Sermon June 14 A Time to Laugh (Genesis 18:1-15) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you heard of the Beloit Mindset List? It's actually now the Marist Mindset List, having moved from Beloit College in Wisconsin to Marist College in New York – but it's still just as fascinating.
Because what it is, the Mindset List, is it's a list of things that have shaped and therefore characterize the worldview or mindset of each year's high school graduates.
Like, for example, for the high school class of 2020, born in 2002, there's never been a World Trade Centre. Newfoundland and Labrador have always been Newfoundland-and-Labrador. Pierre Trudeau has always been dead. And phones have always had cameras.
I discovered the Mindset list about fifteen years ago when I'd been talking with a group of kids about Nelson Mandela, and began by asking if they'd heard that name and who he was. And they said yes and that he'd been.... the President of South Africa.
Which kind of blew my mind, at the time. The idea that literally, in my lifetime, there'd be a whole generation of kids who grew up thinking of Nelson Mandela.... as just having been President of South Africa. You know, like no big whoop.
Which -- when I was their age, and it really doesn't seem like that long ago, but when I was their age -- I honestly don't think I'd have ever imagined that would be possible. It simply wouldn't have computed in those bleakest days of the fight against apartheid. It would almost have been laughable.
Which is why I always think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for life on Robbins Island, whenever we hear this story of Sarah from the book of Genesis that we just heard. One of those perfect moments in the Bible when the limitations of what we can EVER imagine as being possible or rational or realistic is confronted by the sheer ridiculous capacity of God to blow our minds completely.
Like by announcing to a ninety year old Sarah, for example, that when she was long past the time there could be a baby, when no one in his or her right mind was even THINKING anymore – even PRETENDING to think anymore – that there could be a baby, there's going to be a baby.
And of course, rivers of ink have been expended trying to rationalize how this could have happened. How the way ages were calculated in biblical times was different, how she clearly wasn’t actually NINETY, how maybe she was just a little past what she thought had been menopause, how it all actually makes perfect sense…
But seriously? All of that completely misses the point. Because the point is, whatever the technicalities of it, the idea that Sarah's actually finally going to have a baby is clearly meant in this story to be patently ridiculous. It's ridiculous to Sarah, it's ridiculous to Abraham --
Whatever the technical reason why it's ridiculous -- her age, her stage, her history of infertility -- the point is just that it's ridiculous. So ridiculous, in fact, that if Sarah HADN’T laughed, THAT would have been ridiculous. God's little moment of having hurt feelings about her laughing notwithstanding.
But the really interesting thing about this story, it seems to me, actually comes later. When the promised baby actually arrives.
Because what does Sarah name him? She names him Isaac. Which means "laughter".
And the reason why that’s interesting and important, I think, is that what it tells us is that for Sarah it was crucial for her to remember. It was crucial for her to remember that when God told her that she was going to have a baby, she laughed.
It was crucial for her to remember not only THAT she’d laughed, but WHY she’d laughed. That she'd thought it was so ridiculous for God to promise her something that ridiculous -- that it made God ridiculous. Laughable to her. There really isn't way around that.
I've mentioned before in preaching -- speaking of things that are laughable -- the glorious naiveté of my having been twenty years old in the early summer of 1988...
And heading down to the church hall in my home congregation in Montreal for a congregational meeting about the fact that General Council was about to start debating whether people who were openly gay and lesbian could be ordained...
And honestly assuming, that it'd be a really short meeting. We’d get this update about what would be happening at General Council -- but obviously it’s just the right thing to do and nobody’s going to get worked up about it. I really did think that. I truly did, with all the glorious naiveté of being twenty.
But in my defence, what I was thinking is: it's the United Church of Canada, right? And that’s what we do – we do the right thing. We do the thing that’s just. We do the thing that’s about being loving and welcoming and accepting.
So I seriously thought it would be a really short meeting. And it was not a really short meeting. In fact, what that meeting turned into, I can’t even express. It was devastating to me. It was like somehow everything I thought was the United Church of Canada had suddenly turned into something really really different. And very very unsafe.
That congregation is now an Affirming congregation, affirming the full humanity and belovedness of ALL God's children, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Our congregation is now an Affirming congregation. The congregation that when I arrived in south-west Nova Scotia as a new minister in 1993 embodied most fully in that area the rigid anti-homosexual-ministers stance of the Community of Concern in the United Church of Canada – which was the United Church in Yarmouth – is now an Affirming congregation.
And I suspect that in all these cases, if we'd been told in that summer of 1988 or that summer of 1993 that thirty years on these would be Affirming congregations? Beaconsfield? St. Matthew's? Yarmouth? We'd have considered that pretty much laughable.
As ludicrously ridiculous as God announcing there'll be a baby when Sarah's long past hoping -- and by the way she's also ninety. And yet. Here we are.
