This was my final sermon in the parish churches, preached on Sunday June 18
Read Genesis 18:1-12, 21:1-7 and Romans 5:1-8
Today is a lot of different days for me. Today is my last day in the parish churches, today is me and Stephy’s 12th wedding anniversary, and it’s Father’s day. I thought about selecting some kind of special Scripture to share from instead of working from the lectionary texts for the day. Because the lectionary doesn’t really care about any of those things I just named… my last day, anniversaries or Father’s day.
But as I sat w/ the lectionary Scriptures over the course of this last week, I had a couple different thoughts…
One: In our two years together we have worked hard to let what we share be rooted deeply in the Scriptures… and not be determined by the preacher’s preference… so why mess w/ that today. And above anything else, I want to tell you how grateful I am for the chance I’ve been given here, along side the student pastors, to open up Scripture together, week-after-week and to do our best to strain our hearts and ears to listen for the ways God’s Spirit continues to speak in and through these old words.
Two: The Scriptures for today seem to have a lot to say to the season we find ourselves in, as we wonder about our future as a church and we are perhaps a little suspicious of anything that wants to offer easy optimism or quick hope…
We’ve experienced a little to much loss to fall for that.
In the story we hear from Genesis – we watch Abraham… OLD Abraham, who set out on this journey at the call of the God that he is only really just getting to know. And this God has, just a few chapters earlier told Abraham that God was going to, through him, make a family so great that it would grow to extend blessing to ALL the people on earth. Now I do wonder how Abraham would hear this call/promise from God. The gods Abraham would have been familiar w/ were tribal in their affiliation and blessing. If you and your people were good, then the best you could hope for was that your particular tribal god would take care of you and yours… and a part of what that blessing would entail was protection from and victory over the other competing tribes/their gods. But this God who calls Abraham makes a promise to him that would have been way beyond what Abraham’s imagination could have handled. I’ll make a family from you so great that ALL the tribes, ALL the people will be blessed.
And so it seems that Abraham, not given much more than this strange and over the top promise, is learning to make his journey out into who knows where/what, living in the expectation that God will show up somewhere along the way and make good on this promise.
And so when these strangers come wandering through, he’s ready – he pulls out the best in-the-middle-of-the-desert hospitality he can muster, as quickly as he can: “Clean your feet, sit in the shade, drink this, eat this…”
And in ways that are at once clear and unclear – these guests are the divine. God meets Abraham in his hospitality to these strangers. And the promise becomes a bit more concrete, even if all the more unlikely!
“Where’s your wife Sarah?” they ask. “We’ll visit again in due season and she will have for you a son.” Now the Genesis text seems to down play this just a bit in its description, “They were advanced in age and it ceased to be w/ her, the way of a women.” She had never been able to have kids and now was WAY past the age where that was a possibility… and Abraham was EVEN older!
And so, Sarah, just inside the tent, over hears the words of the sacred guests and she laughs. And of course she does! I was telling this story to Raena at bed time a couple nights ago and was trying to think of how to help her get at why Sarah would respond this way and so I said, “It would be like if when you see Nana she say, ‘guess what?! I’m going to have a baby!!’” And Raena laughed out loud!!
Because that’s what you do when you hear something that you know is WAY out of the realm of possibility, so far fetched that it cannot in any way be taken seriously.
Sarah had lived her whole life coming to grips w/ the fact that she would not be able to have a child, in a time when this carried w/ it some serious social stigma and shame. She was now, in her old age, perhaps finally past this; at peace w/ her lot in life…
And now here comes these three randos out of no where and they say, This time next year she’s going to have a baby boy. And so she laughs, “Right, sure, NOW this is going to happen to me.”
But the strange guests call her on this saying, “Why did you laugh?” She denies it. But they come back again, “Oh yes you did laugh!”
And here’s what it seems is being challenged in this first kind of laugh of Sarah by the divine, by God Almighty…
Why do you live your life as though the only possible future for you is the one that you can make for yourself? Why do you insist on living in the world as though it was closed off and self-contained and manageable? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
This first kind of laugher comes to us when we have been disappointed too many times and are now fully aware of what’s possible and what’s not, what’s realistic and what’s not. And we refuses to imagine what God might do, were God to show up, like an unexpected stranger outside our door.
But when the story picks back up a few chapters later it is sure to name the way that God made good on what had been said and promised to Abraham and Sarah. And they name the child Isaac – which means laughter – and she says God has brought laughter for me… and everyone who hears will laugh w/ me! Whoever would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children… yet here we are!”
And as she laughs… this second kind of laughter is the one that happens when you get a taste of the future God can call forth out of nothingness, barrenness, heart ache, loss. It’s the kind of laughter that says, “Can you believe this? What a world we’re in – a world where God will keep finding ways to make a future for God’s people.”
Learning to be people of this second kind of laughter – as Sarah would surely tell us, does not come easy, but it comes precisely through what we suffer. And this is what our passage from Romans is trying to get at. That this family of people who are finding themselves at peace w/ God through Jesus – they even rejoice in their suffering for they know that it produces endurance, which produces character, with leads to hope… And hope doesn’t disappoint us…
But what is Paul saying? Suffering is not straightforwardly a path to hope! We all know that much. That when we suffer there are all kinds of ways that it can go. There is no formula which guarantees suffering leads to hope. And yet this is what God does w/ Jesus – his death and resurrection… And what Paul is saying is that this is the way it works w/ God! Will you be open to rejoicing in what you suffer, w/ an eye toward God, wondering and waiting for what it will be like when God comes opens up a future for you through what you’ve suffered?
I said I would stick to the lectionary text – but well – I want to close w/ one small deviation.
If there is a place in Scripture that I come to again and again, that if pressed, I would say, is my favorite – it would be Luke 15. The chapter about the lost things – sheep, coin, son.
In these stories the point of each of them is the rejoicing that happens when God’s rescue becomes reality. Jesus tells these stories at the occasion of some Pharisees who are grumbling that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats w/ them. And these stories are full of surprises and a great deal of rejoicing – laughter and celebration at every turn!
And the only two people we meet in these stories that can’t seem to get in on the laugh are the Pharisees who Jesus is telling the stories to and the older son in the last story who can’t believe that the Father would welcome back w/ so much joy and love, laughter and celebration the son that had so insulted the Father and lived so reckless a life. And we don’t get a hard and fast conclusion on how it ends for that older son who seems so embittered about how this is all playing out. Will he come into the celebration? Will he share in the laughter? Or will he insist that it is unfair and an outrage – that the Father would have hope and a future for this reckless, mess of a son. But the Father says, as if to remind him that there is hope and a future even for this angry embittered son, if he would be learn this second kind of laughter… “You are always w/ me and all I have is yours.”
Let those words sink into your soul. When it feels your hope and future have been given away in all kinds of ways that seem unfair, in ways that cause you to feel angry and embittered… May you hear the voice of the Father speak to you, “You are always w/ me and ALL I have is yours. And may those words cause you to fill w/ hope and to laugh w/ joy because of the God we’ve got.