Sunday, June 12, 2022

Unraveled: Sarah Laughs

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”

They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”

So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.

They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”

And he said, “Right here in the tent.”

Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”

Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.

But he said, “No, you laughed.”

The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac. Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!” --Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 (CEB) 

Grace, mercy and peace to you from the Triune God - Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

The Festival of the Trinity. The one Sunday and the one topic that every pastor loves to preach on. Yeah, not so much.

Yesterday, as we closed Synod Assembly with worship, we heard a sermon by Deacon Mary Ann Schwabe. She was the representative from churchwide, from the national body of the ELCA, there, among other things, to bring greetings from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. She opened her message with a quote about the Holy Trinity. About the impossibility of explaining the Trinity. A quote from Luther, who wrote: "To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation. To try to explain the Trinity is to risk our insanity."

You see, try as theologians might, we don’t fully understand the Trinity. This Godhead made up of three Persons: Parent/Creator, Son/Redeemer, and Spirit/Sustainer. And to try to explain it is probably, as Luther suggested, inviting insanity.

So, for the moment, I’m not going to try. Although we will return to this topic in just a second or two.

Instead, I’d like to turn to our primary text today - this story about Abraham and Sarah. Really, a story about Sarah. And her laughter.

Early in the week, when I was exegeting this text before leaving for Muncie, I can’t even begin to tell you how many different interpretations and explanations there were about why Sarah laughed in this story. Some suggested she laughed from amusement - from an image of she, at the age of 90, and her husband Abraham, nearing 100, making a baby together. Some suggested that she laughed at the preposterous idea that, at the age of 90, post-menopausal, there was even any remote possibility of her conceiving a child. Others suggested that her laughter came from a place of deep bitterness over the fact that she and Abraham had not had the child - the heir - long promised by God. And yet others wrote that her laughter was from disbelief, from doubt about what the visitor - rather, the three visitors (pay attention to that especially on this Trinity Sunday) predicted - that Sarah was laughing in disbelief, doubt, and perhaps even scorn over the very possibility.

Perhaps all of these explanations of Sarah’s laughter are true, because much had happened before our story today. God had promised Abraham and Sarah to make of them a great nation. Then, after this hadn’t happened and after Sarah had moved beyond child-bearing age, she had taken matters into her own hands, giving Hagar, her servant girl to Abraham. Forcing her into surrogacy. Then, growing jealous when Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son. All of this then followed by a visit, at the age of 90, from these three strangers whom we, from the outside looking in, know to be God - strangers who tell her that by next year at this time she will have a son. Her laughter must have come from all of these different places: from amusement, and bitterness, and grief, and even pure glee at the absurdity of it all. 

But, mostly, it would seem, at least to me, that Sarah’s laughter comes from disbelief. From a lack of belief in the future God has promised both her and Abraham. A disbelief that, by the following year, is completely unraveled by the gift of her son, Isaac. Whose very name means “laughter.” 

I mentioned at the beginning of worship this morning that, for 12 weeks, we will be hearing 12 different stories or resilience from Scripture. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing the word - resilience - a lot over the past several months. This past week, I read a definition for this word in a Psychology Today article: Resilience is the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties, or traumatic events, or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, people who are resilient find a way to change course. To heal emotionally. And to continue moving forward.

In a related article I also read that people of faith are often more highly resilient. Because, in some ways, faith is synonymous with hope. Both faith and hope allow us to see a future beyond the present moment. But, it is faith that helps us more readily understand and accept that our present difficulties are part of the path to a better future. That’s the nature of faith. The nature of belief. To be able to see the connections between our present situation and the future. The opposite of this is disbelief. It's disbelief that led, in large part, to Sarah's laughter. Because, after all that had happened, after all she'd experienced, she was no longer able to see the future God had promised for her. And for Abraham. 

I wonder how many people in our world today lack this kind of faith. This belief in the future. And, really, is it any wonder that they do? Every day we are witness to a world that just seems to be struggling. To be hurting so deeply. Even to be falling apart. 

Or maybe it’s not just the world that seems to be so unsettled. Perhaps, we’re experiencing it in our own lives. An unexpected illness. Or a deep loss. Or even confusion about who we are and where we are at in our lives. Where it feels as though the future is so uncertain, so dark and cloudy. Or even, perhaps, when it feels as though there is no future. 

It is then - just as for Sarah - that, as one contemporary theologian puts it, it is then that our loving and relational God, the mysterious Trinity comes and invites us in. To abide in the holy. To admit the difficulties of the present. And the truth of what is unknown. To stop hiding behind false statements and facade of sureness. And to, once again, be reminded of the future God has in store for us. A future of abundance and wholeness. Of lives filled with hope and faith and love. And, especially, of lives that are full of laughter - the joyous laughter that comes from trusting God and living into the hope of that future God has promised for you and me, and for all people - a future given to us through the unexplainable presence and power of God, known as parent and Creator, as Word made flesh, and as life-giving Breath. 

