evening, his parents were going to attend a tent revival meeting and he was to go along. I weighed my options, I decided I could sit through the revival to spend time with the friend. It just so happened that the preacher at this tent revival had the gift of prophesy, of knowing things. At one point in the service he started to call out people from the congregation and have each one come forward so that he could lay hands on them on “prophesy.” I did my best to be invisible and not to be noticed. But he noticed me and called me forward. He had me stretch out my arms and he laid his hands on my head and prayed and saw a vision that at my birth a grey haired lady was praying for me. My doubting and cynical mind went duh! I could name a number of grey haired aunts and great aunts who would have been praying for me. I laughed him off.

I went off to college and studied Environmental Biology and was looking at a career in genetics. But somewhere in me was a gnawing feeling that maybe there was something to this thing of Christian faith. I saw where it could make a difference in the lives of people. Maybe there was a place for me in this faith. So off to seminary I went. Over the coming years, I saw countless times where the Christian faith gave hope to people and I was glad to be a part of something that brought hope. For instance, it did not take me long to learn that when I was calling in the hospital, no matter how awkward I might feel in the visit, it was not about me. For when I walked in the hospital room, in some sense I was bearing God into the room. As a result, the patient’ spirit was lifted. I could see in very tangible ways how this faith that you and I practice was giving hope to the world. I had no idea there was anything more. In some sense, like Sarah, I was still laughing for I could not imagine anything more, until one fateful December day. Some of you know the story for I shared it before.

I was called to attend to a dying woman. She was very near death. The family had been in vigil with her for two days and it was clear that there were only hours left. I came to her bedside, anointed her with oil. Since she was no longer aware of her surroundings, I assumed that what I was doing was giving comfort and hope to the family. I left and awaited the call from the funeral director. The call never came. Days later I ran into the son and he was excited to tell me that 2 hours after I left, his mother, Mildred, was sitting up in bed feeding herself. Now when I was there she not only was there no way she knew what I was doing but she was also so weak that she could not lift her hands off the bed let alone sit up and feed herself. In that moment, the level of my faith in a living God jumped tenfold. My little mind thought I was there bringing comfort to the family. But God was present in such a way that I was awoken to something greater. There was clearly more power in this world than I was aware of, and on that particular day in December, that power broke through the veil that separated heaven from earth.

Like Sarah, I can now no longer laugh for I not only have witnessed this power that I call God but I was gifted to be a participant in it even though I had no clue. There is something greater in this world than many of us are aware.

I am just thankful that despite my doubts, despite my laughter, like with Sarah, God broke though those doubts and the laughter and woke me up to something greater. That day, something was birthed inside of me. And what I learned was that you're never too old to give birth.

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