Unraveled: Seeking God when our Plans fall apart
A sermon offered to the people of God at
Twinbrook Baptist Church
June 23, 2019
“Houston, we have a problem.”
You might recognize that phrase from the Ron Howard film, Apollo 13.Those were the understated words of astronaut Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) as they realized that there was an issue with the oxygen tanks on their spacecraft. In the days that followed, NASA and the three astronauts on the Odysseyovercame every obstacle to get safely home.
It was NOT that whey thought would happen. They had a detailed flight manual. They had onboard computers that were supposed to provide guidance data. But disaster hit when the service module oxygen tanks exploded. The flight plan was scrubbed. NASA and the flight crew never stopped looking for a way to make it a “successful failure.”
In a way, that is what we have been planning here at TBC. A “successful failure” – a church closing. Where we looked at our assets and decided to invest them into the future. Where we can take the funds from the sale of the building, and invest them in ministries and nonprofits that have been a meaningful part of this congregation’s life and ministry. It takes courage to be willing to do this.
When I saw the ideas behind this sermon series, Unraveled: Seeking God when our plans fall apart, I said to Pastor Jill, “This is us! This is Twinbrook Baptist Church!” We are in a season of unraveling… in every way.
The challenge has been, and will be, seeing God in the midst of our church life, especially since it isn’t what we wanted it to be. In all of the books that I read on closing a church, they basically all said basically the same thing: “pray, love each other, make a plan, and then throw the plan out the window.” Like the Apollo 13 crew, we are past lift-off, and we are waiting to see how it all ends.
Whatever challenge we face as a church, whatever struggle you are dealing with personally, you might say it is IMpossible. But God invites us to believe it is imPOSSIBLE!
I. imPOSSIBLE! Genesis 18:1-25
Our first text this morning tells the very real struggle of an elderly couple. They had moved from their homeland of Ur, and travelled as God asked, and still did not have the start of that “great nation” God had promised them. You remember that when Abraham and Sarah were known as Abram and Sarai, God promised them that they would be the progenitors of more descendants than the stars in the sky, and that they would inhabit a new land.
Pretty hard to have to have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky if your wife is barren! But, Abraham believed God.
Now not being able to have your own biological children is a painful and sad reality for many people. Some of my friends have struggled with conception and carrying a baby to term. It is heartbreaking. Being told, ‘oh, you can adopt’ or ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ is both insensitive and unkind. When you know that you want to be a mother or father… and you believe you are called to parenthood… and you have to wait and trust God in the process… those are very difficult and lonely weeks… years… decades…
It means that you are wondering, questioning, and then resigning yourself, in faith, to a waiting hopefulness, all the while going about life. Sometimes you laugh in a bit of dark humor. But you always hurt. Lisa Manterfield, blogger and writer about her own infertility puts it this way:
There are two questions I get asked frequently: How did you come to terms with not having children, and how long did it take? The answer is something akin to “how long is a piece of string and how many knots can you tie in it?”
Remember that in the era of the Patriarchs, there was no knowledge of how conception
really happened. Was it Sarah being barren? Or Abraham being infertile? The term used to describe Sarah was like a field that was too inhospitable to seed. A uterus of rocks, if you will. The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney points out that there is no place in the Hebrew Bible where the man is reported to have “bad seed” – yet every gardener knows it is in indeed possible to get a spoiled or mildewed bag of seed. (See: Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Wilda C. Gafney. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2017. 33-34.)
It didn’t matter – in patriarchal culture, it was always the woman’s fault. By the time the 3 strangers showed up at their tent, Sarah was menopausal, so it was a moot point. There are no buns in the oven. Imagine, in this this patriarchal culture, a woman’s body not doing what it was expected to do. Imagine, having been given a promise that you will be progenitors of a great nation, that your body fails, month after month, year after year, to conceive and bear a child. Women’s bodies are, without fail, biological reminders of this fertility cycle.
So they say she will conceive and bear him a child. Yes, she laughed. Because the ups and down of life are, quite simply, incredible, unbelievable, hilarious. Why did Sarah laugh? She was 90 years old! Do you know any pregnant 90 year olds?
