The Laugh and the Tent

Posted in Coming Soon, Led and Transformed by the Spirit by John McNeill | June 21st, 2017

Sarah laughed.

Then she denied she laughed.

This story from Genesis is one of the more noted stories of Abraham and Sarah. We are already pretty far into the collection of the tales of their lives. For many years they have been nomads with a large household and a significant amount of livestock. They move from place to place through the year to find fresh pasture for their herds and so their housing is portable. They live in tents.

Originally Abraham and Sarah came from a place far to the east, from Padan Aram in current day Iraq or Eastern Syria. But now they are moving about the area of what is now Israel and Palestine.

For many years they have been waiting for God to fulfill a promise. Abraham and Sarah had been promised that from them would spring a great nation of many people. As many descendants forming a nation of more people than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand in the dessert. Decades have gone by. Year after year the promise has not been fulfilled.

And now, as we read this morning, Abraham and Sarah are encamped at the Oaks of Mamre. And these three strangers, three mysterious travelers arrive. Practicing the hospitality of the middle eastern desert, Abraham welcomes the travelers into his household and provides them refreshment: water and food. In fact, something of a feast is prepared, for these guests.

You may have noticed that the story speaks of these visitors almost interchangeably as “three men” and “the Lord.” Commentators sometimes refer to them as three angels, and there has been quite a lot of reflection on these three visitors as being a sign of the trinity. There is, in fact, a famous icon by Andrei Rublev depicting this story and portraying the three visitors as the Trinity.  In any case, these are by no means three ordinary folks. They are a visitation of God.

But what is the upshot of this divine visitation? They ask Abraham about Sarah. Where is she. Right here in the tent Abraham replies. One of the men says, “I will definitely return to you this time next year. Then your wife, Sarah, will have a son!”

Now Abraham and Sarah were already very old. It was unimagineable that they would have a child. And so, Sarah, overhearing this in the tent, laughs to herself.

The visitor is aware of it. Why does she laugh? Is anything too difficult for the Lord?

Sarah speaks up and says, “I didn’t laugh.” She was frightened.

The visitor replies: No, you laughed.

Now, the written word does not answer all our questions. I, for one, want to know what the tone of the laugh was. You know, a laugh can have a whole range of meanings. And on the meaning of that laugh the meaning of the story turns.

But let’s just briefly highlight three pieces of the story: the tent, the oaks, and the laugh.

First, the tent.

Tents are for people on the move. Tents are for living temporarily in one place. Most of us, I believe, like to live in fixed buildings. With solid walls. With a foundation. But the month of June reminds us particularly that though we like our lives settled in one place, there is change all around us.

June brings us graduations. June brings weddings. June brings moves. We are in the midst of transition. We have our graduates whom we honor today. We are aware of staff changes at St. Paul’s. We are aware of transitions in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. Illness, job changes, aging, births, deaths. Life always keeps us on our toes for change.

We may live in fixed buildings, but our lives are as moveable as tents.

But, second, there are the oaks:

The story this morning is set at the oaks of Mamre. These oaks, a sign of water in a dry region, are an indication of rootedness, of steadiness, of solidity and endurance. These are enduring landmarks to which Sarah and Abraham will return in their rounds.

Sarah and Abraham may not always be at these enduring oaks, but they return year after year as their nomadic shifts and wandering treks return them time after time.

We too have our oases of tradition and endurance. We have relationships and bonds that link us to the roots of love and blessing that endure through the transitions that draw us this way and that.

Any given year, some of us move on or move away. Any given year new companions join us on this journey, but through these changes most of us remain to see the next year through.

And finally, the laugh. I actually hear Sarah’s laugh as the laugh of unbelievable possibility. I hear it as an expression of – And wouldn’t that be something! Not disbelief as much as almost not daring to believe the promise of God’s amazing future.

What lies ahead for us? What lies ahead for the graduates we honor this morning? What lies ahead for Rue as she steps back from Youth Ministry Coordinator? What lies ahead for us as a congregation? We can focus on the impermanence of our tents. But we can also focus on the endurance of the oaks.

So between our confidence of endurance and our awareness of how our dwelling place may shift, I urge us to be open for the laugh: because here’s what I think the laugh means. It’s the laugh of unexpected, almost unbelievable possibility. It’s the laugh of what joy if this could be true!

That’s the laugh we share in our high hopes for our graduates. That’s the laugh of the high hopes we have for our future as St. Paul’s. That’s the laugh of the hope that we have for how we will discover God to be amazingly at work among us.

And one more thing. As the story goes, Abraham and Sarah do have a son. He is named Isaac. You know what that means in Hebrew?  It means “He laughs.”

That promised nation begins from this unbelievably possible child named Isaac. Named He laughs.

And he bears that name, that laugh of unbelievable possibility, into the future. A future that encompasses us, as we continue the sacred story of Divine Promise and blessing.  Between change and endurance. Between tents and oaks. Listen for the laugh.

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