I love this moment at the end of this morning’s Scripture. Ninety-year old Sarah is sitting in her tent, and she hears someone (who she doesn’t recognize as God) say, “I’ll be back next year, and Sarah’s going to have a baby.” And Sarah laughs out loud. And then when God says, “Why did Sarah laugh?” – she denies it – maybe she shouts out from her tent, “I did NOT laugh!” But then God says, “Oh yes you did.” Such a refreshing moment of honesty all the way around.
This story from Scripture brings us two questions to consider – both voiced by God in the text:
1. Why did Sarah laugh?
2. Is anything too wonderful for God?
That first question is the easier of the two. This moment where Sarah laughs is a moment well into a long story. Maybe you remember it:
Back when Abraham and Sarah were younger, they were living in a land called Ur. God comes to Abraham and calls him to leave his homeland and to immigrate to a foreign land – God doesn’t say where –God just says, “Go to the land I will show you, and I will make you a great nation. I will bless you, and you will bless many.” Trusting on that promise, Abraham and Sarah pack up everything they have, and they cross the desert, and eventually settle in the land of Canaan. (Iraq to Palestine).
Years and years pass, and Abraham complains, “God, you said you’d make me a great nation, but Sarah and I don’t have a son yet.” And God repeats the promises all over again. “Abraham, look up at the sky. Your offspring will be as numerous as the stars.”
And the years pass, and still no child. Abraham and Sarah get desperate, and so they force one of their slave women, Hagar, into surrogacy – and Ishmael is born. But that’s not what God had promised. (We’ll spend more time with Hagar next Sunday.)
More years pass, and God again comes to Abraham and repeats the promise and says, “You and Sarah are going to have a child.” Now by this point Abraham is 99 years old, and Sarah is 90, and the Scripture says that Abraham falls on his face laughing: “Will a child be born to a 100-year old man, and a 90-year old woman?” And God persists.
And we come to this morning’s story – on a hot, dry, dusty day – Abraham is napping at the door to his tent near the Oaks of Mamre, and Scripture says that God appears to Abraham in the arrival of three visitors. Now in the desert, hospitality is everything – if you don’t welcome the stranger in the desert, the stranger dies – so Abraham welcomes these strangers. He washes their feet, while Sarah prepares a feast – a tender calf, fresh baked bread, curds and milk. And they sit down to eat, Abraham waits on them. Sarah sits a little ways away in their tent. There’s no indication that either Abraham or Sarah know that God is in the midst of these visitors. In this desert hospitality. And just as we think this is a story about extending hospitality to strangers, and to God. We find that it is also a story about God extending hospitality to us.
God turns to Abraham, and asks after Sarah, “Where is your wife Sarah?” (the first clue they have that this is might be more than a human visitor). Abraham says, “She’s in the tent.” And the visitor says, “I’ll return in due season, and Sarah will have a child.”
And Sarah – worn out from this mad dash to prepare a fancy feast on a dry dusty day – Sarah who is 90 – sits in her tent – hears this – and Sarah laughs. After all these years, and all these promises. Sarah laughs with every bit of her 90 years of life and wisdom and longing. Biblical scholar Valerie Bridgeman, puts the question this way, after all these years, “Why should they believe God this time?” And in the story, God looks to Abraham and says, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Sarah says, “No I didn’t” – maybe catching on to who might be talking – maybe hearing directly in God’s voice the promise that has persisted through her whole life. “No, I didn’t laugh.” And God says, “Oh yes you did.”
Why did Sarah laugh? I don’t think I need to answer that question for you. You can probably answer that all on your own. Carolynne Hitter Brown answers it like this: “Sarah laughs at the irony of God fulfilling something she had long stopped hoping for.”
In the Scripture, that question – why did Sara laugh? – needs no answer to anyone in the know. So God just keeps going with the second question, “Is there anything too wonderful for God?”
That’s the harder question.
So, I’ve been thinking about things in the world that seem too wonderful even after long seasons of hope.
