Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
In the movie Ladybird, the character Ladybird is a high school senior who does not like where she lives (Sacramento, California) and wants desperately to go to college on the East Coast, even though her mom says the family can’t afford it. She is smart and funny and argues with her mom a lot. They both are very mean to each other sometimes. She gets distracted at school, in a way that is familiar to many people who have been to high school. She nearly ruins her longest running friendship, though manages to repair that relationship before it’s too late. Ladybird just seems deeply unsatisfied and thinks the way to be satisfied is to leave. College is the way she thinks she can leave.
One of the nuns, Sister Sarah Joan, at the Catholic school Ladybird attends, a school that her parents have scrimped and saved to afford, is fond of her. And, she’s impressed by her college admission essay. She calls Ladybird into her office to talk about it. Having read the essay, the Sister Sarah Joan says, “It’s clear that you love Sacramento.” Ladybird looks aghast, as though the sister has just accused her of something. She hates where she is from and derides it as a bunch of suburbs and strip malls “without culture” whenever she talks about it. She tries to explain how she wrote such a beautiful essay about a place she doesn’t like very much. She says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan replies, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
There’s a song by the Judds called, “She is His Only Need” about what sounds like a good and solid marriage between two people named Billy and Bonnie. Part of the evidence given of their great devotion to one another is the way that Billy pays attention to Bonnie. Rather than essays, Billy turns his attention into gifts, small and large. Well into their retirement, Billy wants to make sure Bonnie had everything she wants and needs. The song says, “And ev'ry once in a while you could see him get up/And he'd head downtown/'Cause he heard about something she wanted/And it just had to be found/Didn't matter how simple or how much/It was love.” His purchases weren’t about showing off. They were about showing how much he saw her, what she enjoyed and what she needed to get by. He was a good husband to Bonnie because he was paying attention.
The next time you are reading the Gospel of Luke, I want to you to note how many times that they tell us that Jesus was paying attention. They may not put it quite that way, but, that’s what he’s doing: paying attention. The scholar Ira Brent Driggers compiled a list of some of the occasions when Jesus was paying attention: In Luke 5:27-28, Jesus sees a tax collector named Levi and calls him to be a disciple. In Luke 5:12-16, Jesus see and tends to a man with leprosy who called to him to for help. In Luke 9:37-43, a man from the crowd calls out to Jesus, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.” Jesus saw him and healed the boy from his seizures. In Luke 13:12, Jesus saw a woman with a physical disability and healed her. In Luke 18, it’s a blind man that he sees and heals. Over and over again, Jesus sees people who are usually ignored. He feels someone near him who needs healing. Consistently, Jesus pays attention and, in so doing, shows someone love. In this fairly familiar story, Jesus turns that attention and love to Zacchaeus, someone who most of the community would have thought was not worth it.
Jesus was going into Jericho, an important city to Romans because it was a customs center. It was a city deeply connected to the taxation system that the Romans required the countries they overthrew to take part in. Tax collectors, like Levi in the story I mentioned earlier and Zacchaeus, in this story, did not have good reputations. Not only did the people of Israel, like any forcibly colonized people, resent giving money to support Rome, it was also understood that he demanded more than was required from people in order to fill his own pockets. Zacchaeus would have been understood to be both a traitor to his people and a cheat. He would have been excluded from the good graces and common life of his community because he was one who was materially making people’s lives harder for his own profit.
Sometimes, in those stories mentioned earlier, people desperately want Jesus to see them. They call out for him as soon as they see him because they believe he can help them. It’s not clear if Zacchaeus wants to be acknowledged by Jesus. It just says that he wants to see Jesus, possibly to see what all the ruckus is about. The act of climbing the tree is pretty extraordinary though. Most of the time, grown-ups don’t go climbing trees to look over crowds. And, yet, Zacchaeus does. Dr. Driggers wonders if this could be a sign that Zacchaeus is doing more than just being curious. He is searching for something.