Yes! We all laughed! And so did Sarah.
Laughing at the IMpossible, however, is different than laughing with joy at the imPOSSIBLE! It seemed unreasonable to believe that Abraham and Sarah would have their own progeny. In some way, in some kernel of faith, they believed.
Dr. Walter Brueggemann writes about the way that the Gospel is not conventional wisdom, where what we expectis what will happen. He says,
“By his powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness… Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. Barrenness has now become ludicrous.” (See: Interpretation: Genesis. Walter Brueggemann. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 158-9; 182.)
When God speaks to them through the three strangers who visit their tent, they hear that Sarah will be pregnant… Sarah laughs. The stranger responds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Genesis 21:14)
“Too wonderful” or “too hard” or “impossible”… these are not words that are a part of our understanding of a Holy One who could do anything. The root word includes concepts like “beyond one’s power” and “difficult to do.” Where we say IMpossible, God says, POSSIBLE!
It takes courage to move past laughter when we are faced with the IMpossible. It also takes laughter… and how God answers the imPOSSIBLE with a Son of Laughter.
Part II: Genesis 21:1-7 The Son of Laughter
imPOSSiBLE! That a plain yellow pumpkin can become a golden carriage!
imPOSSIBLE! That a plain country bumpkin and a prince can join in marriage!
The opening words of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song between Cinderella and her fairy godmother have been on my mind all week.
The promise made to Sarah and Abraham – when she was in her sixties and he in his seventies falls into the category of… imPOSSIBLE!!! Or at least biologically unlikely. As they say, “that ship has sailed.” Or “Estrogen has left the building.” The imPOSSIBLE happens. Incredible as it seems, Sarah will need the midwives.
Years have gone by. Abraham is 100. Sarah is 90. Yet they have a child of the promise – Isaac. Yitschaq. Whose name means “he laughs.” It also can mean “mockery” or “joking” – as in, “you thought you were done having children… just joking!”
The intervening years have not been easy since the visit by the three strangers. The patriarch of this future great nation… has no sons by his wife, Sarah. Yes, he does have a son by a slave woman, Hagar – whose body was used for this purpose.
Let’s pause for a moment and recognize that Hagar had no choice in this matter, but was, effectively, forced to have his child. I doubt she saw it as a choice. She was… a slave… who was raped. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?
The truth of the matter is that, at that time, it was SO important to have children, particularly MALE children, that Sarah told Abraham to do it.
The intervening years were full of bad decisions which I can’t go into because of time, but are worth remembering. These were not perfect people, but they were faith-filled people. They lied. They took matters into their own hands. But they believed God. Quite a juxtaposition of faith and human nature, isn’t it?
Friends of our family have three wonderful children. Before the birth of their third child, they had the usual sonogram and were told “it’s a girl!” Since they had two sons already, they were thrilled beyond words. Friends threw a baby shower and there was SO MUCH PINK STUFF. They joked about not knowing how to raise a girl. The baby was born, and it was – to their shock — a boy!! And they laughed. And laughed!! And yes. They named him Isaac!
In moments of emotional extremes, you hear people say, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!” The two emotions are very close together. In our happiest moments, we cry. In our saddest moments, we cry. Both use the tear ducts and the diaphragm – and our bodies are very good at connecting the two.
In fact, we were made that way – to cry and laugh at the same time. Sarah laughed. What was that laughter about?
It might have been laughter of incredulousness. Laughter of shock. Laughter of surprise. Laughter of absurdity. Laughter in the face of fear. Laughter of disbelief.
I can’t tell you why Sarah laughed. It might have been for any of these reasons. But I do know this: Though God’s timing for this baby boy, Isaac, was not when they expected it, it still happened. God’s heart and hand were still in their lives. God knew their faith and their doubts. God works in spite of stubbornness. God heard their laughter and it was not held against them. Nothing was beyond God’s forgiveness and grace. Nothing was “too much” for God to do.
I can’t tell you that the “thing” you are waiting for, (whatever it is), will work out the way you want it to. But I can tell you that we – you and I – have a God who sees our tears and hears our laughter of disbelief – and who does not judge us.
