Infertility and Righteous Women: Genesis 18.1–15, 21.1–7

Infertility & the Company of Righteous WomenDelivered at Ames UCC on September 20, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Sarah’s story can be among the very hardest for women who are struggling with fertility.

Pregnancy, for the majority of women, comes without much effort. Have sex with a fertile man at the right time of the month and, nine months later, you have a baby. But it is not that easy for all women. Not all women’s bodies are able to carry every pregnancy to term.

Current data from the National Institutes of Medicine show that 15–20% of women who know they are pregnant will lose that pregnancy. That’s a pretty large percentage, and one that begs the question of why the church has not yet developed good rituals for such losses.

And not all women’s bodies are able to become pregnant. Medicine has, thankfully, developed a variety of interventions to help the body along. But such interventions require money or health insurance, as well as the flexibility to work with both physicians’ schedules and that of the body. So lower income women may not be able to benefit from medicine’s progress.

Either way, for women who are having a hard time becoming or staying pregnant, the process of making a child can become quite sorrowful, if not completely clinical. Sex may become a chore, a mechanical practice, rather than a joy or a spontaneous act of mutual care and nurturance.

Maybe we hear a little of that in today’s story when Sarah, who undoubtedly tried for decades to have a child with Abraham, says “…can I still enjoy sex?” And maybe those among us today who have dealt with infertility and the loss of a pregnancy can relate to Sarah when she laughs to herself—or snorts with disbelief—at some guys from the desert saying she will have a child within a year.

But that may be where the commonality ends. For in a year’s time, the story goes, Sarah does have a child, Isaac. At age 80, it’s a miracle! Despite all biological barriers to pregnancy, for Sarah, God has made a much desired, much abandoned dream come true.

Which is a dangerous portrait of God. It sets God up as a capricious magician. Gone is the God who was so worried about humanity’s loneliness in Genesis. Enter a miracle worker that plays favorites.

Now I know that there is good reason to not read this story literally. For one thing, Sarah’s and Abraham’s advanced ages are, as in other places in the Hebrew Bible, signs of their importance. It’s like an honorific. So if they were not really that old, then we can read the pregnancy as something else.

We can read Sarah’s story as a metaphor: Faith breeds abundance; faith breeds stability; faith breeds the future. In that case, God is not a judging interventionist but a willing partner.

Yet if you are deep into the real struggle to make new life, it can be really hard to stick with metaphor. The familiar physical reality of Sarah’s infertility is what resonates, as well as God’s apparent ability to reverse that infertility at will.

The danger comes, in that it may leave women feeling judged and inferior: “Well, God chose Sarah because she’s special. I’m not that special.” “Well, if God could will Sarah into pregnancy, it must be God’s will that I not get pregnant.”

And so a wedge forms, a wedge between the yearning-to-be-mother and the withholding-of-fertility God. The hierarchies that Jesus worked so hard to eliminate are re-established, with those unable to conceive and carry at the very bottom.

I understand my job as preacher teacher to be one who names God’s good news. What is the good news of our scripture? Not necessarily the easy or even comforting news, but the news that will lead us closer to that naked and unembarrassed Eden that is beloved community?

It is not always easy to find this in an individual passage. I don’t think there is good news in Sarah’s story, for women who cannot easily give birth to a child. So today I will simply say that the good news is that this is not the only story of mothers in the Bible. This is not the only story about the terrible pains of trying to mother.

Take Job’s wife, for example. She loses her children seemingly to prove a bet about Job’s faithfulness between God and the Advocate. She tells Job to curse God and die. I suspect that there are many women who have lost a child, lost a pregnancy, and felt the same way.

Then there is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary watched her child grow into something beyond her control or understanding. That child told his followers to reject their families of origin and cleave to God. But she stood by his side. Stood by his side long enough to watch him thirst to death.

Job’s wife and Mary suffer unspeakably because of their children. Yes, they were able to give birth. But, no, they were not able to go to glory before them. They had to live to see their children die.

Our scripture preserves that pain and responses to that pain. It preserves as sacred the intensity of the mother–child connection, in its fruition and in its loss. And, by extension, its absence. The intensity of the mother–child connection is sacred even in its absence.

The good news today is that if you have lost a pregnancy or lost the capacity to be pregnant, there is no wedge between you and God. Instead, you have the right to curse God. You are entitled to laugh right in God’s face. Because you are in the company of righteous women. You are as close to God as the mother of Christ herself.

The late theologian Marcus Borg always pointed out that Christianity is a practice. It takes practice to be a Christian. Those practices include prayer and the sacraments and belonging to a community. There is, for Borg, no such thing as a private Christianity. Jesus always returns us to each other, always enjoins us to be together even when we don’t want to be.

Which means that our practice of Christianity is not about ourselves as individuals. We may come to this sanctuary with some hope for what we might personally receive, but truly, there is no guarantee of what the Spirit will deliver.

Last week we heard the first of three stewardship moments. Rachel S. reminded us of how our giving in this space goes out to many other spaces in Ames, be it Planned Parenthood or Food at First. We hold as a very high priority giving away a goodly portion of what we receive as a church. In our recent capital campaign, I think it was a full twenty percent. After two more reflections on what our giving means, we will receive pledges for 2016 in worship on October 4.

By giving of our time, talents, and treasure to the open-ended, communal practice of Christian faith, we affirm the needs of others. We affirm the importance of receiving all the stories of our tradition for any and all the people who need them.

There are women in this room and in our larger community who have been in Sarah’s desert of infertility for a long time. They need to hear that they are deeply beloved of God regardless of whether they are able to give birth.

Our pledges for the coming year are an affirmation of that divine love. Our gifts demonstrate our commitment to maintaining this space as Abraham’s tent in the desert: a home for the wounded of heart, a place of hospitality for the stranger.

In doing so, we all become mothers. Mothers of each other’s faith, mothers of each other’s souls.


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