The previous stories in Luke also show us that Jesus doesn’t always need to be asked for help in order to realize that someone needs it. Remember, he pays attention to people. He would have likely heard all about this tax collecting cheater named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus job, and bad reputation, would have gotten him some level of renown. Jesus recognizes him and also sees his need. Immediately, this man known to be fairly terrible, becomes an incredible host. He clambers out of the tree as quickly as he could and takes Jesus into his home.
A good person wouldn’t have dined with someone with such a bad reputation. That’s what the people in the town say when they see Jesus spend time with Zacchaeus. If Jesus was as good as people said he was, he would have known what they knew: That Zacchaeus was not worth the trouble. But, Jesus sees people, saints and sinners alike. He sees potential and pain and sorrow. He sees something worth saving. Dr. Driggers reminds us in the commentary on this story, Jesus risks judgement from the broader community to go stay with this man who was looking for something. Jesus thought his mission was worth the risk.
Loving someone who steals things will not always work out the way it does in this story. We know that. Nevertheless, something about being seen and trusted elicits a change in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus has a new plan for his life: To live it more like God wants him to. His money has come from extorting his people. His transformation means that he is going to return what shouldn’t have been his anyway. Half will go to those who have nothing, the poor in the community. He will use the rest to repay the people he has defrauded, paying four times what he took from them. It probably won’t fix all the harm he’s done, but, it will get all of them closer to the life that God hoped for them.
Jesus said “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Jesus connects this act of amend-making to Jewish tradition. To be a child of Abraham is to be one who messes up but also continues seeking God. Even the process of multiplying what you return to people as a kind of retribution for your acts has roots in their shared tradition. Exodus 22:1, Leviticus 6:5, and Numbers 5:6-7 all direct people to pay back more than they take. Zacchaeus is affirmed as a son of Abraham when he lives out the best of their shared tradition with a promise to continue to live a life changed by his encounter with Jesus. Jesus promises to look for the lost. Sometimes that means the sick and forgotten. Sometimes that means the influential and powerful. Change is possible, with God’s help. Jesus saw that potential in Zacchaeus.
There is a Zen Buddhist teacher named John Tarrant who once said, “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it, we bless and are blessed.” I hope that you feel Christ’s attentiveness to you, especially in the midst of this trying season. I hope that you can practice some Christ-like attentiveness, too. Maybe you’ll offer a teenager a kind word and affirmation. Maybe you’ll buy something sweet for your spouse. Maybe you’ll give someone a second chance, even if you’re not sure if they deserve it. Heck, maybe you’re Zacchaeus in this story, desperate enough to see Jesus that you’ll do anything to catch a glimpse. It would be easy these days to be distracted or to ignore what you don’t want to see. I hope you’ll remember this story and remember that something beautiful and redemptive can happen if you pay attention.
Resources noted in this sermon:
2 Samuel 3:7, 21:1-14Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah daughter of Aiah. And Ishbaal said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, ‘There is blood-guilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.’ So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.) David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’ The Gibeonites said to him, ‘It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put anyone to death in Israel.’ He said, ‘What do you say that I should do for you?’ They said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.’ The king said, ‘I will hand them over.’
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night. When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land.
Sometimes Your Plans Are Wrong: 2 Sam. 3:7, 21:1-14
I don’t know any kings or concubines. Those parts of this sad and terrible story are unfamiliar to my daily life. This story in itself is not a regular part of the reading schedule I follow in my preaching. Following that reading schedule, it would be so easy to never even come upon the story of Rizpah, the brave woman who watches over the bodies of her dead children. I might even hazard a guess that, even those of you who have decades of Christian faith under your belt... who have heard hundreds of sermons, there’s a good chance that you haven’t heard one about her either. Some things in this story are familiar though, even if you don’t know the details. A powerful man is trying to fix a problem. He misunderstands the nature of the problem. His plan for fixing the problem involves sacrificing someone else’s lives and children. His plan doesn’t fix the problem. But, he realizes what he has done didn’t help. He takes steps to make amends. It doesn’t fix the damage he’s done, but it gets his people closer to the life God hopes for them. As our church has working on our plans for the next steps of our common life in the midst of COVID-19, this story of plans that do harm feels timely. How do we care for the Rizpahs in our midst, instead of demanding the unimaginable from them?
