Memory

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Admittedly, I did not stay up past midnight to watch the Texas – USC game. And though it didn’t out the way I wanted it to, the game brought back many memories of that national championship game twelve years ago.

See, it was the end of the 2005 college football season and my Texas Longhorns had made it to the National Championship. You all remember that game – Vince Young, USC, the Rose Bowl. All that. Anyway, I was there, on the field, in the stadium, because I was in the Longhorn Marching Band.

And let me tell you, when we won, when the game was over, I remember these feelings that were unreal. Relief, joy, elation, happiness. I remember that was the loudest and fastest I had ever played my tuba. I remember the thrill of it like it yesterday.

Now, my cousin was also at the game. Oddly enough, my cousin’s name is also Jim. We aren’t that creative in the Abbott family. Anyway, Jim was at the game, he was also on the field. But you know, as far as I understand it, he has a completely different memory of that game. Because he was on the USC football team. My joy was his bitterness. My elation was his dejection. I remember a fourth quarter comeback victory, he remembers a fourth quarter collapse and defeat.

Memory is a funny thing. Here we are – in the same stadium, at the same game, we even have the same name and yet our memories, our memories couldn’t be any more different than Texas burnt orange is from USC cardinal and gold.

We remember things differently. If your house flooded during Harvey, you will remember the storm differently from a person who was high and dry. If this is your first time in this church, you will remember this service differently than if you’ve been here a thousand times. Memory is not equal. And that’s what has happened to Peter in the gospel lesson this morning.

Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” Peter’s assumption is that it’s only other people who will ever do the sinning. Peter’s question assumes that he is always right and righteous. Peter has forgotten, he does not remember, that he too has sinned.

Peter’s forgetfulness is our forgetfulness, we have the same spiritual amnesia. We remember and hold grudges against the people who have wronged us, but we explain away and justify the wrongs we have done. You need to come to me begging for forgiveness because I’m good and you’re wrong. It’s quite an assumption.

We forget that we have also wronged. We forget that we’re the ones who need to ask for forgiveness at least seventy-seven times. Ask your spouse, your family, your best friend – my guess is that there is some event in your past that you two remember differently. It was some offense that, let’s admit, was your fault. Same people, same event, different memory. You think that whatever you did was not a big deal, but for them, they can’t forget about it. And the person needing forgiveness of the sin is you. But since it was your fault, you whitewash the memory.

See, a wise old priest once told me that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long. The memory of the oppressor is short, the memory of the victim is long. This is Peter’s problem. He can only think, he can only imagine the ways and the times that he has been wronged, when he was the victim. He can’t remember, he can’t conceive of a time when he has done the wrong, when he was the oppressor. His memory of his own sins has been whitewashed.

This is also the reason why the national conversation about Confederate monuments has been incoherent. We have failed to realize that, depending on who we are, we remember differently. Same statue, same park, same name, different memory. We have failed to acknowledge that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long.

So we can go around and around about Confederate monuments. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about the Civil War, about slavery, about Jim Crow, about history. But we actually won’t get anywhere until we talk about memory; until we have the courage, as communities, as churches, as a country, to talk, but more importantly to listen, about how and why we remember things differently. Don’t make Peter’s assumption that all memory is created equal. It’s not.

What is equal, is that we are in desperate need of forgiveness. This is a pointed parable, as all of Jesus’ parables are pointed. And in each of the parables, God is a character, and we are a character. So this one is pretty easy to piece together. The king is God and we are that unforgiving slave. We have been forgiven and released from an insurmountable debt. Ten thousand talents is an enormous sum of money, adjusting for inflation since the time of Jesus, it equals about a bazillion dollars in today’s money. The king, in his mercy, releases the slave, releases us, from that burden. Through Jesus Christ, God gives us a new lease on life. God sets us free from our sins, from our past, from ourselves. You know what it feels like when you finally get out of debt, when you pay off that house, that car. Total relief. Freedom. Like it’s a whole new world. God cancels our debt so that we can be free.

