Sunday, 17 July 2016

Sarah's story

Sermon for Trinity 8.

Genesis 18: 9 - 10a. They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 1Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’

There was news recently that women over forty are having more babies than the under twenties.

Today’s story from Genesis introduces us to Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was promised a baby at the ripe old age of 90.
In a year when we have celebrated another remarkable 90 year old woman, our own Queen Elizabeth II, it is time to trace God’s purposes through the 90 year old wife of that great patriarch Abraham.
Why do we do this?
Why do we trace the story of Sarah today?
We do it for the same reason that people trace their family history.
Your family history matters because it gives you roots.
Our faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in the Old Testament and the way God brought about his purposes through individuals who were flawed – just like he does through us.

So we go back in time today, back past Elijah and Elisha to the time of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, whose family story you can read in Genesis.
The names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob tend to run off the tongue because they are the patriarchs.
But what of the matriarchs?
Sarah was the first of those, and her story today appears to be a classic example of how God cares about the individuals that are left out.
The sense of feeling left out of the story is something our new Prime Minister sought to address in her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street this week.
There is some evidence that many who voted to leave the EU felt left out of the story of the UK, the story of others’ prosperity and others’ opportunities, not universally shared
Those who feel so left out of the story that resentment and hatred are burning quietly away, have a habit of suddenly gaining the headlines, which can be a very sinister thing, as our TV screens show us.
So listening to those who are left out of the story may be the most important thing we can do.
In fact, as if to underline how left out Sarah actually is today, the Lectionary compilers, in their infinite wisdom, have actually themselves left Sarah out of her own story (the reading ends at verse 10a)*
Let’s have a look at that story.

Abraham is settled in the land God had promised him. However, 25 years have past since the promise of a son, and now he and Sarah are, to be blunt, past it.
Or as the bible delicately puts it, physically they are as beyond the kind of pleasurable activity that leads to the conceiving of a child, as Sarah is beyond the bearing of such a child.

In this hot Middle Eastern landscape, the shade of a tree in the middle of the day was absolutely vital.
Here we find Abraham in the heat of the day.
He sits at the entrance of his tent, master of all he surveys.
But where is Sarah?
We don’t know; we presume she’s in the tent kitchen.
Visitors arrive.
Abraham looks up and sees three men, who have clearly travelled far and must be sorely in need of refreshment.
Middle Eastern hospitality dictates that their feet must be washed, they must rest and they must eat.
We might recall Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.
And here perhaps we have a little comedy going on: Abraham bowing ceremoniously to the ground as the three visitors approach.
Here are three extremely important men - commentators normally cite this visitation as a ‘Theophany’, an appearance of God in the Old Testament in the form of a man; the other two visitors presumably angelic messengers, also in appearance as men.
So this is no ordinary visitation.
Abraham bows down to the ground and asks that he might have the great honour of providing them with refreshment.
And of course, this is where Sarah comes in.
The scene I imagine is Abraham solemnly bowing to the men and being terribly polite and deferential and calm and dignified, then rushing into the tent and shouting for his wife to grab the ingredients for the baking.
He then runs to the field, slaughters a cow; the servant hastens to prepare it then reappears with the meal, suddenly all calm and decorous.
I looked this up and it probably takes 7 hours to roast a calf, so we might imagine that while Abraham and Sarah prepare the food the divine visitors sit calmly in the shade of the great oak trees, the sun slowly descending into the cool of the evening.
Abraham and Sarah have waited a long time for this intervention.
It always seems a long time when God plants an idea, a hope inside us, because then we have the do the work of waiting.
And waiting can be very hard.
Maybe you’re still praying for someone, for a situation, after 25 years?
After 50 perhaps…
Don’t give up.
God will bring his purposes about.

After the long, slow meal, the question. 
‘Where is Sarah?’
(Not sharing the meal, that’s for sure).
‘She’s there, in the tent’, answers Abraham
There, so often in the background, but now called forth by God.
This is her moment.
‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son’, pronounces the divine visitor.
*And that’s exactly where the Lectionary ends the story -
without Sarah’s own, very human, personal, very understandable reaction.
Because if we read on, beyond the set reading, we get her reaction: she laughs!
If we read on, we discover her in fact listening at the keyhole, metaphorically.
It’s classic picture of women in the Old Testament – listening at keyholes, off at the side, while the men get the main parts.

But God is no respecter of gender.
Thankfully the accounts of family life in Genesis are very human and touching, and honest, especially about the things that go wrong in families.
There is no attempt on the part of the writer at covering up her reaction – because our reactions reveal our hearts and God is interested in hearts.
If you’re interested enough to read on you will find Sarah’s reaction to God’s angelic promise of a son.
She laughs.
Her laughter is not the laughter of joyful acceptance.
It is not Mary’s may it be to me according to your word.
It is the laughter of someone who’s heard it all before.
It’s the laughter of a woman who’s seen it all before, but who’s not felt personally included in the story.
God’s promise was delivered to her second hand, via her husband.
But now it’s her turn to face the music.
After all, Abraham can’t have the son (God may do the impossible, but he generally respects biology).
It has to be Sarah who finds herself pregnant, not her husband.
It’s when things get personal with God that we finally feel included in the big story.
Because if God isn’t experienced as personal, he isn’t God.
So Sarah laughs.
She doesn’t believe.
In fact the text says ‘she laughed to herself’.
So perhaps it wasn’t even an audible laugh.
But God knew her on the inside.
The speaking visitor asks Abraham ‘why did Sarah laugh?’
This supernatural knowledge is verging on the spooky for Sarah.
The visitor wants to know, doesn’t she realise nothing is impossible for God?
But Sarah is now afraid.
She denies her reaction.
‘I didn’t laugh’, she says.
‘Oh yes, you did’, answers the angel.
‘Oh no I didn’t’.
‘Oh yes, you did’.
Oh no I didn’t.
It’s comedy again.
There’s no judgment though – just the observation that, in fact, she did laugh.
And then, a year later, Isaac is born.
And Isaac means laughter.
God takes her reaction and weaves it into the story of the patriarchs, the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Judah, from whom would come the Lion of Judah, the saviour of the world.
By then, I imagine, Sarah’s laughter was joyful, unbounded, hilarious and full of gratitude.
From being outside the story, she was now in the centre fold.
God’s big story is so wonderful, so crazy, so expansive.
May we who are nurtured by the roots of our faith in the Old Testament stories of God’s people, continually find ourselves in the centre of God’s story, and especially if till now we have felt somewhat outside of it.

Gracious God,
Sarah laughed long ago.
You made her laugh.
You showed her
that there is no distance between her and you.
Please, God,
make us laugh, too.
Come close to us,
and let us see your miracles
in our lives.


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