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The Preposterous Gospel

June 19, 2017

“The Preposterous Gospel” Genesis 18:1-15 © 6.18.17 Ordinary 11A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On a day much like any other, Abraham sat in the door of his tent, half asleep from the sweltering heat of a desert at noonday. Maybe he would give in to the tug of gravity on his eyelids and take a nap. Sarah, inside their home, was doing some chores. But then she, too, would lie down for a siesta.

What happened next made Abraham decide he must have nodded off as he sat there looking out over the landscape. Otherwise he would have noticed the approach of three strangers who suddenly stood before him. A moment ago they were not there; now they were, as if they had stepped through a portal from some other dimension. Who were these men? How they did they get here? Where were they from? We find out later that they are divine, but for now neither Abraham nor Sarah knows that.

Anyway, such questions of identity and what they were doing traveling in the heat of the day were really irrelevant. They were visitors to Abraham’s home, and his obligation was to show hospitality. Bread to strengthen his guests for their journey. Water to slake their thirst. A cool spot beneath the shade of the oaks.

But then, after promising a simple repast, Abraham decided to treat his guests to choice veal, milk, and yogurt, in addition to some of Sarah’s wonderful pita bread. Then, so Abraham could meet their every need, he stood by like a slave while the three men ate.

Much has been made of the patriarch’s hospitality, usually along the lines of how we encounter God when we welcome strangers. In our day when we fear the other so profoundly, that’s a relevant message. And preachers like me are also fond of pointing out how Abraham wasn’t doing anything unusual when the three showed up. No ritual or prayer, no sacrifice or songs. Just sitting around watching TV, so to speak. There is holiness in the ordinary.

But as tempting as it is to ring the changes on both those themes, I have to point out that Abraham’s hospitality was simply what was expected by his culture. As one writer puts it, he served the guests because “it was what you did” (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/2008/06/june-15-2008—fifth-sunday-after-pentecost.html). And if the day were ordinary until this point, it was about to become anything but.

Everything quickly gets turned upside down. Guest becomes host. The familiar becomes strange. Resignation gives way to rejoicing. It’s on the unexpected, the crazy, the incongruous, and the surprising that this story turns.

Our first hint that something extraordinary is going on is that though these people had never been in Abraham’s home before, one of them knew Sarah’s name. Odd. Where would he have gained such knowledge? Had Abraham entertained this man in the past? Neither the face nor the voice was familiar. The host decided to let it go. Maybe the strangers had asked around.

After delivering the bread for the guests, Sarah hid behind the tent flap, listening. The mention of her name caught her attention, and she leaned forward a bit more.

A son?! The man must be joking. Sarah could barely stifle her guffaw. This was utter nonsense. A baby?! At their age? Yes, that’s what they had always wanted, what Yahweh had promised some twenty-five years ago. But now it was too late. She was past childbearing years. It had taken time, but both she and her husband had adjusted to their fate. And she didn’t wish to open that old wound again.

It wasn’t as if Abraham had no heir. As law and custom allowed, he had adopted his slave Eliezer of Damascus to succeed him. But still that wasn’t quite right, since the Lord had promised a natural heir. So, again, according to custom, they had gone what we call now the surrogate mother route, with Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar given to Abraham. It wasn’t long before the young Egyptian was pregnant. Hagar had run away once prior to delivering her child, but now she and her son Ishmael lived in the household, and all was well.

But for Sarah there had been no child. Why, then, should she believe the word of a stranger? It was utter nonsense. Ridiculous. Preposterous. She couldn’t help but laugh, though the Hebrew of the text implies that out of courtesy, she kept her amusement to herself.

How, she didn’t know, but the man heard her silent chuckle. He knew she had not believed anything he had said. It was then she realized with whom they were dealing. These were no men at all, but Yahweh and two otherworldly attendants. Or maybe all three somehow were Yahweh. Suddenly she was afraid. Laughing at God? She would surely be struck down.

Yet even if she denied her laughter, she would still own her doubt. Abraham wouldn’t pretend, either. God had promised a son of their own for what seemed an eternity. What made this day any different, the rhetoric about nothing being too hard for God anything more than empty talk?

We understand the laughter of Sarah. We know why Abraham was practically rolling on the ground sometime earlier, overcome with the absurdity of the same promise. It was ridiculous to believe in an open future, when all their experiences told them that their fate was sealed. Whether they liked it or not, this was the way things were. They had made peace with the inevitable.

We understand. Who can believe in an open future, that things will be different for humanity, for us, when the TV, the Internet, and the papers every day bear witness to our astonishing capacity for hatred, brutality, and greed? When suspicion, malice, and the thirst for power show no signs of being banished from our planet? When war is never ending? When millions are dying of hunger in a world full of food, when violence stalks the land, when we who are to be stewards of this good earth seem bent on destroying it? When even the churches do not inspire trust for many in our society because of hypocrisy and meanness, forsaking Jesus for the sake of power, when as someone once said, “many of our children see the Christian faith (as displayed by the church) as bogus”? Who can believe?

