Why Are You Laughing?

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, June 18, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-18, 21:1-7

How would you respond if God knocked at your door?

I don’t mean metaphorically, or a still small voice. I mean this literally, what if God actually marched down the sidewalk, climbed the stairs to your front porch (or walked around to the side door everyone uses), pulled back the storm door, and knocked? What would you do?

Last week, Gary described how the first two chapters of Genesis portray the Creation story twice, in two different ways. The first is a poetic account that follows an orderly formula (on the first day, God created…, And God saw that it was good…; and it was evening and it was morning, the first day). The second telling is intimate and personal: God reaches down, plants a garden, forms a human being out of the dust and breathes life into its nostrils. This God can be heard walking in the garden, talking with Adam and Eve, up close and personal.

As the book of Genesis progresses, so do these different strands. Sometimes we have orderly genealogies, lists, and ritual instructions. And other times, as in today’s reading, we have a God who walks around, talks to people, and knocks on doors–or tent flaps, as the case may be.

When today’s story begins, God, in the form of three men, walks right up to Abraham’s tent, and stands there looking at him. Abraham  takes one look, and, despite being nearly 100 years old, he and Sarah spring into action! Sarah takes their finest flour and begins baking bread. Abraham runs out to the field to choose one of their best calves to prepare for dinner. And then the two of them wait on their guests hand and foot, bowing before them, eager to help out in any way they can.

If God knocked on your door, perhaps you would do the same! Sparing no expense, offering your very best, no matter the cost…

But what if you didn’t know it was God. What if it was just three guys you’d never seen before, looking tired and dirty?

That’s what’s remarkable to me about this story we’ve read. When Abraham and Sarah see three men at the door, their identity is still unclear. They don’t begin by asking who these guys are and what they’re doing here. Perhaps they do understand that this is God, in a sense, though the fact that there are three people seems a little strange…

Did that strike you as odd? Are they three angels? Or God and a couple of angels? Or is this something to do with the Trinity? … I don’t know, but I would have some questions!

But they don’t. They don’t wait around analyzing the situation to get all the facts straight, and they don’t do a cost-benefit analysis. They simply set to work as hosts.

And they are extravagant hosts. They are the epitome of hospitality.

Do you know people like that? People who are so incredibly generous, who give of themselves to serve others, with no agenda of their own?

I’ve certainly seen incredible hospitality in this church: extravagant receptions after a funeral for someone most of us didn’t know, but people were here and needed to be fed. Whoever they are, they deserve the best. Hospitality.

Or, consider yesterday’s Touch-a-Truck event. There were hundreds of people here yesterday, most of them completely unknown to us. But when they got here, they were greeted by smiling volunteers from UBC and from the children’s hospital; they were given a free T-shirt, snow-cones, crafts, snacks, coffee for the parents; they climbed in a racecar and a fire truck. And all of this with no agenda, no dotted line to sign. Simply, hospitality. Welcome.

And I’ve seen similar hospitality when  we’ve welcomed support groups from the hospital to meet here in a Sunday School room, or the men of PACEM to stay overnight in the Fellowship Hall, or dozens of kids from the community to come be a part of Vacation Bible School, no strings attached. Opening our doors, opening our arms in welcome.

And perhaps God calls us to extend that hospitality even further. I don’t know where, exactly, but I hope you will help us to figure out how. Opportunities abound, limited only by our imagination and our generosity, our willingness to give without counting the cost to ourselves. In other words, to give like Abraham and Sarah, those elderly role models of hospitality, who prepare an extravagant feast for strangers at their tent.

Abraham and Sarah, who welcome three strange men and find themselves face-to-face with God.

Because really, that’s what this is about, is it not?

Hospitality is not just about being nice. Hospitality isn’t just a matter of being polite, whether out of kindness or obligation.

No, we extend kindness to strangers because when we do, God is present there. God is there.

Won’t Jesus teach this very thing, centuries after Abraham? Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. (Matthew 25:40). When we have welcomed anyone else, we have welcomed Jesus himself.

Or as the author of Hebrews puts it: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Whether it’s Touch-A-Truck or PACEM or a funeral reception, or ways we individually welcome and show kindness to others, when we practice hospitality, God is there.

God shows up, as surely as God appeared at Abraham and Sarah’s tent, the recipient of their gracious hospitality.

It’s a beautiful story. God knocks at their door, and they spring into action marvelously.

 

And if only the story ended there, Abraham and Sarah would look pretty great, wouldn’t they?

But no. No, next God talks, and the lovely story gets messed up.

God has come to their tent with something to say, and we quickly learn that Abraham and Sarah are much better at receiving God’s messengers than receiving God’s message.

When visitors arrive at their door, they open their arms, and their tent, and their table; but not their hearts and their minds.

They extend hospitality to the messengers, but the message, which they cannot receive…

And this seems odd, at first. After all, the message is an extraordinarily good one, is it not? Sarah and Abraham, who have longed their entire lives to have a child, are being told that by this time next year, you’ll be cradling a baby in your arms. What could have been better?

