I was a teenager in the late 80s, when cable TV and VHS machines were all the rage, and when each town’s video rental store was one of the hubs of commercial activity. And being a teenage in this time and living in the suburbs meant a lot of weekend evenings hanging out at my friends’ houses and watching movies. One of the movies I watched most was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My wife and kids still don’t understand what’s so funny about it, but I’ll keep praying for them.
Anyway, as I thought about this week’s talk, a short scene from this movie came to mind. It’s a spoof on a moment in village life in the Middle Ages, when the Black Plague was sweeping through Europe, and undertakers pushed carts through towns, collecting the bodies of the dead.
Do you ever feel like that guy, the one lying on the cart – “I’m not dead yet!” People around us, our life circumstances, are like that other guy with the club in his hands, telling us this opportunity is lost, that time is over, that it’s too late for something else we once dreamed would be so.
A couple of us on the church staff were talking about this the other day: about the various deaths we experience at different stages of our lives. When we’re younger, we have to face the death of perfection. We learn we’re just not good as some things that we like. We discover that even the things that we are good at, there’s always someone better. We learn that rejection, sometimes serial rejection, is part of what it means to try anything. We have problems and flaws and so does everybody else, and we lose sometimes, and life’s not fair.
And then when we’re in mid-life, we experience a deeper level of this death, what I think of as the death of our dreams. We find out that some things we assumed would happen in life, or dearly hopes would happen, just aren’t going to happen. And we find out that even the good things of life – having a steady job, or raising kids, or owning a home, or getting married – these things have their downsides too. Sometimes they’re great, but sometimes they just suck. Maybe life, or at least maybe our life, isn’t all that we hoped it would be.
And then as we age, we inevitably face the death of our bodies. We get aches and pains, our parents die, someday we have to get ready to die ourselves. We’ll get tossed onto that cart and won’t have anything to say about it.
And then all along, in every one of these life stages, we experience the death of certainty. We realize we don’t know what we’re doing, and maybe nobody else does, and nobody’s coming to rescue us.
The other week I must have said something about feeling alone in this world to my therapist, but instead of offering comfort, she said something like — well, get used to it, because we all come into this world alone and we go out of it alone too.
And I didn’t say this, but I thought to myself: you’re fired. That’s the gloomiest thing to say.
Is Death all there is to Life?
So is this it?
Is life an ongoing story of increasing death, suffered alone? Or is there something more — something that can help us say wait, I’m not dead yet! And have it be true.
This spring we’ve been talking about passion and courage, and today we’re going to talk about the passion and courage it takes to look for resurrection — to look to God to find life growing out of death, both literally and metaphorically.
We’ve been looking at some Old Testament narratives and asking what people find in God that gives them passion and courage. And without planning it this way, much of these series has been a look at some courageous women of the Old Testament — as Ivy and Lydia and I have each told the story of one of the Bible’s less famous women of passion and courage.
Today, I want to revisit the story of the one of the most famous — maybe the most famous women — of the Old Testament: a woman who had the courage to hope for resurrection, to trust God that life could grow where only loss and the death of dreams seemed realistic.
We’ll read one story from the life of Sarah and then a brief reflection from the New Testament on what was going on here. Here we go. Our first story comes from the Bible’s first book of Genesis, in the account of Abraham and Sarah, this couple that wander across the Ancient Near East because of a promise they believed God had given them and their descendants – a promise of land, and legacy, and blessing to them and through them to the whole world.
The only problem was there were no actual descendants. They were getting on in years and still had no child.
God had given Abraham and Sarah hope for a child, but years and years have passed, and that hope was slowly dying a long and complicated death. When one day, three visitors stop by Abraham and Sarah’s house, or their tent, really:
Genesis 18:9-15 (NRSV)
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
The visitors – strangers to Abraham and Sarah – reiterate what they believe God had promised them: that in due season, they will have a baby boy who will carry God’s promises on to the next generation and beyond.
And I don’t know what Abraham’s reaction is, we don’t get it because Sarah’s is so strong. And I love it, she’s like, Ha! That “due season” you’re talking about has come and gone. Maybe it’s a bitter day for her, and she laughs that cynical laugh of resentment in the face of the naïve. Or maybe it’s a good day, and she’s not especially upset, but she just chuckles at how ridiculous this hope sounds. Maybe she’s thinking of the pleasure of raising a baby, a hope she’s long let die in her. Or maybe – scholars wonder – she’s thinking even of sexual pleasure, chuckling that the baby ain’t happening when they’re not even motivated to be intimate anymore.
Either way, though, the messengers catch it. They see or hear the laugh, even when Sarah’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to admit it.
