By Jane Lancaster Patterson
Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me.”
One of the ways we do the Bible a disservice is to imagine that it was easier to see what God was up to in biblical times, that thousand-year-plus period during which God just walked up and told people what to do in plain English. Really? If it was so obvious, then why did people veer off track so often? I doubt that they were more foolish than we are. No, I think that the biblical stories describe a world very much like ours, a world in which the presence and direction of God have to be discerned among a host of non-God events, both good and bad from our personal point of view. As in the life we know, it took our forebears hindsight to see the arc of God’s movement over time.
This morning, we witnessed the arrival of three strange visitors to Abraham and Sarah in the first reading from Genesis. If we listen again to how the story begins, we can see the role of hindsight in interpreting the original event. Here’s how it starts: “Abraham 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.”
The arrival of three tired and hungry strangers is not a completely unusual thing to have happen in those days. Abraham is a wealthy man, with flocks and herds, wives and servants. Three visitors show up, apparently people Abraham wants to make welcome. So he sets about mobilizing his whole household to serve them. He gets a servant to bring water to wash the visitors’ feet, and he sets them up comfortably in the shade. He sets Sarah to the task of making bread, culls a choice calf from the herd, has it slaughtered and roasted, and then sits under the tree with the guests to visit and tell stories. The whole account is one of profound hospitality, according to the accepted customs of that particular time and place, as Abraham makes the three strangers welcome and cared for.
The story as we have it isn’t a newspaper account from the day it occurred. It isn’t an eyewitness account by Abraham of what happened. It’s a story whose real meaning could only be grasped over a very long period of time. It took centuries for this story to find its place as part of the saga of the birth of the tribal confederacy that would eventually become Israel.
At some point, an insightful storyteller added the introductory line that helps us understand how important this day was, not only for Abraham and Sarah, but for the whole future Hebrew people. The line that now introduces today’s story is: “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.” So I ask you: how long do you think it took for someone to discern that God was at work through the encounter between Abraham, Sarah, their whole household, and three travelers on a hot day in Mamre?
But my question isn’t really about the past. It’s about the present. Are we not being visited by God right now, in the midst of a pandemic and racial strife and economic freefall? How do we learn to recognize a divine visitation as it is occurring?
I’m going to stick to one part of what is going on right now. COVID-19 and its economic implications will actually ultimately be resolved through technical means, even though a lot of moral questions will rightly surface for us as Christians about the justice of how vaccines are distributed and who receives economic relief.
But the really intriguing place where I sense God coming toward us right now is in the chance for us, finally, to address the question of race in America, and to live into our stated conviction that all people are created equal. The story of Abraham and Sarah isn’t an exact match for what is happening around us, but it does offer some strange echoes of our history with race in America in three themes of the story: (1) a long-awaited, impossible birth; (2) the legacy of slavery, not only in the story of Abraham and Sarah, but in the larger narrative of the Hebrew people; and (3) Sarah’s complicated laughter.
So, echo number one: an impossible, long-awaited birth. This may be one of the more obvious echoes. Abraham and Sarah are simply, obviously too old to have a child, too weary to rekindle the hopes that God planted in them so many years earlier with a promise of children. Contrary to all ordinary calculations (let me remind you that the text says that Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah seems to be around the same age), the strange visitors announce that a new life is now on the way in Sarah’s belly.
America, too, was founded on promises, the fruits of which we have never actually seen, because the practice of slavery was so deeply embedded in our very earliest economic life. It has been hard to trust that those promises could finally come to pass. The legacy of slavery has continued to manifest itself even since the Civil War in things of which we are ashamed: in Jim Crow laws, lynching, real-estate covenants, unwarranted incarceration, unequal access to every possible good or opportunity.
But in the very midst of the tragedy of more black lives lost this spring, of anger reaching the boiling point, the long promise of what America might be is sending up a tender shoot of life. Can we recognize and welcome the divine Visitor in our midst? Can we trust in the new life planted among us, old and world-weary as we are? Do we have the will to carry this new life to term?
Echo number two: the legacy of slavery for the Hebrew people — and for us. One of the saddest parts of the story of Sarah and Abraham is what happens to Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave. Despairing of Abraham’s ever having a child, Sarah arranges for Hagar to bear Abraham’s child, who will be raised as the son and heir. But no sooner does that happen than Sarah regrets the decision and wants to send Hagar away.
One of the saddest lines in the story, to my ears, is Abraham’s response to Sarah’s request: “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” The circumstances of Ishmael’s birth and the ultimate banishment of both Hagar and Ishmael are deeply tragic. In the midst of it, God meets Hagar at a spring of water in the wilderness and she becomes the first person in the Bible to name God El-roi, God of seeing, because God has truly seen her and she has seen God at the spring.
God is powerfully present to the slave, even as the story of Abraham and Sarah continues in a different direction. In the long arc of the narrative of Abraham’s heirs, God will likewise appear to Moses when the Hebrew people are enslaved, and Moses will learn of God’s name in fire at the burning bush.
I wonder, then, what name of God is being revealed in the fires of Minneapolis, as we enter the long season of Pentecost and remember the tongues of fire that emanated from the disciples as they began to speak in all the languages of the earth. As we wrestle with the legacy of slavery, how is God appearing before our eyes in the fires of protest?
And finally, echo number three: Sarah’s complicated laughter. When Sarah overhears the announcement of the three visitors that by the time they return she will have a son, she laughs. This is not a laugh of pure joy. It’s a painful laugh, coming from her most vulnerable place, her most devastating experience. For Sarah, hope means pain. Even God is apparently a little taken aback by Sarah’s response:
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 it, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
If you are a white person, as I am, you should not expect that your sudden concern for racial equality will be met with unmixed joy. Even good deeds and the raised awareness that are now occurring are connected to places of deep trauma for people of color in the United States. As a white Christian woman, I am called to do what is right without expectation of a happy response from those who have been denied justice for centuries. Joy is so complicated for people who have suffered, especially when the joy hits exactly on the sore places, and hope feels literally dangerous.
The Scriptures have been handed down to us by generations of people who strained to see how God was moving among them, but who hoped that we might have powers of discernment greater than theirs, that we might learn from their experiences how to recognize God in the visitations of our time.
Today, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Moses are telling us that God is probably there when new life impossibly blooms in the midst of age-old suffering and loss and evil; that God leans near to the enslaved and shows up in fire; and that the faithful need to tune ourselves to God’s justice and mercy not because it makes us look good, or assuages our guilt, but because, as Jesus would tell us, that is really the only way to become fully alive as a human being.
At the end of the story, when Isaac has been safely born, Sarah’s joy finally sings out without mixture. Let’s let her have the last word: “Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’” May it be so for us and for all who welcome the visitation of God in our time.
The Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson is a retired associate professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.