Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day Surprises

photo by Prato / flickr

I want to do something a little different this morning. We have a guest here this morning. Her name is Sarah. Sarah, would you please come up here. Be careful with these steps. I started to say something about your age but decided I better leave that out.

Nows Sarah--don't get mad but I am going to tell them party of your story. It's Mother's Day and I think it fits. 

Sarah used to be beautiful. Not that she is not pretty now but she was knockout gorgeous. Sometimes, she tells me, she gets her old photographs out and says, “That was me.” Now her back hurts. Not only her back. Some days it seems that everything hurts. She is married to old Abraham. He’s ten years older that she is which gives her some comfort. They’ve been married for a long, long time. So long that he gets on her nerves. She has to keep yelling because he can hardly hear. Sometimes her patience wears thin and she would like to wring his old withered neck. And then other times she’ll see him sitting there, resting his eyes, he calls it. But he’s asleep and she’ll look over at him and say, “I can’t even think about living without this man.”

Genesis tells their story. Abraham and Sarah were old. Genesis says he was 99. She was 90 if you could believe her. When someone asked her about her age she would say, “I’m getting on up there close to 90.”

If you turn to Genesis 12 God promised Abraham that from his offspring there would come a great nation. His name would be remembered through all his ancestors forever. Abraham listened, but didn’t say anything. He and Sarah had tried to have a child for years and years. Then they finally gave up. And Abraham did have a child by one of their slaves which was pretty common back then. Everybody that was anybody had a concubine.  The slave’s name was Hagar and she had a son whose name was Ishmael. You can just imagine that this did not set well with Sarah. This young beautiful slave girl having a baby she could never have. Sarah caused such a stink that Abraham had to send Hagar and her son, Ishmael away.

Now if you let your finger run down to Genesis 17 God comes back and says you will have an heir. Abraham couldn’t half hear. “An heir?” he said. “I already have a son by Hagar. His name is Ishmael.” But God said, talking louder, “No, not Hagar. Sarah. Sarah will have a baby.” Old Abraham said, “What?” God yelled that time, “A baby by Sarah.”

And Abraham chuckled and then saw the foolishness of God’s joke and began to laugh and
photo by Geraint Rowland / flickr
laugh. A hundred-year-old man and a ninety-year-old woman. Surely God had his wires crossed. Abraham told God, “There is no way that old Sarah could be a Mama. It’s biologically impossible." God simply said, “We shall see.”

So we come to our text—finally in Genesis 18. Abraham is half-asleep, just resting his eyes outside their tent when he heard someone coming. He looked up and saw three strangers. Genesis says one of them was God but Abraham did not know that. Abraham being a good host provided water so they could quench their thirst and wash their dirty feet. Abraham told them he might be able to give them some bread. 

So he went running into the tent and told Sarah as tactfully as he could that they had company for dinner. “Make some cakes,” he said. “Cakes”? She said. “Cakes.” Then Abraham went running off and had his servants to kill a fatted calf for his guests. This was going to be quite a snack. Sarah kneaded the dough and whispered, “Who’s going to help me clean up all this mess?” 

The meal was over and they went outside to smoke because back then nobody knew that it was harmful. And as the men-folk talked one said: “You know you are going to have a son…” Sarah cleaning up inside, couldn’t help but eavesdrop. “A baby? Me? A baby?” And she put her hand over her mouth because she couldn’t believe this very bad joke. "That’s all we need in our old age—a baby. " She just laughed and laughed. 

The Lord heard Sarah laughing and asked Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh?” And Abraham said how in the world can we have a child when we are old, old? But the Lord told Abraham when I come back this way again you will have a child. And then he said, “Don’t you know that nothing is too hard for God?” 

Now if we were fundamentalists I would tell all the older women in this congregation they better watch out. Remember Sarah, I would say. If Abraham and Sarah could have a baby at their age—who knows? After all, it is in the Bible.

But if we take these words literally we are going to be in bad trouble. For if we are to understand the intent of the story and why the church has kept up all these years and told it over and over—because of what it has to say to everyone in this room. And it does not mean that old women can break the Guinness Book of Records. No.  Something entirely different is going on. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. You can’t do that without an heir and an accomplice. But verse 14 in that 18th chapter says: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Or another translation says: “Is there any wonder which the Lord is not able to do?”

