Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Foolish Love:  Hoping Against Hope

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-22


You might know that Martin Luther King, Jr was not given that name at his birth.  And neither was his father.  His father’s original name was Michael King.   In 1934, Michael King attended the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Berlin and visited many of the historical religious sites in the land where Martin Luther had called for reforms hundreds of years earlier.  Something in that experience resonated so strongly with Michael King that upon his return to the US, he changed his name and that of his 5-year-old son to Martin Luther King. 

You probably know who Harriet Tubman is. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses” because she led people to freedom.  Someone else called her “General Tubman”. Her birth name was Araminta and her family called her Minty, but when she escaped from slavery, she took the name Harriet, which had been her mother’s. 

I’m thinking about names and nicknames and the role they play in our identity.  The man we know as Abraham was originally known as Abram.  There’s not that much difference in the sound or meaning of those names.  Abram means “Exalted  Father”.  Abraham means “Father of Multitudes.”  The difference in meaning seems to be one of emphasis or degree.    Either name is sadly ironic for a man who has lived to be 99 years old and has no children or grandchildren, unless you count the son his wife’s Egyptian servant bore, and it seems that not many people do.

The Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, imagines how this name change might play out.  She writes, “Every time someone forgot and called him Abram, Abraham would say, “It’s Abraham now, remember?”  and the person in question would say, “Right.  Father of a Multitude.  How could I forget?”  That’s what he would say to Abraham’s face, but as he walked away you could hear him muttering under his breath, “Father of a multitude!  Who does he think he’s kidding?  He’s the father of one pimply adolescent, and the minute the old man dies, that boy’s mother will be down at the bus station buying two tickets back to Egypt.  Father of a multitude!  Give me a break.” [1]

Reading this story through the lens of our Lenten theme, Foolish Love, I am struck by various levels of foolishness.  First, it kind of seems like God is a bit foolish.  Why choose old people to carry out this important mission?  Why not choose someone younger with more energy?  And if the mission is to have children who will have more children and grandchildren so that an entire tribe and nation can become a model of covenant for the world, then why not start with a young, fertile couple who have already demonstrated their ability to procreate?  Now to be fair, this encounter at age 99, is not the first time God has talked with Abraham.  The first time seems to have been when he was 75. But then, if God had covenanted with Abram and Sarai that many years ago, why has it taken so long to get this program started? 

And from Abram and Sarai’s perspective, what kind of fools are they to keep believing that it is actually God who has been talking with them?  After all those years of trusting, and believing, and being disappointed that they were not pregnant again this month, only the most naïve folks would continue to believe.  The only answer seems to be that human ways are not God’s ways, as the prophet Isaiah said.  Or as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “ God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” 

When Abram was 75 and Sarai was 66, they picked up and moved, because God told them to.  They took all their earthly possessions, all their flocks and livestock and their nephew Lot and moved toward the land God promised.  While they waited for a child, they had good years and lean years.  They went to Egypt during a famine and came back again.  They settled in a beautiful place called Hebron.   By this time, their flocks were so large that they had to separate themselves from Lot so that everyone’s sheep and goats had enough grazing land.  After eleven years of waiting, Sarai said, “This is ridiculous.”  She gave her maid Hagar to Abram, which is how they did surrogate parenting in those days.  Hagar and Abram produced a son named Ishmael.

 God has continued to show up, for random conversations with Abram through this time.  They probably happened just often enough to keep his hopes up.  And now God shows up again. At this point, Abraham is living in the land that God promised to him and his descendants. He is relatively wealthy.  He has a 13-year-old son.  He is 99 with a 90-year-old wife.  He probably thinks this is as good as it is going to get, even though it is not what he wanted, not what Sarah wanted.  “Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness.  They are resigned to their closed future.  They have accepted that hopelessness as ‘normal.’” [2]

I mean, can you blame them?  What right-thinking woman is going to believe, or even to want to believe, that she could have a baby at age 90?  Letting go of that hope would have happened years earlier, serving as a buffer and self-protection against the full weight of bitter disappointment.

So, this time, when God shows up and renews the covenant and says that Sarah is still going to have a child – it’s no wonder that Abraham falls down laughing. What nonsense!  Just how foolish does God think they are?