We don’t know a lot about Rizpah. We do know that she is attached to King Saul. The New Revised Standard Version refers to her as a concubine, though Dr. Wil Gafney thinks it’s better to translate it as secondary wife. It’s not that Saul didn’t have concubines. It’s just that Rizpah wasn’t one. Kings, because of their power and privilege, had access to women in lots of ways. Only some of those ways, the kings entered into a level of legal responsibility with some of the women. These women were the wives, who could be of lower or higher status. Rizpah was a wife of lower status, secondary to Ahinoam, Saul’s primary wife. We learn more about Ahinoam’s children in other stories. Her son Jonathan loved David deeply. When Jonathan died, David wept for him, saying his love surpassed the love of a woman. Her daughter Merab was initially engaged to David, though married off to someone else. Merab’s sons are among the dead that Rizpah tends in her grief. Ahinoam’s other daughter Michal was in an emotionally complicated marriage to David. We know little about Rizpah’s children other than that her two sons are killed. They weren’t entitled to the same privileges as the children of primary wives.
We actually only know two stories about Rizpah, this one, and another, where Saul’s nephew, Abner, is accused of assaulting her. The wives, primary and secondary, as well as the concubines and slaves, were always at risk of attack from men who sought to overthrow their husbands/people who owned them. If you staked you claim on the throne, you might also stake your claim on the wives of the man you want to replace. Rizpah found herself in the middle of an argument between two men, David and Abner, who both wanted the throne. Abner might have used her to try to get it.
Today’s reading is actually the second story where she is a primary figure, though the first one where we get to see her acting on her own behalf. In the first story, she is acted upon. She doesn't even have lines of dialogue. In our reading, she acts. And, at the very least, it changes the plans of the one who betrayed her. This story takes place soon enough after David is able to unite Israel under his kingship that he might be worried about his ability to keep the country united in the face of a tragedy, like a famine that lasted three years. David asks God what was going on and why the country would be so afflicted? David hears back that Saul, his father-in-law, and former king who died in battle, and Saul’s whole lineage carried guilt because of their mistreatment of a neighboring country, the Gibeonites. The story tells us that though they were covered under a treaty, Saul sought to wipe them out.
Initially, it seems like David is making a good choice. He is going to the people who were wronged and asking them how to make amends. Amend-making is no small thing, especially on the national level. Even if David is only going to them out of a sense of self-preservation, it’s still good practice. But, the Gibeonites ask too much and David does not have the wisdom to deny them. They ask for the lives of seven of Saul’s heirs. Remember, Saul’s sons are David’s brothers-in-law and his grandsons are David’s nephews. This is David’s family, too. And, unimaginably, David says yes.
David doesn’t hand over Jonathan’s son. Jonathan is also already dead, having died in battle. David loved him too much to sacrifice his son. He does take Jonathan’s half-brothers, Rizpah’s sons, and Jonathan’s nephews, Merab’s five sons, and hands them over to the Gibeonites. If I could rewrite a portion of the Bible, this is a place where I would be tempted to start. I want David to argue on behalf of Saul’s family. I want him to say that the sacrifice is cruel and cannot be paid. Or, I want him to check in with God, one more time, and for God to say, no. I don’t need seven more deaths to fix things. That’s not what this is about. I want David to realize that just because he started on one plan, that doesn't mean that he has to keep following it, especially when the plan is leading him in such an awful direction. It’s like that Pete Seeger song: knee deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool said to push on. David pushed on. People died because of it.
I don’t want Rizpah to have to be the only one who tends to the bodies of the dead. That seems like cruelty heaped on cruelty. If nothing else, she shows us what it means to do right by your people, even if the face of the powerful people that were willing to sacrifice them. It reminds me of those nurses who have been standing up in protest and saying the names of other nurses who have died of COVID-19, often because they didn’t have the proper protective equipment when caring for their patients. Or, the images I’ve seen of gay activists in the 80’s who wouldn’t let their friends and partners’ deaths be forgotten because the government wasn’t yet serious about addressing the AIDS epidemic. Somebody had to make sure that everybody else knew this wasn’t right. Somebody had to tend to the ones who had died.
