Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 20, 2020
Read: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
In the fall of 2001, I was a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis. I made rounds, visiting people and I stopped by a room where a number of people were gathered. On the bed, was man who seemed asleep. His wife explained he had a brain tumor. From what I knew it didn’t look good; he didn’t have long in this world. But the wife told me with hope that he would get better. They were hoping he would be able to go a facility to rehabilitate. She wanted me to lead a prayer. I was nervous, because I didn’t want to pray a prayer that would give them false hope. I didn’t think that God was going to magically heal this man’s tumor. And in some way I was right, a little later I heard that the man was going to hospice.
Was I right to believe that it was foolish to believe this man would be healed? Should I have told the family that God would heal this man?
In our passage, Abraham welcomes three guests. It was common in desert cultures to offer strangers hospitality. Since there were no McDonalds in the desert; it made sense that people would offer travelers something to eat and drink. Abraham welcomed these guests and went above and beyond in hospitality. He asked Sarah to make bread with the finest flour. He told a servant to kill a calf and then offered a refreshing drink. We learn one of the visitors is the Lord himself. As they ate their food, God tells Abraham that in the space of a year, he and Sarah would have a child.
Now a few things here: Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was 90. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation when he was 75. So, the couple had been told for several decades that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. Sarah was already way, way past her childbearing years so there seemed to be no possible way that Sarah was going to have a baby.
Sarah was eavesdropping nearby and when she heard all of this, she let out a laugh. She laughed because she had heard for decades that she would have a child and nothing ever changed. She was already barren when Abraham first told her of what God told him. She knew it wasn’t going to happen. She even suggested that Abraham get with her servant Hagar to have a child. Ishmael was the result of this pairing, but even Sarah wasn’t pleased with that solution. Sarah had received heartache on heartache. She was old, Ishmael wasn’t working out. She knew how life worked and she and Abraham had come to accept they would never be parents. Her laugh was a laugh of anger, frustration and hurt. I’m going to have a child? Now? At my age? Not bloody likely.
Sarah heard for years something would happen and it never did. She was used to things being what they were and couldn’t believe that things would be different.
If we were in Sarah’s place, would we laugh? I think if it was me, I probably would. I would like to believe that I would believe that God could do anything, but like Sarah, I know too much. I know that people with brain tumors seldom recover. I know that some couples face miscarriages. I know people die from cancer. I know that evil exists and that the impossible is just that; impossible.
Theologian David Watson notes that mainline Protestant theologians in the 20th and early 21st centuries have grappled with the problem of evil. The horrors of two major global wars and the Holocaust have made us think that divine action is not possible.
Watson continues saying that the result is that because liberal theologians had this view, it trickled down to the churches. We had whole communities of faith that no longer believed that God would show up. Watson puts it plainly:
“For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.”
None of this means we should not take evil seriously. But we shouldn’t let that limit God. Instead in the midst of this world where there is heartache, we still hope and pray that God will do the impossible in our impossible world.
God answers Sarah’s doubt. “Is anything to difficult for the Lord?” Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that this is really a question God is expecting Sarah (and Abraham) to answer. The story ends with us never knowing what Sarah said in response other than that she didn’t laugh. I’m guessing she didn’t immediately believe. God was really asking; do you believe in me or not? Do you trust me or not?
In chapter 21, we see a different kind of laughter. As God said, Abraham and Sarah did have a baby and named him Isaac which meant laughter. God had the last laugh. “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,” Sarah says with a heart full of joy. Indeed, how could they not? This was so fanciful and unbelievable that you had to laugh. You had to laugh for joy.
Faith in God means believing in the impossible. It doesn’t mean taking leave of our sense and to start jumping off buildings thinking God will save us. We believe in the impossible, not the ridiculous. But we have to believe that our God is real, and powerful and can make a difference in our lives and in our world. There will still be evil in the world. There will be heartache. But because we believe God will do the impossible, we end up having something that in and of itself seems weird: joy. We begin to see God in the hidden corners of our lives, places where we thought God could never be present.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.