what is your story question

what is your story question

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Some of you may recall back in 2015 when the New York Times ran an obituary of Adele Morales.  Morales was a gifted painter and actress who during her lifetime enjoyed a distinguished career in the arts.  She was also the mother of two daughters and two granddaughters, and she lived to be 90 years old.

However, the first line of her obituary read: “[She was the woman] “who made headlines in 1960 when [her husband, novelist Norman Mailer] stabbed and seriously wounded her at a drunken party.” The front-page headline for the obituary read: “Wife Mailer Stabbed Dies at 90”.

You would have thought the Times would have learned its lesson two years before in 2013, when the paper printed an obituary of Yvonne Brill, which opened with the sentence: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘[She was] the world’s best mom…’.”

The very next paragraph of the obituary read: “[Brill], who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

The Times isn’t the only paper printing obituaries of this sort.  In 2015, when Australian Colleen McCullough died, the obituary of this author of 25 novels including The Thorn Birds—which sold over 30 million copies—read: “Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.”

Okay, so that’s funny…and also so #NotFunny.

In response to these obituaries and others, the Washington Post ran a satirical piece called “Obituaries for Men,” imagining how obituaries might sound if men were written about in the same way as women. Like, perhaps this: “Teddy Roosevelt: resembling a fat walrus in little spectacles, he was, nevertheless, president at one point or another.” (For more on this, check out this article from The Guardian.)

Even in this “enlightened” day and age, obituaries of women praise them for their best casserole, define them by their relationships to men, and remember them for how much they weighed.  Never mind her brilliant artistry, or her international best-selling novel, or that fact that she was—quite literally—a rocket scientist.

And, I imagine that none of this is revelatory to you all; you watched the news this week just like I did.  And while we often speak in worship about many expressions of systemic injustice, I realized that it’s rare to hear a sermon that speaks to the unique issues of misogyny and its problematic theological expression.  And I am not unaware that it might be quite challenging to hear such a sermon…from a woman.

But our allowance of injustice—the way we limit the voices and the freedom of certain groups of people in our society—speaks to the way we value them, because the identity and value of a person is inextricably tied to how we tell the story of their lives.

And this is directly related to our relationships to God and to each other, because every week we gather here to retell stories of our faith. How do we tell them?  What does the way we tell the story say about how we understand God and how we value one another? And if the way we treat each other both inside and outside these walls does not reflect God’s value of each one as a precious child of God…then we are telling the story…wrong.

Today, our text is calling us to think about how we tell the story of our life together, to consider about who gets to tell the story and who doesn’t, and today, to think about…the women.

And telling the story of faith from the perspective of women is so powerful.  Why?  Because it’s an example of how we can begin to change perceptions, how we can start to use language to create an image of the world God hopes for us, and how the things can shift when we tell the story of our faith with the voice and the perspective of those who do not have privilege and power in our society.

I can just imagine my obituary now: “In 2017, on Father’s Day no less, she entered the Riverside pulpit and commenced a feminist rant that made everyone uncomfortable.  She was having a fairly good hair day that day and was sporting a cheery, if a bit risqué, nail color.”

As we heard last week, today begins many weeks of Ordinary Time that stretch throughout the summer, when our lectionary passages—the assigned passages for every week from the Revised Common Lectionary—take us deep into well-known and loved stories of our faith, stories that tell us about those who have lived before the struggle we’re engaged in now: trying to be the people of God in the world.

The cultures and the times of these stories are so, so different from our own.  But the nature of humanity and the person of God is the same.

Today we begin our series of Ordinary Time passages with the story of Abraham and Sarah, and the unexpected news that a child would be added to their family, long after hopes for such a gift had died.

You’ve probably heard this story before, and when you have it’s likely gone something like this: “Man desperately wants child; wife fails husband because she cannot get pregnant.  God intervenes and promises a child, but upon hearing the news, 90-year-old woman laughs disrespectfully in a somewhat hysterical manner.”

Perhaps today we might tell the story a bit differently if we look again, conscious of the fact that how we choose to speak of God’s work in the world directly impacts the systems that either help us reach or keep us from reaching toward the world God dreams for us.

As the story goes, Abraham and God had already had some pretty significant conversations.  You’ll recall that, upon God’s direction, Abraham had packed up his family and possessions and headed out to settle in a new land, a land that God would give them.  As Abraham looked at the vast night sky, he heard God promise that he would be the father of a nation, a patriarch to end all patriarchs, the ultimate success of a man…

…which is exciting, but also somewhat hard to believe when you’re nearing 100-years-old, when your wife is not that far behind you, and when there has never been a baby.  It was a grief Abraham and Sarah carried constantly, a doubt that God’s promises would ever come true for them.

Well, one day the whole camp was resting in the heat of the day, when the sun was high in the sky and it was too hot to work.  Abraham was sitting under a little copse of trees near the campsite when he saw three men approaching.

Now, you and I don’t fully understand the cultural expectations of a situation like this, but suffice it to say that this was unusual.  Three travelers approaching a campground in the heat of the day—they must have been coming with important news.

