Into Action: Receiving A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Today we continue our narrative lectionary journey through the Old Testament with a look into an episode in the life of Abraham and Sarah. A quick lead up to the story is in order. In Genesis chapter 12, Abraham is called by God, at the age of 75, to leave his homeland and his people and head off to the land that God will show him. God promises to make Abraham a great nation and through him to bless all the families of the earth. So Abram sets out and comes to the land of Canaan and eventually inhabits it, but he and his wife Sarah remain childless. God reiterates the promise in chapter 15, but by chapter 16 Abraham and Sarah decide that if they’re going to have descendants it will have to be through a young woman Hagar who is enslaved to them, and Ishmael is born. As the story continues, God appears and again reiterates the promise that Abraham will have a child through Sarah. At this Abraham laughs, because by now he is nearly 100 years old and Sarah is almost 90. That’s where our text for today picks up, not long after that visit, when three men show up at the entrance of his tent. Notice how Abraham and Sarah receive these men—and the message they bring.
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. So 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.’
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’
Hanging just inside the front door of our home, so that we see it whenever someone comes through it or whenever we head out of it, Judith and I have a framed picture of a coat rack that is captioned with the words of Hebrews 13:2, “Be not forgetful to show hospitality to strangers, for some thereby have entertained angels unawares.” The quote itself refers back to the text we read today and it serves, in part, to remind us to receive visitors to our home warmly, just as Abraham did when the three men appeared near the entrance of his of his tent by the oaks of Mamre.
Judging by his actions, it is open to question whether Abraham was entirely unaware that he was entertaining angels that day. Even by ancient Middle Eastern standards, he seems to pull out all the stops for these men who come by. One of my seminary professors encouraged us to pay attention to the verbs in Bible texts, and there are plenty of them stacked up here. Abraham sees the visitors, he runs to meet them, he bows down, he tells them not to pass by. He has water brought for them to wash their feet and tells them to rest themselves. Then he has Sarah take three measures of the best flour and knead it to make cakes, he runs to get a fatted calf and has his servant prepare it, he brings then the meat along with curds and milk and stands by them under the tree while they eat. That’s a lot of action in just a few short verses—and it indicates the lengths to which Abraham goes to receive these people—and, perhaps, also the message they are going to bring. Such is the work of hospitality, right? You make the house ready, you bring the appetizers and the drinks, you roll out the dough for the bread (or in the case of the auction party I went to last night, the pizza!).
There’s some time and effort involved in receiving people into your home and heart. But as anyone who has practiced hospitality, anyone who has taken the time and effort to make room for people and the messages they bring can tell you, it can be a blessing to do that work. We don’t need to be reminded of that on this first Sunday after the news came out that Pastor Katie is leaving to be the new senior pastor at the Presbyterian church in Leesburg. That is one lucky church. We’ve been one lucky church. Seven years ago, Katie showed up here bringing with her that open-hearted joy, and wisdom, and creativity, and spiritual groundedness. Her very presence among us was and is a gift from the Living Divine—and as the APNC who brought her here will tell you, it was also due to the Spirit-led time and effort and discernment work of their committee. Pastor Katie came, thanks be to God, and embodied for us what it is to deal with loss and grief with vulnerability and grace. She taught us what infectious joy looks like even in the midst of the sorrows of life. She brought new projects and programs and ideas and a willingness to try new things (this guy right here, not always so willing to try new things), which was key for Immanuel as we moved through the COVID 19 pandemic. And now she’s leaving us in a couple of weeks, which may feel like it’s a little too soon for most of us, even as we know that this is the natural course of life in ordained ministry for young pastors as gifted as she.
