We’re now well into Lent, a season of self-examination. We vary our church practices in this time so that we may refocus our attention. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that our words are more penitential, our music less celebratory, our floral decorations more muted than during what we call “ordinary time.” In a similar way, the focus of our Scripture readings shifts during Lent. During the rest of the year, the Gospel is our principal Sunday reading. On Lenten Sundays, the prayer book asks that we pay particular attention to our passages from the Old Testament.
This shift helps us take in the long-haul drama of salvation. While Holy Week and Easter will revolve entirely around Jesus and his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, we use the six weeks leading up to Holy Week to help us understand how Jesus’ ministry and passion flow from what has come before. Therefore in this season we move through a weekly succession of stories about God’s evolving relationship with the human community. Last week we heard the story of Noah, next week we’ll hear about Moses at Mount Sinai. Step by step, week by week, we immerse ourselves in the incremental deepening of the divine-human relationship, preparing ourselves to take in the dramatic and transformative events of Holy Week and Easter in all their majesty and mystery, all their pain and wonder.
Today we move from Noah to Abraham, from God’s covenant with the entire human community to God’s covenant with Israel, a people chosen for reasons known only in the divine heart (Gen. 17: 1–7, 15–16). This covenant centers entirely on one family, that of Abram and Sarai, a pair of obscure Mesopotamian nomads. For no reason that we are ever let in on, God chooses this one household and tells them that they and their offspring will be the bearers of the divine promise—in the story’s words, “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” And not only that; God says, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” Now this is a great and beautiful pair of promises: offspring and a land. But in its context it’s entirely ridiculous. Because we’ve heard this story so often, we have become dulled to this almost overpowering absurdity. Abram is 99 years old. His wife, Sarai, is 90. Nonagenarians do not routinely conceive and give birth to children. Obscure nomads do not normally take possession of arable farmland.
Abram’s name changes to Abraham, Sarai’s to Sarah. Their story comes at us out of nowhere. We meet them as if by chance. We hear that the future of a people and a world is tied up in their willingness to respond to God’s mysterious offer. We learn that the fulfillment of the promise is linked to the crazy idea that 90 year olds will become new parents. It is small wonder that the story ends with Abraham’s laughter:
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17)
Abraham’s response ends in laughter. The laugh motif gives us the name of his son, Isaac. The word Yitzhak in Hebrew means “laughter.” So there’s a bit of wordplay here. But beyond that, Abraham’s laughing response strikes me as the truest thing in the story. God has just made him an absurd promise. His laughter is the laughter of anyone who has found themselves at the conjunction of the possible and the impossible. Abraham’s laugh is a two-fold response. It is the laugh of faithfulness. It is the laugh of doubt.
Pico Iyer is a British writer of Indian descent who grew up both in England and in California. Iyer has developed a lifelong fascination with the novels of another British writer, Graham Greene, and he wrote a book about reading Greene called The Man Within My Head. Although Greene was Roman Catholic, he shared many attitudes with us Episcopalians. He was, in Pico Iyer’s words, “a skeptic who suddenly felt himself surrounded by mystery and realized that skepticism couldn’t answer all his questions even though he couldn’t subscribe to faith” (Studio 360, 3/2/12). Himself also a rationalist who is also drawn to mystery, Iyer has carried on a lifetime conversation with Graham Greene through his writings, a conversation held entirely within his own mind.
As I reflect on Pico Iyer’s intriguing meditation on how one writer can inhabit another’s mind, I hear something of the doubleness of Abraham’s laugh in Greene’s “skeptical mysticism.” I hear the life-affirming laugh of one who knows both the boundless depth of God and the world’s abundant goodness. I hear also the rueful, sardonic laugh of one who also thinks it all might be too good to be true.
Graham Greene wrote about people—like Abraham in today’s story, like himself as he traveled, or like you and me when we’re honest with ourselves—who know the doubleness of Abraham’s laugh. We laugh with Abraham because we know both the heights to which we aspire and the depths of which we are capable. And we laugh with Abraham because we realize there’s no way out of the paradoxes of faith and doubt, hope and despair. And in realizing the persistence of paradox, we know that, fallen and compromised as we are, there is still hope for us.
Graham Greene’s greatest novel, The Power and the Glory, tells of a failed priest, a fallen, drunken, fearful man who nevertheless finds himself called by God in spite of his failings and serves almost against his will as an instrument of God’s purpose in dangerous times. What Greene’s great characters lack in moral elegance they make up in compassion. As Richard Holloway, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, says of them, “There was human solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure.” As we come to accept our own failings, we learn to forgive the failings of others. As the novel’s priest puts it, “Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
Or, as Richard Holloway says, “In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is forgiven because everyone is understood” (Richard Holloway, “My Hero: Graham Greene,” The Guardian, 2/24/12).
In today’s Lenten Old Testament reading, Abraham is given a beautiful and absurd promise. He does not make an institution or an ideology out of the promise. Instead, Abraham laughs. He laughs because it seems so impossible. But he does not stop with laughter. Even though the promise is impossible, he trusts it anyway. After laughing, he follows. Abraham’s life exemplifies the doubleness of absurdity and hope, faith, and doubt. God chose Abraham for no discernible reason and invested the world’s future in him. Abraham laughed because he knew that there was nothing he could have done to deserve this great abundance. He laughed because he was chosen in spite of himself. He laughed because he knew himself to be loved in all his fullness, even in light of his considerable failings. He laughed because he saw that if he was both fallible and lovable, then everybody else was, too.
Lent is a season of ongoing self-examination. It’s a time to take stock of ourselves as we are. Today we hear that we’re all Abraham and Sarah, people chosen by God and pushed forward by God’s hand out of a divine love that is both boundless and unreasonable. God knows you intimately and chooses you still. When you finally take this in, who wouldn’t laugh?
As we walk together through Lent toward Easter, let’s try to enter Abraham’s world. Richard Holloway says that, when we encounter the characters in Graham Greene novels, we know “somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.” Your achievements don’t keep you human. Your possessions don’t keep you human. Your power and privilege don’t keep you human. What keeps you human is the knowledge that God loves and accepts you not in spite of but because of your laughable frailty.
With Abraham and Sarah, with Pico Iyer and Graham Greene, with Jesus and his companions, with all of God’s loved creatures both within this community and without: we have solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure. God calls us as and beyond ourselves to become something more than we are. The call is not only a call to laugh. It is a call to laugh and then, in spite of the absurdity, to follow. If we answer that call and follow we will become a bit more the people God wants us to be. If we answer that call and follow we may find grace to forgive others’ trespasses as we ask forgiveness for our own. If we answer that call and follow we may finally understand that hate is just a failure of imagination. Amen.