Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
Something amazing is happening in Chicago this year. The Chicago Cubs look like they’re going to the playoffs! To put this in perspective, remember that the Cubs have not won a World Series in 106 years. Most people here could not possibly have seen the Cubs even compete in baseball’s top series, because the last time the Cubs went to the World Series was seventy years ago. But this year, the “Lovable Losers” are almost certainly headed to the playoffs, and they even look strong enough to go deep into the competition. Could 2015 actually, possibly, conceivably be the year that they go all the way, even winning the World Series??
Smart Cubs fans tell themselves: “No, probably not. Almost certainly not. Don’t even imagine that it’s possible this year.” After living with the reality of defeat for so many, many years, to consider the possibility of the Cubs winning the World Series is to court heartbreak, to set yourself up for the inevitable failure yet again. “Because,” according to writer Jeff Vrabel, “if being a Cubs fan teaches you anything, it’s to believe nothing, to trust nothing, that life is pain and all hope dies.” He goes on to say, “On one hand, being a Cubs fan is sports’ grandest test of faith, something…pure and earnest…. On the other larger and more accurate hand, it doesn’t make any sense and does make you sad a lot.” When you’re waiting for something and it never arrives, you try to put it out of mind. You learn not to even hope. It only makes the inevitable disappointment worse.
Standing by the dusty, sunlit entrance to the tent, squinting out at Abraham talking with the three strangers, Sarah knew better than to hope any longer. She had asked Abram to retell the words of God’s promise countless times, until they were etched in her memory. “To your offspring I will give this land.” And again, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth”. And again, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Abram was 75 years old when he first heard God’s promise, and Sarai was only ten years younger. Would she—barren though she was her whole life—have a child at age 65?? That would be most unusual, but perhaps not out of the realm of possibility. So Sarah had begun to hope. Yet the years went by, one after another, and no child was ever conceived. Sarah saw her 70th birthday, then her 75th, 80th, and 85th birthdays. These were busy years, with life-giving travel, blessings galore,
and exploring the land that had been promised by God. But there was no child to pass on all her accumulated experience and wisdom. As her 90th birthday drew near, Sarah knew better than to hope any longer. The ship of children had sailed. The well of God’s promises had dried up. So she laughs when the man says to Abraham, “your wife Sarah shall have a son”. Is it a laugh of tender wistfulness at what might have been, or does bitterness catch in her throat? When asked about her laughter, of course she denies it. She didn’t want to be thought unfaithful to God’s promises, but there was no point believing in something that was clearly not going to come true.
What are you waiting for? Does it have a definite date of arrival, or is it more uncertain than that? Sometimes we wait for things that have a definite fulfillment time: getting a driver’s license, completing school, having a baby, or retiring from a career. These are hard to wait for, but its easier because you can look at a calendar and see when it’s going to happen. Then there are other things we wait for which are not guaranteed—they’re held as hopes of the heart. We wait to fall in love. We wait to find truly meaningful work. We wait to have children, or we wait for adult children to settle well into life. We wait for arguments to blow over, and for relationships to mend. We wait for healing of a broken heart, for relief from daily pain, for mental illness to release its hold on our loved ones, or for grief to lose its choking power. We wait for a peaceful death, but even that is not guaranteed.
For myself, I’m waiting for the day when sermons come more easily, when the world will slow down long enough for what feels like a real Sabbath, when I’ve read all the books on my bookshelf, and reached the end of my to-do list. (You must know how far away I am from that. This week someone gave me a cartoon that said, “Don’t tell me not to burn the candle at both ends—tell me where to get more wax!”)
There’s also the transformation we wait for in a broader, global sense. We long for God’s promises—given how many centuries ago—to be fulfilled at last. Millions go to bed hungry in our world, yet Isaiah says that God “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6) Migrants are forced to choose between the terror of ISIS, Assad’s barrel bombs, deadly seas, and barbed wire borders in Europe. Yet we read that God “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) How long, O Lord? How long until black lives matter as much as white lives, until officers of the peace can keep their guns holstered forever, until every child is safe from stray bullets and murderous assassins? How long until schools are fully funded, until everyone has what they need to thrive, until cancer is a distant memory, and sharing by all will mean scarcity for none? How long until the promise of Revelation comes to pass, until God will dwell among all the peoples of the world, and “will wipe every tear from their eyes”? Until “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4)?
In the face of such great evidence to the contrary, no wonder people find it hard to trust God’s promises these days. It must seem laughable to those outside the church
that Christians pray every day for “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”,
yet God’s realm is so hard to see. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s really hard to believe inside the church as well.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is pastor of a church in Denver called “House for All Sinners and Saints”. She’s written powerfully about her struggles with addiction and mental illness, and her experience leading a church which gathers every type of person together. She describes how agnostics, Jews, addicts and soccer moms all find grace when they gather together in community. In a radio interview last Friday, I heard her confess her own doubts, fears and limitations. “I think that faith is not given in sufficient quantities to individuals,” she says. “Faith is given to communities instead, so we may hold it for each other.” One of the main reasons we gather together as Church is to hold the light of hope for one another. When you’re on your own there’s little protection against the inevitable times of despair when waiting has gone on too long and the laughter comes out bitter like Sarah’s. But when we are together, the ones who feels more fully the living Spirit of God will comfort and care for others who feel farther away from the promises. And the next week, or the week after that, roles are reversed. We hold the promises of faith as a community, then by divine grace we see God bringing them about in unexpected ways, sometimes even through ourselves.
Because by the end of the story, Isaac is born! Laughter—which is what Isaac’s name means—comes to pass! Not the skeptical or cynical laughter of Sarah in chapter 18 (or of Abraham in the previous chapter), but an incredulous, disbelieving-but-joyful, grace-abounding laughter of Sarah in chapter 21. “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Sarah knows—when her prayers and the promises of God are fulfilled at last—that God has brought laughter.
Isaac is born—laughter is born anew—in church every week. God has brought laughter when one who was in deep grief no longer feels the knife-edge of loss. God has brought laughter when a former addict celebrates another anniversary of sobriety during Joys and Concerns. God has brought laughter when people lift up stories of racial healing, and put them on our Good News wall in the narthex. God has brought laughter in the simple delight of sharing a pew with those you love
and those you are just starting to know, singing together of the world that God is bringing into being. God has brought laughter, is bringing laughter, and will bring laughter even in the places of greatest sorrow.
Hold to this promise forever—that Isaac is born, that Jesus is resurrected, that the Spirit of God sustains the Church and the world. Hold to it like a Cubs fan, hoping against hope that this might indeed be the year. Hold to that promise, hold it for others, and let others hold it for you when you need. Let it be our guide, our hope, and our constant touchstone of faith, even when the proof is hard to find. Let it be for us as William Stafford wrote in his poem “The Way It Is”:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Let us pray: God of laughter, grant us hearts to trust in your promises, and eyes of faith to see them coming true. Strengthen our faith, increase our love for one another, and hold us when we are not able to hold ourselves. Give us the laughter of those who trust and see you, and help us show that joy to all the world. Amen.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Friday Roundtable”, MPR News hosted by Kerri Miller, September 18, 2015.