But only if we remember. When we forget, that’s when we refuse to forgive others. After that slave is forgiven, notice how short his memory is. Immediately after being forgiven he demands that the other slave pay him back a few hundred bucks. He’s forgotten, he’s forgotten the forgiveness that was given to him. God has freed us from the weight of sin that held us down, and yet we refuse to release that burden from anybody else. Every Sunday morning we hear that God has forgiven us of everything. And by Sunday lunch, I’m back to judging and criticizing the waiter who is giving me crumby service. The lady who stole my parking spot. The panhandler who can’t seem to get his life together. We armchair quarterback somebody else’s life because they have incurred a small debt. All the while, forgetting that we were the ones who amassed an enormous debt.

Other than making us highly uncomfortable, the other things that Jesus’ parables do is cast a vision for a new society. For a new way of living together. Jesus speaks in parables to inspire us. The vision that Jesus casts in this parable is of a world that is merciful. The king says to the slave what God says to us, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I am not Polly Anna. I’m not saying that we will ever create a society here on earth that is free of sin. I don’t think that possible, I’ve met enough humans to know that. I only need to look as far as the mirror to know that humans are broken. But what is possible, is mercy. We pray it every day: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I know this sounds silly. In the world’s calculus, forgiveness is unrealistic. Our economic system is built on the premise of retaining debts.The foundation of our penal system is punishment, not forgiveness. I have not heard a conversation in our national life in a long time that resembled anything close to mercy. Because we have forgotten, we have forgotten just how merciful God has been to us. We have refused to forgive our brothers and our sisters from the heart. We have refused to remember that we are the ones in need of forgiveness.

Finally, consider what this parable says about God’s judgment on us. The good news is that God will not judge us on how sinful we have been, on how much debt we have incurred. Ten thousand talents or a few hundred denarii makes no difference. The hard news, is that God will judge us on how merciful we have been. Remember to be merciful, because God has already been merciful.

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In a Flash

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2017
Luke 9:28-36

Three witnesses. Three witnesses to the day that changed the world. Three witnesses saw the light, a light that was beyond any light ever seen before on earth. After beholding the light of the moment, high up on that hill, one witness said, “it seemed a sheet of sun.” Another one of the witnesses of that moment said that, “everything flashed whiter than any white” they had ever seen. It was a moment, just one brief moment in time, when everything stopped. When the blinding, dazzling, white light inaugurated a new era in the life of the world. A light from the heavens. That third witness, overcome by what he had seen, could only manage to say, “My God.”
That light struck fear into the hearts of those three witnesses, obviously. They were terrified, for what they had seen no one on earth had ever seen before. And what they had seen was the flash of an atomic bomb.
There is some coincidence, or perhaps it’s providence, that the Church’s Feast of the Transfiguration which is today, August 6, is the same day as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. We heard the story of the Transfiguration today from the Gospel of Luke, and every year on this day the Church is forced to call to mind the bombing of Hiroshima. The parallels are chilling. A dazzling light from the heavens. Witnesses who can hardly comprehend what they have seen. Terror, fear, confusion all around.
Kiyoshi Tanimoto was a Methodist pastor in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. From his vantage point on a hill outside the city, he was the one who said the blast seemed a sheet of the sun. As he made his way through the wreckage of the city later that day, everything about the city had changed. Because much of it was simply not there any more. Peter, James, and John climb this hill with Jesus, and Jesus’ appearance completely changes. In a flash, in a moment, it’s obvious that Jesus is no mere mortal. Everything has changed.
It was a seamstress who said of the bomb that everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She was terrified. Not all that different from how Luke paints the picture of Jesus’ transfiguration, “his clothes became dazzling white,” and the three disciples were terrified.
Of the bomber crew of the Enola Gay, the plane that delivered that frightful weapon, only three of the airmen knew what kind of bomb it was. The others were only told to wear dark goggles. And in the flash of that moment, there was silence on the plane’s intercom except for a sudden gasp as they all cried out, “my God.”
“My God,” the disciples must have thought, as they beheld Moses and Elijah with Jesus on that mountain in dazzling glory. Moses represents the Old Testament Law; Elijah stands for the Old Testament prophets. And here they are, the pillars of history conversing with the man who represents the future of God’s Kingdom. There was the age of Moses, there was the age of Elijah, and now is there is a new beginning again with Jesus. In a flash of white, in dazzling array, the world enters a new era. “My God,” the disciples must have thought. This Jesus, this God, has begun something new.
In a more sinister way, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima also inaugurated a new age. There had been the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age. Then, in a single flash on the morning of August 6, 1945, the world entered a new age; the Atomic Age.
It wasn’t just a bomb that went off that morning, it was a new way of understanding humanity. Peter, James, and John came to understand God in a new way, with the bomb we came to understand ourselves in a new way. We had grasped the technological and mechanical ability to erase ourselves from history. I think that much of the latent fear, anxiety, and stress in our culture stems from this internalized realization that with a single flash, humanity could be gone. That sheet of sun, that whiter than any white ever seen before, changed the world. We live with the shadow of Hiroshima in our minds, knowing full well that the power released that day is but a fraction of the power we now hold in our hands. And like the disciples, we are terrified.
Our thoughts now turn to North Korea and to all the foreign powers who also harness this catastrophic threat of the atomic bomb. We fear others who could threaten the existence of life on earth. And that’s the other parallel between the Transfiguration of Jesus and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima – both call into question life and death. Notice what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about; they are talking about Jesus’ “departure.” That is, his crucifixion. His death. His resurrection. The flash of that moment forced Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to consider life and death.
In a flash, on August 6, 1945, 80,000 people vanished from the earth. Regardless of its role in ending World War II, this bombing should still give us pause. That we hold such tremendous and terrible power to kill.
In moments when the world changes – be it the Transfiguration or Hiroshima – we must consider our existence. Our life and death. That has happened to you, it’s happened to me. In a flash, your world changes and it calls everything into question. A child is born, a diagnosis is made, a check bounces. It’s never just about that moment, it’s about life and death. It’s about how a new era has begun in our lives.

