Laughing At The Lord's Table
02 October 2016, 12:43
Genesis 18:1-15 and Luke 22:14-20
© Stacey Steck
Before Flora and I were engaged to be married, I steadfastly refused to discuss the possibility. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get married, I just did not wish to negotiate a wedding. I would ask her when I was ready and she would accept when she was ready. It was a very simple formula. So it was quite a surprise for her when I pulled out the ring that Christmas morning and asked her to spend the rest of her life with me. I’m not sure if she was more shocked that I wanted to get married or that I had actually come up with a ring, she knowing me for the cheapskate that I am. You see, as I slipped my grandmother’s ring on her finger, my beautiful bride-to-be uttered three words I will never forget: She said, “Is it real?”
Hard as it was to believe, especially coming from me, the ring was, in fact, real, and apparently quite a shock. I believe she was beginning to think I was not ever going to be interested in marrying her. And we had dated for only two years! So it is not too hard for me to understand why Sarah, the Patron Saint of late bloomers, let loose a laugh when she heard that after ninety years of waiting, she too would be blessed with a son to care for her in her old age, and of course, the ancient middle eastern versions of dirty diapers and lost pacifiers.
You may remember that this is a real turning point in the early part of the story of God’s people. God has promised to Abraham that he will have descendants as numerous as the grains of sand in the ocean, or the stars in the sky, but its getting a little late, middle age has come and gone, and no kids are coming. The future is looking as bleak as the desert they live in. Abraham even goes so far as to engage Sarah’s servant Hagar, to provide for him an heir, because in those days, such an occasion of surrogacy counted for the real thing, or so they thought. But God had other plans, and says to Abraham, after he has gone to all the trouble with Hagar, sorry, this boy Ishmael, the slave girl’s son, he’s not the one through whom the promise will be kept. That honor awaits the one you will call Isaac. In fact, we should not be so surprised that Sarah laughs, because, it says, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed,” when God reveals a little earlier in the story what Sarah learns tonight.
There is something very sweet about this story, but I wonder if the way we usually read this story of Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s incredulous laugh, and God’s promise of the coming of Isaac overshadows what might be the more important observation of the passage. Tucked in there in verse 14 is the real kicker: Is anything too difficult for the Lord? It reads like a rhetorical question, the kind we are not meant to answer, because when we think about Sarah’s womb compared to something like God creating the heavens and the earth, it seems like a no-brainer. Of course there is nothing beyond the power of God. But we human beings don’t always think with our brains. Often, it is our hearts that rule both our minds and our tongues and we become prone to wondering, if, in fact, there actually is something that is too difficult for God to do, something in our lives, or in our world that God is really not up to the task of handling. And when we go there, when we start down the road of asking questions we’d really rather not have to ask in the first place, they aren’t the philosophical musings that wonder if God can create a stone so heavy that not even God can lift it. No, they are the gut-wrenching, middle of the night anxiety attacks about things that really matter in our lives, and the lives of those we love, and even the lives of those whom nobody loves.
That understandable tendency in our own lives is affirmed for us by Sarah’s shock and by her laugh. I think it was not that Sarah didn’t believe the pronouncement so much as she found it completely unexpected and confusing, a little ironic, and perhaps even somewhat cruel. “After I have grown old,” she says, now “shall I have pleasure?” The best years of her life have passed in anguish, and maybe “better late than never” just doesn’t sound like such a great consolation prize for so many years of waiting. Besides, consider the source: three complete strangers for whom she has just had to make a meal on the spur of the moment, who she has to overhear to learn this! They don’t even make the announcement to her directly. Despite being the primary agent in God’s unfolding drama, Sarah is the last to know. I cannot begrudge Sarah a little chuckle about this one because it’s a little hard to swallow whole.
Now if we put these two things together -- and I mean Sarah’s situation and this rhetorical, but often asked, question about God – mix them up a little, let the mixture settle for a couple thousand years and take the lid off, I wonder if we don’t find thirteen people sitting together in an upper room around the time of Passover, twelve of those people wondering if there is anything left that is too difficult for Jesus to do, a pronouncement by God that is a little hard to swallow whole, a whole lot of dropped jaws and maybe even a couple of nervous chuckles. The scene around the table at our Lord’s last supper must have been a sight to behold.
