Despair Unraveled Into Joy

Edina Morningside Community Church
Today’s scripture reading: Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7 Sermon audio:

I will never forget the night of November 6th, 2012. Javen and I, with countless others, had worked for more than a year to defeat the marriage amendment that was on the ballot in Minnesota. We had done so much as staff members in the faith department of the campaign: leading forums in church basements all over the state, helping with events that raised millions of dollars, getting up early for staff meetings and staying up late to lead phonebanks into the cold night hours. In the last week, we had basically occupied the University of Minnesota campus, teaching in classrooms, walking around with Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, storming the student dorms and disrupting cafeteria dinner on Election Day, to load young voters onto waiting busses. But with such exhaustive efforts, there was no guarantee how it would turn out. More than thirty states at that point had taken such measures, and every. single. state. had lost such fights to that point. Going into Election Day, the polling was too close to call on the amendment—we were in a virtual tie. We spent the whole election night party hoping for the best but prepared for the worst, even after all that work. It wasn’t until the wee hours the next morning, when we were about to go home, that the cry went up and victory was declared. What we had dreamed and labored long for, yet feared to hope in too much lest we be disappointed, had actually come to pass. Goodness and reform did prevail, despite centuries of anti-queer laws and practices. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”, we wondered.

Abraham and Sarah know even more what it is to live with fearful despair. At the time we see them in this Scripture reading, they have been wandering nomads for decades, ever since the disembodied voice of God called them to go from all that they had ever known to a mystery that God would show them. They have heard the divine promises of a child for Sarah many times over, but it’s been so untrue to this point that Abraham asked God to recognize the hired man Eliezer as his heir, and Sarah forced her servant Hagar to have a child with Abraham. Despite God’s promise to make of them a great nation, Abraham laughed in disbelief earlier when God promised a child through Sarah, and now it’s Sarah’s turn to overhear these visiting strangers with bitter laughter. They have the audacity to suggest the impossible: that despite being barren her whole life, and now post-menopausal, with a husband a hundred years old (!), she would bear a child. The hope that Sarah may once have had is now dried up with cynicism. “After I have grown old…shall I have pleasure?” But the unusual visitors respond: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” As the story continues, what Jesus later says to the disciples is true here also: “for God all things are possible.”

It is of course not necessary to have a child in order to believe in God’s goodness, but for Abraham and Sarah that’s the form that the impossible takes. God unravels their hardened despair and resignation with the joy of a newborn child. Sarah the poet turns her earlier cynicism and doubt on its head. “God has brought laughter for me”, Sarah says with wondrous disbelief. Where once she laughed in scorn and mockery at the impossible promise, here she names the child Yitzhak (or “Isaac”), meaning “he laughs”. This child’s birth seemed impossible—and under the same circumstances now we would still say that it was. But Abraham and Sarah’s assumptions about God, and what is simply beyond the limit of the possible, have been expanded. We read that God “did for Sarah as [God] had promised”—God turns out to be reliable after all. The impossible has been born, has been realized, and so Sarah laughs. Walter Brueggemann writes that “Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift—underived, unwarranted.”[1] In other words, as the visiting guests say, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”

In our own day, though, we might reasonably wonder if there are somethings beyond the reach of God’s intervention. How long does this country have to wait for Black Americans to be treated as equal to White Americans? Must there be an endless cycle of death by police, public outcry, then forgetfulness and policy inaction for Black and Brown people in the human family? Black bodies have been subject to police force going back for hundreds of years, ever since slave patrols began, even before this country was founded. Despite every form of nonviolent and violent protest proclaiming the equal humanity of Black people, mostly White bystanders have not yet risen up with equal vigor to say that pervasive racism must end. What else could it possibly take to unravel the knots of White supremacy and systemic inertia? Will the enactment of “all people are created equal” remain forever as barren as it was when the Declaration of Independence declared it so? And what about the other social transformations for which we wait, or the personal deliverance from sorrows that we long for? Is anything too wonderful for God?

This morning we gather as people of faith, caught between the despair of Sarah waiting for long-delayed hopes, and the impossible laughter of Isaac’s birth. We are in the position of knowing the assurances of faith—that God will “wipe every tear from their eyes”, that Jesus promises “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”—but without the evidence of liberation in our public life. We await God’s appearing—not at the oaks of Mamre, but at the oaks of our own homes, and at the oaks of public life. We wait for despair to unravel into joy, for new heavens and a new earth as the Bible proclaims.

I want to believe, and by faith I can promise you, that laws, practices and hearts do change—I’ve seen it happen. We are not stuck with the idolatry of White supremacy forever. God makes promises, and God fulfills promises, even though it feels impossible. Yet the end of White supremacy will not arrive on the wings of inevitability, and White people especially are called into action to hasten the day. One of the things that’s been notably different in the recent protests for Black lives, as compared to protests in the 1960s or even five years ago, is how many White people are participating and raising our voices. Even the largest corporations are declaring a once-radical statement: Black lives matter. White-bodied people and White-cultured institutions are starting to recognize that to be on the sidelines as mere observers is to be accomplices in the crimes of racial brutality. White silence equals violence. So as we await the divinely guaranteed transformation of pain into joy, we have work to do as caretakers of this arriving promise. We can increase our learning from people of color through podcasts and film, we can speak to family members and friends about why Black liberation matters, we can be on the lines of protest ourselves, or we can visibly support efforts for change through our donations and our voices. We can hasten to the acts of mercy, relief and proclamation that we see in Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, caring for strangers who bear the voice of God. As a predominantly White congregation in the mostly White suburb of Edina, this is how we show a public commitment to the equal humanity of Black lives. It demonstrates our faith that God can surprise us like Sarah and Abraham. God can unravel the inertia and despair of racism with unexpected joy and solidarity.

There’s one story from this week that embodies a birth of such solidarity. Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen, from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, wrote on Facebook last Wednesday what happened when Brian Dragonfly, an employee of the Native heritage center Migizi Communications next door, approached her on Tuesday:

Brian Dragonfly said that when he arrived to assess the situation, he found that the building was still burning. “I decided to capture the fire,” he said, holding up his lantern. He wondered if Holy Trinity would tend the fire with MIGIZI until they could rebuild. He thought that the flame—the fire—might bring some comfort to his community.

In we went to the sanctuary. Brian set the lantern on the altar. I ran to find a candle. We shared the fire—and along with it the trauma of the preceding days, the conviction that not all that was destroyed is to be mourned, and the hope that this ashy moment in our neighborhood’s life will be an opportunity for new life. MIGIZI shared on Facebook: “Despite the flames, we as a community burn brighter…We look forward to showing our resilience once again.”

Later that day, Rasmussen writes, “I returned to the flame in the sanctuary and decided that I needed to bring it home for the night. (I’m more than a little fire conscious right now.) I tended the flame [that] night;
congregants will take over this sacred responsibility
[going forward].”

By the grace of God, solidarity between the largely White congregation of Holy Trinity, and a neighboring community organization for people of color, has been born. Let us look for opportunities to do likewise, until joy and laughter are fully realized, and White supremacy is no longer. Because as we see time and time again, in fact nothing is too wonderful for God. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, in the Interpretation series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pg. 182.

Cover image: “The Heir”, by Hannah Garrity. A Sanctified Art LLC. All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “Despair Unraveled Into Joy

  1. Janet McCalla

    Oby- Excellent words for all of us to live by.

    Prayers and love are sent for the most brightful ending .
    God bless you , your congregation and Javen’s church and ours to know that prayer and hope are what we need today. Janet and Cotton


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