This sermon was preached in September 2017 during a Presbytery meeting focused on establishing a new vision and mission.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 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, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
This is the word of the Lord.
There’s a lot we can talk about here. For today, we’re going to focus on having a vision, blessed by God, and what it takes to achieve that vision. In the vast majority of cases, people who achieve great things will tell you, they had a plan. It may have been one they scratched out on a napkin, or one they just knew by heart, but they had at least a general sense of where they were going, why, and how they were going to get there. That’s why any investor or donor worth their salt always wants to know, what’s the plan? How are you getting to that vision? And not just your mission for getting there, but what are you going to do to achieve that mission and vision? What’s your strategy along the way?
So, today friends, as we consider our vision, mission, and strategy as a Presbytery, and ask God to open our eyes, ears, and hearts anew to what God intends for us, let’s consider one of the great vision’s God already gave and granted. God’s infamous vision for Abraham and Sarah.
We first meet Abraham and Sarah back in Genesis 11, descendants of Noah’s son Shem. We learn there that the couple is childless and unable to conceive. We also learn how they become a nomadic family at this point. Then, immediately, at the beginning of Genesis 12, God gives Abraham a vision. “I will make you a great nation and bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Abraham likes this vision and follows God. The Lord continues describing the vision as they travel, “Your children will have this land.” And Abraham builds an altar to God.
As they travel more, Abraham also is nervous about his safety. He tells Sarah to pretend they are siblings, and not spouses, scared that powerful people might kill him in order to steal his beautiful wife. Of course, this means as they go, powerful people believe she’s single and available to be a wife or a concubine. Thankfully, despite Abraham’s gross recklessness, God protects their union and inflicts diseases on a household which has taken Sarah in. God promises Abraham again, “All the land you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offsping like the dust of the earth” – countless. Abraham builds another altar, and it is in this same place that God comes to visit Abraham and Sarah in chapter 18. But before we get there, God promises Abraham again, in chapter 15, “a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir; look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.”
Abraham can imagine the vastness of his descendants, living out in the promised land, and expanding into all the earth, more numerous than the stars in the sky. And all of them calling him father. He can see it out there. He believes it. And in Genesis 15:6, we hear the Lord say he reckons this faith – this blind faith – as righteousness. What a blessing, for us all. How incredible, that even as Abraham barely knows how to proceed towards this vision, like so many of us in so many seasons of our life, other than to wait for it to just become a reality, God makes a covenant with Abraham, full of grace and abundant blessing.
In fact, Abraham and God both make embodied covenants with one another. They continue to grow in relationship.
But still, Abraham and Sarah wonder how this mystery will be solved. How will they have countless descendants?
Perhaps, Sarah wonders at one point, maybe she is not meant to conceive. After all, this has not been the easiest marriage. She has been hurt and scared at times. Could she ever, really, conceive a baby with Abraham? Perhaps it’s too hard to even think about coming together after so much pain and distance between them.
As we’re probably all familiar, she tries to solve the problem herself. She offers her slave as a surrogate. It seems she believes it is the best option available. Had they ever tried to address what was keeping them apart? The hurt, pain, embarrassment, anger, frustration? The emptiness? The longing? The wish to be closer, but not knowing how to get there. How often had they tried, and failed? How often had they tried, and it only ended with them both even more upset. Sometimes, that chasm between loved ones seems so immensely wide. So impossible to clear.
It would take a real miracle.
So, then, today. . . God shows up. Suddenly appearing near the trees of Mamre. What do you think Abraham was thinking at that first moment? You think he was only thinking about how to honor the Lord and his guests? How to be hospitable for his very special guests?
You think he had maybe a twinge of . . . Oh. My. God.
“Sarah . . . make some cakes.”
I have a friend who likes to repeat the quote, “The longest journey you will ever take is from the head to the heart.” He says this often when he’s teaching what he calls, Fearless Dialogues, where he brings together people from all different walks of life and facilitates conversations between them in which they learn about each other’s backgrounds and experiences and have the opportunity to discover one another’s humanity more closely.