Some people have wondered if they’re angry, the way they point out — oh no, you sure did laugh — or they wonder if God would be angry at Sarah for laughing, for not believing God would have power to do this thing God has promised.
But that doesn’t make sense to me. The messengers don’t criticize Sarah, and God’s not cursing her or anything. She’s hearing a reiteration of God’s impossible, unlikely blessing for her.
It’s like the messengers – which by tradition are angels, or even the presence of God personified – are saying: no, really, we saw you laugh, and that’s OK, it seems ridiculous, but this is what God does.
God is a God worthy of ridiculous hope
Hundreds of years after Genesis was written, an earlier follower of Jesus writes a Midrash, an ancient Jewish style of commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, which seeks to elucidate the original texts but sometimes add a new point of view or insight as well.
The 11th chapter of this book of Midrash, called Hebrews, is a meditation on faith, looking at these ancient people of passion and courage, Abraham and Sarah included.
And the bit on Sarah says that God is a God worthy of ridiculous hope, because God is a God of resurrection.
Read with me:
Hebrews 11:11-12 (NRSV)
11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
Where we are as good as dead, God sees possibility. Where we experience barrenness, God sees the potential for new life. And not just scrappy, just eking out an existence kind of life, but teeming life. Descendants as many as the stars are coming from this barren womb.
Infertile couples having babies, is something of a motif in the Bible. It’s not just Sarah, but Rachel, and Hannah, and Elizabeth, and more. These stories get a spotlight on them, not just because of what they meant to the people involved but because of what they say about God, and about the logic of ridiculous hope. This is where the poetry about rivers in the desert comes from. And this story of a powerful God making the impossible possible comes to a climax in the Bible’s story of Jesus’ life after death — in that resurrection that centers the New Testament and becomes the more important moment in the prayer life and in the good news celebration of the early church communities.
Jesus is alive. God is a God of resurrection. In the face of our dying lives in a dying world, there are grounds for ridiculous hope.
We’ve seen this in our own church community, over just our twenty years. Just last week, someone told me another story of hearing our announcement for prayer we give after the sermon every week, and she said, they named my issue, and I went for prayer, and I was better. Oh, my God, it worked kind of miraculously! I hear those stories a lot. We’ve had our share of what seem like miraculous pregnancy stories. In many ways, the existence of this community as what we are today is a whole series of unlikely dreams coming true.
We’ve appreciated the stunning surprises of living with a God of resurrection around here.
But of course, our own experience in this community, your own as well, I’m sure is that most of the time dying things do in fact die. People that can’t have kids most often continue to not be able to have kids. Deserts usually stay dry. That’s just the way it is.
Even in Hebrews, the text goes on – just after what we read – to say that most of the heroes of faith being discussed don’t quite see the fulfillment of what they’d hoped for in God. It says, “These died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” They saw God work enough to know a living God – look there, off in the horizon, if you squint a bit, there’s God. But not enough to have all their dreams come true.
So faith, paradoxically, calls for both ridiculous hope, but also radical acceptance: Hope that God can bring life out of death, and acceptance that even in death, God can be there as well with something good.
I know, this might seem hard to get your mind around at first. Like I’m encouraging two opposites and calling them both faith. How can we practice radical acceptance and ridiculous hope at the same time? Let me tell you a story.
Radical Acceptance of Death
This story is about an 80-year old woman who thought she had found love again.
Allene had been widowed just after 70, and she says by the time she hit 80, her life was pretty desolate, until she met a man who just lit up her world. It was at a senior center on the West Coast. She spent time at the center on her annual visit to her son who lived nearby, met a man there that she really liked and got his phone number. After she went home, they began speaking over the phone every night. Their calls got more and more intimate, more romantic. Allene had been married for 51 years until her husband’s death, had only ever loved one man in her life, but now she was falling in love again.
She and Larry began writing stories together, and in one of the stories featured a man who was a retired long-haul truck driver. In the story, he impulsively drives across the country to meet a woman he’d fallen in love with. Larry had himself been a long-haul truck driver, so when the nightly phone calls stopped for a couple of days, Allene was certain that in her real life, Larry was about to show up at her door, having driven across the whole country to see her.
Problem was, more days and weeks went by without a word from Larry, until eventually he sent a note that he had met somebody else, and that he and Allene should just be friendly like a brother and a sister. And in case she wondered if he’d change his mind, he told her he was marrying the other woman.
This second chance at falling in love was over.
Just when Allene felt she had found a new lease on life through finding love again, her hopes were crushed. This dream, like her first marriage, died.
What was Allene to do? Hope against hope that things with Larry would turn around? Pray that this woman he was marrying would die, like his first wife? That wouldn’t seem likely, or kind, or right, really.