But at the same time, remember what Sarah called that baby when he arrived? She called him Laughter. Isaac. Because she knew that it was crucial for her to remember what had been real: that she'd trusted God so little to fulfill that promise that'd she'd laughed. Like God was laughable.
Which is not a very fun thing to remember. Basically being reminded every time she said Isaac's name about that time she straight-up ridiculed God: 'ya, you're not trustworthy'. Maybe she actually sometimes wished she'd just named him 'Abraham Junior', so she'd never have to think about it ever again.
Because uncomfortable isn't fun. None of us says "Oh yes please, bring on the discomfort." None of us says, "Oh yes please, do confront me with an honest appraisal of the past, so that I can remember afresh how badly I acted – or possibly worse, so I can realize what I never noticed and just let happen."
Uncomfortable isn't fun. Which is why I think it's surprising and strange and meaningful that Sarah actually chooses it, in naming Isaac. For herself, but also for us.
Because she chooses it to remind herself, and us, that the miracle isn't just the baby. It's just as much or even more so HOW FAR where she is NOW is, in terms of trusting God's capacity, from where she was. She thought God was laughable. That was real. And just look at her now.
But the full measure of her rejoicing NOW isn't meaningful without being honest about THEN. She calls her baby Isaac. It's not entirely comfortable. But that laughter was real.
Uncomfortable isn't fun. A friend of mine posted a cartoon this past week – it was of one of those stick-on name-tags. Like, 'hello my name is'. And what it said was Hello My Name Is: No Longer Available for Stuff that Makes Me Feel Bad.
And I get it. I do. This friend of mine works in chaplaincy and mental health, and we get to reject shaming and abuse and belittling and anything else that gets deployed against our spirits to break us down. Absolutely. 100%. And we also get to set for ourselves really firm boundaries on what we're up for dealing with, at any given time. When we have to walk away from the news, or 'just say no' to whatever's trying to overwhelm us? Ya, we get to do that.
So I get it. On both counts. No longer available for weaponry designed to make us feel bad? Temporarily unavailable for reality that makes us feel bad? Totally.
But at the same time... in the grand scheme of things outside the particularity of those contexts? Not a great cartoon.
Because sometimes, we should feel bad. Because we've done a wrong thing. Sometimes we should feel bad, because wrong things happened, and we let them. Or wrong things were happening, and we didn't notice.
And no, it's not fun, that feeling bad – especially if we can't just say a one-on-one sorry and make it all go away -- but sometimes, that's our tough luck. And what we have to do, in fact, is exactly what Sarah does in the same situation.
She looks at her baby, who is literally testimony to the fact she was wrong, and she names him in a way that's not an escape from that – but instead a living-within it. Uncomfortable. Not great. Yes, God, you said you'd send a miracle and I basically ridiculed you. That's totally true, I'm not going to pretend it's not, it's not a very nice feeling, but there it is.
And I'm going to live within-it, she's basically saying, by naming this baby Laughter – so you'll know that I know... that was real.
The full measure of the rejoicing depends on learning, acknowledging, remembering, living-within what was and what is real. The full measure of the healing and the repair – like the repair of Sarah's relationship with God – depends on the learning, acknowledging, remembering, living-within what was and what is real.
That's what Sarah models for us in this story and it's not fun. It's uncomfortable to hear anguish and anger and blame and fury from our black and indigenous neighbours who are telling us forcefully that what we imagined was everyone's shared reality in this place has emphatically NOT been everyone's shared reality.
For us as Christians that's got to be heartbreaking and heartrending. And neither of those are fun feelings. And we want to rush rush rush to the part where it's all fixed. Where Nelson Mandela's only famous because he was President of South Africa and Yarmouth is an affirming congregation.
We're people who believe the full measure of the rejoicing is possible. The healing and the repair, that they're possible. We believe it because we've seen that it's true, and we want to get there. To where it's all fixed.
But this is the part where what's real is being named in a way we can't escape. And in a way that like Sarah we have to be courageous enough to not TRY to escape.
Living within it. Uncomfortable. Not great. Yes, God, when you said all lives matter we said amen and then we kind of ballparked it. That's totally true, and we can't pretend it's not. It's not a very nice feeling, but there it is.
We're being called into this space that's uncomfortable. We know what's possible, we know what's promised, we're not 'laughing' that all lives eventually actually mattering to people as much as to God is so ridiculous it should just be dismissed. We've seen actual healing that thirty years ago couldn't have been fathomed.
But that healing demanded sitting in uncomfortable spaces. And hearing uncomfortable realities. And listening to uncomfortable pain and uncomfortable anger. And paying attention.
This will too. The full measure of rejoicing in what God has the capacity to accomplish in and through God's people – it takes hard work. Grace and forgiveness and healing, they're free. And thanks be to God for that, because God knows we're not easy to change. But we're not alone. Amen.