Sarah was not there for that conversation, but she is present in the next chapter when messengers from God repeat the story that she is going to have a baby by this time next year. As she hides behind the tent flap, her shoulders shake with her laughter. No one sees her except for God, but God makes a big deal out of it.  “Why did Sarah laugh?” God asks Abraham.  Sarah is afraid and denies that she laughed, but God insists that she did.

God seems to make a big deal of Sarah laughing, but was not concerned when Abraham did the exact same thing.  This seeming double-standard has troubled classical Jewish commentators who have searched the stories for the slightest clues about what was different in their laughter.

Eliezer Segal, professor of religion at the University of Calgary, has an interesting understanding of what was going on.  Unlike Abraham, who laughed out loud for all to see, Sarah laughed within herself, embarrassed to give public expression to her feelings.  Segal says that God seems determined to remind everyone concerned that the laughter was integral to God’s plan.  The memory of the laughter is so inseparable from the story of Sarah’s pregnancy that God has already commanded Abraham that the child shall be named “Yitzhak”, meaning “he shall laugh.” 

While longstanding traditions see the life of Abraham and Sarah as a sequence of trials, Segal suggests that this episode is also a test of a different sort. If Abraham and Sarah had not reacted to God’s promise with irrepressible laughter, then they would have failed the test. They would have been declared unworthy bearers of God's covenant." [3]

He says, “Neither the loving compassion of Abraham, nor Sarah’s representation of God’s presence in our world, could be achieved by people who did not know how to laugh.”

I find his idea intriguing, for the reasons he gives and also because the laughter of Abraham and Sarah shows just how surprised and amused and delighted they were with God, even at 90 and 99.   

This week, as I was talking with a group of pastors, the subject of the school shooting in Florida came up.  One person said that he hopes the teenager activists accomplish something on gun violence that we have not been able to accomplish before.  Someone immediately responded, “I hope they do too, but I honestly don’t think they will.”  That was a punch in the gut to me.  I realized how much hope I have in and for these young people.  It is not fair or reasonable to expect them to do what scads of adults have not.  Some might even say that to hope in kids who can’t yet vote is just foolish.  And yet, in that moment I realized that I still want to live within the realm of hope.    If I live outside the reach of God’s surprise, what is that – despair, hopelessness, cynicism?  I hope I never get there, even if I live as long as Abraham and Sarah. 

Abraham and Sarah fall over with laughter at the absurdity of what God promises.  And yet, within the year, she gives birth to a son. God’s capacity to bring about something new, something unanticipated, something unexplainable, might just be beyond our control, beyond our understanding, and that’s a good thing.  Augustine said, “Understanding is the reward of faith.  Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”

“Believe that you may understand” is not how I usually work, trust me. But the more I think about this idea of Foolish Love, the more it speaks to me.  Can we give ourselves over to Foolish Love so that we always live within the possibility of God’s good surprise?  Can we just accept that God’s ways are not our ways, that God’s ways often seem foolish, even absurd, to us, and just go with it anyway?  Can we accept that love is at the foundation of every good thing, everything that comes from God?  Accept that it is love, which is powerful and healing and future-creating.  Accept that foolish love is God’s great gift, which does not mean that everything will be smooth sailing, but that there will be joy when we least expect it and strength for the hard stuff. 

If we do that, if we live like that, people will think we are foolish. They will say it is a good way to get duped or taken for a ride or hurt or disappointed.  They will think we are naïve or just not grown up, not ready to face reality yet.  But what if, what if,  we could live inside the faith that Foolish Love is solid and real anyway.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “What better way to live than in the grip of a divine promise. . . to search the face of every stranger in case it turns out to be an angel of God.  To take nothing for granted.  Or to take everything as granted, though not yet grasped. To handle every moment of one’s life as a seed of the promises and to plant it tenderly, never knowing if this moment, or the next, may be the one that grows.” [4]

In spite of themselves, Abraham and Sarah lived within that absurd, surprising, ridiculous foolish love.  . . . And the first fruit of that covenant was a child called Laughter.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Lanham, Maryland:  Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 39. 

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 159

[3] Eliezer Segal, “The Legacy of Sarah and Abraham” http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S970223_Covenant.html

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Lanham, Maryland:  Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 340-41.