But we know how they respond. What does Sarah do?

She laughs. And before we let Abraham off the hook, let’s not forget that his response is exactly the same. A chapter earlier, when he first hears the promise that he’ll have a son, his reaction is, and I quote: “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Genesis 17:17).

Abraham and Sarah agree on this one.  And they have a point, don’t they? This plan of God’s doesn’t make a lot of sense. The text makes clear that Sarah is past the age when childbearing is a possibility; physically this is not an option anymore. Yes, having a child would be a dream come true, but that’s no longer realistic.

The casual pronouncement from a strange visitor that next year she’ll have a baby? Absurd. Laughable. And so they laugh–Abraham in the previous chapter, and Sarah here.

It’s not their best moment. For all their grand hospitality with strangers visiting, when it comes to actually hearing God’s message for them, their mind, their worldview, has no room for what they hear.

They are so unable to accept this message, in fact, that they take things into their own hands. In other chapters, we read how they “helpfully” suggest using a younger woman, Hagar, to provide a son, whom they name Ishmael, their attempt at a more reasonable way to provide offspring.

(We’d never do that, though, would we? Try to help God out by suggesting our own alternatives to God’s ideas? Because obviously God could use some help, and we know best…)

But let’s face it, in Abraham and Sarah’s case, the message that they’re going to have a child is not reasonable; it’s laughable. And they laugh.

If Act 1 of this story showed Abraham and Sarah’s generous hospitality, Act 2 shows their inability to hear–to welcome–God’s message. Promised a miracle of extraordinary good news, they respond with cynical, dismissive laughter. In Act 2, they are not looking so great…

But, of course, we know that the story doesn’t end here. Eventually, Abraham and Sarah will have a son named Isaac, even though they are old, and we will see Sarah looking so radiantly happy in the end.

 

Actually, to better understand Sarah, I’d like to tell a story about my one-year-old, Seth. I wasn’t really sure whether I should tell this story or not, thinking you probably get tired of toddler stories from me whenever I come up here. But then I remembered today is Father’s Day! So I’m guessing, and hoping, that most of you will indulge me standing here and talking about one of my kids,  yet again.

Seth is a year and a half old, and he is, shall we say, strong-willed. When he sees something that he wants, he will not be deterred. This is especially true at the dinner table, and even more true on those special occasions when he gets dessert. A few weeks ago was his granddad’s birthday, and after dinner there was birthday cake, a delicious carrot cake with cream cheese icing. We break up a slice of cake into little pieces and put them on his plate, and set it on the tray of his high chair, eager to see his amazed reaction when he takes a bite. Instead, his eyes lock onto the piece of cake on his mother’s plate, and he needs that piece so desperately, it becomes the only thing in the world he can see. I took a picture of this scene, actually, of an inconsolably crying child reaching his arm over his own pieces of cake, unable to reach the cake he wants on his mom’s plate. We try explaining that he has his own cake, but he can’t hear it (figuratively, and literally, over his own shrieking). All he can see is his mom’s cake, which SHE is eating instead of HIM! How unfair!  Well, eventually he figures out that the cake on his plate might be worth trying, too, so he puts a piece in his mouth. And then another, and another, and another. …You have never seen a happier child. He was in heaven.

And somehow that reminds me of Sarah, at the end of today’s story.

Sarah, who had been promised something so wonderful, but she couldn’t see it. Nowhere in her mind could she find room for this odd and amazing news. And yet, a year later, there she is with this child in her arms, a baby boy she names Isaac.

In English we miss the play on words, but Isaac’s name in Hebrew, Yitzhak, is the word for laughing. It’s the verb that describes her cynical, dismissive laughter from the tent when it was said she would have a son, and yitzhak is also the word she uses at the end, when she says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

Her laughter has been transformed.

And to me, the most beautiful part of the story is the way she and Abraham are included in the process.

Abraham and Sarah, who succeed so beautifully in welcoming their guests, but fail so miserably in receiving God’s message, now discover that it really isn’t up to them after all.

Because this isn’t, ultimately, a story about two older folks having a baby. That’s the story, but it’s not really about that.

No, this is a story about God.  It’s about a God who heard Sarah laughing at something absurd, something too good to be true, and said, Why are you laughing? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s about a God whose radical hospitality kept inviting Sarah and Abraham to be part of the future being promised, including them even when they don’t understand, don’t believe, and try to do things their own way.

It’s about a God who is patient and persistent enough that Sarah finally gets to laugh with a soul-deep joy, and invite everyone to come and celebrate with her. “Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

 

That’s the same God we worship. A God who knocks at the door, and sometimes we answer well. Other times we are too tired or scared or busy to notice, or we try to do things our own way… but either way, God welcomes us in. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about our hospitality, done well or poorly, but about God’s. And God continues to knock.

 

May we pray,

God, help us to be hospitable, to welcome others without considering the cost. But even when we don’t or we can’t, we thank you for being there with open arms, still, waiting for us to see the miracle of life that is before us, inviting us into the work of making it possible, and including us in the celebration. Thank you. Amen.