Now, there is one curiosity about the atomic bomb that I have to mention. No one in Hiroshima remembers hearing a sound. No thunderous boom. No explosion. Just a sheet of the sun. Of course, there was a boom. People far away from Hiroshima heard it. But for those at hand it could have been that the light was so overwhelming it was as if their ears couldn’t hear.
Peter, James, and John, they hear something. In the midst of their fear and terror, they hear a mysterious voice from a cloud, and whether it sounded like a thunderclap or a whisper we don’t know. All we do know is what the voice says, “this is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. When you are terrified because a cloud has come into your life, listen for the love of God. When you see a news story about intercontinental ballistic missiles and military exercises, listen to Jesus. Listen to the voice telling you that you are loved and that God loves the whole world, no matter what happens. When the talking heads are speculating wildly about geopolitics and sanctions, listen to Jesus. Listen to the voice telling you that with God, even death is nothing to be afraid of. This is God’s Son, the chosen, listen to him.
In this age of uncertainty, it is awfully easy to be trapped in fear. And remember, it’s not love and hate that are opposites. No, it’s love and fear that are opposites. Love draws us outward as fear drives us inward. Fear is contagious. Fear is addictive. We live and breathe fear. Fear is what runs political campaigns, fear is why we amass such terrible weapons, fear is what drives us to distrust each other. This is not so much the Atomic Age, as it is the Age of Fear. We may not recognize all the ways that fear shapes our lives, but then again, a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.
And so I must ask you – what do you fear? And when you are overcome with terror, who are you listening to? In the moments when your world has changed, do you respond in love or fear? Do you seek life or death? Listen to Jesus, and you will have nothing to fear. Listen to Jesus, and you will hear love.

My Grace All Sufficient

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 9, 2017

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

My Grace All Sufficient

It was the 1870s, and the Episcopal Church had a problem. A big problem. People had stopped coming to church on Sunday. Numbers were declining. Remember, I said this was the 1870s, not the 1970s or the 2000s. And church people in the 1870s, people like me, priests and bishops, began to worry. They worried about the future of the church. They worried that people just didn’t care about church and Christianity anymore. Some priests wished that they had served the church in an earlier time, perhaps the 1770s. Yes, they thought, those were the glory days. That was when everybody went to church and when the priesthood was easy. They longed for an earlier time when the church was part of society’s routine and everybody attended. Sound familiar? Funny how things haven’t changed in one hundred and forty years.

