Text: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
In Ecclesiastes, we read that “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Ecclesiastes doesn’t mention it, but the writer might have added that there is a time not to laugh.
In stressful or serious situations, some people can laugh out of nervousness or anxiety. When I was a kid, I would occasionally have to hold back a laugh when I was getting in trouble from my parents. My sister would tell on me for something or other, my dad would be talking to me, and I would be trying to suppress a laugh, which of course only made things a lot worse. That was definitely a time not to laugh.
And then in church on Sunday mornings, I would sit with a group of junior high aged boys, and Brian would make funny noises during the prayer and get us all laughing. This was absolutely the wrong time to laugh. Brian’s parents usually were not in church, but my mom was, and I had to pay for it.
Our scripture today involves laughter, and while there may be some implication that this was not a good time to laugh, the laughter seems totally appropriate and understandable.
Last week we looked at creation in Genesis 2, with the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden. We looked at the beginnings of the first family. Today we are in Genesis 18 with Abraham and Sarah and the beginnings of the first family of the Hebrew people.
To bring us up to speed on things before we get to today’s reading: God speaks to Abram in Ur of the Chaldees and calls him to take his family, his household, his flocks, all of his belongings, and move to a new place that God would show him. There is a promise that God would make of Abraham and his wife Sarai (not Siri, but Sarai) a great nation, with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
But things are not working out so well. No spring chickens when God called them to move to this new land, they are even older now, with no children, no offspring, no heir, no child to carry on this audacious promise of God. That promise from God was 25 years ago and the high hopes that Abram and Sarai once had had now faded. The future is beginning to look bleak. Abram has a son, Ishmael, by Sarah’s slave-girl Hagar, according to the custom of the day and at Sarah’s suggestion - but Sarah comes to regret it.
When Abram is 99 and Sarai is 89, God repeats the promise and tells Abram that his name shall now be Abraham. Abram means exalted father, but Abraham means father of a multitude. Likewise, Sarai’s name becomes Sarah, meaning Princess, recognizing her as the forbear of the nation. It is the only instance in the Bible of a woman being given a new name. And God tells Abraham that he will indeed have a son by Sarah. Abraham falls on his face laughing.
God has been making this promise for 25 years, but there is still is no child. The promise feels like a cruel joke. Abraham and Sarah have new names to recognize their status as parents of a multitude, forbears of a great nation, but it feels ridiculous, given that they are old and still childless.
Then one day Abraham is sitting outside the tent, on the front porch as it were, and three men appear. Abraham insists that they stop and rest. He gets them water, has them sit in the shade under a tree, and says, “Let me bring you a little bread.”
As it turns out, what Abraham means by “a little bread” is not exactly what I would mean. He tells Sarah to take three measures of flour, or three seahs, and to knead it and make cakes. 3 seahs was about 20 quarts, which in my bread machine would make about 23 loaves of bread. And then Abraham has his servant prepare a fatted calf, and serves it along with milk and curds and this massive amount of bread. If that is “a little bread,” I wonder what a whole loaf looks like?
I remember visiting Mrs. Letterman, an older woman who lived in the Towers here down the street. She had moved to Ames from Kansas City to be near a sister who lived in the area. She had no children and she wasn’t able to get out much, but while she was able, she would walk up the hill to church here. I visited her once in a while, and one day, even though I had overdone it at the men’s breakfast that morning, she invited me to have lunch with her and I didn’t feel like I could say no. “It won’t be much,” she said. But she brought out a mountain of spaghetti with salad and French bread. I was already full when we started, but I bravely made my way through the meal.
“Stay and have a little bread,” says Abraham, and these visitors may have got more than they bargained for. Then again, this was the way of hospitality in the Ancient Near East, and still is in many places today. You provide for the stranger. You provide for the traveler.
To recap: Abraham invites, or maybe even implores these travelers to sit and rest while he brings them a little bread, and what they get is a 6000 calorie meal. Abraham provides genuine and generous hospitality for these strangers.
But then the visitors completely change the arc of the story. They are not just passing through these parts. They ask if Sarah is around. How do they know her name? What is this about? Who are these people?
Abraham tells them that Sarah is over there, in the tent. And one of the men said, “I will return to you around this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” God was speaking to Abraham though these visitors, and it is an even more explicit announcement of the long hoped-for promise. Now there are details. Now there is an actual time frame attached to it.
Sarah is listening from inside the tent. And at hearing this statement that she will have a child, she laughs. She laughs to herself, but it is loud enough for the visitors to hear. It is cynical laughter, the rolling your eyes kind of laughter, the “yeah, right!” and absolutely appropriate. What 90 year old wouldn’t laugh when told she is going to have a baby? What other response could a person have?
I suppose the other response would be to cry. These reminders of that long-ago promise that she would be the mother of a multitude just rubbed it in her face. She was no longer of child-bearing age, and Abraham was now 100 years old. She wasn’t capable of having a child, and she wasn’t sure Abraham was capable of doing his part either. Her hopes for a child were long gone. At this point, you could laugh or you could cry, and Sarah laughed, which to me is a pretty normal and healthy response.
