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.
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:
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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.