The disciples have seen Jesus do everything from changing water into wine to moving the moneychangers out of the temple. From their perspective there is nothing he can’t or won’t do. Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to shake things up. They are now probably as close as they have ever been to truly understanding just how rhetorical the question, “Is there anything too difficult for the Lord?” should be. And then Jesus drops his bomb of a statement as he prepares for his final meal with them, He says to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Now if you thought my wife was surprised by her cheapskate boyfriend! If you thought Sarah was surprised by three strangers stopping by the tent with some unexpected news! The disciples have just been blindsided. Consider the source! Their leader, who has been their teacher and companion, is really serious about getting ready to die. He was supposed to take his rightful place as God’s Anointed, the one who would bring in their people’s glory days, and usher in an era of peace. But now he is saying that the dream is almost over, the future not as clear as they might have envisioned. Imagine the confusion, the irony, the cruelty. I cannot say I would begrudge any one of the disciples if they too had laughed, just as Sarah did.
This morning we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and in a few minutes I will repeat the words of Jesus telling you that this bread is the broken body of our savior and that this cup contains the shed blood of our friend. And I will invite you to take these elements in remembrance of Christ, and to experience his grace. And I will not begrudge a single one of you if you laugh. The body of Jesus? The blood of Christ? What an absurd notion! How confusing, how ironic, how cruel. But look around this room, see your brothers and sisters in Christ, listen to the Word of God, sing to the Lord hymns and songs and spiritual songs – observe the church almost two thousand years after that last supper and ask yourself, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”
When I ask myself that question in my more human moments, I think of the engagement ring my wife is wearing. As I said, it belonged to my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who lived in Texas all her life, side by side with Mexicans whom she despised, and never failed to blame, along with blacks, for whatever problem she, and the city of San Antonio, might have been experiencing. I sincerely doubt she would have been able to distinguish between Costa Ricans and Mexicans, and if she had been alive when I met Flora, my strong suspicion is that she would have had a very, very difficult time coming to terms with my marrying a Mexican, er, I mean, a Costa Rican, much less using her ring. There are many intractable issues in the world, but few more personal and influential than racism and discrimination. That in two short generations, a transformation like this could take place in my family, is, to me, nothing short of miraculous, and that helps me to remember the answer to that truly rhetorical but essential question, and it makes me chuckle as I picture my grandmother, God rest her soul, rolling over in her grave.
You may have noticed that there is no condemnation of Sarah for her laugh. I think that is because not only is our God a God of grace, and second chances, but also a God with a sense of humor, one who isn’t threatened by our humanity. If the question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” is really a rhetorical one, so too is the question “Is there anything that God can’t handle?” about my doubts, my fears, my hopes, my longings. Do you think God hasn’t heard it all before? What kind of faithless people did God create, that over and over we keep asking questions we really don’t need to ask? And yet there is no condemnation. We can laugh all we want when God does what God has promised in Jesus Christ, when God brings peace to that dispute with our neighbor, when God heals that broken relationship with a family member, when God breaks the power of an addiction, when God helps us overcome that grudge we’ve been nursing and just can’t let go. Those are things that keep us up at night, the things we are sure must be quite impossible, even for God, but that God takes just as seriously as we do, even though there really is nothing too difficult for God.
God has been doing the unexpected long before we got here. God does the unexpected in our lives and God will do the unexpected in the lives of our children and their children and theirs. And every generation will ponder “Is anything too difficult for the Lord,” with a fortunate few from each generation realizing that asking the question doesn’t mean we are faithless, far from it, but simply human. In this sacrament of Holy Communion, let us laugh at the unexpected and be in awe of the power and glory of the Lord. Lord, forgive us if we laugh too hard, for it is not that we do not believe that these elements are the body and blood of your son, it’s just that you have surprised us once again with your immeasurable your love for us. Amen.