“Oh Yes, You Did”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
14 June, 2020
First in “Unraveled” Series
Usually, when we hear this story, we’re reminded of the importance of welcoming strangers. Of following Abraham’s example. Did you hear how enthusiastically he invited the foreigners to come and allow him to serve them? It says, “Abraham … ran quickly ran to meet them, bowed with his face to the ground, and said, ‘Please come to my home where I can serve you.’” And then he recruited his entire household in the project of making the strangers feel welcome, blessing them, and opening some space for how God’s blessing might arrive through them.
To our ears, this whole story sounds a bit odd. It certainly isn’t a familiar scene. In our culture, contrary to Abraham’s immediate impulse of welcoming the stranger, our first instinct is to be wary of the unfamiliar person. Never mind that, statistically speaking, strangers are far more likely to help and strengthen us than they are to harm us, most of us have a natural predisposition that’s further conditioned by our society, to treat them with caution – if not suspicion. Especially if they don’t look like us or sound like they come from places we know or trust. There are so many Biblical stories extolling the virtue of welcoming outsiders. For example, immediately in the next chapter (Genesis 19), Abraham’s nephew Lot learns and teaches that lesson; or the story of Ruth, numerous times; the best-known is probably the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Bible says in so many different ways what the author of Hebrews concisely sums up by saying, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Obviously, this is advice that’s worth hearing and being reminded of, often. But it’s not the main thing I want to focus on this morning.
Some of you will remember that this is the passage we heard in early January, when we first began looking at the Holy Habit of Fellowship. You might remember that I brought in a copy of the Rublev icon called “The Trinity”. We talked about the symbolism of the icon, which depicts three angels or holy figures, and the fact that although the story is ancient, far predating Christian theology, many have seen in this story a prefiguring of the Holy Trinity. The translation we read from this morning (the Contemporary English Version/CEV) makes the divine identity of at least one of them explicit. In Genesis 18:10, we read, “One of the guests was the LORD, and he said, ‘I’ll come back around this time next year, and when I do, Sarah will already have a son.’”
But though they are also important, I don’t want to put the spotlight on the divine visitors this morning, either. The character I’d like for us to relate to this morning is Sarah. In all of Genesis, we don’t hear many of Sarah’s words, and we don’t really get to know her mind very well. As biblical women go, she’s not the most talkative. What we do know, based on the previous six chapters, is that she is faithful, particularly to Abraham. Our introduction to the couple is in Genesis 12, when they are still going by the names Abram and Sarai, and living in the land of Haran. The LORD tells Abram to leave his country and kindred to go to a land that God will show him; he is promised that a great nation will be made of him, he will be blessed, and his name will be great so that he himself will be a blessing. “So,” we read in Genesis 12:4-5, “Abram went, as the LORD had told him; …Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.”
Scarcely have they set off than a famine forces them to Egypt. There, Abram tells Sarai to pretend she’s his sister—otherwise, he fears, he will be killed. You see, Sarah was very beautiful and he knew that if the Pharaoh wanted her for a wife, then he would be seen as a threat. (Remember what King David later did to Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah?) Sarai went along with it. Until the Pharaoh and his household were afflicted by plagues and he figured out he’d been lied to—and he allowed Abram and Sarai to flee.
They journeyed onward, back north toward Canaan. As the years went by, Abram and Sarai waited and waited for the child(ren) necessary to fulfill God’s promise that Abram would become the father of a great nation. Eventually, Sarai concluded that God had closed her womb. By the customs of those times, she could allow Abram to conceive a child with her slave (named Hagar), and Hagar’s child would be considered Sarai’s own. So, that’s what happened. But no sooner was Ishmael conceived than Sarai suspected Hagar was gloating. At which point, Sarai abused her power over Hagar. She made an ultimatum to Abram: either Hagar leaves with the child (who was also Abram’s child), or I do: you choose. And Abram told Sarai to do with the slave woman what she deemed best. Sarai drove the new mother and child out of their camp to fend for themselves in the wilderness. And Abram became complicit in abandoning his own son and another human being.
Finally, in the chapter preceding our reading this morning (Genesis 17), Abram had a dream in which God appeared to him and assured him that his son Ishmael and Hagar would be okay. And his wife – no longer to be called Sarai, but now Sarah – would bear a son whose name was to be Isaac. He himself would no longer be called Abram, but Abraham—father to many nations. The narrator doesn’t say that Abraham told Sarah about this dream; maybe he wasn’t sure whether to believe it himself until he was visited by the three strangers, who reiterated the promise.
But it’s Sarah we’re focusing on, right? So, Sarah has stayed with Abraham through all of this. She has supported his wilderness ventures, never questioning Abraham’s trust in the God who had called them to leave everything familiar and safe behind; the God whose orders were simply to trust and follow the divine guidance. Her husband is devoted to this God, and she is devoted to her husband. We don’t know whether Sarah has as much confidence in God as Abraham does—after all, she’s the one who tried to help the dream materialize when she told her husband to have a child with Hagar. Still, Abraham continues to trust the promises he’s heard from God about becoming a great nation and inheriting a land, even though the promises look and sound increasingly ridiculous with every passing year.