How can we but laugh at the assurance that nothing is “too wonderful,” too hard, for God when we have prayed without ceasing for healing and help or for good and noble causes only to be confronted with a deafening silence or an impotent deity? When the dream we so cherished will now most certainly not be fulfilled? When the goal that seemed so realistic once is now unattainable? We too have made peace with a future in which we must settle for less, decided we will never reach the goal we have set or know the happiness for which we long. Sarah laughed. We can hardly blame her. The promises were empty. Hers was the cynical chortle of someone who knows she’s being lied to, that what God was saying had little or no basis in reality.

Reflecting on Sarah’s laughter and ours, one writer has pointed out the two basic elements of humor, namely, incongruity and surprise. “Incongruity is the juxtaposition of two or three apparently contradictory or unrelated ideas or situations. Surprise comes from the introduction of something into a scheme or story—an idea, an event, a person—that is totally unexpected and unanticipated. Incongruity and surprise are closely related, of course, and are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Both capitalize on the twist, the unforeseeable. Both jolt us out of one mental attitude into another, which may be completely and even violently opposed to the first….

“Incongruity and surprise go together in humor. But—and this is the crucial point for us in understanding Sarah’s laugh—it is possible to have humor that deals only in the incongruous and is completely without surprise. That is Sarah’s humor. She can laugh at the preposterousness, the incongruity…of having one foot in the grave and the other in a maternity ward. But that is all she can laugh at: its incongruity. She expects no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world she has grown accustomed to living in and, as a result, her laugh can be only bitter and cynical…. She cannot hear God say, ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ If she could, incongruity and surprise would come together, and she would really throw her head back and laugh as she has never laughed before—and she wouldn’t cover her mouth when she did. She would be laughing and weeping at the same time” (Ben Patterson, “Keep on Laughing…,” http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html).

Speaking of surprise reminds me how when I was growing up, I distrusted and disliked surprises, especially at Christmas. Things never turned out the way I wanted or expected. Even then I had to be in control. But it’s not an overstatement that having faith is welcoming surprise, wondering at the unexpected grace of God, believing that somehow what God promises will come true. We give up control and instead trust the good purposes of God.

It’s only when we let go of our peace with, our resignation to, our flattened, forlorn, fated world that grace can come in. The promise of God forced the shattering of the truce with their closed future for Abraham and Sarah, whether they were ready for it or not. Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner has observed that “people are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in that field rich enough to buy Texas…. They are prepared for a mustard-seed kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at First Presbyterian but not for the marriage supper of the lamb….” Elsewhere Buechner says: “the sheltering word can be spoken only after the word that leaves us without a roof over our heads, the answering word only after the word it answers” (Telling the Truth: 35). “Absence,” he claims, “can be…a door left open, a chamber of the heart kept ready and waiting” (43).

Faith makes all kinds of sense when the evidence is for us, when everything points to the certainty of fulfillment of the promise. But when we know we have a sure thing, can we really call our confidence faith? Scholar Walter Brueggemann doesn’t think so. He writes: “…this story shows what scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity” (Genesis: 158-9). If like Abraham and Sarah you and I have made peace with a closed future, if we do not believe that anything new can intrude into our lives, if “newness must be conjured from present resources,” then the promise truly is “nonsensical” (159).

Whatever we may believe or not believe, do or not do, however, the purpose of God will not be thwarted. Not everything depends on us. I hope we hear that as good news. Not everything depends on us. God is resolved to open the future and keep it open, whether ancient nomads or you or I are ready for it. He is determined to work his gracious will, to turn the laughter of derision and skepticism into the laughter of joyful faith. In a word, we may have given up, but God has not, does not. He refuses to give up on us, on the world, on the possibility of newness, on the fulfillment of his dream for all creation.

The preposterous claim of the gospel is that the future is open, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The gospel is comedy in the classic sense, not tragedy. If the tragic is the feeling of being trapped, out of choices other than bad ones, then the comic is the experience of living in a wide open space, having possibilities even beyond expectations. If the tragic is a road ahead filled with detours, ditches, and dead ends, then the comic is a journey not without its problems, but with the sure promise of safe arrival at the destination. The comic, as I have pointed out, is the surprising, the unpredictable, where everything is turned upside down. It’s people who hope against hope. It’s Wile E. Coyote continuing to try to capture Road Runner with his schemes from Acme, and falling off the cliff, only to return in the next frame. It’s someone who has had a string of failed relationships believing fervently that the ideal partner for her or him is out there. The comic is the resurrection, inviting us to smile the smile of those who have beaten the odds, like the Christ who endured yet overcame death and left the tomb behind. It’s, as someone has said, the “outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people” (Conrad Hyers). And it’s the laughter of God, the laughter of those who rejoice when newness, unexpected and unbidden, comes their way. It’s the laughter of amazement and wonder, that brings tears of joy instead of grief. It’s the laughter of those who have discovered that however wild their dreams may have been, they just weren’t wild enough.

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