Why did Sarah laugh? The same reason Abraham had already laughed. Because they didn’t believe the promise that God had given. Genesis says they were afraid. Sometimes we all laugh to cover up the fear or to keep from crying.

I think there is a whole lot of laughter going on today. We’re not too sure about this promise business. Or we say—like Sarah—I did not laugh. But the Lord whispers: “Oh yes you did.” 

It is not a very hopeful time in 2017. There is a whole lot of fear and anxiety floating around this country and maybe in all our hearts. I just saw the newspaper Friday—and it showed a picture of another mother standing beside the casket of her soldier son. We can’t seem to end what has become the longest war in our whole history. In  Washington the Republicans and Democrats are trying to gouge each other’s eyes out while at home people are worrying about health care and Social Security and how they can help their grandchild that is just trying to drive off the cliff. I have a friend dying of cancer—I am sure you do too. And I have another friend who has just left for John’s Hopkins. She hopes when they do brain surgery that it will stop the seizure that she has day after day. This is a hard day for many women. As we give thanks for our mothers—let’s not forget that woman that hates this day. She gave her baby up years ago. Or she stays home on Mother’s Day because she never could have children—or after miscarriage after miscarriage she just gave up. Everybody here brought something heavy when you came in this morning. You wanted to leave it outside the door—but guess what—it followed you in and sits on that seat next to you. Most of us are like Sarah, I think. We laugh or at least shake our heads—we don’t see much hope in 2017. My sister-in-law says we’re going out just in time. 

If I have depressed you long enough—let’s get back to our text. Let your finger run down to that 21st chapter of Genesis. And what do you find? Surprise! Surprise! Stop at that sixth verse.  Sarah had a baby. And what I find so interesting is that the promise came whether she believed it or not. Read what Sarah then said: “God has brought laughter for me: everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

The first laughter was the laughter of unbelief. There was no way she could have a baby. We must be realistic. Surely this must be a parable. But this is no parable. For we also bump into a second kind of laughter. The laughter now of faith and fulfillment. And do you know what the meaning of Isaac’s name is in Hebrew? Who would believe it? Isaac means laughter. 

photo by Eric Parker
So you see it does not depend on us. The promise is given whether we believe it or not. And it will come true. The unfaith of Abraham and Sarah could not stop the promise of God.  So what we have here is hope.  H-O-P-E. Hope. In  Romans 5 Paul told his friends in Rome: “…We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”(vs.3-5)

And that’s what this whole story is all about. Appearances can be deceiving. God can work in any situation. And maybe we might add the more hopeless the more God works. I like the way Bill Coffin used to put it: “The birth of the new is always messy.” Jim Wallis says that hope is believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change.

Church everywhere is having a hard time with genuine hope. Almost every church I preach in these days somebody says: “We’ve got to get some new blood in here. We’re dying off.” I worked in one church for a whole year and I asked them one day—where will you all be in ten years? And you know what they did? They pointed to the cemetery. The Presbytery sits down on Monday morning and says: “What are we gonna do? “And down beside how we feel about church or politics or our own particular situation I put the 21st chapter of Genesis. The baby came. Listen: the Baby came. And they laughed and laughed. Not the laughter of disbelief. The laughter of faith and hope and love, too I think. 

Hold on in this hard age to the hope of the gospel. We don’t know how it will come—this new—this promise—but we know this: the hopeful wonder of God is coming. 

Langston  Hughes was a great poet in the early Twentieth Century. And he lived at a time when black people were treated terribly. His grandmother had been a slave and she must have told him about slavery days. How hard they were. But Langston did not know if it would ever get any better. And so he wrote this poem. I think it came out a page of his own life. It is called: “Mother to Son.” 

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters, 
And boards torn up, 
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landings,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back. 
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall down now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Remember Sarah the Mama. Remember old Abraham the Papa. And remember how they laughed and laughed. But God was not finished with them nor with us. Thanks be to God!

photo by Bryce Bradford / flickr

(This sermon was preached on Mother's Day 2017 at the Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC.)

--Roger Lovette /

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