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A Divine Comedy

Scripture & Reflection: Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7)

Pentecost 2, Common Lectionary Year A

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Link to online worship video

scripture and reflection video
Who but You – Mark Hall & Megan Garrett video

Introduction
We take an 18 chapter leap this week, in our summer series exploring the new beginnings in the book of Genesis. This particular new beginning in today’s story is supposed to make you laugh [1]. Seriously. We often forget that the Biblical library
has all sorts of different types of writing; histories, genealogies, letters, battle stories, prayers, songs, and comedies. This story is not history, though we’ve often tried to make it so, thinking we must have facts for Truth to be told, that we must take the gifts God surprises us with due, pious decorum. I’m not so sure. When I think of the surprises of grace, the gifts of goodness with which I’ve been showered in my life:
the love of my husband, the surprise of pregnancy, the labour of childbirth that would leave anyone in tears, but turns, when they hand you your child, to tears of laughter.
And when we heard the ridiculous news of our daughter’s Sarah’s triplets…I know, that right alongside the immediate worry for my daughter and a difficult pregnancy ahead, I laughed at the gleeful gift of grace.

There’s a deep truth about the way
that God enters into the impossible,
the unrelentingly weary,
the intractably difficult,
with a grace to redeem, or mend,
or overcome, that’s so surprising,
that the surprise is best told to the heart and the imagination,
with the sort of belly laughter that erupts from tears.
This story from Genesis 18 is the first and best of them in this book!

It’s a favourite family, reunion, campfire story
that comes down to us
from the generation of God’s people who were at the time,
living in exile by the rivers of Babylon.
Undocumented workers,
their lot was pretty hard.
The Babylonian population saw them as nobodies,
they were constantly being racially profiled,
the work they had to do was pretty grim.
So imagine the end of a hot, sticky, ugly week,
when the Babylonians had held one of their big festivals
to celebrate their Warrior God Marduk.
We know what happens when jingoism is lubricated by parades;
it puts the privileged into a belligerent, dominant mood,
which they took out on the little Jewish community.

It’s the sort of night when the small community
would gather and sing some of their own songs,
of God as a Shepherd
who leads them into green pastures,
not into the brown brick yards…
of the people climbing the hill to Jerusalem
singing hallelujahs, before this hell broke loose.
As the night falls, the stories are told
by the grand-old ones…
of David whooping Goliath with a slingshot,
of Joseph’s coat of many colours,
of Jacob the Trickster who wrestles with an angel…
And then someone calls out, echoed by others,
“Tell us how we all began,“

Oh, you want the story of the day Sarah laughed?
Then, come, let’s laugh with Sarah, shall we?

A Story, a Story,
Let it come, let it go

Scripture

The day God, HOLY ONE, appeared to Abraham, our ancestor,
by the massive terebinth trees at Mamre,
in the land where we were born,
happened like this.
It was HOT.
The old, old man was sitting in the shade at the entrance to his tent.
Through the wrinkly shimmering heat, his watery eyes beheld
one, two, three men.
Abraham jumped up and ran (as only a centenarian can)
and he knelt (or did he fall!?!) at their feet.
Out of his mouth spilled all the gracious welcome he could muster
“Sirs, you must stop and rest a while in this heat.
Let me have cold water and a morsel of bread brought
so that you can refresh yourselves.”
As is custom in those days, the three strangers
bowed (ever so slightly) and agreed,
and they sat in the shade of the tent,
by the mighty terebinth trees of Mamre,
while Abraham picked himself up (as only an centenarian can do)
and ran (as only a centenarian can)
to his wife, Sarah
“Wife! Quick, take the sack of flour
(no, not the jar, the big sack we got from Costco!)
and knead it into bread, now!
(As if bread is baked in an instant?! Foolish old Abe!)
Then he ran (as only a centenarian can)
to the fields and spotted the brown calf,
running as only a calf can, away
from the fuss and flurry of Abraham.
He called the stable boy,
“Here! You catch that calf
and barbecue up some ribs, quick!”
(As if a calf can be caught, skinned and roasted in an instant?!)