And so, following expectations of hospitality and just basic survival, Abraham greeted them and insisted that they sit and rest, then he told some servants to wash the men’s feet and prepare a feast for the evening, and then he ran to the tent and told Sarah to make them a snack.  If you read the text carefully, it sounds quite funny…not only does Abraham instruct Sarah to make some food for the men, he gives her the recipe and the technique, as if she hasn’t been doing this for decades: “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes!”

Can you imagine that exchange?  “Okay, Abraham, I’ll get right on that…and thanks for the cooking tips!”

Abraham is clearly nervous about the arrival of these guests, so when all of the feet are washed and the food prepared and everyone comfortable, the men settle in the shade to get down to business.  And the first thing the men say to Abraham—the first thing—is a question: “Where is your wife Sarah?”

Huh?  Abraham was confused.  “You want to talk about Sarah?  You traveled all this way to talk about…a woman?”

The travelers sitting under the tree that day were bringing up a very painful subject, opening a decades-old wound. God had promised Abraham would be the father of a great nation, but Sarah had never had a child, and she never would. This life circumstance of childlessness defined her.  If you look back a bit in the book of Genesis, in fact, you’ll see that in Genesis 11, the very first time we meet Sarah, the text says by way of introduction: “Sarah was barren—she had no children.”

And this was an identity that weighed heavy on her as she tended the campsite and prepared the meals and worked to support Abraham as he followed God’s invitation to a place unknown.  The huge elephant in the middle of the camp drove a wedge between them and, worse, made them doubt both God’s plan and God’s goodness.

So that afternoon as conversation began under the trees in the camp, Sarah’s ears perked up as she caught the sound of her name on the wind.  Moving toward the flap of the tent, she leaned out as far as she could without raising too much attention, cupped her hand to her ear, and listened.

The men were talking about her.  They were saying to Abraham that they would be back in a year, and when they returned, Sarah would have given birth to a son.

And when Sarah heard them predict childbirth for her—in her 90s—she laughed. She laughed. Sarah was struggling to get her mind and heart around a reality of God that we all struggle to learn over and over and over again—that there is nothing too wonderful for the Lord, that God is always creating and recreating, bringing life and hope where we see only death, hopelessness, and desolation.

The way we hear the story told, though, is not a lesson in our shared humanity and corporate struggle with doubt.  Instead, we learn that Sarah was wrong to laugh.  She was weak; unable or unwilling to consider that God could and would work through the circumstances of her life.  She might even have been bad for not accepting the strangers’ announcement at face value.

But rather than being invited into the miracle that was unfolding around and within her, she was dismissed, as those without privilege and power and voice often are in our society. And when the sound of her laughter rang throughout the campsite her objections were named: unfaithful, disrespectful, wrong.  When the conversation of the men was interrupted by her laughter, you know they looked at each other knowingly: you know how it is when women get hysterical….

Can you imagine that?  A group of men discussing the reproductive life of a woman who is not there to speak on her own behalf, making plans for her body and dictating when she would and would not have a child?  It seems quite appropriate to me that Sarah would respond with hysterical laughter, but then again…I’m a woman.

See what I mean?

This story is completely different depending on the perspective from which you tell it.  The perspective from which a story is told, in fact, can change everything.

How do you hear your story?  What is the role you’ve been assigned? Accountant?  Youngest child?  Immigrant?  African American?  Working class?  Educated?  Woman?  Does the story you hear and tell about your life determine for you that you’re an “underachiever” or “unworthy”…”not good enough” or “unclean”…”failure” or “insignificant”?

It’s so easy to take on names like these, even in our subconscious, because we hear over and over messages that we are not good enough…because we see what seems to be evidence of failure all around us…because things in our lives don’t always mirror the expectations of success that our society places upon us.  Because other people tell our stories, and these stories, if told long enough and loud enough, evolve into societal structures that oppress and harm and do not reflect God’s hopes and intentions for our world.

This is sinful.

We are complicit.

We have to change the way the story is told.

What would happen if we began to tell the stories of our faith from the perspectives of those who do not have privilege?

What if, instead of Sarah derided for laughing hysterically, this story becomes one of a voiceless, powerless woman stepping in, with joy, to her critical role in the work of God in the world?  What would that be like?

Well, it would be transformational.

It would be groundbreaking and world shifting.

It would be…gospel.  Good news.

There are so many in our society who hide behind the tent flaps in fear, who are not invited to sit around the campfire and talk strategy and politics and power, who hear over and over—and even start to believe—that their lives have no value.

How will we tell the stories of our faith, the stories of our lives?

We must begin to tell them in ways that let the voices of those who have no power begin to ring out, to tell us the truth about our own inability and unwillingness to confront injustice, to call us again and again to remember that any story that does not celebrate the identity of each person as a beloved, precious child of God is being told the wrong way.

As we begin this summer of telling the stories of our faith, stories that were written to remind us of God’s constant faithfulness and persistent recreation in our lives, let’s be very mindful of the perspective from which the stories are told.

Because it seems as people of faith, the very least we can do is give voice to the voiceless and tell the story of God’s grace and love and healing again and again by amplifying the voices that have been silent—or hysterical—for far too long.

May it be so. Amen.