Laughter is often the best response to life. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and laugh at the incongruity of it all. Another Abraham, Abraham Lincoln, spoke of laughter as a survival technique. Serving in a horrible, brutal time in our nation’s history, facing incredible pressure as well as personal pain and disappointments, Lincoln turned to laughter. He told jokes. He told stories. It was a way to survive.
We may think of comedy as escapism, but comedy can be a way to face the realities that confront us, a way to name the incongruities of life. Laughter can offer us a new perspective and can pierce the power of what is weighing us down.
The playwright Christopher Fry said, “Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith.” Laughter can be a faithful response to life.
Upon hearing the ridiculous news that she will have a baby, Sarah laughs and says, “Surely you can’t be serious!” And God replied, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
God asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” and then God says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
That’s really the question, isn’t it? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
Now you may have noticed the bulletin cover, which asks, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” The word here can be translated either way, but the meaning is about the same. Is anything beyond the scope of God’s power and love and grace? Is anything too difficult, too great, too awesome for God?
You might think that a good Christian should immediately answer “No,” but I think that question is best left hanging there for a while. If we are honest, there are plenty of days when we wonder exactly that. We are familiar with more than enough unfulfilled hopes and dreams and aspirations. And I know that reading a passage like this is difficult for those who want to have children but find themselves unable. For a lot of people, there is no miraculous birth as there was for Sarah.
“Is anything too wonderful for God?” is a tough question for someone who has prayed for years for healing, or for a loved one in the throes of addiction. It is a tough question for someone who has faced setback after setback.
But if we can hang in there with God long enough, even if our prayers aren’t answered the way we hope, we sometimes find that the wonder is in a God who is with us and for us even as we face the difficult times of life, giving us hope and strength and courage and grace.
Let me tell you about a person with a dream. His name was Maxcy Filer. Born in Arkansas, he went to college in Indiana, where he married his wife, and they moved to Compton, California – a Los Angeles suburb of “Straight Outta Compton” fame. As a young man Maxcy had been inspired by Thurgood Marshall and developed a passion for seeking justice for the oppressed and the marginalized. Maxcy felt that God had put a dream in his heart to become a lawyer. And so, Maxcy went to law school, graduating in 1966 from the now-defunct Van Norman Law School in Los Angeles.
After finishing law school, he took the California bar exam. He didn’t pass, and so he tried again. And again. And again. He took the bar exam in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, in San Diego, in Riverside, wherever it was offered. It was a three-day test. He took the bar exam when his children were still living at home, and he took the bar exam along with two of his sons when they earned their law degrees. The years came to have a certain rhythm. He would take the bar exam every February and July and waiting to hear the results in May and November.
Filer didn’t put his life on hold as he waited. He was an activist, a champion of equal rights for minorities. A former president of the Compton Branch of the NAACP, he initiated voter-registration drives, promoted peace during the Watts riots and worked to foster racial harmony. He encouraged talented African Americans to become political leaders. He ran for City Council and served for many years. He was a mentor to many young leaders in the community. He was an unabashed promoter of the city and was known as “Mr. Compton.”
But through it all, he remembered that dream and he kept taking the bar exam. Maxcy took the bar exam after he started working for his sons as a law clerk in their office. And he kept taking the bar exam when he reached an age when most people start thinking about retirement. Finally, after 25 years, $50,000 in fees for exams and countless review courses, and a total of 144 days spent in testing rooms, Maxcy Filer passed the bar exam on his 48th try. He was 61 years old.
You might wonder why Maxcy didn’t just give up and pursue something else. He said that he couldn’t give up because he believed that God had planted a dream in him to become a lawyer, and he believed that God never gave up on him.
Maxcy did not open the envelope containing his results from the last time he took the bar. “He just assumed he had failed it again,” his son Kelvin said. “But my brother Anthony opened it. I was in a meeting with the Compton Unified School District, and my brother showed up at the door saying, ‘Daddy passed!’ It was chaos. The people at the meeting thought that meant he had died. But I knew he had passed the bar.”
Maxcy Filer died a few years ago at age 80. I saw a photograph of him and his two lawyer sons holding the notice that he had passed the bar. They have big old smiles on their faces. They are laughing, a laughter pure joy.
It is exactly what we find when just as God had promised, Sarah gives birth to a son. He is given the name Isaac, which means, appropriately, “Laughter.” And Sarah says, “God has given me reason to laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me!”
Is anything too wonderful for God? The scriptures are filled with surprising, amazing works of God that elicit joy and celebration and laughter. Time and again, God operates in ways that appear foolish to the world. Time and again, God chooses to work through laughable, improbable people and events. God used a downhearted 90-year-old woman like Sarah. A man on the run with a speech problem named Moses. A guy given to weird visions like Ezekiel. A shepherd boy like David. A young peasant girl like Mary. A cheater like Zacchaeus. A disreputable Samaritan like the woman at the well. A persecutor of Christians and accomplice to murder whom we now know as St. Paul. Just to name but a few.
And then there is Jesus. He was put to death on a cross, and everybody thought that was it. But God had the last laugh, bringing hope from despair, life from death, laughter from mourning.
And the thing is, God is still in the business of using unlikely, improbable, imperfect people – people like you and me. And God is still in the business of using unlikely groups of followers – like the First Baptist Church of Ames.
Is anything too wonderful for God? It’s a good question. And I think it is up to us to find out. Amen.