Sunday, September 17, 2023

Sermon: “Behind the Laughter”, Genesis 18:1-2, 8-15 (September 17, 2023)

I have to confess that I’ve abbreviated today’s reading quite a bit from the original text given by the Narrative Lectionary. The full reading includes verses 3-7, plus Isaac’s birth in chapter 21. It wants us to focus on Abraham’s hospitality and to tie up the story with a nice big bow: the impossible promise being fulfilled. But framing the story in this way is unfair to Sarah. So much of Sarah’s story is overshadowed by her husband and HIS relationship with the Lord. Although she’s as much a part of God’s covenant as he is, she remains relegated mostly to the background, silent and alone, for much of the story. I’m tired of her experience being rendered invisible, and so – at least for today – Sarah will be at the center of this story.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Sarah? Her whole life, at least as it’s presented in scripture, is focused on her husband’s success. She picks up and moves their entire household for him. She poses as his sister in order to protect him from the actions of an amorous pharaoh – not once, but twice! She even offers her handmaiden as a surrogate mother, in spite of her own heartache, so that her husband might finally have an heir. She toils and sacrifices and risks it all for him. And not once does Scripture tell us that she’s given any reward[1] or even recognition for her faithfulness to her husband and his God.

Genesis 18 begins as more of the same. Abraham receives these mysterious guests and (appropriately) offers them as much hospitality as he can offer. When they accept, what’s the first thing he does? He turns to Sarah and instructs HER to start baking. More of the same. As always, she’s expected to put the needs and wants of others before herself, and she does so without complaining. But then, something new happens. Without any sort of prompting, the strangers ask about her by name, and they declare that the one thing she’s longed for for the better part of eighty years will finally come to pass: she’s going to have a child. And Sarah reacts to all this by laughing.

It’s easy to read Sarah’s laughter as an abrupt “HA!” of incredulity – and many people do. But keep in mind that her desire for a child is far more than just a way for her to achieve status and to be seen in a patriarchal society. She understands motherhood as a part of her purpose and identity that had, up until this point, eluded her. I can tell you for certain that there’s much more going on within Sarah’s heart at this moment than the words of Scripture tell us on their own.

There’s incredulity, of course, but there’s also probably no small measure of bitterness. This man’s words are salt in an already-painful wound that she’d kept carefully hidden away in order to faithfully perform her other wifely duties. Maybe there’s a brief glimmer of hope and possibly even joy, but if so, it’s heavily tempered with realism and doubt. And then there’s fear – so much fear! Fear that this is some sort of cruel joke, fear that she’s too tired and bitter to parent a child, fear that her own aged body would refuse to endure the demands of pregnancy, fear that her heart would wind up broken yet again. All of this, and more, is contained within what the rest of the world hears as a simple laugh.

When we keep Sarah in the background of this story, it's easy to package it as yet another divine triumph, another win for Abraham, another example of “All’s well that ends well.” But that perspective doesn’t honor the painful experience of childlessness that so many of us share with Sarah. For thousands of years, people have read this passage and become lost in Sarah’s grief without being able to share in her eventual joy. Scripture may not spell out these emotions, but for those who have been there, it doesn’t have to. The loneliness. The hope mingled with exhausted doubt. The anxiety and mortal fear. The sense of being betrayed by your own body. It’s NOT just a sad story with a happy ending. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions that no one chooses, but so many endure.

Those who don’t share Sarah’s unfulfilled desire for children may wonder if her experience is relevant to them, but while the grief of childlessness IS a unique one, that doesn’t mean that you can’t relate at all. Odds are that you, too, carry a secret pain of your own that you keep to yourself. Unrequited love. Unrealized potential. Dreams deferred. Opportunities denied. Paths not taken. Everyone’s secret pain is different, but we all have them. We all carry them with us, pushing them down again and again to keep them from overwhelming us. And more often than not, we bear them alone.