Now in the 1870s, one of the most popular Episcopal preachers of the day was Phillips Brooks. You know him because he’s the guy who wrote the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Anyway, he was giving a lecture on the problems facing the Church and why certain priests thought that people had stopped coming to Church. Of course, back then, it wasn’t the kids’ soccer practice. It wasn’t the iPhone or the internet. What did Episcopalians think was causing people to stay home from Church on Sunday morning? Books. Books. That’s right, Episcopalians were blaming the mass publication of books for the declining numbers in their churches. No joke, I can’t make this stuff up. Some clergy thought that people were staying home on Sunday morning because they were reading books. Kids these days. Ugh. This next generation, they don’t come to church because all they do is hold these things up to their faces, and stare at them for hours on end. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s not so funny that we haven’t changed in one hundred and forty years.

But Phillips Brooks didn’t buy it. You know why he thought people had stopped coming to Church? Because Church had become irrelevant. Remember, this is the 1870s.

It wasn’t books, and for that matter it’s not the internet, it’s not the kids’ soccer practice, it’s not that new brunch place that just opened, that is keeping people away from church. It’s us. It’s because we in the Church have failed to communicate the gospel to the culture. We say that God forgives sins, but we actually aren’t that gracious to people who we think are sinning. We say that the most important parts of the Christian life are to love God and love neighbor, but we hardly even know our neighbors. People aren’t staying in churches because when they do visit, they don’t hear and see the gospel of Jesus Christ. They see some shadow of Christianity, but not the real thing. Not the life giving, liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. See, while we were busy blaming everybody else for not showing up to church in their bodies, we have not showed up to God in our hearts and in our minds. And that, that was the problem in the 1870s, the 1770s, the 170s, and now in 2017.

And so there is one remedy, as there has always only ever been one remedy. The one remedy to heal our sin sick souls. The one solution to all of our problems. The one thing that can save us and can save the Church. It’s not a choice between guitars and organs. It’s not if we should wear a suit and tie or shorts and a t-shirt. The solution is not shutting down the internet, or the printing press, or stopping baseball practice on Sunday morning.

No, the only way out of the mess that we’re in is to hear again those words from Jesus. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This, my friends, is the gospel. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. We are weary. We are weary of this world that is so hurtful and hurting. We are weary of ourselves, that we want to do the right thing but can’t ever seem to actually do it. We are burdened with the cares and concerns of life – how am I going to pay the bills this month? What do I do if my cancer comes back? Why have my kids stopped talking to me? Come to Jesus, and we will find rest for our weary and burdened souls.

This good news, this liberating gospel of love is what the world desperately needs to hear. This is what people are looking for on the internet, on their kids’ baseball field, or in a book. They’re looking for love, connection, meaning, community. They’re looking for someone or something to help shoulder their heavy loads. And the sad thing is, that it can oftentimes be the internet, the baseball field, or the book that provides this better than the Church does. It’s not about them, it’s about us.

So hear again the words of the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Now, to be clear, it’s not that if you come to Church and believe in Jesus, all your burdens will be washed away. You know that old line, “God never gives you more than you can handle”? Yeah, that’s garbage. And the people out there in the world know it’s garbage, too. Because it implies that we’re carrying the burden by ourselves. Which is the opposite of the life giving, liberating gospel of Jesus. Jesus says that he wants to shoulder our burdens. Jesus isn’t up there in the sky, laying agony upon agony on our shoulders, just wanting to see how much we can take. No, he wants us our yokes to be easy and our burdens light. Rather than, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” the saying should be, “life gives you more than you can handle, thanks be to God that Jesus is with us.”

Hearing the gospel, hearing the liberating love of Jesus isn’t going to solve all your problems. It won’t wipe away your credit card debt, it won’t find you a job, it won’t make your kids start talking to you again. But the gospel of Jesus will make that pain bearable, and it will give you hope in even the darkest places.

And hope, hope is what the Church needs, too. I tell you, there was no great perfect past in the Church. There was never a time when all people came to Church with perfectly loving hearts and they packed the pews with all the right intentions.  That is a false memory. But it is a future possibility.