In this case, Allene had to accept the death of this particular dream.
But interestingly enough, in this case, radical acceptance of one death opened her up for a different kind of resurrection. See, in falling in love again, Allene put herself at risk for rejection and loss and disappointment, as we all do when we fall in love. And the worst had happened here.
But it wasn’t all bad, because it also stirred a broader hope in her that at 80, her life was not over. There could be a next and better chapter left in her.
In her case, she met the folks behind this project called Change Agent, who told her about a simple tool for finding your next chapter in your life. They told her about this tool of making three lists. Make a list of what you love, and what you love about your life. Then make a list of what you hate in life – again generally, and in your life in particular. And Allene made these lists, and she – like most of us – had lots to say. Then finally, she was told to make a list of what she really wanted. Turns out the “what you love” and “what you hate” lists are really just kind of warm-ups to ground you before making this third list of what you want.
And this third list was full of discovery for Allene because she realized that falling in love again was really just one path toward the deeper want that she had, which was to experience joy and connection, and to find that in part by making other people’s lives light up, and through physical connection.
She said elderly people at senior centers don’t like a lot of touch. When she’d ask for or offer hugs at her senior center, she wouldn’t get many takers. But she realized, people’s hands were sore, and people would let you touch their hands. So instead of looking for love again, Allene got training as a massager of hands.
It was pretty easy for her to learn, and in massaging the hands of elderly people, she discovered that she could keep the openness to other people she had found through falling in love again, and could experience physical touch and connection, and profound joy, as she spread her openness and connection to other people, who appreciated it.
This was a kind of earthly resurrection for Alene — a hope she didn’t know she had fulfilled, that only came after acceptance of another hope dashed.
On her next visit to her son, she even got a chance to give hand massages to Larry and his new wife, to be honest about her disappointment to them both, but to move on and enjoy their friendship.
Sarah in our Bible text laughs at the possibility of her dream of a son coming true. And when, against all odds, she gets pregnant and gives birth to a healthy baby boy, she names him Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter. Sarah keeps laughing with wonder and delight, as God fulfills her ridiculous hope that once had died.
Allene thought the life she wanted lay in falling in love again. But in the connection of many friends, rather than one romantic partner, and in the physical touch of hand massage, she found joy, and a life in her 80s that she really loves. She laughs herself when she talks about how happy and fulfilled she is now, and about the road that got her there.
I found Allene’s story so inspiring, that even in her elder years, she dared not to just muddle through to the end. But even when life pushed her to a kind of radical acceptance of loss and limitation, she let hope stir for a life she could love.
This mix of radical acceptance and ridiculous hope isn’t just the stuff of podcasts, it’s personal to me. In the first talk in this series, I taught that self-acceptance creates the possibility for self-transcendence.
I took a couple of days off early this week to visit one of my best friends and his family out of state. This is a guy who was the best man in my wedding and who’s been a good friend for 25 years now. One of a really short list of friends I’ve known that long.
And as we caught up on some of the deeper elements of our personal journeys, the kind of stuff that’s easier to talk about in person than over the phone, I was struck by how good God has been to both of us in some of the precise places where we’ve needed to accept loss and disappointment in life.
I won’t share details, but between us, radical acceptance of significant personal shortcomings and flaws, of professional blows, of relational losses and betrayals, has opened us up to new and deeper work of God, satisfaction and new life in forms we hadn’t quite expected.
I find this again and again to be true in people’s lives. As a pastor, I hear people talk again and again about the challenges and disappointments of their life circumstances. A lot of the deeper conversations I have with people are sparked by their disappointment or confusion about some aspect of the state of the world at large or the state of their lives.
And as they map this dying life they’re describing, the ones who look like they’re finding their way toward joy are honest about it. They’re not fighting reality but are moving toward a kind of radical acceptance of the way things are. And yet the ones who are moving toward joy are also doing what Allene and Sarah both did. They’re asking what could a resurrection working God still do here? What ridiculous hope do I still dare to hold?
What could happen in my life to make me laugh again, and keep on laughing through death itself into the final resurrection, when death is no more and all things are renewed?
I’d love to close us with a chance for us to ask these questions. I have a dare for you and then two questions for meditation and reflection, to see what a resurrection-loving God might stir in us.
Can we try together?
OK, first I invite you as you look at your life, to embrace it with passion and courage.
Dare not to just muddle through.
You’re not dead yet. There is still more connection, more joy, more satisfaction, more life to be found.
And now let’s take a minute to meditate on two questions.
Radical acceptance – Where are you called to accept your dying life?
Ridiculous hope – Where is God inviting you to laughter-sparking resurrection?