“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.’”
Abraham is 99 years old, and, as they say in West Virginia, he’s barely hittin’on one—Sarah is 90, and she’s not just post-menopausal—she’s post post-menopausal.
Now folks in their 90s can entertain various hopes—but whatever Abraham and Sarah might be hoping for, it doesn’t include conceiving a child—that notion was crossed off their wish list some 50 plus years earlier.
So when the Lord suddenly appears in their midst and declares that Sarah will give birth to a bouncing baby boy named Isaac from whom will emanate a succession of nations and kings, Abraham and Sarah are understandably thunderstruck, flabbergasted, stupefied.
They just can’t get their minds around this preposterous announcement that promises the impossible.
But, as we all know, this is a story in which the impossible comes to pass—in due course, against all odds, Sarah does indeed deliver a son who is called Isaac.
Now the apostle Paul, in today’s second reading, refers to this story of Isaac’s improbable, implausible birth as emblematic of how the God of Israel “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
So we might understand this story of the Lord enabling a hopelessly barren couple to conceive a son as a poetic parable of God confounding human expectations by making the impossible possible.
The author uses the unforgettably vivid imagery of a miracle story, a deliberately exaggerated tall tale, to make a startling claim about the God in whom Israel trusts—this story audaciously claims that in the most sterile and barren of circumstances, the God of Israel, against all odds, can cause newness of life to burst forth.
And, of course, this is a constantly reiterated theme in both the Old and New Testaments—we are given example after example of “amazing grace” that makes the impossible possible.
And the promise to Abraham and Sarah is also a promise to us—and to claim this promise is to trust that when our situation seems insurmountably bleak and barren, somehow newness of life will be given—against all odds, the impossible will become possible.
It is when we are on our last legs, when we are sinking, when we wonder how we’re going to put one foot in front of the other—it is just then that the promise of amazing grace that makes the impossible possible becomes our ace in the hole, our last and best hope when all other hopes have evaporated.
Amazing grace is that always surprising, unforeseen event that replenishes us when we are depleted, lifts our spirits when they are drooping, and, in the words of Psalm 30, “turns our wailing into dancing.”
Kathy Enders was a casualty of the financial meltdown—she gives us this account of her last day on the job:
“During these tough economic times, I was one of the many who did not survive the Bear Stearns merger with JPMorgan Chase. Packing up my office belongings was both backbreaking and heartbreaking.
After my final bags were packed, I headed to Third Avenue, the past five years of my work life in tow. An eagle-eyed cab driver spotted me at the 47th Street bus stop and yelled out his window, asking if I wanted to take a cab instead of waiting for a bus. I held up one of my bags imprinted with the Bear Stearns logo, and shook my head no.
The cab driver, not missing a beat, yelled out, ‘It’s on me.’
So on my final commute home, my broken spirit got a much-needed lift up Third Avenue.”
And sometimes just witnessing someone else being the stunned recipient of this grace that amazes can catapult us out of our dreariness and leave us sailing on cloud nine.
Which is what happened to Mel Glenn when he walked into Dunkin’ Donuts one morning—he says:
“….. an old lady wearing a tattered watch cap started speaking to no one in particular.
‘I can’t sleep at night. I have pains in my chest all the time. My leg hurts and my children do not love me.’
People waiting in line hid in their cell phones, looked away or stared straight ahead.
‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to turn. My husband died two years ago on the 27th.’
Everyone pretended she wasn’t there. The (women) behind the counter took the next customers. The line inched forward.
At a side table, a beautiful young lady with matching purple scarf and hat looked at the old woman and said, simply, ‘… please sit down with me, and tell me your story.’
And then Mr. Glenn adds this footnote: “It’s possible, you see, for one person to save the world.”
Against all odds, amazing grace binds up wounded spirits and heals broken hearts.
This is the faith that we nurture in this community—this is the faith that we encourage in one another—this is the faith we tell one another stories about—how this amazing grace has made the impossible possible for us.
In our lesson about the Lord’s birth announcement to Abraham and Sarah, there is a significant omission.
What our lesson does not include are the verses which describe the immediate reactions of Abraham and Sarah to this dumbfounding news.
What we are told is that they both laughed.
There is a certain kind of laughter that is the signature response to amazing grace, the grace that, against all odds, makes the impossible possible.
There is a certain quality of laughter that is the distinctive mark of having been revived and rejuvenated by this grace, this newness, that seems to come out of nowhere.
This laughter is not the courtesy chuckle or the chortle of amusement that we commonly fall back on as conversational fillers—it is more akin to rib-rocking hilarity that leaves us gasping for air.
This is laughter that gushes forth before we know it, that suddenly swells and overtakes us and carries us along in its stream.
It is laughter that delivers us to a delicious domain of freedom and release—it is laughter that is a pure, unadulterated blessing.
It is laughter, as a friend said recently, “that makes you feel good all over.”
This is not laughter at the expense of others—this is laughter about the excesses, blind spots, and pretensions that we all share—it’s about our all being fellow voyagers on what the l6th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch called “the Ship of Fools”—it’s about all of us being in the same leaking, creaking boat of humanity and how our aims and ambitions are often snookered and snake-bit by our own short-sightedness and unruly self-interest—it is the laughter of our common plight.
The laughter that is born of the grace that amazes is able to convert even our most oppressive troubles into ammunition for comic relief—this laughter lifts us above whatever has gotten us down, whatever has done us in, and allows us to view in that moment the whole panorama and scope of our earthly sojourn and to grasp what someone has called “the almost unbearable goodness of our life.”
Yes, this laughter is celebratory laughter—it gathers up all the grief and grace of our lives, all our joys and sorrows, and pronounces a resounding Amen of celebration and thanksgiving.
And actually this laughter is very evangelical—because in its tone and timbre it sounds forth the message of forgiveness and mercy.
This is laughter that is recognizably hospitable and magnanimous, that in its unbounded joviality expresses without words the line Shakespeare put in the mouth of Cymbelene: “Pardon is the word to all.”
Paul Handley, the Editor of the Church Times in London, put it this way: “The Christian gift is this: to turn despair into humour…..instead of being depressed about our failings, we are invited to see them as absurd, comic; and to laugh at ourselves is to accept forgiveness.”
Maybe then it’s not too far off the mark to suggest that we might adopt this as our motto: They shall be known by their laughter.
So as we gather together here, let us, by all means, feel free to share our worries and woes—but may that laughter of faith, that laughter of forgiveness, that laughter of communion, that laughter born of the grace that, against all odds, makes the impossible possible, have the last word! Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church