Dr. Gafney tells us that Rizpah kept watch over her sons and nephews for six months, from April or May, at the spring harvest, until the fall rains, what would have been September or October. Maybe it takes David six months to pay attention to her. Maybe he decides to wait to see if his terrible bargain will work. Whatever the reason, he finally realizes that this was not right and the ones who were killed deserved a proper burial. He retrieved Saul and Jonathan’s bones, that had also not been properly interred in a story early in 2nd Samuel, and gathered up the remains of the sons and grandsons and buries them. Notice, scriptures says this it is not the deaths that bring health back to the land. It is the burials. God ends the famine when David takes steps to make amends.
What do we do with this story today? Hopefully, we work to identify the Rizpahs in our midst, those who already carry a burden of violence, and we refuse to submit them, and the Merabs, to more suffering. We refuse to consider their lives and their children’s lives as acceptable losses for the greater good. Secondly, we pay attention to the ways that our plans, which may start out as great, veer into violence and callousness. David couldn’t control the Gibeonites’ malice but he could control how he responded to it. He did not have to give them what they wanted. We have to say no when we are asked to sacrifice someone else, even when yes is the easier answer.
And, when we do wrong, we must work to make amends. I think of the Maine Wabanaki State Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That’s another story about children sacrificed for someone else’s good. When you listen to the testimonies, you hear Rizpah and Rizpah’s children. The on-going work in our state is showing us how to pay respect and acknowledge what was lost. This process has definitely begun some holy work in this land, though it is far from over. In our Unraveled journal, Lauren Wright Pittman offers up these words that seem like wise counsel going forward: “When we see someone unraveling in inexplicable grief, may this sight unravel us from the ways we are entangled with injustice.” I pray that we can be unraveled for the good and we no longer need Rizpah to keep watch on the mountain in order to get us to pay attention.
Resources for this sermon:
Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. Jesus Walks on Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55906.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Recently, Tasha and I watched a scene in a tv show that has stuck in my mind over the last several weeks. In the scene, the stakes are very high: like, fate of the entire universe high, and two regular humans are trying to figure out what to do. One character, Dr. Jurati, who has been making some questionable and destructive choices, is in the midst of her redemption arc and is working with Jean-Luc Picard, our hero. It’s just the two of them on a spaceship and they don’t quite yet have a plan to hold off more than 200 enemy ships while they wait for reinforcements. Dr. Jurati is noticeably and reasonably concerned. She says: “So, how do we hold off two hundred and eighteen warbirds ‘til Starfleet gets here. If they get here. Are you not answering to build suspense?” Picard, sitting in the captain’s chair and trying to figure things out says: “At the present moment, Dr. Jurati, I'm trying to pilot a starship for the first time in a very long time without exploding or crashing. If that is all right with you.” Dr. Jurati says: “Totally. Good call. One impossible thing at a time.” One impossible thing at a time.
She had heard Picard and maybe his old friend Raffi saying that. When looking at a huge and terrible thing, it is too easy to get overwhelmed by all of it. Better not try to figure it all out at once. Better not get ahead of yourself. Every piece of it might be impossible, but, if you’re lucky and work hard, the piece right in front of you might be more possible than you first imagined. In another series, in another time, Picard said, “Things are only impossible until they’re not.” He’s a little playful, you see, even in times of great stress. This idea of “one impossible thing at a time” is both a plea and a plan. Please, only one impossible thing. Yes, I can manage one impossible thing at a time. Let’s get to work.