But as nothing is impossible when God is involved,
with the bread, fresh baked,
and the tender baby back ribs, all juicy and hot,
and with milk, and curds, and honey
and cold water from the well,
Abraham set a feast before the three strangers…
a feast the likes of which, we, O best beloved,
have only ever dreamed!, and they ate.

And as they ate, the strangers asked Abraham,
“Where’s the Missus?”
and overhearing them,
Sarah chuckled to herself,
because where would she be when strange men
come calling to the tent by the mighty Terebinth trees of Mamre?
Inside the tent, of course!
With her arms all a-flour after baking
a dozen boules of bread, that’s where!
Strange strangers!

When one of them then said,
“We’ll be back in a year,
and we’ll see her then,
not with bread in her arms,
but with a baby,”
Sarah sniggered [2].
Whose baby? Not hers!
If Abe was a 100, she was past 90,
and the only word for that is ridiculous.
It wouldn’t be her baby, she thought,
wiping away, was that a tear?

And as if the Strangest One heard
the thoughts of her heart,
saw the snigger and heard the sigh,
he raised his voice high enough
to cut through the canvas right to her
soul, and said
“and the baby she’ll carry will be all yours, Abe,
and hers.”

Sarah’s eyes blinked,
and the wrinkles at their sides creased,
and her nose scrunched up,
and her throat let go a gurgle,
then a giggle, then a laugh,
stifled… you know the laugh,
the one you daren’t let out
in the middle of church when the pageant goes awry,
the one that’s contagious,
or the laugh that will get you only a boot in the ribs,
from the bully who owns your labour.
She held her hands to her face to stifle her snort,
but as she did so she saw Abe’s face….
A big O of a mouth, eyes round as ripe olives,
a bit of beef juice escaping from his open jaw,
and she lost it.

With a snort,
she laughed ‘til she cried,
or was that cried ‘til she laughed?
She laughed ‘til her sides hurt, and she was gasping for air.
She laughed, all doubled up, with her face in her apron,
she dropped to her knees and laughed and laughed,
‘til the tent shook.

And until the Strangest One’s eyes
were all agleam too,
his own smile hidden behind – was that a wing? [3]
as he said to Abraham…
“Why is Sarah laughing?”

Why is Sarah laughing?
Because new life born from the nearly dead
is an idea only God could dream up.

Why is Sarah laughing?
Because sometimes “good”
is too good to be serious.

Why is Sarah laughing?
Because impossible deserves nothing less
than laughter.

But she tried, oh she
tried to be pious, to be holy,
to old and wise,
“I’m not laughing” she blatantly lied…

And the Strangest One,
eyes aglow with delight,
said,
“Oh but you are!”

And sure enough a year later,
here she is, with her son,
and do you know his name?
It is Isaac; it means,
“laughter.”

This is the witness of Israel.
Thanks be to God.

[1] I follow Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, (SanFrancisco, HarperOne, 1977), who begins his exploration of God’s Comedy with this story, and concludes” Sin and grace, tragedy and comedy, they divide the world between them and where they meet head on, the Gospel happens. Lt the preacher preach the Gospel of their preposterous meeting as the high, unbidden, hilarious thing it is.” p.71.

[2] Within the Rabbinic tradition, and the Christian interpreters also, there is an annoying difference in the way Abraham’s laughter in chapter 17 is seen as a sign of faith, but that Sarah’s is seen as a sign of disbelief. (So, Rashi in the Mestudah Chumsah/ Rashi, ed.Avroham Davis, (Hoboken:KTAV Publishing House, 1993), p.167. I do not agree, and share the Jewish feminist interpretations of recent scholars, who note the same word is used for the laughter of each, why not then a similar interpretation for each?

[3] Again, traditional interpretations see the “Stranger’s/God’s” response as a judgmental ripost denoting anger. It is, in my interpretation, more in keeping with the playfully creative character of the Holy One, who countenanced all the work of creation as “good”, and “very good” to see this impending birth in the same way, and to delight in the laughter of both Abraham and Sarah as the decades-long promise is to be fulfilled at last.

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