I don’t know for a fact that Sarah carried her burden alone, but her laugh, that laugh containing so much emotion, makes me think that it’s likely she did. See, Abraham had already been told in the PREVIOUS chapter that Sarah was going to give birth to a son. HE already knows, yet Sarah’s reaction to the visitor’s pronouncement makes it seem like SHE doesn’t. Now, we can give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to tell her or that he wanted to save his wife from the pain of more disappointment – like Sarah, he reacts to the news by laughing, so maybe he shares some of her doubts and fears. But apparently, he shares them in secret: scripture makes it sound like they each wrestle with their own deep emotions, whatever they are, alone.

Abraham knows exactly how to meet the physical needs of strangers passing by his tent without them even asking, but he isn’t able to meet the emotional needs of his own wife. That’s not, of course, to place the blame entirely on his shoulders. Physical needs are relatively straightforward and easy to predict, whereas emotional ones are much more complicated – especially when they’re not spoken aloud. I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently if Sarah had shared the depths of her emotions with her husband, and if he had been open with her about the message he’d been given. Whether perhaps the seemingly interminable sorrow of Sarah’s childlessness would have been easier for the two of them to bear together.

The instinct with so much of our grief and pain is to keep it hidden. We don’t want to burden anyone else with our struggles, and we don’t want to let it get in the way of the rest of our lives. Maybe there’s even a part of us that hopes someone will see our invisible hurt and do the emotional labor of meeting our needs without us having to ask. But that never works. These feelings can’t be bottled up inside forever; eventually, something will happen to draw them out – and at that point, you can’t control how they’re seen. Sarah’s inadvertent laugh wound up including these complete strangers in her personal life, and of all the emotions behind the laugh, the visitors responded only to her doubt – which was the LAST way she wanted to be perceived!

But while we can’t keep our secret pain inside, we also don’t have to carry it by ourselves. God doesn’t mean for us to bear the hardest parts of being human alone. That’s why we have marriage: so that two people can share their lives completely with one another. That’s why we have family: so that we can share our resources and care for our kin. That’s why we have community: so that none of us has to endure hardship in isolation. Scripture never says that the Lord won’t give you more than you can handle, but it DOES teach that no matter how dire our circumstances may become, we are never, ever alone.

The catch is that we have to be willing to be vulnerable. We can’t help each other through life unless we’re willing to share these heavy things with one another. The most secret parts of ourselves: our innermost thoughts, our deepest feelings, our greatest fears. This is, of course, REALLY HARD. It’s hard to let yourself feel the things you don’t want to, it’s hard to open up to others, it’s hard to invite someone else to join you on your personal journey, and it’s hard to ask for help. I can’t count the number of times I’ve rescheduled a therapy appointment because I couldn’t find the courage to share what was really on my heart with another person, even one obligated by law to protect my privacy. When you’re already emotionally fragile, the last thing you feel like doing is opening yourself up to even more vulnerability.

But we aren’t supposed to bear these hard things alone. We all deserve to have someone to lean on. Abraham deserved to know what Sarah was feeling, and Sarah deserved to be known by her husband. YOU deserve to be seen and uplifted, but – and this is important – nobody but God can know what you’re feeling unless you tell them. And while God is a wonderful companion and friend, God wants humanity to find comfort and fulfillment in relationship with each other. And so, as difficult as it is, we HAVE to learn how to be vulnerable, to make our needs known so that others can reach out and help us when we become lost in our secret pain.

God promises that our grief and sorrow will never have the final word. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t have to endure it. Instead of trying to rush past it to get to the happy ending, instead of trying to cover it up with a laugh, instead of keeping it to ourselves, maybe it’s time for us to try something different. Maybe it’s time for us to try trusting someone else with the most fragile parts of ourselves. Not believing that they can fix it or make it stop hurting – but trusting that they will honor our pain and help us to bear it. Maybe it’s time for us to share the sighs, the tears, and yes – even the complicated laughter with each other. Perhaps then, our laughter can also express one more emotion: thanksgiving for the one with whom we share it. Amen.

[1] I must emphasize here that, while for many people childbearing and -rearing is a joy, it is NOT a divine reward. Likewise, being unable or unwilling to bear and/or rear children is NOT a punishment or moral failing.

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