I remembered this bit of Star Trek: Picard when I read this impossible story from the book of Matthew. While they were not facing down 200 enemy ships, Jesus and the disciples’ world was getting increasingly dangerous. Jesus’ cousin John, the one who had baptized him and ushered him into public ministry, had been murdered by a powerful, cowardly, and cruel king. The tension around Jesus’ ministry is mounting, too. Jesus’ popularity had been growing. In the verses before today’s reading, the crowds were so big, so desperate, with so many people in need of healing and wisdom trying to get close, that they practically crush Jesus. They even follow him to the deserted place where he has gone to mourn John’s death. Jesus would have been in his rights to tell them to back off and give him some time. He needed to grieve. But, he saw their desperation. He had compassion for them. He began to heal people. This is the first of the impossible things in this chapter.
As the chapter and the day went along, the people didn’t look they were going anywhere and the hour was getting late. There was no Hannaford and no Peppers and no Fast Eddie’s. It was not easy to find food, much less food for scores of people. Jesus, who loved the people, even as he was overwhelmed by them, knew that they’d need to eat. The disciples, noticeably and reasonably concerned, did not know how that many people were going to find that much food. “How are we going to feed all these people?” they said. It looked impossible, like defeating 200 star ships impossible. And, then, Jesus, breaking down the big impossible task into something smaller, asked for the food they had to share. It didn’t look like a lot: five loaves and two fish, but, it was enough. More than enough. They fed everybody, a job that was impossible until it wasn’t. They even had leftovers.
That all happens right before today’s story. Today’s reading is the next impossible thing. Jesus still needed some space to mourn and pray. He sent his friends off in the boat and headed up the mountain to be by himself. He went to the mountain for fortification. But, notice, he rarely does his ministry by himself. He needed coworkers, disciples. When it came time to be with the disciples again, they were far out in the water, having been driven out by a storm. Jesus didn’t need to be alone anymore, so he started walking. Typically, walking is not the way that one crosses water. Jesus is not typical. And, besides, things are only impossible until they’re not.
The disciples, having spent the night on a stormy ocean are terrified by what they behold. They even think they are seeing a ghost. After the overwhelming last few days, I do not blame them for being afraid. In fact, I’m surprised that even one of them could muster a response to such a vision. I think I’d have been huddled around the mast, waiting for the storm to be over. But, Peter was watching and listening. He heard Jesus counsel to not be afraid. And, he decided to do something about it. Maybe he was able to see something hopeful in the moment. Or, maybe he’s trying to test what he thinks might be a ghost. Whatever the reason, he called out, offering to do the impossible... to meet Jesus part way.
He had watched Jesus heal people and feed people from almost nothing. Walking on water might just have been the next impossible thing that will become possible. And, for a moment, it is. Peter is doing it. He is walking on the water. And, then, he is not. Dr. Mitzi Smith put it this way in a commentary on this story: “Peter soon discovers that it is one thing to be battered by strong winds while in the same boat with others. It is a whole other matter to be on the water surrounded by strong winds and all by yourself, without others who share in the same vulnerability.” Peter, whose name means the Rock, sinks like a stone. “Lord, save me” he yelled.
Faith is a curious thing. Peter had faith enough to step out into the water. That is no small feat. Nobody else thought to do it. Lisle Gwynn Garrity wondered in her meditation on this scripture for the Unraveled devotional if we weren’t seeing Peter trying to convert some desperation into courage. Remember, it had been a rough couple days capped off by a stormy night that may have left him in fear for his life. Maybe he felt like he had to get across that water to get back to Jesus in order to get through everything that had been going on. But, that initial desperation wasn’t enough to keep him walking. You can’t build your faith entirely out of desperation, even if it’s what gets you off of the boat in the first place.
Mitzi Smith wondered if Peter didn’t actually just need to stay in the boat and wait for Jesus. If Peter needed the presence of Christ, all he really had to do was be patient. Jesus was on the way to the boat. Had Peter waited, he would not have been alone and he would have soon been back in the soothing presence of Christ. Peter didn’t have to walk for this to be a miracle. A beautiful, impossible thing still would have happened, whether or not Peter stepped out of the boat. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s how the apostle Paul put in in Romans. The storm would not have stopped Jesus. Nor would the grief. Nor would the cruelty of unscrupulous rulers. Peter didn’t have to do the impossible. Jesus was going to do it for him. But, in that moment, he wanted something impossible to help him know that what he was seeing was true, to help experience faith in Jesus in a way that overpowered his fear in the moment.