Abraham and Sarah struggled for a long time – decades – to share a sense of humanity with one another, let alone a sense of real pleasure with one another. They maybe could have used a fearless dialogue or two. And perhaps that’s what God is making way for here. Maybe later, after the guests leave, maybe they actually get around to addressing what’s been hurting most. Why there hasn’t been any pleasure, for so long. And not just happiness, but the fullness of life kind of pleasure. The kind of pleasure God intends for spouses, for families, and for intentional loving communities. The kind of pleasure God intends for all God’s children.
I would argue, pleasure is Abraham and Sarah’s mission. A mission they’ve been neglecting for dozens of years, and without which they cannot get to their God-given vision of receiving the tremendous blessing of a large family that in turn becomes a blessing for the world.
In our passage today, the Lord begins by speaking directly to Abraham. “Where is your wife?” God asks. She’s in the tent, Abraham replies. Then, the Lord restates the more explicit promise he had already given to Abraham at their last visit in chapter 17. In several months, Sarah is going to have your son.
Now, I don’t know if any of you like mysteries or who-done-its. If you do, you’ll probably remember how a common question a detective or investigator will ask or will check in phone records, texts, or emails, is what did you do when you found out great news? And the reason they look at this point in a storyline, is because it’s a common impulse across the board and it’s an easy way to check if someone is lying. Because it’s nearly impossible to avoid telling someone you love good news. You might not even love them that much, in most cases you can’t help but tell them. Whether it’s your family member, a best friend, someone you work with – you blurt it out – I got the job! Our kid got into the college of their dreams! We found a donor for the transplant! We’re having a baby!
Those are the expressions, the outreach, we make ordinarily in life, especially within loving relationships. Not even when we’ve waited decades for something special to happen.
But Abraham doesn’t do that. He doesn’t tell Sarah they are going to have a baby. And no wonder hardly anyone preaches on this point. Are there even words for what’s going on here? For what’s keeping them apart? Yet, it’s the stuff we know so well in our own lives. And it’s the stuff we encounter in pastoral counseling. It’s the blockage, the gnarly knot of emotion that keeps us from turning towards each other, and from confronting and resolving our pain.
But God, in God’s way, shines a big spotlight right on the painful knot entrapping Abraham and Sarah. Let’s bring that pain you’ve been harboring for so long out of the shadows. When God says Sarah’s going to have a baby, Sarah makes it abundantly clear she’s still in the dark. In fact, she can’t help but laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all, and says to herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I now have pleasure?”
And here’s the thing about this word pleasure here. It’s about so much more than only having a baby, becoming pregnant, or conceiving a baby. But, too often, we skip right over it, partly because it’s a word that does not translate well into English. Other languages have better words that may work – like, the French word juissance, the fullness of life, or the Danish word, hygge, joy in a cozy environment, or the Japanese word amae – the tender, emotive, and formative character of a nourishing relationship.
This Hebrew word here shows up five times in the Bible, which can give us some hints at what Sarah is expressing here.
Like in Psalm 36:7-8, when David describes, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your ______ (delights).”
Or in 2 Samuel 1:24, after Saul and Jonathon have been slain, and David, in anguish, immediately bursts into a song of lament, saying, “O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in ________ (luxurious) crimson, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.”
Or when Jeremiah talks about King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon devouring the inhabitants of Zion, and filling his belly with their _______ (delicacies). (51:34)
We don’t have a word for what’s being expressed in all these places with the same Hebrew word. We don’t operate with an English common sense, a tangible embodied sense of the God-given fullness of life brought about within loving caring relationships. This Hebrew word relates at once to nourishing food, to nourishing drink, to luxurious fabrics and jewelry, to battle, and to coming together with a spouse and conceiving new life. We don’t have an English word for what Sarah is getting at here. After all this time, my husband is going to care for me? Is going to care about my role in bringing about our dream with him? After all this time, I may experience the joy of giving him gifts he’s been longing for? “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, now will I have nourishing, luxurious fullness of life?”
It’s a quintessential question. We miss a huge part of the story if we brush past it.
God asks Abraham, “Why is Sarah laughing?”
So much is in that moment.
