It’s a long story—how my spouse Jen and I became parents. We completed the mountains of paperwork and preparation required to enter the infant adoption program. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. Two years. Frustrated and impatient, we signed up to be trained as foster parents. And again, we plowed through the mountains of paperwork and preparation. We were about to receive our first foster care placement when the phone rang. It was the adoption agency. “We have a birthparent who would like to meet you.” A few months after that, we were having dinner with some friends. Amid hubbub and laughter, the phone rang again. “Hello?” Jen said. “She’s in labor,” birth grandma replied. We gathered up our already-packed-bags and ran out the door while our friends cleaned up the dishes.
The story of how our family came to be, fourteen years ago, sprang to mind as I pondered today’s lesson from Genesis. Of course, there’s really no comparison between our wait and the one Sarah and Abraham faced. We were 35 years old. They were in their 90s. Again and again through the years, this couple had heard God’s promise: You will have a child, an heir. Your descendants will be as many as the stars in the night sky. Your offspring will be as uncountable as the grains of sand in the desert. Our reading last week, from Genesis chapter 12, describes how God called them to leave their home and journey toward an unknown land. They followed God’s lead toward a vision: they would be the mother and father of a great nation through which all the families of earth would experience divine blessing. And yet, year after year passed and Sarah did not become pregnant. Abraham finally fathered a child with Hagar, his slave, just in case. That’s a whole ‘nother story . . . which Melissa will address in her sermon next week. (Phew!) In their old age, it simply seemed too late for God’s promise to be fulfilled.
In our own time and culture, thankfully, we do not believe that having children is the only path to living a fruitful life. And yet, isn’t the spiritual space of barrenness very familiar to us? The sense that we are at a dead end, that it’s too late to leave a legacy that will benefit coming generations? Recently, I’ve learned to judge the air quality by looking at the sky, smelling the air, and becoming familiar with the numeric index. Is it safe to go for a run? To ride my bike? To send my kid out to play? I’m feeling incredible grief, realizing that this problem is likely going to be with us permanently now, every summer. And wondering what losses will we face next, as the climate crisis deepens. These days, we seem stuck, at a dead end—politically, and spiritually. Our dream of a truly inclusive and vibrant democracy seems remote. When books can be banned, when school board members who stand up for equity face threats to their lives, then it’s not hard to believe that those who seek to destroy public education may succeed. It all makes a person wonder, have we run out of time? Is it too late?
In their lives, Sarah and Abraham experienced God as a tug toward the unknown. They heard a divine voice calling them to risk leaving the familiar in order to welcome a legacy of flourishing, abundance, and blessing. In their barren space, God appeared as a group of travelling strangers. And Abraham and Sarah, even amid their pain, disappointment, and exhaustion, stayed open to the surprise of divine presence. True to their own core value of hospitality, they ran to refresh the strangers, to make them comfortable beneath a shade tree, to wash their feet and serve them cakes and curds, milk and meat. And then the promise came again. In due season, the strangers would return and Sarah would have a son.
Sarah’s reaction was, understandably, laughter. A hollow cynical laugh, a laugh of sheer disbelief. A laugh of genuine hilarity, as she imagined herself pregnant at 90. A laugh of amazement as she envisioned having grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sarah wasn’t alone in her laughter; Abraham also laughed at God’s promise in a previous chapter. “Why did she laugh?” God asked, “Is anything too wonderful for God?” This question made Sarah feel afraid, led her to deny her laughter, to argue with God. And yet, it seems that in the end, laughter in a barren space, imagination when we’ve reached a dead end, delight when it seems too late, became a sign of how the divine is at work. After all, Sarah and Abraham named their son Isaac, which means “laughter.”
There is an absurd quality to this whole story. In those days, folks believed in a God who determined when and whether a child would be conceived. For some inscrutable reason, this God made Abraham and Sarah wait, withholding the promised blessing until the very last moment. This is probably not how we want to think about God, which makes it challenging to receive stories like this one. However, perhaps it works for us to hear this story as a parable about how God shows up as a partner and companion in this life in which so much is beyond anyone’s control, including God’s. God is a stranger in need of our welcome, hospitality, and attention. God is a prankster who joins with us in telling a long story with a funny ending. God is a source of wonder, generating possibilities that are as incredible, amazing, and seemingly absurd as a pregnancy in old age. God is especially active—encouraging, strengthening, guiding—in our barren places of despair and exhaustion, when it seems we’ve reached a dead end, when it feels as if it is too late. And the offspring of God’s presence in our world, God’s child among us, is laughter, delight, and joy.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus cast a similar vision of God at work beside us. At the beginning of the passage, Jesus was the only one doing ministry—proclaiming good news, teaching and healing. And then he looked around at the multiplying crowds and what he saw hit him in the gut. “They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” These folks, too, were at a dead end. The Romans exploited their labor and took their land and as a result, they were poor, hungry, and sick. They lived in a space of barrenness, of futility and despair. They wondered if it was too late to make things better for their children and grandchildren. Seeing the people’s struggle motivated Jesus to shift his focus, to put his energy toward equipping followers to join his ministry. A community of nourishment and hope, a community that cures the sick, raises the dead, cleanses lepers, casts out demons, and does all of that for free sounds as incredible, as impossible, as laughable, as a baby at age 90.
Tomorrow is Juneteenth. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which technically ended slavery everywhere in the United States. However, this proclamation was only enforceable, only had real power, in places in which the Union troops were present. It took two more years, until June 19, 1865, for the army to liberate all the places in which people practiced slavery. And of course, we know that the story of this holiday is a parable that depicts a repeating pattern in the history of our nation. The high hopes of reconstruction gave way to slavery in new forms—sharecropping and lynching, voter suppression and Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights movement came the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of people of color. The election of our first Black president and the Black Lives Matter movement has been met with a resurgence of violent white nationalism.
And yet, these patterns are striking me today because I actually think I see something new happening. So often, in our history, freedom has only come because external pressure has forced white people to yield some of our power. Freedom has been won at the muzzle of a gun, in court, and through legislation. Freedom has emerged by way of protests that diminished profit and interrupted the flow everyday life. What I see now is that, at last, it is dawning on white people that the shackles of white supremacy are on us as well. Ever so slowly and clumsily, we are beginning to dismantle this system voluntarily, from within. In this shift, I see telltale signs that the God of Sarah and Abraham is at work in us and in the world.
Throughout the summer, in worship and in three different community groups, folks are telling the stories of their lives. It is such a privilege to listen to all these stories. And to witness how we hold one another in community through the telling, and the living, of our stories. For example, I happen to know that the story Kathy shared last week awakened a story in someone else that needed to be told. Letting that story emerge seems to have begun a process of healing in the teller, seems to have opened a new space for them to imagine how life might be different, might be better. Friends, what is your story of faith? Have you welcomed a divine stranger? Have you waited a long, long time for a blessing? Do you find yourself at a dead end? Do you wonder if it is too late? Can you laugh, with Sarah, at the absurdity, the surprise, and the delight of the new life God births in our lives? Amen.