I sense a renewal taking place in the church. I see communities and churches actually living this way. I see people who don’t want to read books at home on Sunday morning, I see people who actually put down the phones, I see people who don’t sign their kids up for soccer practice because the gospel they have heard in the church is more compelling. In this renewal, I sense that once we have heard that God truly loves us, and will carry our burdens through the pains of life, then we’ll have to start building more churches. Once the word gets out that there are actually communities of people who want to live this gracious, loving life; and that other people will carry our burdens with us, then the Church will become the only place we ever want to be.

Obviously, this is a sermon to the church, but also a sermon to myself. For it is I, most of all, who needs to hear the gospel again. I need to hear again the words of Jesus that are both comfort and challenge. I need to hear again this call on my life, and this call on the church. Just as you do, I need to hear these words again and again and again.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The Sacrifice of Pride

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 2, 2017

Genesis 22:1-18

The Sacrifice of Pride

It happens almost every Sunday. Like clockwork, the person reading the scripture lessons will come up to me before the service and ask me how to pronounce a word from the Old Testament. They’ll say, “how do I pronounce, ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz?’’’ Or, who was, ‘Tilgathpilsener’” Of course, my answer every week is, “I don’t know. But neither does anybody else!” I imagine the lectors are praying, praying that the lessons for the week they are assigned are relatively harmless. I remember being in church once and the scripture lesson was a roster of the ancient Israelite priests who were present for the dedication of the old Jewish temple. I mean, the reading was impossible. And I kid you not, the congregation broke out into spontaneous applause when the reader had made it through unscathed.

But, I don’t think anybody was applauding after this morning’s Old Testament lesson, disturbing as it is. See, it’s not just the hard names from the Old Testament that send fear into the hearts of our readers. It’s some of these lessons. I mean, can you imagine walking up here in front of a bunch of strangers and reading aloud a story about a man who is ready to slaughter his own son?

This story is often called the sacrifice of Isaac. It is one of the most distressing stories in the entire bible. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac, the son whom he loves, and to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. So, being dutiful to God, Abraham sets off with Isaac. Abraham carries the knife and the torch. Isaac carries the wood. Then Abraham binds Isaac, and just as Abraham is about to use the knife on his son, God intervenes, and provides a ram for the burnt offering instead of Isaac. Whether Isaac is spared or not, this is still downright horrifying. Imagine the trauma that Isaac experiences. And we put people in jail nowadays for what Abraham did.

Before we get there, let’s rewind a little bit in Genesis. Remember that God promised to Abraham that Abraham would be the father of many nations. That Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars in the night sky. That was the covenant, the agreement, that God and Abraham made. But throughout Genesis, this covenant is threatened. First, it’s that Abraham and Sarah panic about having a child, so Abraham has a child instead with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. This is the child Ishmael. The covenant is threatened because it’s unclear if Ishmael can be the rightful descendant of Abraham. But God promises that the family will go through Sarah. Covenant threatened, crisis averted. The next threat is that Abraham and his wife Sarah are very old. Long past the child bearing years. But Sarah gives birth to Isaac though she’s ninety years old. Covenant threatened, crisis averted. Here again the covenant is threatened on Mount Moriah. Because if Isaac is dead, then surely the covenant is dead also. At the end of the story, God provides a ram for the sacrifice instead of the son. Covenant threatened, crisis averted.

And I know what you are probably thinking. “So that’s some great background on the Old Testament. But who cares about all that? God told Abraham to kill his own son.

We can throw all the theology we want at this story and still, we are horrified. The thought of a parent taking the life of their children is appalling. So we’ve got some cognitive dissonance to sort through. How does this story stack up with a loving, merciful God? How could God command such a thing to take place? How could anybody be so blind in their faith that they would go as far as Abraham did? Usually, we presume one of two things. Either Abraham is insane and should be locked away. Or, God is an absolute monster who commands child abuse. Then, we tell ourselves that we would never even dream of harming our children. We think that we modern people would never do anything so cruel. That was all Old Testament stuff, but we’re enlightened now.

First of all, we cannot lie to ourselves. Just like Abraham, we too burden our children and for our own dreams and desires. We do it all the time. I’m talking about when we force our sons to keep playing football, even though they hate it, because we dream of them playing in the NFL. When we bind our kids to sports, it can easily become about us instead of about them.

