Genesis 18:1-15; Romans 5:1-8
I remember learning about the story of Sarah laughing when I was in Sunday School. The pictures of Sarah in our lesson book depicted her as a joy-filled woman who rejoiced to learn she would finally have the child she had longed for. When the strangers appeared to Abraham by the oaks at Mamre, Sarah overhears the news that she will have a son. She can’t contain the laughter at this idea, after all it “had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” – a creative way of saying it wasn’t biologically possible for Sarah to become pregnant anymore. Upon hearing the news, Sarah laughs to herself because, who could believe such a thing? Isn’t it more wonderful than words? As a child, this story felt to me like the story of a dream fulfilled. Sarah bubbled over with laughter because she was about to receive the desires of her heart.
As I have grown and changed and experienced my own longings and desires that have seemingly gone unfulfilled, my perspective on this story has changed, too. When Sarai and Abram were married, it was expected that they would have children. When Sarai was unable to become pregnant, she must have grieved and felt broken. At that time, barrenness was not understood scientifically, but was instead seen as divine judgment. There were no infertility specialists to help determine what might be the issue. It was believed that infertility was the fault of the woman, and it was to her shame. To make matters worse, even if a woman could have children, it was imperative for her to have a son. Without a son, there would be no one to carry on the family name or inherit the father’s property.
In Genesis 12, God promises to make Abram the father of many nations. Shortly before this, the Bible tells us that Sarah was barren. When God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, I wonder if that promise felt impossible to him, or maybe even painful. Three chapters later, in Genesis 15, the Lord comes to Abram and again promises to be with Abram. This time, Abram objects. He tells God that he still has no children, and that a servant within his household will be the one to inherit his property if no son was born. God promised Abram would have a child of his own, and verse 6 tells us, “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Years pass, and the promise is still unfulfilled. In Genesis 16, Sarai is desperate to give Abram a son, and so she decides to try and have a child for Abram through her servant Hagar.
The plan works…but it also becomes a source of pain for Sarai, who probably felt like a failure for being unable to provide a son for her husband. Seeing Hagar give birth to a son, a son Sarai has long waited for, and felt ashamed for being unable to provide, must have been a source of tremendous pain and hurt. In an exchange that baffles our 21st century understanding, Hagar looks upon Sarai with contempt, Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar and treats her harshly, which leads Hagar to run away. After an encounter with God in the wilderness, Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, but I imagine that the dynamics in their household continued to be shaped by the pain Sarai carried around inside herself, but was unwilling or unable to deal with constructively.
Now that we’ve caught up on the backstory, we come to Genesis 18, our Scripture for this morning. The mysterious strangers appear to Abraham. Sarah makes them a meal, and Abraham shows the strangers godly hospitality. Then one of the strangers speaks, and says that Sarah will have a son. And Sarah laughs.
I used to think her laugh was one of delight and surprise, but today I can almost hear her laughter of pain and cynicism. Now? After all of these years, all this suffering, after she’s grown too old for the promise to be possible, this is when God will choose to act? After all these years of wondering why, after passing the threshold of opportunity for childbearing to happen, after possibly even making peace with the hard, cold fact that God’s promise was never going to happen, Sarah laughed at God’s words.
And can you blame her?
What I see in Sarah today is a woman whose heart was filled with pain. And because she had never found a way to deal with her pain, it festered inside until it grew into jealousy, resentment, and harshness. Her laugh is a laugh of skepticism, disbelief, and maybe even anger at the way the promise had been delayed for so long. As I’ve heard it said many times, “Hurt people hurt people,” and I believe that is true. A wounded Sarah hurt Hagar, and now a wounded Sarah laughs at God.
