a reflection on Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7
As we begin our time of reflection this morning, I invite you to spend a few minutes with the painting that illustrates today’s scripture reading. This painting by Hannah Garrity is titled, “The Heir,” and its subtitle is “Sarah Laughed.” The painting depicts, of course, Sarah gazing into the eyes of her newborn son, Isaac, both of them laughing with delight. As you take in this beautiful picture, I wonder if you might remember a time when you or someone you love has experienced this kind of delight: the kind that makes you laugh out loud with sheer joy. This kind of delight at the fulfillment of a long-held hope is one of life’s most beautiful gifts, and when this gift arrives, we are called to celebrate it with grateful and joyous laughter.
Of course, the arrival of a child is cause for delight and celebration whenever and wherever it happens. But I don’t think it’s possible to fully understand the delight that is depicted in this painting unless we know the story of what came before: years of painful yearning; decades of dashed hopes; the better part of a lifetime consumed with unfulfilled longing for the child that Sarah believed was promised to her by God.
This summer, we are making our way through some of our most ancient stories as we explore the idea of unravelling: What happens when the fabric of our shared life, the fabric of our plans — for own lives and for the world — all seem to be unravelling before our eyes due to circumstances beyond our control? It turns out that this kind of unravelling happens again and again in the Bible, as it does in our own lives. If ever there was a person who knows what it feels like to have one’s hopes and dreams unravelled by unforeseen circumstances, our foremother Sarah is that person. When we meet her today, Sarah has given up on ever bearing a child. By her own account, Sarah and Abraham have grown very old and are long past childbearing age. So far past, in fact, that when the mysterious visitor announces that Sarah will yet bear a son, Sarah’s response is to laugh out loud at him! And we can be sure that this is not a chuckle of delight. On the contrary, this is the cynical laughter of a woman who has long since given up hope; a woman who has long since given up on her heart’s deepest desire. Yeah, right, Sarah laughs. A child. That’s a good one!
I wonder what our foremother Sarah might say to us if she could visit us here in this summer of our collective unravelling; this season in which so many of our own hopes and dreams, from vacations to weddings to college dormitories, are dissolving before our eyes or being postponed into the indefinite and murky future. If you’re so inclined, I invite you to spend some time with Sarah this week. It’s not hard to do. Just find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed for a while and take a few deep breaths to center your body and mind. Then, closing your eyes, invite Sarah to come and visit with you in the form of a waking dream or meditation. Ask her anything you like about your own waiting or your own unravelling; about the promises of God for your life and for the life of the world God loves. As you ask each question in turn, be sure to leave enough space, enough silence, for Sarah to offer her own wisdom and guidance. If you want to, you can pause this recording now to visit with Sarah and see what she might want to tell you about the experience of unravelling. When your visit feels complete, I encourage you to write down whatever you remember from this conversation, knowing that you can return here to talk and listen some more whenever you need to.
My guess is that when you enter into this kind of deep listening relationship with Sarah or any of the ancestors, you will hear the particular guidance that your own soul needs to hear at this time. But I can tell you what I heard when I listened on our behalf this week. I heard Sarah laughing with delight. I heard her laughing with delight at the fact that we are taking enough time this season to even listen — we, who are so fond of rushing and scheming to accomplish our own plans in our own human time. Inviting Sarah into my meditation this week, I see her standing before me with her dark skin and thick, coiled hair, laughing as she proclaims, in the words of the African-American church: God is good all the time. All the time, God is good! God is good, mother Sarah says. Even when things do not happen in our time, on our human schedule. God never leaves us, she says. Even when all our plans seem to be unravelling. God can work with that, child, she says. Sarah reminds me that God does not will or cause our painful unravelling: we humans have free will that can bring about all kinds of painful events, and of course, the world itself has sharp edges, cliffs, viruses. But whatever comes to pass, God can work with that, mother Sarah says. Sometimes, things don’t happen on our schedule, she says. But that doesn’t mean God is absent. All along the way, no matter how long it takes, God is working alongside us and inside us. All along the way, God is calling us to keep faith, and to take whatever actions are ours to take. All along the way, God is working beside us and within us for justice. For healing. For the restoration and rebirth of all creation.
You were made just like me, Sarah whispers. To be a vessel for the future that God is fashioning from whatever circumstances have arisen. Do your part, she whispers. And do not despair.
And so, beloved, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving. For the One who calls us, even as our own plans unravel, to watch for the healing plans of God. And for the wise ones who teach us, even now, to be a vessel for God’s healing plans. For all these we say: Thanks be to God.