Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
Delivered at Ames UCC on September 15, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.
We are blessed, and I don’t use that word casually, blessed by the presence of many infants, toddlers, children, and youth at Ames UCC. Zillions it seems, some days.
This is a place that their parents, grandparents, and guardians have identified as safe, nurturing, and accepting. A place where their little and ever-growing ones will find their own voices. Where they can build friendships that will withstand the schoolyard struggles of cliques and apps, the home side worries of money, divorce, even death.
This abundance has been no accident. We have created such a place, such a church together, through intentional choices. It has taken thoughtfulness and the commitment of money and time, like the pledges we are invited to make by the end of September, to build essential ministries and retain exceptional staff.
It has also taken a particular posture toward children and youth. We have as a body, as part of Christ’s body, heeded his example of embracing all children not only as our own, but as people with their own insights and knowledge. They are not dumb clay for the forming, like the adam in last week’s story, but spiritual beings with lessons of their own to teach.
Our blessed abundance is an interesting contrast to so many of our stories. So many of our stories involve couples who are desperate to have just one child, let alone zillions, but cannot. Like Sarah and Abraham.
SARAH & ABRAHAM
By the time we catch up with them today, Sarah and Abraham are well past their childbearing years. They have been on the road for a long time, having been sent out by God with the promise of birthing a great people. Over the decades they have had run-ins with Pharaoh, tried an end run on God’s promise through a steward and a slave, and had their names changed. Still, no child of their own, let alone a dynasty.
So here we find them encamped, paused in their itinerancy, and visited by other travelers, to whom they offer abundant hospitality. The strangers ask after Sarah and announce that she will bear a child. Sarah rolls her eyes and laughs but, fast forwarding a few chapters, there she is in her 90s having baby Isaac.
Now, as with last week, this story is not intended to be a biological account of a parturient nonagenarian. It is a metaphor. It is a metaphor that can work for us even if we have never been physically infertile, or even wanted to have kids. Many of us can relate to painful frustration and deep hopelessness.
Think about the areas in our shared world where despair and death, a lack of fertility, seem the only or the inevitable outcome. Yemen, Israel, Palestine; Honduras, Brazil, the US-Mexico border; our water, our air; our relationship with guns, our addiction to drugs; our system of government and civil society itself.
On hearing the strange men say she would have a baby, Sarah laughed bitterly to herself, bemoaning her post-menopausal body and impotent husband and lack of sexual pleasure. If someone told us we could birth a solution to all of those problems, or even one, we would probably sputter out a guffaw of our own, thinking, “After we have gone this far, after our troubles have become so aged, after our partners in problem solving so intransigent, shall we yet know relief?” Pffft!
“Yes,” God says, “yes. Maybe not in your lifetime. Maybe at an age beyond your oldest possible age. But hear me say that fertility, which is new life and new possibilities, is not bound by the limited bodies and limited time of humans. I asked Abraham and Sarah to walk so far and for so long not only to test their faith, though surely it did, but to send you all a message. The stream of the life eternal begun at creation has carried the redemption of life in its waves and its wake since before you were born and will carry it on well after you. Trust me.”
As so we do, or try, because coming to church is an act of trust. It isn’t like movie or a club. Corporate faith practices are not consumer products that we select only because they make us feel good, or make us feel like we are on the side of right, and everyone else wrong.
Instead, this life with worship is tent-setting. It is trusting an open-ended and ancient path of promise, with companions unpredictable. It is a trusting a future not only beyond our control but beyond our view.
Except maybe through our kids.
In the face of our grown-up and aged death-dealing the blessing of these children and youth is their embodiment of God’s persistent life-giving.
So in spite of the bitterness of our world, our laughter can be one one of joy, too.
For Sarah, it was joy at the fulfillment of God’s promise but also the fulfillment of the promise when it had become impossible for her and Abraham to do so alone. Joy born of the outcome and the means: a holiness with capacities far greater than our own.
We laugh with joy along with our kids here, not only because they are talented and smart and funny and not of their potential for continuing the traditions we so love after us. We laugh with them for joy because, despite our inevitable deaths, they remind us there has always been and will always be a greater holy life.