I was caught off guard this week by the Supreme Court’s decision that held that transgender and gay – LGBTQIA+ – people are protected by federal workplace anti-discrimination laws – just like everyone else. I can remember just 10 or 15 years ago, when I wouldn’t have thought that possible. And candidly, with this Supreme Court, I didn’t have much hope for this case.
After the decision, someone asked me what I thought of the Court’s reasoning. The decision is momentous, but the reasoning itself isn’t all that remarkable. It’s wonderfully ordinary. The Court just applied the plain language of the statute, and said that the plain language applies when an employer treats LGBTQIA+ differently on the basis of sex. They said, the statute protects LGBTQIA+ people from workplace discrimination, just like everyone else. As a matter of statutory interpretation, it’s not all that remarkable. The Court applied the statute.
But as I heard more about the cases, it’s not so much the Justices’ reasoning that is remarkable – What’s remarkable is the hope and the courage of people like Aimee Stephens. Aimee Stephens is one of the plaintiffs, a transgender woman, who brought one of the cases that made its way to the Supreme Court. When Aimee came out as trans, she wrote a letter to her co-workers and supervisors at the funeral home where she’d worked for years. She described to them how her gender wasn’t reflected in the body she was born in, and she explained how she would now be Aimee. She said that she expected it might be hard for them to understand – she was still working to understand it too, but she wanted them to know.
And two weeks later she was fired. But Aimee Stephens didn’t take that as the last word. Aimee Stephens persisted, and she brought this case for herself and for others like her so they wouldn’t be harmed like this. Aimee Stephens helped place herself and others within the equal protection of the law.
Now, Aimee died a few weeks ago – while the case was still pending, before it was decided. But before she died, Aimee Stephens wrote down some thoughts on what she’d say on the day when she knew the Court ruled in her favor. She wrote this: “Firing me because I’m transgender was discrimination, plain and simple. And I am glad the court recognized that what happened to me is wrong and illegal. I am thankful that the court said my transgender siblings and I have a place in our laws. It made me feel safer and more included in society.”
Such courage. Such hope.
And then just days later, this week, the Supreme Court issued its decision preventing – for now – the deportation of the Dreamers who have legal status under the DACA statute. These Dreamers are young people who were brought to this country when they were children, many when they were infants. They’ve gone to school in the United States – gone to college – they have earned work permits and worked here – they’ve contributed to the economy. They are as much a part of the fabric of this society as you and I. And even so, there is a concerted effort to deport them – to send them away from their families and from the only home they’ve known.
I watched an interview with some of the Dreamers, a group of young women, and they were just stunned by the Court’s decision. Ciriac Alveres says she had prepared for every decision except a positive one. And even as they felt relief that they wouldn’t be deported following the Court’s decision – as they had feared, they’re very clear-eyed that this is only a temporary reprieve. The Administration has said it will keep trying to deport them. But these young women will continue to work for immigration reform, for Dreamers, for a just and fair immigration system and – one of them said – while they’re at it, they’ll continue to work in support of Black Lives Matter, too – because, as she said, for them “citizenship isn’t the end” – citizenship how they continue to work for the equality and freedom of all people.
Such courage. Such hope.
And then, here we are on the weekend where so many have celebrated Juneteenth. Now, I will confess that I didn’t have a full understanding of what Juneteenth is – I knew that it had something to do with emancipation – but that’s all I knew. Juneteenth celebrates the day – June 19, 1865 – when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended, and that they were free – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It took that long for word to reach Texas, and that moment marked the end of slavery . Ever since, African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth – and the promises of that moment – even as racism has persisted tenaciously over the years – so many generations over so many years, celebrating freedom, in the face of unrelenting oppression. Decade after decade, progress and persistence in the face of entrenched systemic racism – on into our day, as the Black Lives Matter protests of today insist for reform and change.
So much courage. So much hope.
