Lent is a season of self-examination, and so the church does things differently during Lent as a way of refocusing our attention. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that our words are more penitential, our music less celebratory, our altar flowers more muted than during what we call “ordinary time”. In a similar way, the focus of our scripture readings shifts slightly. During the rest of the year, the Gospel is our principal Sunday reading. On Lenten Sundays, the lectionary focuses on the selection from the Old Testament.
This shift is partly just a shift in our focus and it is partly an attempt to have us take in the long haul drama of salvation. While Holy Week and Easter will revolve entirely around Jesus and his challenge to secular and religious authority, the church uses the six weeks of Lent to help us understand how Jesus’s ministry and passion derive their meaning from what comes 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 and God’s making the sign of the rainbow as a mark of the covenant with all creation. Next week we will hear about the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Two Sundays from now we’ll experience Israel’s tribulations as they wander 40 years in the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. One week later we’ll hear Jeremiah proclaim God’s desire that the covenant be written on the human heart. 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.
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. This covenant centers entirely around 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 that promise is tied up with the almost insane 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?’ [Genesis 17.17]
What interests me most about Abraham’s response is that it ends in laughter. The laugh motif relates to 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 realest 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.
This past week I’ve begun reading a new book by Pico Iyer, The Man Within My Head. Iyer is a British writer of Indian descent who grew up both in England and in California. As a kind of culturally bifurcated person, he has developed a lifelong fascination with the the novels of another British writer, Graham Greene. Like many who frequent the Episcopal Church, Greene 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] A rationalist who is also drawn to mystery, Iyer has found himself having a lifetime conversation with Graham Greene entirely within his own mind.
As I’ve made my way into this intriguing meditation on how one writer can inhabit one’s head, I hear something in that “skeptical mysticism” of the doubleness of Abraham’s laugh. I hear the hearty life affirming laugh of one who feels the boundless depth of God and the world’s abundant goodness. I hear also the rueful, sardonic laugh of one who at least partly thinks it might just be too good to be true.
A Roman Catholic, 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, is about a failed priest, a fallen, drunken, fearful man who nevertheless finds himself called by God in spite of his failings and serving 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 this morning’s Lenten Old Testament reading, Abraham is given a beautiful but absurd promise. Rather than making an institution or an ideology out of it, Abraham laughs. He laughs because it seems so impossible. But his action does not stop there. Even though it’s impossible, he obeys. After laughing, he follows. Abraham’s life exemplified 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 incredible investment. 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.
I said at the outset that Lent is a season of self-examination. It’s a time to take stock of ourselves as we are. Last week we learned, in the Noah story, that God puts priority on loving us in all our complications before insisting on our perfection. That’s why God hangs the rainbow in the sky, as a reminder not to destroy a sinful world. Today we hear that we’re all Abraham and Sarah, people chosen by God and pushed forward by God’s hand in a divine love that is both boundless and unreasonable. On learning this, who wouldn’t laugh?
As we walk together toward Easter, let’s try to take all this in. As Richard Holloway says of what happens when we encounter the characters in Graham Greene novels, we know “somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.” 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. If we laugh with them, we may just be given grace to forgive others’ trespasses as we ask forgiveness for our own, to understand, finally that hate is just a failure of imagination. Amen.