And Sarah, out of her own fear, feeling the immense tension in the air even from behind the cloth of the tent, suddenly jumps in with a lie, before Abraham has a chance to face with honesty his own actions and heart. God says, don’t even start. And when he addresses Sarah, I’m not sure he even takes his eyes off of Abraham when he says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” You two! You keep acting individually, and not together, as I have intended.
If Abraham and Sarah’s mission is to experience nourishing, luxurious fullness of life – what the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Nashville, TN, and the founder of Thistle Farms calls lavish love – what then is their strategy?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a faery tale. It doesn’t all work out happily ever after in the end . . . yet.
While Abraham and Sarah do come together and find a way to love each other enough to conceive a baby, Abraham in particular continues to struggle to extend lavish love to the people closest to him. He may not know how. But, it seems whatever love Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar, were able to offer their boys, it seems to be what the pediatrician-turned-analyst D. W. Winnicott famously called “good enough parenting.” In a poignant phrase in the Bible, after Abraham dies, his estranged sons both return to bury their father together.
Achieving a great vision is hard. It doesn’t just miraculously happen. A vision is like looking out over a property and imagining the mature orchard that could grow there. To get to a mature orchard, you have to decide you’re going to plant the seedlings (your mission). And tending to your mission takes strategy – someone’s got to prepare the soil, feed and water the trees, and prune them regularly.
Abraham and Sarah had a great vision. Thankfully, God abided with them, graciously teaching them how to develop a mission (to have a baby and raise a child). God then continued to abide with their son and his descendants teaching them how to develop a strategy of nurturing, luxurious, lavish love – a strategy we are still learning how to embody today.
You see visions, missions, and strategies, are not just for businesses or organizations. They’re for families and intentional communities. They’re for all who are ill with various diseases, those who are suffering severe pain of the body / the mind / and the heart, those who are possessed by spirits that fill them with senses of evil, those who have seizures, and those who are paralyzed by disability / fear / or by a silent inability to reach across the chasm between us. These are the ones who Jesus says are blessed. The Abrahams, the Sarahs, the Ishmaels, and Isaacs, the Jakobs, and Esaus. The Rebeccas. The Rachels. The Leahs. Whatever words you want to use for them – visions, missions, and strategies of love are the essence of covenantal relationships.
When we make marriage vows, or ordination vows, or life orders, or commit to intentional communities, we are promising to bring our whole selves to building love together. We are acknowledging that love does not just happen. Babies don’t just happen. Healthy children do not just happen. It takes people coming together. It takes caring villages. It takes loving parents and communities.
And by God’s grace, God keeps showing up to help us connect and reconnect. Even after the dead, God shows up to remind us we praise a scarred Savior. His wounds do not magically disappear, though they are healed. The wounds matter. And they become part of the tremendous story of new life we are invited to bear witness to every day.
This sermon is based on a sermon I preached in 2008.
We sometimes forget how our ancient mothers and fathers of our faith struggled to figure out life and faith, too, like we do. How they didn't have it all together, and things did not just fall into place for them. In fact, quite the opposite. More often than not, they felt unsure they were even heading in the right direction and fumbled to find the right steps toward goodness.
Abram and Sarai are a good example of people and couples in the Bible who struggled. In particular, as it is for so many couples, Abram and Sarai struggled with intimacy. Now, we have to be careful here, to not overlay too much of a Western romanticism approach onto our view of their relationship. Certainly, our western notions of romance are not what I mean here by intimacy.
Mainly, Abram and Sarai struggled to communicate with each other or to have each other's best interests in mind when approaching each other. Even if they were not in love the way we understand romantic love today, they also were not making choices to encourage the advancement of their family line. Despite saying that's what they wanted, their actions did not match up with their expressed hopes.
Partly, this was due to Abram's nearly debilitating fear. He feared losing himself, being hurt, or never seeing his dreams fulfilled. He feared these things so much, he regularly sabotaged opportunities for goodness, and his own and his family's well-being, by putting Sarai at risk whenever they entered a new land.
Despite his fears and consistently poor choices, Abram persisted in hoping for an heir. It seemed he hoped the way so many of us hope - that God might simply give him his heart's desire, without him having to be involved in the process. All that business of being a husband and a father, let alone the head of an entire household, really stretched him to his limits. He would prefer to just have the benefits of a great family line.