And I’m talking about the way we treat young girls; if the first thing we say to a young girl is a comment on their hair or their clothes, we are laying on them the burden like the burden Abraham laid on Isaac. The trauma we are causing young women by only referring to the way they look will haunt society for generations to come. These women carry an extra burden, because they have been taught for so long that their value comes from other people’s approval rather than from God’s love. I’m talking about how “running like a girl” is an insult. And when young boys think that losing to a girl is a sign of weakness, this cultivates a society of cruelty and competition. And God is always about cooperation.

I’m talking about the problem we have, as a society, with student debt. We want our children to go off to college in order to be financially successful even if that means taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. Debts that they will be paying for decades. Make no mistake. We are Abraham. This story from Genesis is horrifying to read because it cuts too close to home. The sacrifice of Isaac holds up a mirror to who we are and what we do to our children.

But God, God is always willing to avert the crisis. God provides a ram for us in the thicket. Instead of continuing to burden our children, I believe there is something inside of us that needs to die, that needs to be sacrificed. That is our pride and our ego. That’s the ram in the thicket that God has provided for us.

Rather than rolling our eyes at yet another millennial who is living in their parents’ basement, perhaps we should ask why it’s so hard to get a job with a living wage, pay off the student debt, and get a place to live. Rather than forcing our kids to spring baseball, fall baseball, and summer training camp because we have delusions of grandeur, perhaps we ought to have more time to connect with our families. Because that’s all they really need, our love and connection. Rather than expecting boys to be smart and girls to be pretty, perhaps we should try out the radical notion that men and women are both created in the image of God.

I believe that God is calling us to sacrifice our pride. This is the ram in the thicket. As in the time of Abraham, God has provided this ram so that we don’t have to traumatize our beloved children. And so that we don’t have to go through the trauma of binding our own sons and daughters. God has provided. In fact, that’s what Abraham calls the place. Abraham names it, “the Lord will provide.”

By all means, we ought to be horrified at how Abraham nearly sacrificed his own son. But before we fall into the tired old trope about the angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament, we need to take a hard look in the mirror, to examine the angry and vengeful gods of our society. The gods of pride, the gods of ego. And before we make ourselves into saints and everyone else into demons, we must hear again the words of Jesus: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

The wood is laid, the fire is ready, the knife is held high. But the ram is in the thicket. When God calls out to us to drop the knife, will we listen?

