A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6
June 18, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Romans 5:1-8
The angel said to me: "Why are you laughing?"
"Laughing! Not me. Who was laughing? I did not laugh. It was
A cough. I was coughing. Only hyenas laugh.
It was the cold I caught nine minutes after
Abraham married me: when I saw
How I was slender and beautiful, more and more
Slender and beautiful.
I was also
Clearing my throat; something inside of me
is continually telling me something
I do not wish to hear: A joke: A big joke:
But the joke is always just on me.
He said: you will have more children than the sky's stars
And the seashore's sands, if you just wait patiently.
Wait: patiently: ninety years? You see
The joke's on me!"
This poem, called “Sarah,” by the 20th century American poet Delmore Schwartz is a creative reimagining of today’s reading from Genesis and the exchange between Sarah and the heavenly visitors. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, is told at the age of 90 that she will not be barren forever, but that she will, indeed, bear a child. She laughs. Who wouldn’t? Abraham himself laughs at this promise in another place. I would probably laugh, too. Today, it is Sarah who laughs, because she has heard this before. God has promised an heir already. God has doubled down on that promise, more than once already. And yet there is so much that makes this promise seem ridiculous on its face. So Sarah laughs–skeptically, mockingly, dismissively, ironically, perhaps a little like a hyena. “So numerous shall your descendants be, Sarah.” “Yeah, sure God, whatever you say.”
Have you ever laughed like Sarah? “Of course this would have to happen to me,” we might say with a little chuckle. “That’s just how things go in my life: another day, another problem,” we comment with a laugh. Maybe we are at a place where we have given up hope, where we can’t see a way forward, where we are so used to the way things have been that we cannot see how things could be any different, and all we can do is laugh–mockingly, dismissively, ironically.
But here’s the thing about God’s promises. They are not just hearty efforts, or a promise to see what God might be able to do under the right conditions, or good intentions. They are promises that can be accounted for, written into the ledger, taken to the bank. They are sure. And just as God says, Isaac is born. And Sarah laughs again. Not like before–not a skeptical, mocking, dismissive, or ironic laughter. But an Isaac laughter that comes from a deep well of joy, from wonder at the goodness of God. Sarah has been surprised by hope, so she laughs.
The truth is life is full of sufferings and things we cannot control. Sometimes it takes us a long while to be surprised by hope, so we give up. Just ask Sarah. The desire of her heart has not come to pass; the thing she hoped for most seems a fantasy, even too much for the promises of God. She is despondent and sorrowful. No doubt she has spent nights weeping, nights angry, nights bargaining with God, nights wondering why her. And day by day, month by month, year by year, decade by decade, it seems that her worst fears will become her destiny. Sometimes, in the face of that, all we can muster is an ironic chuckle, a dismissive laugh, to keep us from going over into the abyss.
The author of that poem I quoted at the beginning, Delmore Schwartz, knew something about despair. He knew something about how Sarah feels today before the promise is fulfilled. His family lost most everything when the depression hit in 1929. His father died in 1930. A corrupt executor embezzled most of the money away. Delmore went to college, started writing. Early on he was heralded as a big success story, the up-and-coming one to keep your eye on. People like T.S. Eliot praised his work. But then that faded away. His later work was dismissed. His life, once so full of promise, slipped into despair and alcoholism and mental illness. Delmore would die alone, anonymous and penniless, at the age of 52 from a heart attack. It would take two days for his body to be discovered.
His poem reveals that he understands Sarah’s laugh at a deep level, at a despairing level. Her ironic guffaw was his also. I can hear him say with a dismissive chuckle, “the joke’s on me!” For him in this life, there was no Isaac, no vindication, no joyful laugh that turned mourning into dancing. If we are honest, for many people, that’s the case in this life.
Here’s what I wish someone could have said to Delmore, what I hope someone tells me when I’m in that low place: The source of real joy, the source of that Isaac laughter, is present, even in our sufferings, even when we cannot feel anything but despair. Our peace with God, our connection to God, does not come through us, but through what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. God’s promises do not depend on us, but on God’s faithfulness, and are always yes and amen. So even in suffering, we can hope. Even in despair, we can hope. Even in fear, we can hope. We can hope, expecting that Isaac laughter to break out at any moment; expecting God to show up in a wonderful way that surprises us; expecting the great reversal from despair to joy, from doubt to faith, and even from death to life. And this hope–hope in God’s power to reverse and bring victory from defeat, life from death–this hope, St. Paul says today, will never disappoint us, for it’s a hope beyond the horizon of this life alone.
The good news, today and every day, is that God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through Jesus. Poured out in his life, death, and resurrection. Poured out into us moment by moment. And this love of God is always faithful.
We are not immune from suffering. We are not immune from despair. Like Sarah, the only defense we sometimes have in the face of things we cannot control is an ironic chuckle. “The joke’s on me,” Delmore says. But suffering, despair, and that ironic chuckle do not get the last word over our lives. God gets the final word, and God has promised us love and life. And even if that ultimate Isaac-laugh does not come in this life, it will come just over the horizon. Faith is trusting that–trusting that we are children and beloved heirs of God who will never be separated from God’s love for us. Faith is laughter–Isaac laughter–in the face of suffering, because we know the end of the story: God’s victory over all.
Was it not Jesus himself who said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” And with us all of heaven.
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