The story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac is a great text for Father’s Day. I remember singing a song in Sunday School as a child: “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham…” Does anyone know that song?! According to the book of Genesis, Abraham had eight sons. The first was Ishmael who was born as the result of a family drama involving a concubine while waiting for God to fulfill the promise to give a child to both Abraham and Sarah. When Isaac finally made his way into the world, it was a source of great wonder and amazement and laughter for his mother and father. Sarah expressed that beautifully in the passage we heard “Who would have ever thought?” she mused as she gazed at her child.
Parents always remember the births of their children. On Father’s Day, I love to reflect on those moments, now more than twenty-six and twenty-four years ago. My son Erik was in no hurry to greet the bright lights of the delivery room. He lingered as long as he could, at least twenty-four hours after checking in to the hospital, and he announced his arrival by calmly eyeing those around him and them promptly taking a nap. My daughter Olivia was in a much bigger hurry. A few minutes after I screeched the car to a halt at two a.m. at the hospital entrance, she emerged onto the tile floor of a bathroom, surprising everyone. No matter how children enter the world, they elicit a deep sense of wonder as we look into their faces and consider how something so truly amazing can possibly be.
Although the story of the three visitors to Abraham by the oak trees doesn’t say it explicitly, it’s assumed by most readers and commentators that the visitors were angels. For the most part, angels in the Bible don’t have wings or halos or white robes. They are often just ordinary looking people who aren’t really quite so ordinary. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the writer instructed readers to extend hospitality to strangers, because some have entertained angels without knowing it. Maybe it’s the story of Abraham and the three visitors that prompted that instruction. Many people talk about chance encounters with strangers that end up having a profound meaning. Not necessarily angels, but the right person at the right time under circumstance that seem too mysteriously significant to have happened by chance.
Abraham and Sara were relaxing in their tent when the strangers arrived. While we place a premium on good hospitality in our own time, we don’t take good manners and respect for visitors to the extent that the ancients did in the world of Abraham. Hospitality was everything, and to fail to provide food and drink and shade for passersby would be unthinkable and severely judged by others. Abraham jumped up from his seated position to busy himself and Sarah with the all-important tasks of attending to their unexpected guests. A calf, described as “tender and good,” which I guess means high quality, veal was prepared, and the best flour was used to make cake served with fresh milk. My guess is that they didn’t get many visitors. If they did, it would have bankrupted them.
The guests seemed awfully familiar with Abraham’s little family since they inquired about the whereabouts of Sarah. Abraham didn’t reply “How do you know so much about my wife?” as we might expect. Maybe he already suspected that these were not ordinary guests. He simply answered the question with “She’s in the tent.” What he should have said is “Who do you think prepared all that food that you just wolfed down?” Sarah was not a young woman, and she certainly deserved their thanks for the hard work done with no prior notice given. Instead, the visitors made an announcement as Sarah remained concealed behind the tent flap. The next time they stopped by, said the guests, Sarah would be a mother. Sarah might have been elderly, ninety year old, in fact, according to the prior chapter in Genesis, but her hearing still worked perfectly.
Sarah’s response to the announcement was to laugh out loud. The absurdity presented in light of the biological evidence of her age plus the irony of God’s long-unfulfilled and much over-overdue promise of a child was too much for her to contain. She laughed, and I imagine her laughter was long and hearty. The visitors were not amused by her amusement, and one asked Abraham why Sarah laughed. Still inside the tent, Sarah denied that she had. “Uh oh,” she thought. “I’ve offended the guests, the biggest hospitality faux pas of all. So Sarah said, “I didn’t laugh.” The guests got the last word: “Oh yes, you did laugh.” As it turns out, they also got the last laugh when Sarah delivered a healthy baby boy nine months or so later.