In our world – right here and now – we don’t have to look far to catch a glimpse of things that seem too wonderful even after long seasons of hope.
This question – “Is anything too wonderful for God?” It is not a rhetorical question – not for Sarah. Not for us. As Terence Fretheim points out, when God asks the question, it’s a genuine question meant to move the conversation forward. Meant to move us into our future. God puts the question to Sarah. What do you think? Is anything too wonderful for God?
How we answer that question makes all the difference in how we live our lives. How we move forward into an uncertain future.
If we say yes – yes, there are some things that are too wonderful even for God, we lock God and our lives into the limited range of possibilities that we see and know now. We leave no scope for the imagination – not for God’s or not for ours. We say, this is the world as it is, why bother praying or working for anything more.
If we answer no – or even hold open that possibility – no, maybe there really isn’t anything that is too wonderful for God. We open ourselves (and the world with us) – we open ourselves up to a broad horizon of possibility limited only by God’s boundless love for us and the whole world. We open ourselves to the possibility that God has the power and the will to create through and beyond our imagining.
Now, that’s not to say that everything we want in the world will fall into place for us – right now, exactly as we see it should. Sarah knows that in her bones, and so do we. If we embrace that question, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”, we acknowledge – our wonder – and that we don’t yet see all that God sees. But we also acknowledge that God, in love, God has chosen to create us free – with agency to choose and to act – and somehow working with us and in us – God is able create a future full of good and healing and freedom and hope – a future through and beyond our imagining.
Now I’ve been talking this morning about the big movements of our day – and of this week – but I want to be clear: this question and this promise, they are deeply personal. Now of course, for those of us who are a little more free today because of the Supreme Court’s decisions and the protests in the streets, all that is personal – it is a glimmer of hope in our real, everyday lives.
And, for all of us, for you and for me, this question and promise carry hope for every concern that we bring to God in prayer – for the deep prayers that each of us brings for the people we love most in the world, for the things that are most important to us, for our very identity and our sense of worth. We pray, like Sarah, and there is so much at stake.
So, I want to offer two more Scriptures. Psalm 139 says, “God you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise... before a word is on my tongue you know it completely. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” There are some things that are too wonderful for us to get our minds completely around them. And that’s OK. We are human. But that doesn’t mean that those too-wonderful things are any less true. And it doesn’t mean that they are too wonderful for God.
And the second Scripture is a question that rises up in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Is there anything that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?” Because that’s really what is at issue here. After a lifetime wrestling with God, when the Apostle is looking back and pouring out all that he has come to know of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, he asks his version of “Is there anything too wonderful for God?” He asks, “Is there anything that can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus?” And Paul’s answer is clear: “No, there is nothing -- nothing that can separate us from God – not death, not life; not the present or the future or the past; not any power; not height, not breadth, not depth; there’s not anything in all creation that can separate us from God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.”
Sarah laughs because God is doing something that she had long ago stopped hoping for. And in her laughter, she holds her pain, that she has carried all these years, and she dares to hope again. Sarah raises her head, and she moves forward into the future, into God’s unshakeoffable love for us and for all people.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 Valerie Bridgeman, Commentary on Working Preacher, July 21, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4148  Carolynne Hitter Brown, Commentary in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year A (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2013), p.280.  Thank you, Brooklynn Smith, for the question.  See Michale Barbarl & Adam Gopnik, “A Landmark Supreme Court Ruling,” on The Daily podcast (New York Times), June 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/podcasts/the-daily/supreme-court-lgbtq.html?showTranscript=1  Id.  See https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2020/06/18/daca-dreamers-in-shock-supreme-court-mh-orig.cnn  See https://www.nytimes.com/article/juneteenth-day-celebration.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage  See Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” in The New Interpreters’ Bible, vol.i (Abingdon Press, Nashville: 1994), pp.464-64, and generally for background on Genesis.  “Unshakeoffable love” is Eugenia Gamble’s translation of the Hebrew word hesed.