In this crazy mess of life – we praise God. And laugh.
Part III: Proverbs 17:22; Sirach 30:21-25 Healing Laughter
Our final scriptures this morning talk about the healing power of laughter. It’s always fascinating to me to see how emotions are contagious. People start giggling at joke, and bystanders start laughing – before they hear the joke. We see people smile. We smile. We hear people laugh. We laugh. There are times I can NOT look at Regina because… she will make me laugh. You all know what I mean…
Those of us of a certain age might remember Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, M*A*S*H, or The Beverly Hillbillies. (Or you’ve seen them on re-runs.) All of those comedies had laugh tracks. The producers experimented and discovered that more people would laugh if there was a laugh track. If people laughed, they didn’t turn off the TV show, and then they would watch the commercials. (And you understand, right? The purpose was to get you to watch the commercials!) It was also cheaper to tape a show, use a laugh track, and not wait for the audience to laugh correctly.
The news this week has been discouraging, hasn’t it? I have found it hard to stay positive, and caring, and do my job every day. You’re not imagining it if you’ve felt that way, too. If you keep track of the news, it can discourage the most optimistic. The world we inhabit has crazy stuff going on. Crazy. We cannot combat the evil that we see if we do not take time to re-set our emotional True North.
When things unravel around us – whether personal or political – it becomes even more important to honor the feelings and stress that we feel. And, as we are able, to reconnect to the things that give us perspective. And laughter.
In The Washington Post this week, there was an article about humor and health. Researchers found that laughter not only has psychological benefits, but physiological ones, too. When we laugh, our lungs expand, and more oxygen gets to our heart, lung, and vital organs. We breathe more deeply. Our blood pressure goes down. We feel more connected to others, because – let’s face it – funny people are fun to be around!
In illness, humor helps you cope with uncertainty and inconvenience. It gives you control. It makes you feel like whatever you are coping with – even if it is going to be chronic – is do-able. It shows the world that you are still here and kicking. As comedian Rob Reiner said, “Every morning, get up and read the paper. If you aren’t in the obits, then eat breakfast!”
I applied this strategy with my recent knee surgery. I was fitted with a knee brace that, from time to time, I still use when my joint is going to be under extra stress or my knee is extra achy. And I named it “Ugly George.” Because… well… look at it!!
Humor gets us through a lot of tough life events.
A few days before my Dad died, he was hospitalized. One night, he fell in his hospital room, and of course the hospital staff were worried about him. They performed the usual tests to make sure he hadn’t gotten a concussion or a serious injury. They asked him, “Do you know where you are?” And Dad responded, “Why yes! I’m at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, in Beaufort, South Carolina.” The staff member said, “Oh that’s perfect!” Dad didn’t miss a beat. He held up the bed linens, prominently stamped with the name of the hospital, and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a cheat sheet?”
I’m not talking about the laughter from mocking others, of course. It’s not when we ridicule or heckle someone. It’s not making fun of someone. And, sad to say, a lot of comedy these days is insulting… and not very funny. This is the kind of laughter that encourages, invites, and engages. It is the welcome relief from pain, or grief, or stress.
How many of you have faced a parenting moment where you laughed until you just cried. I think every parent has a story. I have them. One Christmas, we all had the flu. One by one, we succumbed to that virus that includes a fever, puking, you know… fa la la la la toilet… la la la la…
It. Was. Terrible. I was curled up on the couch with one of the kids, and she threw up all over me. My parents were visiting. It was… grand. I looked up with tears in my eyes, and said to my mom, “NOW what?” Mom, with the calm demeanor of the mother of seven children said, “well, when you both stop dripping, go get cleaned up.”
I sighed. And then, I laughed.
When you both stop dripping…it still makes me laugh.
In this final set of scriptures, we read these words:
From Sirach: A joyful heart is life itself, and rejoicing lengthens one’s life span.
From Proverbs: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.
Laughter is healing. Laughter is holy. Laughter, is above all, a good gift from God. May we learn to respond, like Sarah, to our moments of longing, sadness, or even disbelief, and laugh.