October 2001

Abrtract :  How many of us can relate to Sarah, wife of Abraham’s skepticism when she asked, “Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?” Through a 21st century lens, people are withered by cancer, police brutality, and terrorist attacks to name only a few. Joyful celebration may feel like an experience of the past. This hope-filled piece based on a passage from the Hebrew Bible dares people to believe in God’s extraordinary wonders in spite of trying circumstances. Eleanor’s sermon won the 2002 Kneeland Award issued by Union Theological Seminary and Auburn Theological Seminary.

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Away from podium down near pews.
My husband Abraham is rushing around outside preparing our best for the three strangers. And I’m standing at that place where I am just out of sight but close enough to hear the strangers, at the entrance of our tent – you’d be amazed at what I can hear from here and at what can happen here. But these strangers are more than strange – I’m not sure Abraham realizes who they are. I mean, they are promising things that I don’t dare think of anymore, things that I’ve certainly gotten over long ago. I’ve been barren for seventy-five years, do I really hope for a change now? Of course not. Well, secretly, maybe once in a blue moon I wonder. But I’ve taken my place as Abraham’s wife, traveled this distance with him – and let me tell you, it has been some distance, back and forth, Haran to Canaan, Canaan to Egypt, back to Canaan. and, anyway, he’s got Ishmael to fulfill that covenant he’s always talking about. What do I need from children now. Hah! Ridiculous! I mean, really, now that I am old and withered – and my husband is old – am I to have pleasure?

Move back to podium
“Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?”

After a ninety year lifetime of traipsing around after Abraham, who wouldn’t ask Sarah’s question? Who wouldn’t laugh Sarah’s bitter laugh? Sarah’s question is one you may have asked at some point in your own lives, whatever your age, gender, or fertility. We all have places in our lives that are old and withered. And we wonder, hopelessly, whether there will ever be anything in place of that withered-ness. The Hebrew word Sarah chooses for “old” literally means, “dried up.” And there are times and places in our lives when it feels we are tramping around in the desert.with no hint of an oasis anywhere. We are bone-dry… Where are the withered places in your life, places where you echo Sarah’s question:

“Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?”

It’s been ten months since the twin towers crumbled and the dust smothered so many people. During these last ten months I have often felt dried up and worn out .I wonder if our world and our city will ever find its way out of being so withered. Last fall I attended a synagogue service, and the rabbis ended the service by singing the last line of a prayer asking for peace. Something broke inside of me. I cried and cried, not just at what happened on 9-11, but at all of the dryness and withered-ness in our world.at the ways we hurt each other through economic, political, and militaristic policies. I cried until I was bone dry. I’m nowhere near Sarah’s age, but I felt her question:

“Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?”

We’ve felt this withered-ness in the police brutality and racial profiling that has plagued our communities. Maybe we have felt this dryness when we attended our first or our tenth or, for some of you, your hundredth meeting with city housing officials to lobby for up to standard housing.only to have nothing change once again. Are you with me?

“Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?”

We’ve felt these withered places in the midst of our personal lives, in the midst of strained relationships with parents, partners, children, or friends. Places where we wonder, “if this relationship is so old and withered, am I to have pleasure ever again from it or any relationship?” Our withered places may be found in the loss of a job as unemployment soars in our city. They may be in a doctor’s words, “your cancer is back.” They may be found in the middle of the night when we wake for no particular reason and end up wrestling with our own demons, or perhaps even with God.

“Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?”

The word Sarah chooses for “pleasure” in Hebrew means just the opposite of “dried up” and “old” and “withered.” The Hebrew root comes from a word meaning “moist” – it’s as if Sarah asks not only if she’ll have the sexual pleasure that is the literal meaning of the word, but also whether she’ll have the pleasure of something new in her life, something dark and fertile, something spring – something moist. Indeed the three strangers tell Abraham that Sarah will have a son when they return in “in due time,” but the literal translation of the Hebrew phrase means “at the living time.” I like to think that the strangers are telling her that she will yet have springtime, will yet have a time of greenness and richness and moisture in her life.

But there’s something odd about this part of our story: the strangers have said that Sarah will bear a son, but Sarah has heard that she will yet have pleasure in her life. Did Sarah hear wrong? Perhaps. Sarah was, after all, overhearing this part of the conversation from the doorway of the tent. It’s a place that’s neither in nor out. An in-between place where meanings behind words are sometimes actually more clear, more true. Indeed Sarah stands in a place where something, just something, might happen to her.. And it does: this visit is ultimately to, and for, Sarah. Abraham has had his dreams, his direct conversations with God, his illuminations. Sarah has not. Although the exchange between Sarah and the strangers happens at first through Abraham, it builds to the point where in all of her fear and trembling, Sarah finally addresses God directly. And to our surprise she tells God that she didn’t laugh.