Today, we are continuing our series – Quilting a Community. Last week, Jeff taught us about the pattern God is following as God created the world, and as God shapes us into a community. This week, as we look at the story of Sarah and Abraham at the oaks at Mamre, we are looking at shadow side of community – the pain. The truth is, there cannot be community without pain. We are people who suffer. We each experience hardship, unfulfilled longings, shattered dreams, and profound grief. We bring this pain with us into community. When things are good and healthy in the community, we weep when others are weeping. We bear each other’s burdens. We listen to each other’s pain. We sit with each other on the ash heap of grief, and we are there for each other. But, when a community has a habit of not dealing well with the pain of others, or when we do not deal well with our own pain personally, the pain inside of us can fester and become the weapon we use to break bonds and inflict wounds.
In this world, we cannot avoid suffering. We all go through it. Every one of us will be hurt by someone at some point in our lives. We may even be nursing our hurts right now. These wounds and this pain can be like the stitching that brings us together, or the suffering can tear us all apart until the beautiful quilt we are part of is tattered and torn. In Chuck DeGroat’s insightful book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, he writes about the way unhealthy communities develop around a lack of honesty about faults, about pain, and about suffering. These communities develop unhealthy patterns of fear, shame, and secrecy, and the only way through these things is courageous honesty. Every community faces challenges and struggles. Every person in every community will experience pain at some point in their lives. Community can either be a place where that person findings compassion and healing, or a place that makes the suffering worse.
Sarah turned her pain inward, but that pain needed somewhere to go. Her pain became a weapon, and its effects went on for years to come. Her son Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” and Isaac was the only one of the three patriarchs who didn’t have his name changed. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. Isaac’s name remained the same, a pointed reminder of Sarah’s laugh when God told her the promise would be fulfilled. Later on, as Isaac and Ishmael – Hagar’s son – were growing up, the Bible says Ishmael was playing with Isaac. The word there is another word play on the word “laughter.” Whether Ishmael was mocking Isaac, or whether Ishmael was playing with Isaac, when Ishmael was doing the laughing, Sarah couldn’t handle it. Again and again, laughter was pain for Sarah, and her pain set in motion pain for Hagar, pain for Ishmael, and pain for herself.
We are living in a time of great pain and suffering. Some of us are pretty well insulated from it. For some of us, our lives have hardly changed, and every day is the same as the one before it. For others, there has been job loss, illness, loneliness, depression, and grief. On a national level, we are witnessing the profound pain and turmoil of injustice, fear, uncertainty, and loss. Businesses have closed their doors. Entire communities feel unsafe, unheard, and are hurting. People of color in our country are hurting. People are mourning. There is so much suffering in our country and in our world right now that it is overwhelming.
As a community of believers, we are facing a choice. We can internalize the pain of our present moment, cover over it, and hope beyond hope that it goes away. Or, we can do the difficult, heart-rending work of staring our pain in the face, with confidence that God – the Great Physician – can mend us and stitch us back together.
In Romans 5, we read this: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.” That word “boast” is a strange word. Why would we boast about our pain? The Greek word here is a word that means to hold up your neck, or, similar to our expression “hold your head high” or “chin up.” The difference between our phrases and the Greek word, though, is that the Greek word is always in the middle voice. That can mean that holding up our neck comes from deep within us, or in our passage from Romans, it can mean that God is the one doing the lifting up.
When we suffer, our instinct is to cover it up. This instinct is as old as time. When Adam and Eve sinned, rather than face it and repent, they hid. When we are suffering, or are in pain, we want to ignore it and make it go away. But, if we enter into the suffering in our personal lives, in our communities, and in our nation – if we draw near to the brokenhearted, like God does for us – our God will be there, lifting up our heads. As we face the suffering head on, God will work out the rest of our passage from Romans: “And not only that, but 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.”
Whatever it is you are dealing with today – or even if you aren’t dealing with anything personally, but you are observing the pain of others – enter into it. Face it head on and honestly, believing that as we feel that suffering, God will be there lifting us up, and working that suffering into endurance, which produces character, which leads to hope. As God is stitching our quilt together, we will begin to see the beautiful picture God is creating, as we are stitched together, and as our snags and tears are mended. The hope of God will never disappoint us. Even when hope seems lost, we too might experience God in the face of a stranger who whispers to us, “You’ve waited so long, and the time is finally here.”