Jesus loved Peter like he loved the hungry crowds earlier in the story. So, he reaches out to save him. He wondered about the paucity of Peter’s faith. Is this Jesus castigating Peter for falling in the water or for even getting out of the boat in the first place? It’s not clear. What is clear in the story, is that Jesus’ arrival in the boat brings calm. The wind no longer buffeted them about. Suddenly, with him there, this whole impossible ministry seems manageable again. It says they worshiped him there, because they knew he was the Son of God.
I imagine that you are looking at some impossible things coming up. I also imagine that you are noticeably and reasonably concerned about the decisions that you will soon have to make. Maybe you are praying this plea and plan: One impossible thing at a time. I pray that you will have faith enough to walk toward Christ and also to ask for help if you fall. Remember, even if you sink, it’s possible for Jesus to lift you up, into his calm. This is a time of impossible choices. But, they are only impossible until they are not. And, Jesus still specializes in the impossible. May you see him coming towards your boat.
Resources mentioned in this sermon:
Genesis 18:1-15, 21-17
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 favor 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.
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’
Why did Sarah laugh? Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Sarah’s life is strange. Very strange. We don’t know much about the beginning of it. When we first meet her, she is called Sarai and announced as the wife of Abram. The values of this family are occasionally questionable. In Genesis 20, it says that Sarai is Abram’s half-sister. Most cultures frown upon siblings marrying one another. Other members of this family, namely Abram’s brother and eventually his son, also marry relatives, though they are nieces and cousins. This is not usually a good idea, both for genetics’ sake and for the ways it disrupts trust and care within family units. Nevertheless, it is a part of this family’s life. Dr. Wil Gafney, in an article about Abraham, wondered if this isn’t supposed to clue us in from the beginning to the idea that these people, though they are the heroes in our story, were far from perfect and, actually, sometimes made some pretty bad decisions. And, the bad decisions happen early in their relationship.
The other strange thing about Sarah’s life is that she was married to someone on a mission from God. And, not just any mission. God told Abram (who would become Abraham) that he would be the father of a great nation. Not only that, but he would have to leave their home country to do it. This wasn’t some fly-by-night fantasy of youth, either. Abraham was 75 years old when he set off on this mission. He didn’t have any biological children at this point. He took up his family, including his nephew Lot, and all of everybody’s stuff and took off to follow up on God’s promises.
Sometimes, Abraham isn’t all that sure that God is going to do what God promised. There’s this one time that the family became climate-related refugees, having moved to Egypt to escape a famine. Abraham is a little scared about things, and, seeing how beautiful his wife is, begins to worry that someone might hurt him to get to her. So, he asks her to tell people that they are siblings (which they might have been?) and not actually spouses. It’s like he doesn’t think anyone will come after a brother the way they would a spouse.
Sarah apparently agrees to the scheme and it backfires on all of them when some henchman for the Pharoah sees Sarah, decides that the Pharoah would want Sarah, and tells the Pharoah about Sarah. Pharaohs usually get what they want, at least temporarily. He takes Sarah. We don’t know how she feels about this. We do know that the Pharoah pays for her in sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves, and camels. God helps Sarah out by afflicting Pharoah with plagues until he gives her back. Even the Pharoah is appalled at the situation. He says to Abraham, “What have you done to me? Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife! Take her and be gone!” As if that weren’t enough, there’s another story a couple chapters later where they tell a second king that they are siblings and not spouses. And, this second king takes Sarah and God tells the king to give her back. And, that king is so freaked out about what happened that he pays Abraham to take her back! And, he lets them settle wherever they want in the king’s country. It's like they bumble into good luck despite their terrible plans. I’m telling you. Sarah has a strange life.