Laughter

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1, 21:1-7

Laugh It Up

A chuckle is not the same as a giggle. A guffaw is different from a chortle. Laughter comes in many forms. A big belly laugh over a great joke is different from shooting your soft drink out your nose at a sudden laugh. Laughter comes in many forms.
We laugh at jokes, we laugh when we’re nervous, we laugh until we cry. We laugh at someone who does something funny, who says something funny. Or we laugh at someone who says something downright ridiculous. We laugh at the absurd.
Sarah laughs at the absurd. The story from Genesis this morning is about laughing at the absurd. See, the Lord God has come to visit Abraham and Sarah in their old age. For many, many years, Abraham and Sarah have been wanting children. Long ago, in their younger years, the Lord God told Abraham that Abraham was to be the father of many nations. That his family would be like the stars in the sky. A Father’s Day of epic proportions. But after years of trying, years of praying, it just wasn’t happening for them. How can you be the father of nations when you can’t even have one kid? Sarah has given up on God. The impossible promise seems to be just that, impossible.
And now these three visitors from God plop themselves down in the middle of their tent, eating Abraham’s fatted calf and cottage cheese. And the Lord God renews the promise. Abraham will be a father, at one hundred years old. Sarah is going to have a baby at 90 years old. I’m no doctor, but that’s laughable. Of course Sarah is going to laugh, because it’s funny. She guffaws, “yeah, right, I’m going to have a baby.” That’s just absurd.
Well, when you think about it, God is absurd. Imagine this – the creator and maker of the entire universe, the sustainer of all things, the Lord God Almighty, chose to be born in a barn to an unwed teenage mother. That’s laughable. And not only that, the same Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ, chooses to die on a cross. Jesus could have called down legions of angels to set him free, but God himself surrenders to our cruelty. That’s laughable. But it gets better, right? People don’t get up from being dead. That’s impossibly absurd. And you know what? That’s exactly what the people said to the disciples when they said that Jesus was alive though he had died. They laughed at them. God is so absurd in love, that we can’t help but laugh.
And you know, five years ago, if someone had told me that Holy Comforter would be where it is now, I would have laughed. If somebody had said we’d be building a church, I would have shot my soft drink straight out my nose. But God, God is doing the absurd.
Once something is on God’s mind, look out, because it’s going to happen, whether we believe it will or not. Take what happened to Sarah. Soon enough, Sarah’s laughter at God’s absurdity becomes laughter of joy when she gives birth to Isaac. And actually, that’s what Isaac’s name means, “laughter.”
I bet that Mary laughed with joy when, improbably, she held Jesus in her arms in that manger. I bet that the disciples laughed with delight when they broke bread with the risen Jesus. And you know what? We’re laughing now. Laughing with joy and with gratitude for all that God has done for us. It’s almost absurd.
Once something is on God’s mind, look out, because it’s going to happen. And so I’ve got a question for you – what are you laughing at now?
I know you laugh at God’s absurd ideas, because I’ve laughed at God’s absurd ideas. But once something is on God’s mind, we can laugh all we want, it’s still going to happen.
Do we laugh, when God says that we’re being called to do something for the Kingdom of God? Do we laugh, when God says that we don’t have to be enslaved to our jobs? Do we laugh, when God says that we could spend less money, and still be happy? Do we laugh, when God says that it’s time for us to change our lives? Do we laugh, when God says that things in our society, our country, could be better? It may not seem possible now, but God is in the business of doing the impossible for the sake of love.
Just this week, I was back in Alexandria, Virginia at the seminary for some continuing education. I was just two miles from that baseball field where Congressional lawmakers and their staffs were shot. I’ll tell you, there was no laughter on campus that day. There was no laughter around Alexandria, around our country.
Despite all the horror out there, I believe that God intends for all of this madness, and all of this shooting, this violence to stop. Just, to stop. Right now, the thought that we could make it a week without a shooting seems absurd. They are happening so often I can’t even keep track of them all. The vision that we could stop altogether seems laughable. It seems unbelievable. But I believe that God has a vision of peace for all people; a vision where the lion lays down with the lamb. A vision of the peaceable Kingdom, where swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and where mass violence is transformed into justice. Right now, that vision is unbelievably laughable. But once something is on God’s mind, we can laugh all we want; whether we believe it or not, God will accomplish it.
And, I need to be clear; this is not just about guns. This is not about public policy or laws. Honestly, I don’t know about those things. But what I do know, is the power of love. The power of God’s love to soften hearts. That I do know. And I have faith, faith that the way things are now don’t have to be that way.
All that being said, we may not see this vision come to full fruition. Abraham never saw the fulfillment of the promise, that he would be the father of many nations. In fact, the promise God made to Abraham is still being worked out today, as you and I are grafted into that promise. The promise that God made thousands of years ago is still becoming a reality. Promises might take time. That gives me hope for our society. Right now, we keep shooting each other because we don’t have any other way to work through our anger. But God has a vision for love, and God will get us there, whether we believe it or not.
Whether we believe it or not. I want to be theologically precise here. I’m not saying that if only we believe, or pray harder, or do the right thing, then God will make us happier. Remember, the initiative always begins with God. God is not Santa Claus.
So right now, we might come to church Sunday after Sunday and not feel any different. It may seem that no matter how many prayers we pray, things are still the same. But God has a vision for us of healing and of wholeness.
Week by week it may not seem that our church is all that different. But drop by drop, even over just five short years, God is transforming our community. It won’t happen overnight. God was willing to wait until Abraham was one hundred years old, until Sarah was ninety years old. God’s promise will be accomplished in due time.
There’s an angel of the Lord, knocking on the door of our heart. Knocking on the door of our country. Knocking on the door of our church. God has a vision that the way things are now, aren’t aways going to be that way. God is making good on the promises of love, even if all we can do right now is laugh.