June 14, 2020
Thus Says the Lord: Scoff Not – June 14, 2020
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This morning, we’re beginning a sermon series for the summer – a summer like never before. Combine COVID-19, restrictions on social gatherings, nationwide protests for racial justice, and a deepening awareness of racism in our culture and institutions … and you have a time of tremendous change, even a turning point from the world we’ve known to the world that’s next. Times of great change are unsettling; and as a result, we may find our prayers taking a different turn. So, that’s the spur for this sermon series: “‘What the Heck, Lord?’ God’s Presence in Tough Times.”
We’ll take up that theme in stories from our book of origins, the Book of Genesis. It turns out Genesis is full of situations where people face really tough times. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, and sometimes it’s their own fault. But hearing the stories, we might wonder: Where’s God in this? And we probably find ourselves asking the same thing about the past few months.
So, today we hear part of the story of Abraham and Sarah, to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. Let me give you the highlights of their 25 years leading up to today’s reading – 25 years in three minutes.
When Abraham was 75, God called him and his wife to leave their homeland and go to a place where God would make of Abraham “a great nation” (Gen 12:2). For that to happen, you kind of need babies. Well, 10 years pass, and no babies; and Abraham starts to doubt. So, God reassures Abraham that the promise still holds.
But the clock is ticking, and Abraham and Sarah decide to take matters into their own hands. Sarah tells Abraham to have a child with Hagar, an enslaved person in their household; and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. But this doesn’t solve the problem because Hagar and Sarah can’t stand each other. Sarah makes Hagar’s enslaved life miserable, and Hagar escapes with the baby, only to be brought back by angels. Not much of a resolution so far.
Thirteen more years pass. Abraham and Sarah are 99 and 90 respectively. They’ve settled for the life they’re living, with Hagar’s son Ishmael as the heir. But suddenly, God comes again and says, No, Abraham, your descendants will come through Sarah herself. Right, Abraham says. He gives God a “mocking laugh”;1 but God is serious, and Abraham listens.
Then we come to today’s reading, not long after Abraham had scoffed at God. God comes to visit again, this time in the form of three travelers, whom Abraham and Sarah host generously, as custom demanded. The divine emissaries make the promise again: Sarah will have a son of her own. Sarah overhears this, and like Abraham, she gives a mocking laugh, scoffing at the impossibility of the whole thing. But then, the story shifts, and the emissaries are named as the Lord, who says, “Why did Sarah laugh…? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (18:14) Sarah backpedals, but God holds her to her scoffing: “Oh yes, you did laugh” (18:15).
Of course she scoffed at such a crazy idea. Of course Abraham had scoffed at it, too. They’d heard lots of promises, but nothing in their experience would have made them take the promise seriously this time. After all, they’d been waiting 25 years.
So, where’s the connection between this story and our present moment – George Floyd’s killing, and unprecedented protests in our city, and change blowing in the wind, as Mtr. Anne said last week?
Here’s the connection: that our experience defines our reality. We may absorb all kinds of information, take in all sorts of data. Like Abraham and Sarah, we may receive directions or orders or even divine promises. But at the end of the day, what’s real to us is the life we live. What we trust most is our experience. If you haven’t had a baby in the last quarter century, you’re probably not painting the nursery this year.
So, back to George Floyd and the protests of the past couple of weeks. What must it be like for a person of color to hear the story of white experience in America – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Myself, I can’t say. But at the prayer gathering at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church 10 days ago, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver spoke about “the talk” that his father had with him and that he had with his sons – about how careful you must be, as a black person, if you’re stopped by the police. If that’s your reality, what must it be like to hear about liberty and justice for all? I could see how a black parent might scoff: “Really?” he might say. “In my experience, all it takes is one wrong move, and my son might not come home that night.”
By the same token, what must it be like for a white person to hear the story of black experience in America? “Dreams deferred are dreams denied. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter, but the systems around me – criminal justice, health care, education – those systems say, no, your life doesn’t matter.” Those words are hard for a white person to believe, and our reaction might be to scoff: “Really? In my experience, the system works fine; it’s individuals who act out.”
Listening to Congressman Cleaver share the story of “the talk” with his sons made me think of my son, Dan. Specifically, it made me think this: Of all the times I worried about Dan being out late at night, it never occurred to me to worry what might happen if he were pulled over. I also remember a time, when Dan was a teenager, that he wanted to go on a walk to a park about a mile and a half from our house, walking through several neighborhoods. As he headed out and made his way through other people’s neighborhoods, it never occurred to me to worry that people might see him as an intruder. I had the privilege of that possibility never even crossing my mind. How different would things have been had our son been adopted and looked different than Ann and me? Would I have let him walk by himself through those neighborhoods?