If I were in Sarah’s sandals I probably would have done the same thing: I would have denied my laughter out of fear and trembling. But my fear wouldn’t only have been a fear of incurring the wrath of this God.it might also have been because I was afraid of renewing hope yet another time… afraid of what it would feel like to have my hopes dashed. It’s the way I felt throughout the first trimester of my pregnancy last fall: I was afraid of being too hopeful because I didn’t want to suffer the consequences of crumbling expectation if I miscarried. If I were in Sarah’s sandals I would’ve also been afraid at the prospect of getting used to a whole new kind of life at ninety years of age -And now, with a three month old daughter, I know how new and different that life really is! And all of this fear might have jumbled my insides so much that when God asked why I laughed, I would’ve denied it altogether. We sometimes don’t want to begin to have hope that our withered places can be watered. It’s too painful if things don’t work out according to promise.

When finally God replies to Sarah, speaking directly to her for the first time in her life, God says, “No, but you did laugh.” Often when we hear or read these words to Sarah, we hear them as scolding. But what if God isn’t scolding Sarah? Is there another possibility? I hear God taking in Sarah’s laughter and acknowledging it. “No, but you did laugh.” God isn’t accusing Sarah here. This isn’t a vindictive God, angry that Sarah has laughed and lied. No, God is honoring her hopelessness, acknowledging all of her feelings behind the laughter, feelings of being worn out and withered and afraid and bitter. God simply wants her to know that God understands the myriad emotions flooding Sarah at that moment.

We don’t know yet, at this point in the narrative, whether God will actually fulfill the promise made to Sarah . But we do know that God comes to Sarah in the midst of her withered-ness with a message of moisture, a message of hope, a message of pleasure. God also comes to us in the midst of our withered places. Where are these messages in your life? It is OK to doubt them, to question them, yes, even to laugh at them. God knows this, and is there with us in these reactions.

Sometimes, if we are to hear these messages, we may need to go to the entrances of our tents like Sarah does. To the doorways which open us to encounters with God and which offer us moisture in the midst of our deserts: these messages are sometimes borne to us by perfect strangers who may or may not be angels, like the firefighters who brought water into those dry, burning buildings on September 11. They may be as obvious as when our doctor says, “we have a new drug that can fight your cancer.” They may be in a jury or judge’s decision to properly punish policy brutality or in a long sought after improvement in our housing situation. These messages of hope may be in finding a good job that pays a decent, living wage. But these messages are sometimes much smaller, less dramatic. Sometimes they are so close that we don’t actually notice them. They may be in a kind word spoken by a loved one after an argument. Or in finally letting go of an old relationship that’s no longer healthy. They may be in a Sunday morning wedding at St. Mary’s. Indeed, in this passage the word “laughter” is used four times. At first glance, it seems like the cause of a lot of conflict in this passage. But if we don’t look carefully, we might fail to notice that this word itself – laughter – which seems to be a point of contention – is gonna become the name of Sarah and Abraham’s greatest hope, their newborn son, Isaac. Isaac’s name in Hebrew means laughter.

God longs for us to heed these messages. After all, God alone can’t fulfill these promises of moisture to Sarah and Abraham. God needs Sarah to feel even just a little bit of hope, yes, a little bit of sexual pleasure. Because Abraham and Sarah must literally be co-creators with God in the fulfillment of the promise of a child. But God will not leave them alone to do all of the work.

When Sarah asks her question, “Now that I am old and withered, am I to have pleasure?” the answer comes in the form of another question. God asks, “Is there anything too extraordinary for the Lord?” Could this question also be an answer to our own withered-ness? A message of moisture to water our dry places? And can we hear these messages, even through our laughter?

“Is there anything too extraordinary for the Lord?”

Perhaps if we can hear the message of hope in this question, we can dare to believe that God does work extraordinary wonders. Not only in Sarah’s life, but also in, and through, our own.

At the time of the writing, Eleanor Harrison was a third year Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While studying at Union, she facilitated anti-racism groups and tutored kids from the Harlem International Community School. Before attending Union, she directed the Student Volunteers Council at Princeton University. After graduating from Union, Eleanor plans to find the dream job that will allow her to do the many things she loves to do such as teaching, preaching, pastoral counseling, community work, and spending time with her husband, Peter, and four-month old daughter, Isabelle.