It’s important to understand the context of this scripture so let me give you a quick refresher. In chapter 12, when Abraham—or Abram as he was then called—is 75 years old, he receives a message from the Lord: “Go to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and to your offspring I will give this land.” This is quite a promise because Abram has no offspring, and he is 75 years old. Nevertheless, Abram packs up and moves to the land of Canaan.
In chapter 13 God repeats the promise of land and expands the promise of offspring: your offspring will be as plentiful as the dust of the earth. In chapter 15 God expands the promise by naming it a covenant for the first time, promising descendants as numerous as the stars, and from Abram’s own child, not a nephew or some other relative.
By the time we reach chapter 16, Abram is 86 years old and still there is no child. Sarai decides that maybe God expected them to take charge of the situation. Obviously their efforts were not producing a child; perhaps the child is to be Abram’s but not Sarai’s. So she gives her hand-maiden—her slave—to Abram. This is wrong and painful on so many levels that, to me, it clearly is not what God has in mind.
Finally, in chapter 17, God renews the covenant with Abram, naming it an everlasting covenant. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. God again says that Abraham will be the ancestor of a multitude of people, and that they would all come from Abraham and Sarah. But by this time Abraham is 99 or 100 years old. Up to this point he has been saying “Yes, Lord” and “OK, Lord” and “Any time soon, Lord?” This time he just laughs—literally. Chapter 17 verse 17 says “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” That’s pretty funny stuff.
Now comes chapter 18, when Abraham and Sarah get company. Genesis 18:1-15:
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.”
There are many kinds of laughter. There’s the polite chuckle, and the kind of regular laugh when something is funny. There’s the good, hearty laugh that comes from hearing a great story, and the surprise burst of laughter that sends your drink out your nose. And then there’s the sarcastic laugh, which I call the “yeah, right” laugh. And there’s the bitter laugh—the “laugh so you don’t cry” laugh.
I’m not sure what kind of laugh Sara gives. Was it a polite chuckle? I can’t imagine that this was “haha, that’s a funny joke” laugh. Was it a sarcastic “yeah, right” laugh? For her sake, I hope it wasn’t the bitter laugh. After 24 years of waiting for God to fulfill that promise, I’m pretty sure I’d be at least at the cynical laugh.
In her cultural context, the primary role in life for women was, of course, to produce children—male children. Women who did not bear children were pitied or ridiculed, or both. It’s likely that Sarah had been laughed at for being childless. Or, like many of us when we are ashamed of something, perhaps she thought everyone was talking about her, laughing at her behind her back. Maybe she even laughed at their jokes, the way we will poke fun at ourselves because it hurts less if we make the joke than if someone else does.
Yes, Sarah knows about laughter. But not about joy. The story says, “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’” Scholars disagree about what this means, her having pleasure. Some say it is the pleasure, long denied her, of giving birth and raising a child. Some say it is sexual pleasure she refers to, that she has no pleasure in any part of procreation. Other scholars say Sarah is referring to, not just simple pleasure, but true joy; finding joy in living, finding joy in new life.
If my interpretation of Sarah’s laughter is correct, then Sarah had no such joy. She had no true laughter. Cynical laughter was all she had left. So of course she greets this absurd pronouncement with laughter . . . the kind of laughter that is self-defense against disappointment, the kind of laughter that attempts to hide the pain.
Now, I have to pause here to acknowledge that this story can be a painful one for people who long for children but, for whatever reason, are not able to have them. And although I can’t do anything to alleviate that pain, I have to at least acknowledge that stories of “barren women” cause pain for some people.
Fertility problems are frequent, and I don’t mean just in terms of having babies. I’m talking about the ability to conceive of new thoughts, new ideas, new possibilities; the ability to give birth to joy and hope and grace; the ability to bring forth life from the places within ourselves we thought long dead. We all have places of barrenness within us–places we hide, places we deny, places we grieve–and to us God says, “In due time you will conceive and give birth.” And we laugh! Not a joyful laugh, but a “yeah, right” laugh, a “Sarah” laugh.
But that laugh of Sarah’s was not her last laugh. God did for Sarah what God had promised, and she who was considered barren brought forth new life. And she named her child Jacob, a name that means “laughter.” Can you imagine? Every time she called him in from play, she called, “Laughter!” Every time she scolded him, she called him “Laughter.” Every time she tucked him in at night she said, “I love you, Laughter!” And she remembered the promise of God, fulfilled.
