The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
For All Those Who Laugh with Sarah
Good morning. After Graduation Sunday last weekend, today is going to be anti-climactic, I’m afraid. Summer hasn’t begun officially, but in the church we’ve started our season of Ordinary time, which stretches through the summer–in fact, all the way to Advent. Ordinary time just comes from “ordinal,” because the Sundays that are numbered. That’s how we keep track of them. It’s a time devoid for the most part of special feasts and events with names, like Easter and Christmas and Pentecost.
I can’t decide if we’ve had too much ordinary time this spring already, or if this is just what we need right now, a slowing down. But here we are, and we’ll be with you all summer long, just like this. I hope you’ll stay with us.
From today’s Old Testament lesson:
So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh…? … But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. [The Lord] said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Sarah laughed. Put that in your search engine and thousands of hits come up. Short stories, books and blogs by that name. Hundreds of sermons, Christian and Jewish. Reams of commentary. Besides being the only instance in the Hebrew Bible where God speaks directly to a woman, it’s seen as a very important moment in the history of all Jews and Christians. This is the annunciation to Sarah, the announcement of the conception of her son Isaac and thus the beginning of the people who would become the Israelites.
It’s also the fulfillment of a promise made long before this–30 years before–that Abraham and Sarah would have a multitude of offspring, as large in number as the stars in the sky. Thirty years had passed from the time the promise was first made, and Nothing Happened. Not one child, conceived. They moved, they settled down, they acquired land, and tents, cattle and riches, and still, no children.
Until finally one day, when both were well advanced in years, 90 and 100 years old–I think back then a 30 year-old woman probably seemed like she was about 90. That’s all I can guess. When both are up there in age and sitting by their tent somewhere in the hot Judean desert, Some visitors show up. First we’re told it’s the Lord himself. Then, inexplicably, it’s three men. Then it’s one person again, then three–what we have here is a very ancient polytheistic story being lightly adapted by a monotheistic writer. It reads a little bit like two stories have been smashed together, and that’s because That’s basically what happened.
The early Christians took this confusion and made it into a story about the Trinity: God as one, and also three. But that would be much later.The three men are invited in by Abraham. He slaughters one of his calves. Sarah sets to cooking and preparing a meal. There are places in the world today where these rules of hospitality and even the setting are still very much unchanged. Years ago a friend and I were invited by some bedouins in the Syrian desert to join them for a meal. I didn’t realize I’d be committing my entire day. But it was a day well spent, not least for the immediacy it brings to readings like this. One of the three men tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will conceive and bear a son. To which she–it says, to herself, standing at a distance–laughs. Let me read from the literary critic Robert Alter’s translation, which sticks more closely to the original Hebrew and isn’t quite as sanitized as we’re used to. “And Sarah was listening at the tent flap… And Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow. And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying, ‘After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old?’”Yes, you shall, God replies. And she did. Sarah conceives a child and gives him the name Isaac, meaning laughter. Isaac will later become the father of Jacob, and Esau, and they the fathers of many, including Joseph (of the coat) and his 11 brothers, the twelve of them together, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.Abraham laughed, too–just before the reading for today. He laughed for the same reason, in response to God’s promise for the umpteenth time that they would have a child. Jewish medieval commentary on this passage likes to distinguish between Abraham’s laugh and Sarah’s laugh. The latter–Sarah laughing–showed a lack of faith in God’s promise, whereas when Abraham laughed, his was a laugh of joy, and faith. The same word in Hebrew. Two different laughs. Can you believe that? A laugh of joy and belief, and a laugh of weary skepticism.You know where my mind goes this morning, when I think of Sarah’s laugh? My mind goes to all the black mothers, daughters, wives, sisters who know that laugh. Women who laugh when they hear empty promises that things will get better, that their sons will be safe from now on, that training will do the job–the future is bright, don’t worry, we’ll take care of it. This time it’ll be different. All you can do is laugh. Unless you cry. You know where else my mind goes–again, tying this story to where we are in the present? To the laugh of the poor, stuck generation after generation in the same place, somehow never able to catch up to all those people on TV living their glossy, educated lives–people telling them that if the rich just get richer, it will help the poor. Just wait, you’ll see. Sarah’s laugh, is their laugh. There’s nothing wrong with this laugh. After years of promises going unfulfilled, you can’t blame Sarah, or black mothers, or poor fathers, for laughing at seemingly empty promises. But God does sometimes surprise us, and that’s what makes this story so wonderful, and important.History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave,‘ But then, once in a lifetime The longed for tidal wave Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.–Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, from the Cure at Troy. Hope and history rhyme in this one moment, for Sarah. And that founded our great tradition. We mustn’t doubt that hope and history can rhyme again. Maybe it will now, or soon–the “longed for tidal wave of justice” might rise again. I think it’s rising NOW.