Have you ever wanted something without actually knowing how to bring it about or having any sense of how you would get there? Practitioners of visualization often teach the importance of believing, of imaging, yourself in the position you desire to be in. For, they say, if you don't believe you can be in that position, if you cannot actually see yourself there, it is far less likely you actually will achieve it.
As much as Abram wants to beget a family as numerous as the stars in heaven, he also cannot struggles to envision the steps to getting there. Particularly, the steps of love, care, and responsibility that tend to be key ingredients in establishing an extensive family line.
Through a series of seven visits, God gently, over time, encourages Abram to gain a sense of awareness of his own presence in building a life with God, family, and neighbors. These visits reach momentum in Genesis 15 when God promises Abraham he not only will have an heir, but he'll have as many descendants as the stars in the heavens.
Then, in Genesis 17, God visits Abraham again and makes the promise even more explicit. Here God pronounces Abram's name shall change to Abraham, and Sarai's name shall change to Sarah. Also, God declares, Sarah will give birth to a son.
What do you usually do when you receive good news? And not just any good news - but the news you've been waiting most of your life for? The best news? Do you call people? Your parents, siblings? Your best friend? Your spouse? Do you ever keep good news to yourself?
In our passage today, we find God coming to visit Abraham and Sarah, along with two attendants. Some time has passed since God and Abraham's last visit, and since then, Abraham and his entire household, including his thirteen year-old son Ishmael, have been circumcised. Upon seeing God approaching, Abraham immediately invites the guests to visit. They accept, and Abraham instructs the household to prepare a feast.
While the party gathers, the LORD repeats his decree – Sarah shall give birth to a son. She is busy in the tent, preparing the meal, but still overhears this absurdity. She cannot help but giggle, or even balk, at the thought. A woman of her age and her life experience, pregnant after all this time.
Then, something curious happens. Rather than addressing Sarah directly, the LORD looks directly at Abraham and asks, "Why is your wife laughing?"
Can you imagine the look on Abraham's face right then? After all the times God and Abraham have shared up until this moment. The question is for Abraham. God is not questioning or admonishing Sarah's faith in this moment. Instead, it seems God is asking: Why, after all our visits, after all I've told you, after all over our covenanting and promising and believing – why, Abraham, is your wife laughing as if she's never heard the good news? Surely, you have not kept her from knowing the dream you share with her is going to come true?
Embarrassed, ashamed, or maybe feeling the tensions rising outside after hearing her husband's silence, Sarah quickly counters, "I didn't laugh."
"Yes, you laughed," God simply says. Though I'm not sure he ever takes his eyes off of Abraham as he speaks.
Here's the thing – God can bring about miracles. God can even harden or loosen hearts. But God does not participate for you. You matter. You showing up matters. Abraham showing up matters. Constantly putting his wife at risk every time they enter a new town - encouraging her to pretend she was his sister instead of his wife in order to save his own skin - mattered. There's only one reason Sarah doesn't already know she's going to have a son. Abraham hasn't bothered to tell her. Why hasn't Abraham bothered to tell her? We may never fully know.
It's good for us to consider the ways we may be getting in our own way, as Abraham kept getting in his own way. The ways we may stop, limit, or obstruct the very dreams God says may be ours from becoming a reality. Sometimes, God steadily makes the way, even as we actively work against ourselves.
In what ways can we better attend to the blessings God invites us to participate in bringing about? In what ways can we better attend to the relationships in our lives – our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – in building goodness together? How can we better share the good news God grants us with our loved ones?
The founder and director of Fearless Dialogues, Gregory Ellison II, often shares with his audiences a lesson from his grandmother. He calls it the three-foot-challenge. He shares how his grandmother would often point out how he may not be able to change the circumstances he is facing, but he can change the three feet around him. Abraham probably would have benefitted from Dr. Ellison's grandmother's advice. He probably could have changed more of the three feet around him.
Thank goodness, in Abraham's case, God showed up even when Abraham did not. That doesn't always happen. Sometimes, God allows the chips to fall where they may. Just as God invited Abraham to much more - just as God called the disciples out of their fishing boats and onto the shore – God invites us to make a difference. May we all respond.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.