But before it was fulfilled, she laughed. She couldn’t believe such a thing could happen and so she laughed.
Sometimes that happens; sometimes we laugh. And sometimes it’s other people who laugh at us and our dreams. I thought of this story yesterday after participating in Portland Pride, and I had never even told this story to Jackie because someone laughed at me when I shared it. It happened years ago, when I was just exploring my call to ministry. I was trying to figure out what God wanted me to do, and trying to find the denomination in which I should serve. Then one night I had a dream that I was serving communion. The people were lined up single file to come to me, and the line stretched through the entire room and out the door. The line even went out of the building and into the parking lot. They were coming for communion, and it was communion, but it wasn’t bread I was offering. I was offering M&Ms. Brightly colored, multi-colored M&Ms.
When I shared this dream with people in my church, one man laughed and said that I had delusions of grandeur, that people would line up for what I had to offer. But it wasn’t about me—it was never about me. It was about God calling and empowering me to offer something that people needed—the multi-colored bread of life.
I did something new at the Pride festival yesterday. For the second year in a row, we carried this sign: Our church is sorry for all the hateful things done in the name of God. People stopped our progression in the parade to take pictures. Countless people came up to our booth to thank us for the sign. Several said it was their favorite sign, and several shared stories of their less-than-welcoming churches. It was a beautiful thing we offered. But inspired by Skyler’s pastor in Amherst, I tried something new this year. I wore this sign: Ask me for a blessing. And people did. They came and asked me for a blessing. It was a little different for every person, but it went something like this: I called them by name and said, “You are a beloved child of God. God made you exactly as you are and loves you exactly as you are, and loves you as you may become as you grow and change. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. You are God’s beloved child so go in peace and joy, for you are blessed.”
That’s what I usually said, or something like it. The younger people especially liked it. They would just beam at me as I said the words. One man who was probably in his sixties asked for a blessing, and when I started he bowed his head as if he were praying… which was fine, except it didn’t feel right. So to him I said, “You are God’s beloved child and you don’t have to bow your head to anyone!” He lifted his head and gave me a beautiful smile. He was one of my favorites.
Another was a young woman who agreed with everything I said. “You are God’s beloved child.” “That’s right!” she said. “God made you exactly as you are and loves you exactly as you are.” “Amen!” she said. It was a beautiful thing.
I gave out blessings yesterday. And although there was not a long line of people, and they didn’t think they were taking communion, it still felt like I was offering them the bread of life in rainbow colors!
Others laughed because they didn’t understand. But my promise came true. Eventually. And that’s part of the problem: the waiting. Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years from the time God promised to the time it came to be. Twenty-five years!
I know some of you are waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. Waiting for the job offer. Waiting for your financial stability to return. Waiting for the right relationship. Waiting for the relationship you have to get better. Waiting for your spouse to notice you. Waiting for the pain to go away. Waiting for someone to see how much you hurt. Waiting for answers. Waiting for it all to make sense. Waiting for the promise you thought you heard from God to be fulfilled. And it may be three months or three years but it feels like 25 years and so you hear the promise again and you laugh. Not a joyful laugh, but a cynical laugh, a “yeah, right!” laugh, a “Sarah” laugh.
I don’t know why it took so long for the promise to be fulfilled for Abraham and Sarah. I don’t know why God didn’t just say, “I’m going to give you this miracle now.” Or they might have been happy with “I’m going to give you this miracle in 25 years.” At least then they would have known not to rush in painting the nursery. I don’t know why it took so long for Abraham and Sarah, and I don’t know why it’s taking so long for your miracle. But there are a few things I do know.
Most of us don’t get angelic visitors to assure us that nothing is impossible for God. Most of us don’t get promises of descendants as plentiful as the stars. Most of us don’t get assurances that our dreams will come true. God didn’t promise us all the answers, and God didn’t promise us the perfect job or the perfect marriage or any marriage at all for that matter. What God did promise is this: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” What God did promise is: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” What God did promise is: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth.”
I’m not saying the other things won’t come. But these promises we don’t have to wait for. These we get now. If we get more later, holding onto these promises make the wait a little easier. And if we never get more, this is enough. Thanks be to God.