Have you ever invited someone over to your home for a meal? If you have, you likely remember the energy you put into preparing for the occasion. Deciding what to serve – which may have included inquiries with the invited guest about allergies, food restrictions, or preferences – followed by a realistic assessment of your own capacity to either cook the items of your choosing or find a way to have them prepared for your gathering. You may have spent time preparing the space where the guest would be hosted – clearing off a table, sweeping the floor, sorting the piles of assorted odds and ends that seem to build up through the events of day to day life. Perhaps you cleaned the restroom in case your guest has need of it. Perhaps you prepared yourself, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to share space with the guest – pondering and holding in your mind and heart what it is that prompted the invitation to spend time together, what it is you are looking forward to about sharing space, what you might talk about, what you hope will be part of the interaction – all held lightly as you wait and learn what will actually occur in real-time as you gather and share space together.
Now consider a time when someone showed up unexpectedly. Without advance warning – either stopping by of their own accord or perhaps because you issued a spontaneous invitation on the spot – because an opportunity presented itself and you stepped into the uncertain space of possibility and offered spontaneous hospitality. What kind of actions were you spurred to in the moment to all of a sudden host in the midst of a space that hasn’t been intentionally prepared for guests?
This is the kind of moment we are invited into in the Genesis 18 account of Abraham and Sarah that was just read. It is a space of generous hospitality made possible because Abraham extended a spontaneous invitation in a moment of opportunity. Abraham offers water for the guests to wash their feet and then settles them peacefully under a large tree – turns back to his tents and what quickly follows is the hustle and bustle of preparations that hosting guests requires. Only without time or space to actually prepare. It is more of a comedic romp, a fast-paced, quick-cut montage from a film – Abraham tells Sarah: “Quick make that special flour into bread!” Speeding out the back of the tent he runs to the herd, selects a fine calf and passes it off to one of his workers saying “prepare this well, quickly!” And as the bread and the meat are being prepared, Abraham gathers cheese and milk. As soon as possible, he takes the whole collection of freshly prepared foods and generously offers them to the guests at rest under the tree. Finally pausing to catch his breath as he waits off to the side while the travelers partake of the impromptu feast.
When the passage begins we, as the readers, are clued into the presence of God – we know that these three travelers are an embodiment of God – perhaps a physical manifestation of the Trinity – Creator, Christ and Spirit. What we don’t know for sure is if Abraham is also immediately aware of God’s presence in the moment and if that is the motivation for his actions, or if he is extending this act of generous hospitality because it is the way of life. Hospitality to passers by would have been the way of life for Abraham – as an act of care for the strangers at hand and also as an act of protection for himself and his household. To offer hospitality to unknown travelers would have given him the opportunity to assess the intentions of those travelers and to potentially ward off any possible threats through kindness.
It seems that Abraham might have a clue as to the Holy in the midst of this scene. Even though the visit catches him off-guard, he displays an immediate sense of intense reverence for the visitors, asking them to bestow their favor upon him, their faithful one, by allowing him to offer them hospitality. Perhaps that is just the way of hospitality for Abraham when anyone passes by his tents. And yet, once they are indulging in the fruits of his labor and offering, he is also not surprised at all when they ask for Sarah by name – “Where is Sarah?” they ask. “There in the tent.” Abraham responds without pause. If he hadn’t connected the dots before, at this moment he’s surely beginning to be aware that these guests are not total strangers. At which point one of the party says “when I return for a visit next year, Sarah will have had a child.”
It is Sarah herself, listening to the conversation from the entrance of the tent, who responds to this statement – amused at the thought of her well aged spirit and body carrying and birthing a child – she quietly laughs at the absurdity of it.
Most likely we can relate to Sarah in this moment – perhaps not in the content of the revelation she is finding humor in – but more than likely we resonate at some level with the spirit of incredulity that has brought about this moment of humorous disbelief. I, for one, have experienced many incidents of skepticism and cautious awe that have left me awkwardly chuckling to myself as I sort through the vulnerability of moments filled with simultaneous wonder, anxiety, doubt, joyful anticipation, and fear of disappointment. These are the kinds of moments that might tug you between tears and laughter.
Sarah, who has been faithfully waiting with Abraham for God’s promise of descendants that rival the stars in number without a clear path towards that outcome, could have just as easily burst into tears at this moment when a seemingly stranger pokes at a tender reality. Yet Sarah isn’t moved to tears. There’s a resigned awareness of the limitations of her own physical capacity attached to any sense of hope she might carry and the combination moves her to laughter.
The laughter was intended for herself alone, so Sarah is surprised when the guest asks Abraham about it saying: “Why does Sarah laugh? Is anything too extraordinary for God to do?”
Is anything too extraordinary for God to do? Other translations offer: Is anything too difficult for God to do? Or: Is anything too wonderful for God to do?
It is a marvelous question!
A question that creates an expansive space of possibility and wonder, while also calling to account energy that would try to squash God from being freely and creatively about God’s work in the world.
As much as we might try, we cannot fully control the ways of the world. We can make plans, and arrangements, we can take action, and we can do our best to prepare for the experiences that come as we interact with ourselves, others, creation, and God. And yet, all of these life interactions happen in and through relationship and relationship is dynamic. It is an ebbing and flowing stream of interaction – a call and response of sorts that we can sometimes prepare for and choose how we might engage and one that can also take us by surprise.
Sarah is surprised by the stranger questioning her laughter – or at the very least taken aback – she tries to deny her gut response of bemused disbelief saying “I did not laugh!” – yet God will not be played saying in return: “Oh, but you did indeed laugh!”
At this point the story could easily go awry – Sarah could swell with bitterness at the stranger’s rebuke. Or God could choose to cast aside the promise of future generations to Abraham and Sarah in response to Sarah’s disbelief. Instead, we encounter grace.
Grace that makes space for God’s extraordinary and wonderful works.
A child is born. And the child is named Isaac – which means laughter – for even the thought of Isaac’s existence was a source of laughter first skeptical in nature and then laughter full of joy. The kind of laughter that comes when you recognize a sense of connection at play in a moment of experience. A connection that reveals the presence of the Holy at work in the world, weaving together threads of love, life, and possibility beyond our imagination. A connection that, upon recognition, might tug you between tears and laughter.
There is space for tears and laughter at the table of life, for both can point us towards moments of connection with God. Connection that is possible whether we make space and preparations for it in our living – like a host planning a gathering – or whether it takes us by surprise, offering us the opportunity to delight in the unexpectedness of the interaction. The Holy is in the midst of all things and so we can encounter God’s presence everywhere.
We come together in this space each week in this space to celebrate and encounter God’s presence – through worship and prayer, in the gathering of friends and strangers, in the shared singing of songs, in the receiving and reflections of scripture, in the asking of questions, in the sharing of joys, sorrows, and concerns. We each bring our own ways of being in the world and we each find connection with God in different moments. The inclusion of the Prayground in this space is another extension of hospitality and possibility, creating additional opportunities for connection with God, including connections that might take us by surprise as individuals and as a community.
We are invited to live in connection with God’s presence. As we seek that connection and recognize the shapes it takes in our living, we discover that sometimes we are called to be hosts of the Holy – making space for and extending invitation to moments of connection. In other times we are invited to be guests at the table, or perhaps resting under a tree, as sustenance and care is lovingly crafted and generously offered to us. We are hosts and guests, givers and receivers, invited to participate in the expected, unexpected, and extraordinary ways of God’s love in the world.