It seems somehow so appropriate that our text for today moves from hospitality to laughter because Katie taught us something about both. It’s Sarah’s laughter at the door of the tent, after she overhears the three men tell Abraham that she is indeed going to have a child in due season, that I want us to consider now. We don’t and can’t know what her initial laughter was like exactly, but I can only imagine that it was not unreservedly happy. I don’t think it was that Pastor Katie bubbly joyful laugh we’re used to. There was probably more than a hint of cynicism and bitterness in it. After all, as the text takes pains to say, she was old, she was advanced in age, and it had ceased to be with her after the manner of women (in other words, she was post-menopausal). That’s three ways of bringing the point home that women her age don’t have babies. They just don’t. And by the way, I haven’t met a ninety-year old woman yet who would want to have one. I can hear Sarah saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. These three men talking to Abraham are either crazy or they are cruel. Where were they, where was God, when I was younger?”
We know from how the story goes on that what I can only assume was Sarah’s cynical laughter becomes something more joyful, something more Katie-like, because the baby in fact is born. By the way our own Sarah Gaydos had a baby last night. That baby is named Aidan, this baby was named Isaac, which means laughter. But before that, God calls her out on laughing—why did Sarah laugh and say shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old? Is anything too wonderful for God? In due time, I will return and Sarah shall have a son. Sarah, afraid, says, “I didn’t laugh.” And the living divine replies, “Oh yes, you did. You laughed.”
I get why she laughed. Don’t you? Because the promise of having a child, particularly at her age, was outlandish. We can admit that, we can acknowledge how implausible that story is, we can even say with a high degree of confidence that something like that could never happen, and still affirm that the Living Divine continues to bring new life out of situations that seem like dead ends. To say that with God nothing is impossible doesn’t mean we always get what we pray for. It doesn’t mean we can pray the cancer or the infertility or the heartbreaking loss away. It doesn’t mean we can avoid people we love moving on in any one of a number of ways, including dying or taking a new call. It doesn’t mean we get to do everything we planned, everything we dreamed about.
But the process of receiving life as it actually comes—and not as we want it to come—is a process, as a friend of mine put it, of holding onto connection and letting go of attachment. We can be connected to people and places and things, we can want certain outcomes, they can matter to us dearly, and we can still not be attached to them. But that takes a tremendous amount of spiritual maturity. The good news is that the more we get there, the more our laughter can turn from cynicism to deep and abiding joy—because we start to see glimmers of the divine everywhere and we begin to see possibilities even when our dreams have died.
As Judith and I were cleaning out my mom and dad’s house, my brother found something and he brought it over to me. It was a box that used to contain a mug that had balloons on it. The box, a gift box, has the words to and from on it. On the box ,y mom had written to God, from Mary Alice.
It was my Mom’s God box. My brother brought it over to me and we started to look in the box and then we figured we probably didn’t want to go to far into the box because we might find things that Mom brought to God that we didn’t want to know about. We might find our names there. We dug down a little ways. Most of the things in the box were just these little one line slips of paper, help my friend as she has surgery. Be with my son in this moment that is so hard for him. Help me with my COPD.
There was in the box a three page note to God that I pulled out. The first page and half contained this thought—God, I’m so tired of not being to breathe like everyone else. I so want to get off of oxygen so that I can go around and do things that other people do without having to think about it. It was a page and half of that. Just pouring out her heart to God, wanting to be delivered from being on oxygen.
The next page and half read like this: God, if you’re not going to do that for me, help me to learn how to live with this fully. Help me to be a model to other people of what is possible for people who have COPD. Help me to show them what it is like to live fully, even on oxygen.
I read that and I thought, that’s a sermon illustration right there.
There is an old Yiddish saying that goes Mann tracht und Gott lacht, which translated means human beings plan and God laughs. Which suggests that our best laid plans don’t always come to fruition, our dreams don’t always get realized, our sabbatical journeys might get cut short, the person we’ve grown so attached to leaves. I don’t think the Living Divine finds that particularly funny, but I do trust that God works with what is—and that when I align myself with God’s intention, good can come. Even by the way, from 1939-1945. I trust that God can work with what it is, and that when I align myself with god’s intention, good can come. So I might suggest a corollary to man plans and God laughs. God intends for us to live in love, and when we align with that love, human beings laugh. That, my friends, is just one of the things Pastor Katie helped teach me.