Our experience defines our reality – even down to the experience of breathing. Reading coverage of the protests in Kansas City, I came across two images that, to me, speak volumes. One is a shot from a protest on the Plaza. This woman feels she can’t breathe, and she’s standing in protest because she wants her daughter to know a different reality. The other shot is an ad that came up my phone as I was reading. Together, these images form an icon of the differences in our realities as black people and white people in Kansas City. I think the person in the second photo finds it much easier to breathe than the person with the little girl on her shoulders. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reminded myself, or one of you has reminded me, to “just breathe” – you know, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich wrote. That’s easy for the white woman to pray. The other woman, from the protest – I don’t know what she’d say about why she feels she can’t breathe – but that’s her experience. I’d have to make the effort to know her reality in order to find out why.
So, where is the hope in this fraught moment in our nation’s life? I believe hope lies in exploring and participating in realities beyond the reality we know. I mean that in at least three ways.
First, there’s hope in learning about the reality of people whose lives I don’t understand – not just hearing their words but hearing their meaning. Maybe the most telling example is the name of the movement itself: Black Lives Matter. I’ve heard people who look like me say, “Yes, of course black lives matter.” But for those who experience society valuing their lives less, those words mean the need for change across society – change that embodies the practice of dignity. I believe there is hope when people who look like me try to learn the experience of that mom in the photo. And I believe there is hope when I say it along with her: that black lives matter. So, we’re putting together opportunities to learn about the reality most of us just don’t see, the reality of white privilege – discussing books or movies, and having conversations that include questions we haven’t wanted to ask about ourselves and our lives.
Second, there’s hope in standing with people who need to see that we know their lives matter. We began this a couple of weeks ago, standing on the lawn at St. Aug’s on the East Side, praying for justice and confessing the sin of racism. We have another chance to do that this Friday. Churches from across Kansas City will gather all along Troost, our city’s historical geographic laceration, and there we’ll mark Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery. This one-hour witness will be silent. Faithful people will stand all along Troost, six feet apart, in a chain of prayer for racial justice in Kansas City. To find out how to take part, see the note in the bulletin and the Messenger this week.
But third, our deepest hope is the reality God longs to see come from this moment. God is giving our nation the opportunity for what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,”2 empowering us to repair and heal the brokenness in which we find ourselves. Now, like the biblical Abraham and Sarah, we may be tempted to scoff and say, “Right. After decades of infertility, the barren woman will give birth. Right. After 25 years of promises, God will finally come through with an heir. Right. After 400 years of slavery and its aftermath, we’re going to heal our racial divide.” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? As the divine visitors ask Abraham and Sarah, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14).
Now, our Scripture this morning leaves us hanging. But a few chapters later, Sarah sees the promise kept. And Sarah laughs differently this time, naming her son “he laughs,” which is what “Isaac” means, and saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). But this time, her laughter isn’t scoffing. It’s delight.
So, God’s question to Abraham and Sarah is God’s question to us, too: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” As the writer Walter Bruggeman says about Abraham, we, too, are called to trust that “God can cause a break point between the exhausted present and the buoyant future.”3 We struggle mightily with that idea, having become “accustomed to [our] barrenness” and accepting “hopelessness as ‘normal.’”4 God’s powerful promise does sometimes outdistance our ability to trust it. But we worship a God whose whole M.O. is about hope and healing. God brings light to chaotic darkness. God brings forgiveness to faithlessness. God brings resurrected life to the One the folks in charge nailed to a cross. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
If we answer that question faithfully, then we also must help bring this current act of new creation into being. We have to participate in a new birth of freedom. More to the point, I have to participate in it. I have to name the reality of my privilege and not assume that what’s worked for me works for everyone. I have to ask why people are exhausted from simply trying to breathe. I have to hear, and say, “Black lives matter” not as a slogan but as a marker of shared grief and indignation for the experience of so many who’ve heard the opposite message for so long.
Can I do that? Can we do that?
And God replies, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
1. Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 156.
2. Lincoln, Abraham. The Gettysburg Address. Available at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm. Accessed June 11, 2020.
3. Brueggemann, 144.
4. Brueggemann, 159.