The Rev. Rosemary Beales gave this sermon on July 2, 2023.
Sarah laughed, they say. Sometimes I think, that’s ALL they remember about me. That and my long, long life.
I don’t laugh anymore.
You just heard the story of the worst day of my life. Did you notice that I am not even mentioned in the story? All the drama, all the horror, and finally the mercy, are there. …..But so am I.
I am used to being unseen, unheard – so I want finally to share my whole story with you—the laughter and the tears. You have to hear the whole thing to understand the part before you today.
I met Abram when I was just a girl whom everyone called “Princess.” That is, after all, what my name means. Nowadays, “Princess” makes little girls think of castles and ponies. But we were a nomadic people, so instead of castles, we lived in tents. We moved often, following the seasons, for water and pasture for our flocks.
I was still young when I married Abram, and as custom dictated, his life became my life. I traveled where he traveled and lived where he lived. I even worshiped his God.
After one of those long walking journeys, following the Euphrates River, we became comfortable in the land of Haran. Then one night Abram just had to walk to the edge of camp and stare into the vastness of the desert – what he was looking for, I’ll never know. But he came back all excited, bursting with energy and ideas. “The Holy One has spoken to me!” he said. Then came a flurry of gathering and sorting and packing, and the next thing I knew we were on the road again. We had servants, of course, to do the heavy lifting and care for the animals we drove into the desert with us. No one had to mind the children, for Abram and I had not been blessed.
And now, Abram was alight with the promise he said God had given – that he would be the father of a great family, a huge nation. “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing,” God said. But how were we to fulfill this dream? for we remained childless.
Still, off we went, traveling to . . . who knows where? Our God had told my husband simply, “Go to the place I will show you.” No guide, no map, no river to follow this time. Along the way, my husband insisted on climbing hills and meeting with the Holy. I was never privy to their conversations, but sat with our flocks in Shechem, while he came back full of new plans.
Finally, we made a home in Hebron; I remember that place well, as it was the longest we ever stayed in one place. Still, Abram kept getting these messages from God: “I will make your descendants like the stars in the sky and grains of sand in the desert.”
And the baby blankets I had stowed away for so many years went unoccupied.
Then, it was my turn to have a bright idea! I had a maidservant, Hagar, and it occurred to me that if God was not going to grant me a child, this woman might be the answer to prayer. Any child she conceived with Abram would be legally mine. The burden of my barrenness would be lifted.
The minute she conceived, though, Hagar began to look down on me. I did not need the condescension of an Egyptian girl young enough to be my daughter. I’m not proud of this, but I was so irritated by her glowing pride and her growing belly that I’m afraid I treated her unkindly. “Harassed” is the word she used as she ran away from me – taking her chances in the desert, I guess, was better than living securely under my roof, under my thumb.
Next thing I knew, she was back again, claiming that an angel had told her to return and promised her that her son – HER son – would thrive. She did indeed give birth to Ishmael, and I tried – I really tried – to accept them both. What happened to them later is a story for another day, and one I’ll always deeply regret.
Years went by before, once again, the Lord enchanted Abram with his ridiculous promise: descendants without number, and this time even a mention of ME. Not from the Egyptian girl, but from ME, would these progeny proceed. Even Abram laughed at that! But God changed our names anyway – he became Abraham – father of a nation — and I was still “Princess” but with a new pronunciation.
One day, while Abraham was lounging outside our tent, three strangers appeared out of the wilderness. My husband welcomed them and offered hospitality – a vital custom among those who travel through stony deserts. He offered them a resting place, a little water, a bit of bread – but then commanded his servants – and ME – to conjure up a lavish repast. While he and the strangers ate, and talked, I stood inside the tent, for I knew my place. And then, one of the strangers said the strangest thing . . .”and your wife, Sarah, will have a child.”
HA! I laughed. Of course, I laughed. Wouldn’t you? Even though my reported age – 90 years old! – is a wild exaggeration, I was still too old to have a child, and I knew it. This was not the gay laughter of girlhood, but a harsh exhalation that tasted like ash.
Then, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” the stranger said, and against all logic, all experience, hope began to rise in my heart again. And against all expectations, a seed began to grow within me. And – miracle of miracles, a CHILD was born to us, a son was given.
I laughed again – this time, it sounded like a lullaby – and we named our son Laughter, Yitzhak. He was the fulfillment of our hopes, the firstborn of the hundreds of thousands, the sign of God promises. We welcomed that child – oh, how we welcomed him as if we were welcoming God’s own self!
Thirteen years later, I was there when Abraham had his strange night vision. I could only hear his side of the conversation; but from what I gathered, God was demanding that Abraham take our son, our only son, Isaac, and SACRIFICE – him on a mountain. What mother would let such a thing happen?
Some say that I followed them on their three-day journey, prepared to intervene. But no. In my own way, like Abraham, I trusted that the Holy One himself would intervene. I just gave Him a little help. All I did was to simply release Abraham’s favorite ram, the very best one, whom he loved, and hope that it would find its way to that terrible altar.
So I wasn’t there to witness the angel staying my husband’s hand, pointing out the white ram, freeing my beloved son. Rather, I waited in the tent, terrified, until my boy came back down the mountain. I thanked God for his mercy. But after that trauma, I never laughed again.
Generations later, one of our many promised descendants, made a similar journey up a similar mountain. You know well Jesus of Nazareth, and how his story ended – and began again.
It was he who taught you about welcome, and about sacrifice of a different sort. The self-sacrificing love at the heart of his being and of his hope for you, his Church. That love means you can welcome others without fear, knowing that you are welcoming the Holy One himself – the One who said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” –thanks be to God!
 Gen 21:9-21, heard previous week.
 Based on midrash and my own imagination – it is not in scripture, but it seems plausible!