She Laughed!, Genesis 18:1-15
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, June 14, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Imagine Abraham as a Middle Eastern sheik. One of those Arabic sheiks you’ve seen on TV in flowing white robes, head gear held by a gold braid. That is, after all, what Abraham was. He and Sarah were wealthy. They had many servants, camels, sheep and goats, and a large homestead in what today is southern Israel.
In the middle of that land they had pitched their tent under a huge spreading oak. And if there’s a tree, there’s water. Their tent is as big as a house, the sand inside covered with luxurious Persian carpets. At a distance are many other, smaller tents—a portable village—made up of Abraham’s slaves and workers, wives and children, who are collectively called his household, his tribe. He has found an oasis, which he has claimed as his own, and the male members of his household form a small private army, ready at a moment’s notice to defend their claim on this oasis, because water is life in this desert culture.
But at the moment there is peace. As our story begins, Abraham is sitting on a carpet at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, relaxing. What a luxury: to have your own tent in the cool shade of an oak tree in the scorching heat of the Middle Eastern sun. Suddenly, he sees almost like a mirage, three figures coming toward him.
Living in our culture, we might expect some alarm, for Abraham to shout to Sarah, “alert the men, someone’s coming. Stay inside.” But Abraham runs to meet them and bows down to the ground. Why would anyone do that to a stranger, let alone, three! Why would a rich and powerful sheik humble himself like that, bowing down at their feet, when he doesn’t even know them?
In the ancient world—where there were no airplanes, automobiles, hotels, fast food restaurants, or highway patrol—the religious law of hospitality was very important. Your life—everyone’s life—depended on the kindness of strangers. Hospitality meant survival.
Not only in Hebrew stories, but in Greek mythology as well, next to the sin of arrogance, inhospitality was the greatest sin. Greek mythology is filled with stories in which Zeus, the king of the gods, comes in disguise to visit the homes of mortals. It is always a test to see if the mortal is too arrogant to host the gods, often disguised as beggars. If they turn the gods away, they are punished; if they are generous to the gods, they are rewarded. These stories taught a basic ancient value: hospitality.
In our Old Testament story, Abraham sees three strangers, runs to meet them, bows down before them, and says: “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant without a visit. Let some water be brought so that you may bathe your feet; and rest under this tree while I fetch a little food so that you may refresh yourselves. Afterward, you may continue the journey which has brought you my way.”
They reply, “Very well, do as you have said.”
In the next scene, Abraham runs around like mad, giving orders but doing a lot of the work himself. A luxurious feast of veal, yogurt and cake is made, and Abraham serves it himself. Then he stands behind them like a butler while they eat. Throughout the story we see Abraham—Patriarch, Father of Faith and the (soon to be) Father of Many Nations—acting as humble as a servant as he practices the biblical principle of hospitality.
As the strangers eat the feast, they give Abraham and Sarah the promise of a new life.
It was back in the 15th chapter of Genesis when God made a promise to Abraham. When Abraham (then Abram) lamented that a servant of his household would become his heir, God had taken Abram outside and told him to look up into the sky and count the stars, if he could. “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed God then, and still trusts God now, and yet, since that time he has “helped God’s promise along” by taking Sarah’s maidservant Hagar as his wife who had borne Ishmael and is now 13.
When Abraham is 99, God visits him again, establishing the covenant that Abraham and his descendants will have the whole land of Canaan as their home. Circumcision would be the sign of that covenant, to which Abraham agrees. But when God announces that God will also bless Sarah, that she will become the mother of many nations—that kings of peoples will come from her—Abraham laughs. He actually falls on the ground laughing, to think that Sarah, 10 years his junior (yes, 89) will become a mother.
So now, Sarah’s tittering behind the cloth walls of the curtain seems fair game. It’s funny that they each envision the other as “too old” but don’t seem to question their own ability to become new parents in these golden years. But it happens as God said it would, and as their visitor this day foresees, the child is named Isaac as God had instructed, which means “laughter”, and the whole world shares in their joy—and amazement of what God can do.
I think this is a fun story, a happy story, and one that is good for us to hear right now. We tend to dismiss with a chuckle the possibilities of what God might do in our midst. Wouldn’t that be nice, we think without any real conviction or expectation that whatever good thing it is could actually happen. And yet…God has been faithful to God’s people in so many ways—not always in our timing, not always in the way we might envision—and yet, God has blessed God’s people in so many ways.
There are (at least) 2 important lessons I’d like us to hear today: the first is the importance of hospitality. Abraham enthusiastically welcomed the strangers who happened by his way. He did his best to be sure they had what they needed to be comfortable and cared for before it would be time for them to travel on. He wasn’t looking for a reward, and yet it came: they were given new life.
I wonder what new life might come to us as we enthusiastically/generously/lovingly welcome strangers into our midst? Please don’t hear this as a finger shaking opportunity for me intended to chastise you because it isn’t—I’ve been told by folks who have come into our fellowship as visitors that they are heartily and warmly greeted and that’s a very good thing! And yet, I can’t help but think of the inhospitality that exists in our world in so many different ways and places, and I want us to keep in the forefront of our thinking ways we can communicate that we’re a safe and welcoming place for all people.
Secondly, I want us to keep smiling…to keep laughing…to remain hopeful…and to be expectant that God is doing a good thing among us. A year ago next Sunday we worshiped in our sanctuary for the last time—and came to Fellowship Hall. On March 22nd, we left Fellowship Hall and became the church scattered, worshipping from our own homes, and yet together in this new and different way. We’re learning lessons, we’re finding new ways to care for our neighbors and one another. God is continuing to teach us lessons, and the Spirit is working among us in ways we can’t always see. New life will come. Expect it. Believe it. Amen.