A Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
“What happens when your world falls apart?
How do we press onward when our tightly-knit plans unravel into loose threads?
What do we become when our identity—or the path we’re on—comes undone?
What if all of this is not the end (that) we fear it will be?
In our unraveling, sometimes life surprises us with unexpected joy, love and hope—with a new beginning we couldn’t have imagined.
Sometimes we need God to unravel us, for we long to be changed.”
This is the impetus behind the new series Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart, which we begin today and continue through the middle of September. Using resources provided by A Sanctified Art—a collective of artists in ministry who create resources for worshipping communities—we will explore seven biblical stories of unraveled shame, identity, fear, grief, dreams, and expectations.
However, before we delve into those stories and the theme for the next two months, it’s important to note that as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Reformed tradition, we don’t believe in and worship a God who loves human beings conditionally; who moves people around like pieces on a game board; and who causes suffering to teach a valuable lesson or because faith is lacking or the check list of good deeds isn’t completed.
Instead we, like many mainline Christians, believe in and worship a God who loves all people unconditionally; who gives humanity the gift of free will; and who is not the source of suffering but who is present amid tragedy, restoring and transforming each of us.
It’s also vital that we remember that the encounters with God in holy scripture don’t perfectly mirror our own stories and faith experiences. God engages with the ancient people of the Bible in a much different way than God relates to us in the present.
This is particularly true for today’s scripture passage from Genesis regarding Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy. What God does for Sarah is not indicative of what God will do or not dofor any post-modern woman who has experienced the pains of infertility and miscarriage. Author and theologian John C. Holbert offers this pondering for 21stcentury folks to consider:
Surely, we are not to argue after the historicity of the thing, how old women in our day can give birth at increasingly advanced ages, how Invitro science has changed so much for many infertile couples. So, why could Sarah not give birth at 90? I cannot go there, nor I think can many of you. Let me suggest that the famous line— “Is anything too astonishing for YHWH”—may be the focus here, but perhaps not in the way you think. I do not think that this line calls us to forget all we know of science and history, and to claim that anything can happen when God is around. The danger of that idea is palpable when some couples are helped in their desire for a child and some are not, though each prays fervently to the same God.
I want to say that the line suggests that God still matters in the ways of humanity, that we are not on our own as we live our lives, that we do not make decisions alone, wholly apart from a loving deity. YHWH does not give us whatever we ask for, but YHWH is with us in our struggles to discern what YHWH wants from us and from our world. Nothing is too astonishing for a God who made it all and loves it all.
The stories of Sarah, Abraham and other biblical figures are examples of how God is in our midst to provide love when life unravels for the worst; joy when life unravels for the best; and hope when we need to be unraveled from the deep seeded fear, selfishness, greed, pride and anger that we’ve allowed to tangle up our life.
Several complicated and messy events have occurred in the lives of Sarah and Abraham before they receives the news that she will have a child in old age. And God is with them throughout their journey.
God instructs Abram to leave his home land of Ur and travel with his wife Sarah to the land of Canaan where he will make of Abraham a multitude of nations (Genesis 12, 15 and 17). During their travel, they enter Egypt where Abraham decides to pass off Sarah as his sister and a gift to the Pharaoh so that Abraham’s life would be spared (Genesis 12). Much later, after many years of being unable to conceive, Sarah abuses her servant Hagar and forces her into surrogacy, which Abraham allows. And thus, Hagar gives birth to a son and names him Ishmael (Genesis 16). Then, after God appears to Abraham more than a decade later to tell him that he, a 100-year-old man, and Sarah, a 90-year-old woman will bear a child, Abraham falls down laughing in disbelief (Genesis 17).