When I was reading over the Genesis text, I was struck by the “he says, she says” quality of the interaction between the visitors and Sarah. Sarah said she didn’t laugh, but it was pretty obvious that she had. I’m not sure all that was going through her mind at that point, but the story text says that she was afraid. Afraid of what? Of strangers? Of angels? Of God who promised a baby in the first place?
I’ve heard the term “he says, he says” or “he says, she says” quite a bit in the news this week. Once was in reference to one currently prominent political figure making a statement and another saying something that contracted the statement of the other. Both were in reference to what happened and what was said several months ago. The other was in reporting on the Bill Cosby trial and statements by the accuser and the accused We know that whenever we say “he says, she says;” or “he says, he says,” or some other combination of she and he, someone is lying. In the case of the visitors and Sarah, it was clear that Sarah was not telling the truth. We can excuse her or blame her, but there is no use trying to say that she didn’t laugh. As people say, we are all entitled to our own opinion, but we are not entitled to their own facts. How do we sift through differing accounts and determine the facts when it really matters? In regard to national leadership, our elected and appointed official have an awesome responsibility to tell the truth and then to act honorably when defending their words and actions. And if we expect that from others, we have the awesome responsibility to speak our own truth and to be honorable when we need to account for what we have said or done, even when that means apologizing and making amends.
Not to be too hard on Sarah. I mean, it’s really hard to blame her. For one thing, it’s hard to stifle a laugh when something is very funny. A family that attended a church I served often got the giggles during Sunday worship, usually during the silent prayer time. Their whole pew would shake when as one and then the next started laughing; right down the line. Sometimes that happens to pastors, too. One Sunday I was delivering the pastoral prayer with my eyes partly open when a dog wandered into the sanctuary from the street. It found its way to the front of the church, slipped under a pew, and then emerged to lick the leg of a soprano member of the choir seated in the front row. She jumped, but only she and I knew what was happening as I struggled to keep my prayer properly pious.
It’s not like laughter is a bad thing. When Isaac finally arrived, Sarah said “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter didn’t begin that way, though. At first it was tinged with bitterness; with the resentment that she had been stoking each year that God’s promise stayed unfulfilled.
God is a little like a politician making campaign promises, I guess; at least if you are Abraham and Sarah. It’s hard to get your hopes up when someone promises you something really great like more jobs or fewer taxes or a baby you’ve always wanted. Sarah and Abraham probably would have voted God out of office after one term or less. Maybe God waited until after they were absolutely sure God was an imposter before granting their wish and therefore proving that God isn’t a liar. That sounds kind of cruel, though, so I’m not sure I like that possibility. The truth contained in this story is that while human leaders and even our own bodies may fail us, the One who created and loved us will ultimately express that love for us in unimaginably good ways.
This past week we witnessed the shooting of a senator and others in Washington including police officers who intervened to prevent further injury or death. On the same day, a mass shooting occurred in California. And later we heard the conclusion of the trial regarding the shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer and we’ve had to reflect on the role of racial bias in the shooter’s acquittal. Again. Just as God promised a son to Sarah and Abraham, the prophet Isaiah spoke for God while telling of a future day when swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Will our modern weapons of death ever be hammered into tools to serve the poor rather than to eliminate them?
What are the circumstances that occur in your life to challenge your discouragement or to deliver a needed message of hope? Like Sarah and Abraham, we can start to wonder if the dreams we’ve had for the future will ever be fulfilled, if justice will prevail, and if peace will emerge in a world that seems increasingly violent. And yet hope does push us forward. We keep holding to the belief that humans made in the image of God will ultimately find a way to embrace the common good. When that happens, and at many points along the way, we will be able to laugh with Sarah and say “Who would have ever imagined this would be possible?”
Robert Fulghum, who wrote “Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” provided our other text today in the form of a Credo, or statement of faith. I liked this part: “I believe that hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And that love is stronger than death.”
Whenever it seems like the news is too bad or the promise is taking too long, remember that the end of the story is still unwritten. And welcome those strangers who God will send to renew your hope.