Despite her personal heartbreak over not having the child she’d longed for; despite the humiliation of being “given” to another man as if she were just an object to be bartered in order to save her husband’s life and her own; despite the shame she felt when Hagar, whom she presumed superiority over, conceived immediately, after she herself had spent years trying to get pregnant; despite all these hurts and indignities, Sarah still loved and honored Abraham. She supported him as he welcomed the three strangers. She quickly pulled together the meal with her husband, and she made the travelers feel welcome.
But it was too much when, eavesdropping at the tent’s entrance, she heard one of the strangers declare that he would come back in a year and she’d have given birth to a son. It beggared belief. After all, “Abraham and Sarah were very old [the previous chapter reported that she was 90 years old, Abraham 99], and Sarah was well past the age for having children. So, she laughed and said to herself, ‘Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, will I really know such happiness?’”
Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you laugh out loud, or roll your eyes, or mutter “Oh, give me a break!”, or do whatever it is you do when dismissing someone else’s ridiculous ideas or assertions? Because we all do it, even if we keep it to ourselves, even no one else sees or hears it. We’re all Sarah at one time or another.
And, like Sarah, we all have the capacity for denial. When the LORD asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? … Is anything too hard for the LORD?” Her response was once again reflexive and unthinking, and resulted in a lie: “I didn’t laugh,” she protested. The narrator says, “Sarah was so frightened that she lied, and said, ‘I didn’t laugh.’”
When confronted with a truth that was more than she could bear, especially when it asked her to examine a part of herself that she really didn’t want to look at, Sarah unraveled in a way. It was easier to deny doing what everyone else there knew she’d done. It was easier to deny doing what the LORD himself said she’d done than it was to contend with the truth. And, as long as she held fast to her denial, there was no arguing with her; denial isn’t generally open to reason or critical reflection. Denial is a protective technique each of us employs when we are afraid of something bigger than ourselves, and we’re not sure we can cope with what might be asked or required of us were we to accept the reality that others see.
As far as she was concerned, Sarah had been a good and faithful wife. She was supportive of Abraham. Obedient. Strong-willed sometimes, but didn’t it require fortitude to survive all she’d been through? And, maybe her temper did get the best of her on a couple of occasions – but, hadn’t she been longsuffering? After all, her life hadn’t been easy, she’d sacrificed much, and as far as Sarah was concerned, she tried hard to be a good person. Let’s not talk about the fact that she drove Hagar and her young son out into the wilderness to fend for themselves—that was done at an excruciatingly painful time in her life, and so we’re just not going to talk about it, or even think about it. Sarah was a good person. She tried to be a good person, and that’s what mattered. It was a whole lot easier to trust that Abraham’s God would tend to Hagar and Ishmael, than to risk believing that Abraham’s God would fulfill her wildest dream and an impossible promise, especially after so many years of disappointment and heartache.
It can be a fearsome thing to examine our own behaviors, sometimes, or the activities of the people we identify with most closely, especially when what we’ve been complicit in or unwittingly supporting is objectionable. It’s scary to contemplate about unraveling long-held ideas or attitudes, and allowing our thinking to be re-woven into something with greater integrity, because we prefer to think that we’re already strong and good enough as we are. That’s how the Church was able to hide and deny countless generations of sexual abuse and other systemic abuses of power – and still works to cover things up. That’s how, for thousands of years, and even today, many people who read the Scriptures have glossed over the implicit acceptance of human slavery. It’s right there the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah—did you hear it? And did it bother you?—and it continues through even into a couple of our New Testament epistles where slaves are enjoined to obey their earthly masters. But we pretend it’s not there, or we scarcely hear it.
It’s ugly. Morally abhorrent. In many ways, too painful to look at or acknowledge, and so we skim over it quickly, deny it’s real or problematic. This is how a nation can be complicit in generations upon generations of systemic racism, and how good people of faith can deny that it’s a reality. Our human capacity for denial can blind us from the truth; it can tempt us to tell and believe lies about ourselves. But sometimes, unraveling is good for us–especially when we allow God to be in charge of the re-weaving process.
Friends, the good news is that the One who asked, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” didn’t condemn Sarah for her inability to accept what was real. He simply told her the truth, leaving the door open for her to know the freedom and grace of knowing that transformation is possible, even if we can’t see it or imagine it in this moment.
“I didn’t laugh,” insisted a fearful Sarah. “Yes, you did,” replied the LORD. And the following year, she gave birth to a son whom she named Isaac, which means “Laughter.”
What is it that you’re refusing to believe, what are you denying is possible, what reality are you failing to see because it feels too threatening or overwhelming to open yourself to its possibility? What potential and spiritual growth opportunities are we denying ourselves as a church because we fail to accept that, with God, all things are possible? What scornful laughter of unraveling and disbelief that we’d deny we ever engaged in, might God refashion into the delighted laughter of visions fulfilled? Amen.
 Genesis 18:2-3
 Hebrews 13:2
 Emphasis mine; note the implicit acceptance of God’s own chosen/called individuals acquiring other human beings.
 Genesis 18:11-12
 Genesis 18:13-15