Sarah and Abraham are not the sublime, morally upstanding couple you might expect God to choose to establish a great nation. But despite their actions, their imperfections and flaws, God never abandons Sarah and Abraham nor retracts the promise made to them. Nor do Sarah and Abraham lose their faith and belief in God. After a century of living through hardship—whether their own doing or not—the couple had come to terms with the reality that they will not be the ancestors of a great people. And they still welcome God into their home. In a commentary on Genesis, renown biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann observes that:
Once again, this story shows what a 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. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness as ‘normal.’ The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness. . . . Beyond the etymological explanations which link Isaac to ‘laugh,’ and beyond doubtful embarrassment, Sarah laughs because ‘God has made laughter for me.’ By (God’s) powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness. The joyous laughter is the end of sorrow and weeping (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:21; John 16:20-24). Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift—underived, unwarranted. Barrenness has now become ludicrous. It can now be laughed at because there is ‘full joy’ (John 16:24).
For most of their lives, Sarah and Abraham’s plans haven’t gone the way they quite expected and just as they have begun to resign themselves to Sarah’s barrenness and disbelief that God will give them descendants as countless as the stars, the unexpected happens. They are unraveled again with the message from God—appearing as three strangers in front of their tent no less—that Sarah will give birth to a boy. Sarah’s disbelief unravels into joyful laughter. The couple’s perceptions of God and whether God could keep a promise and do the impossible unravels as Isaac is born. Sarah resignation of a childless life unravels into a child-filled life.
Of course, this unexpected joy doesn’t mean that Sarah and Abraham’s life from this point onward remained unraveled for the best. There are some cruel and harsh events that occur in the years following Isaac’s birth, as the subsequent chapters attest.
And there’s also the pain and suffering that common sense tells us Sarah experienced as a new mother caring for a newborn, although it’s not written down. Hannah Garrity, one of the members of A Sanctified Art and a mother, explains further in a statement about her painting of Sarah and Isaac:
A new mother’s emotions run the wide gamut from overwhelming joy, to emotional pain, to previously unmet fear, and to lack of control. They extend from postpartum depression to baby blues. The experience is nothing like anything I have ever felt before or after, a paradigm shift in life. The deep and painful multiplicity of new motherhood is often summed up in perfectly constructed highlight reel photographs on baby announcements. In this painting, I depict Sarah putting up a front of pure joy. It’s honest, but it’s only one small sliver of the real story. As women we stand at once in vulnerability and beauty, in strength and love, in pain and joy. The moments of our lives envision God’s grace in deep complexity.
Life is messy and painful. Every day (or at least every week) we are presented with a challenge, often not of our own making, that tests us our resolve. And we’re all aware that we are broken and flawed and incapable of being perfect and right all the time. Like Sarah and Abraham and every human being who is ever walked the face of the earth, we have experienced and are going to continue experiencing an unraveling of some sort.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Author and pastor Rob Bell shares an insight from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who once pointed out that “Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because they believe that’s where the spirit enters.” Bell then reflects further:
I can relate to the rugs. I want desperately for things to go “how they’re supposed to.” Which is another way of saying “how I want them to,” which is another way of saying “according to my plan.” And that, as we all know, isn’t how it works.
But it’s in that disappointment, in that confusion, in that pain—the pain that comes from things not going how I wanted them to—that I find the same thing happening, again and again. I come to the end of myself, to the end of my power, the end of my strength, the end of my understanding, only to find, in that place of powerlessness, a strength and peace that weren’t there before. I keep discovering that it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters. The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God, which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables but in pain and anguish and death.
It’s there, in the agony of those moments, that we get the first glimpses of just what it looks like for God to take all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turn them into something else, something new, something we never would have been able to create on our own. It’s in that place that we’re reminded that true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all of our desires to figure it out and be in control.
We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. We will become more or less tuned in to the thousands upon thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day. This too will shape me. The only question left is, how?
How will we and our life and plans be unraveled for the worst and the best in these coming weeks?
How will it look for our disbelief and despair to unravel into joy, love and hope?
How will we be shaped by our unraveling?
How will we seek God in the midst?
Let us find out together.
Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation: Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 158-9; 182.
Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Sufferingby Rob Bell, 2012. Harper Collins Publishers.