A Reflection on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4:13-25 by The Rev. Margaret Rose
This reflection has offered some time to do a modified African Bible Study. That is, to listen for the words or phrases that seem relevant for this moment. I’ve taken the opportunity to live into the texts without “checking the facts,” doing the critical exegesis, and allowing the stories to emerge as they will.
The Genesis passage— if we extend it throughout the chapter tells the story of Abraham and Sarah bearing a child in old age. I had forgotten that both Sarah and Abraham laughed when they heard the news—Abraham being 99 and Sarah at about 90. There had been quite of lot of living in those years, and some unhappy times, not least in Sarah’s sadness and the treatment of Hagar and her son Ishmael. But in the midst of it all Sarah did indeed bear a son. And the Hebrew Scripture carries that imprint. What seemed impossible became possible. And that is the good news of this Sunday’s Old Testament and Epistle lessons.
I remember a Bible Study group which met when I was the new rector of a parish. While I was not the “leader” of the group, I was expected to be present and to have the answers to biblical questions. Not surprisingly, I often did not. There was a dreary atmosphere to the regular gathering and I dreaded going. The passage would be read and only slight and surface discussion in a rather pious tone followed. After months, we were only on Chapter 17 of Genesis. Each session felt interminable. I quietly resolved this would be one of the groups to be reshaped once I had been there long enough. And then came today’s passage. We read the whole chapter quietly and diligently and with great seriousness. Until we came to the part about Abram. The passages left out of Sunday’s readings tell in graphic detail what is required of Abram and all men to keep the covenant. “You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin!” And then comes the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a child. Abraham laughs and says to himself, “ can a son be born to a man ho is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at ninety? And upon hearing the news Sarah herself laughs.
Suddenly out of no where the quietest and the oldest man in the Bible study group began to laugh. Loud. It was as if he got it! “A child at 90! What do you think of that, Betty?” he asked his wife. His wife, a smile already on her lips, replied, “Circumcised at 99!! What do you think of that, Phil?” And every one began to laugh. Before we could stop, there were guffaws and tears of laughter. A new community had somehow been built and the Bible had come alive. Not only were we able to talk about the text itself, but our own lives, our desire for children, our pain at their birth or upbringing, the joys of their successes, the fear involved as our bodies got older and no longer quite functioned as we wanted or even as they use to. The laugh changed everything and we were able to do a new thing.
Something was brought into being that did not exist before.
It is unlikely that the writer to the Romans from our Epistle text was thinking of transforming Bible study or of the physical aspects of circumcision or childbirth when writing of Abraham’s faith.
Yet in a larger sense, reflecting on that faith so many centuries later, believers are reminded that we have ancient witnesses who attest to new possibilities of life when none seemed possible. “In the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives his life to the dead and calls into existence the things that did not exist.” This is the witness of the faith of Abraham and Sarah, be it in a parish, a family, a community or the whole world. And sometimes it is laughter which makes makes us know it is real.
Last week I participated in the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the consecration of The Right Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion. Many of us, in the Diocese of Massachusetts, as part of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus and the Union of Black Episcopalians had worked long and hard to lay the groundwork for this possibility. We longed fervently for the day a woman would be elected. We prayed without ceasing. And many of us did not really believe it would happen, at least not for many years. And so, September 24, 1988 when on the 7th ballot, Barbara was elected, there was a hush in the room as the holy Spirit seemed to rush over us. Spontaneously, at least it seemed to me, we began to sing, There’s a Sweet Sweet Spirit in This Place. Astonished, we could hardly believe what had happened. Like Abraham and Sarah—there may have been some laughter—of disbelief, of joy, of dawning realization that God had indeed brought something into being that did not exist before-- ( at least in material history.)
That feeling of incredulity was also in the room when it was announced that Katharine Jefferts Schori had been elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Silence, incredulity, joy and a laughter which was the emotional response to it all.
And then there was November 4, 2009, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Democrats and Republicans alike, not to mention many from around the world, were astonished, hopeful, incredulous and aware that something had shifted in our public psyche. Something came into being that had not existed before. We cried and laughed and knew that God had done anew thing.
Laughter of course can be many things: derisive, ironic, nervous, a sign of disbelief, a response to something really funny. Abram’s and Sarai’s laughter was probably a combination of it all. My own as well was filled with joy and the excitement of the three elections as well as some trepidation. How can we ensure success? How can we support these women and this new President? Will there be a backlash?
But most of all, behind the laugh, there was a sense that God had brought something into being that had not until then existed. And because of a moment and those momentous events, nothing would ever be the same again.
Abraham hoped against hope, the scripture says. And so must we—in all things.
That hope and promise is not just about making women priests or bishops or presiding bishops, or even that an African American can be elected President. But rather the promise that things can be made new always and in all things. There is a chance the peace will happen—as in the story of the Women’s Peace Initiative in Liberia which ultimately resulted in real peace talks and a woman who is now President there.
We are not doomed to relive the past. The wounds of grief can be healed. The depths of depression can be ameliorated. New jobs are possible. And it is not just that God somehow exerts some miraculous zap into the world and things change. But rather, that God’s power “working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” That is our hope –in our lives, in our communities, in churches, in the world. And it is a message we may receive with some laughter as well as deep joy, even in these times.