I try to keep all that in mind when I read this story about an unlikely dinner party that Sarah and her husband have found themselves hosting. This story happens between the two royal wife-taking stories and just after God has changed the couple’s names to signify their place in God’s promised future. I am indebted to the work of the scholar Bruce J. Molina for helping me understand the some of the ways that Sarah and Abraham’s hospitality is working in this story. We need to pay attention to the way this couple welcomes guests. Their lives may be strange, but their welcome is deep, and apparently pretty typical for their time. Their practices of hospitality may be one of the few normal things in their lives.
Molina argues that we should understand their welcome was a process of transformation, showing us how a stranger changes into a guest. This transformational hospitality had steps. First, a stranger is tested to make sure that they aren’t a threat. Sometimes this means inviting them to speak. Other times, like in this story, there is ritual foot-washing to demonstrate mutual concern. The foot-washing a sign of a willingness of each party to be put in a vulnerable position near one another. Vulnerability requires trust. If they are willing to grant one another trust, they shift out of the role of strange, and into the roles of guest and host. And, both the guest and host have responsibilities.
The act of transformational hospitality required all parties to opt in to the relationship and to live up to their responsibilities. Sarah and Abraham were required to care for the guest’s well-being. They offer food and assure their guests' safety. We often think of God as the one doing the caring. But in this story, humans have the opportunity to offer care to God though being hospitable to God’s emissaries. In return, the emissaries were to show the appropriate level of graciousness. Notice how respectful the guests are. They do not treat the camp as if it were their own, or insist that they be served first or even ask for a particular kind of food. They also always eat the food served to them without complaint.
There is always a measure of reciprocity in this kind of interaction. If someone is a good host, the stranger who has become a guest will return the kindness at a later date. Or, maybe the guest and host will transform again, building their relationship into friendship or family. At the very least, the guest will spread a good word about the host. While this kind of relationship was not exactly transactional, it was normal for a host to expect something good to happen if they were hospitable. I’m not sure that Abraham and Sarah could have planned for the good thing that happened to them after this measure of hospitality. I mean, let’s look at their plans. They almost never work out. Abraham’s plans get Sarah swiped by kings at least twice. Sarah will make a plan to get Abraham a kid that will result in her feeling jealous and abandoning that kid and his mom in the wilderness. Sarah and Abraham are not good at making plans. I don’t think they had a plan here. But, they did have a practice. They knew how to welcome a stranger. And, something incredible happens when they do.
The guests tell Abraham that Sarah will soon be carrying their long-promised child. Of course, Sarah laughs. Her life is strange, but not that strange. She is far beyond child-bearing years. She knows that women her age do not get pregnant. She and a person they had enslaved were doing all the hot and sweaty parts of hosting, you know, the meat prep and the cooking. She wasn’t in the room with the guests. This laugh is probably a sign of her exhaustion and exasperation. Why wouldn’t she laugh at this wild promise? She might be willing to follow her husband all over creation because of his mission from God. In that moment, she had to laugh at the idea that she would have this particular part in it. How could she even believe that she would have a child. That is such a reasonable response that I cannot hold it against her.
It looks like God might not have held the laugh against her either, though God did ask about it. God said to Abraham, “why did Sarah laugh? Can’t God do anything?” Sarah, who had spent some time with a king who thought he was a God, realized that laughing at that moment might have been a mistake and denied doing it. Again, I do not blame her for making that call. But, God knew what God heard and makes sure she knew it, too. Notice, though, that that laugh and the lie about the laugh don’t ruin things. Sarah and Abraham’s own hare-brained, and sometimes cruel plans won’t even stop God from fulfilling God’s promise. Let’s remember: While this is a story about Sarah and Abraham, this is also a story about God making and keeping a promise.
I do love that Abraham names Sarah's child after her laugh. Isaac means laughter. Laughter, once the sign of her exhaustion and exasperation, in this child, becomes a sign of God’s grace and covenant. Sarah may have even told people this story, laughing again, this time at the goodness of it all. “God who has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” As your plans unravel, and they surely will, even if they aren’t as bad as Sarah and Abraham’s were, I pray that you will remember this laughter and you will find your own sign of grace and covenant. Maybe it won’t be a child. But, some new life will surprise you. I can’t wait to hear you tell the story about it.
Resources consulted for this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.