category: Musings, Sermon Starter

Holy Improbable Promise

By Rachael Keefe

I was maybe 10 the first time someone told me I would be a great mother one day. I was already babysitting by then, and in a year or so I was much in demand. I babysat after school most afternoons and many Friday and Saturday nights for years. At …

Holy Improbable Promise

I was maybe 10 the first time someone told me I would be a great mother one day. I was already babysitting by then, and in a year or so I was much in demand. I babysat after school most afternoons and many Friday and Saturday nights for years. At thirteen I started having dreams about having my own children. These dreams continued for years, always featuring a black-haired, blue-eyed boy and a red-headed, green-eyed girl. I was sure these dreams were some kind of a promise since they happened often. Sometimes, I still dream about these children.

The reality is that I have no children. I considered adoption in my mid-twenties and again when I turned 30 and once more in my late 30s, but life circumstances made it impossible then. In my early 30s I was told that my uterus was “inhospitable.” At 40 I had a necessary medical procedure that made pregnancy even more unlikely and then in my mid 40s I had a hysterectomy. For many years, every time I saw a pregnant woman, I cried. It was hard to reconcile the life I lived with the life I thought I had been promised.

As a result of my experiences with infertility, I have a strong affinity for the barren women of scripture. Now at 50 I read this story of Sarah once more and, I too, laugh. What more could be done? Sarah who had most certainly passed her child bearing years hears that she is to conceive and bear a son, the long-promised progeny that would give way to descendants too numerous to count. She was incredulous, and, just maybe, a little hopeful that with God all things might be possible, even the improbable. If it were me, I would laugh at the unlikelihood of it all, laugh until my laughter turned to tears of gratitude at the possibility of so much more.

This is how Sarah’s story hits me on a personal level. Yet, there is something much deeper in this story that echoes through the Gospel text. It’s what allows the disciples to go out into the wider world proclaiming good news that will put their lives at risk. In spite of Sarah’s laughter at God’s preposterous promise, she does, indeed bring a son into the world. And she names him, Isaac which means, essentially, laughter. Then Isaac goes on to have children of his own and one of them becomes the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This makes Israel the child of Laughter. Perhaps, this is how the people of God have managed to survive captivity and oppression over and over again. Somehow, someway, they have held on to this identity as children of Laughter. Maybe the laughter that spilled from Sarah’s mouth that day took root in the spirit of all those who would come after her…

The church would do well to pay heed to this lesson. The church was born out of a promise, one nearly as preposterous as the one Sarah and Abraham were given. Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come to them and remind them of all that he had taught. From there the followers of Jesus would become more numerous than anyone ever thought possible. Perhaps the echoes of Sarah’s laughter were enough to keep them going in the early days when it looked like there would be no future for the church.

Now we, as church, are quite old. So old, in fact, that many of us find it hard to imagine that there is a new way of doing things. We cling to what we know. Like Sarah and Abraham we have adjusted to the way things are and made a comfortable life for ourselves. Yet, there is more to the promise than comfort. There is more to the hope for the future than a repetition of the past. All around us there are signs that God is doing a new thing, whispering promises of offspring even when churches are closing and people are scattering. There are signs that the life long-promised is stirring within us, even those of us who believed ourselves to be barren. There is life here; the Spirit still moves.

What is it that God is asking of you? Maybe it is to bring life to a place and a people who gave up hope long ago and have become far too comfortable in their pews… Maybe it is to share laughter at the imaginings of a God who can see the church changing and growing in unexpected ways… Maybe it is to be among the midwives who will nurture and care for the life that is stirring?

Whatever God is up to, it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to be unbelieving. It’s okay be stunned into silence. God will do what God will do to keep laughter alive in this generation and the next. Just don’t get stuck. Keep looking for what God is up to and be ready to jump in and do your part.  And don’t be surprised when your laughter at the impossibility of it all gives way to tears of gratitude over the abundance of the gift of it all. In our old age, we will give birth to a new generation and that generation will know laughter and joy because they will be the embodiment of Christ, beloved children of a God who delights in us. This is what has been promised to us because, after all, we are part of that impossible promise that prompted Sarah’s laughter, are we not?

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) with Psalm 116:1-2,12-19 or
Exodus 19:2-8a with Ps 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

Photo: CC0 image by Dan Evans

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About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

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