Praise be to God! Amen.

Preached June 12, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
Holy Trinity
Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Living in Hope: The Way of Christ (Part 2)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
    Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. --Acts 2:1-21 (CEB)

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. --Philippians 4:4-8 (CEB)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you ever think about the Holy Spirit on that Pentecost day? More specifically, the sound of the Holy Spirit. Like a wind, our text tells us. It was a sound unheard at creation, but, here, on Pentecost it is like a wind.

Do you imagine what it sounded and felt like?  Do you imagine it was a soft, gentle breeze? Like the ones that we sometimes get here on a summer day, that make the heat of the day seem just a little more tolerable? Or do you imagine it to be a stronger wind? The type of wind that we also experience here - the wind that signals a coming storm front? That tells us our weather is about to change?

I think alot about the Holy Spirit as being like the wind. I always have. Maybe it’s because of growing up on the prairie where the wind blew constantly. Often a gentle breeze. But, sometimes, really strong winds. What we now call straight line winds. Winds that can be disorienting. Frightening. Unpredictable. Destructive. Even violent.

That was what the Holy Spirit sounded like that day. On that Jewish feast day, Shavuot. Or Pentecost in Greek. Meaning fifty. Because it was commanded to come fifty days after Passover. One of three of the primary Jewish festivals for which people were commanded to return to Jerusalem. Shavuot, or Pentecost, celebrated the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai during the Exodus - God’s Instruction coming down to God’s people. 

They had come from all over. We heard the names of the places near and far: Parthia. Mede. Elam. Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia. Asia. As far away as Rome. (Thank you, Gary, for reading all of those names.) Jerusalem swelled with diverse people on that day.  People who spoke many different languages. Who looked very different, one from the other.

And, then, they heard the sound. A tornadic sound. A sound so loud and violent that they rushed to see what was happening. When they arrived, not only did they see tongues of fire dancing on the heads of Jesus’ followers, but, incredibly, they began to hear the disciples speaking in their own languages. Breaking down the barriers between them.

Breaking down the barriers. Isn’t that what Jesus would have done had he been there? WWJD? What would Jesus do? Exactly what Jesus’ Spirit was doing. Breaking down the barriers.

I had a troubling conversation on Friday. 

Some of you may know that in December, after the tornadoes hit the western part of our state, the Bishop asked me to be one of two disaster coordinators - a co-coordinator - in our synod. When the Bishop asks…well, you know the drill. It’s pretty impossible to say no. 

So, I’ve been working with a colleague - Pastor Grace Pardun-Alworth, who serves St. Matthew’s in Paducah. Interestingly, she and I were classmates at Luther Seminary. 

On Friday morning, we were on a video call with the director of case management for Catholic Charities, based in Owensboro. Also on the call with us were each of the lead case managers assigned to work in the 16 counties that have been declared disaster areas. The director told us about some of the conversations she’d been having with volunteers coming in from churches and faith-based organizations from across the region - coming to help with the rebuilding process, now in its very early stages. 

She shared that some of these conversations have been very difficult. That when some of the volunteers hear that they’re being assigned to help rebuild a home for some who is gay. Or lesbian. Or undocumented. These Christian volunteers refuse to help them and ask to be reassigned somewhere else. Because, after all, you know God doesn’t like these kinds of people.

How small we make God! 

Father Greg Boyle, who I’ve mentioned before - he’s a Jesuit priest who works in the heart of east Los Angeles - says that “God’s dream come true is a sense of kinship and connection, that everybody would enter into a kind of exquisite mutuality with each other.” 

We need to break out of the kind of God that’s so tiny. And that’s a mirror image of ourselves. We know that we’ve created God in our own image when we discover that God hates the same people we do.

This is the disruptive and transformational work of the Holy Spirit. When we say, “God, it’s not about me, but about you” God says, “It’s not about me, it’s about you.” It’s about a compassion for the other that stands in awe of all that people have to carry rather than living in judgment of them. Awe is where God wants us to be. To honor others. To move past barriers rather than judging them and distancing ourselves from them. 

It’s about kinship. Kinship and connection. That’s really what the kingdom of God is about. Kinship. Because, the natural by-product of kinship is peace and justice. After all, it’s really hard to demonize someone you know.

Isn’t that Paul’s message, too? A message of gentleness. Gentleness here, which means a willingness to submit to injustice. To risk maltreatment. To break down barriers in order to move in closer so that we might, through the transformational power of the Holy Spirit, build kinship and connection. (Doesn’t that sound just like the “mind of Christ” we heard about last week in Philippians 3?) 

We love because God first loved us. That’s God’s hope. That’s the only kind of praise God is interested in.

So, on this Pentecost day, as we are soon to witness Lorelei affirming her baptism - may we reaffirm ours, as well: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. Amen.

Preached June 5, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
Day of Pentecost
Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Philippians 4:4-8, John 14:16-17