Preached on June 12, 2005, at MCC Columbia
Genesis 18:1-15 Romans 5:1-5
According to a recent newspaper report, bouncers stopped a visitor on the way into a club in Germany because she was 80-years-old.
The woman tried to slip past security at one of the town’s biggest discos, but was stopped by the door staff who thought she was lost. She assured them she wasn’t and made her way down to the bar where, according to staff, she ordered a coke and schnapps. The nightclub owner called police because he was concerned about the old lady. A police spokesman said he couldn’t find anything mentally wrong with the pensioner. He said: “She told me she had never been to a disco and wanted to see what it was like.” Another newspaper reports that Norwegian police stopped a 94-year-old woman who was out jogging because they thought she had escaped from a nursing home. Officers who saw the woman couldn’t believe she was just exercising. Sigrid Krohn de Lange told a Norwegian a radio: “They thought I had escaped from a nursing home. “A motorist had called the police to say there was a strange lady running. The police officer could not believe that such an old lady could be out jogging.” She managed to persuade the police officer she was not on the run but only out doing her regular exercise. “I said there was nothing wrong with my head, nor my legs. He had to check that I lived at the address I gave him. When that was clear I could continue my jogging,” she added. In our youth obsessed society it’s hard for us to fathom that an 80-year-old woman would want to go out clubbing, or that a 94-year-old woman would actually be out jogging, and not on the lam from a nursing home. After all, once you hit retirement age, our society seems to have little need of you anymore – you’re expected to disappear, not go out for a drink or a jog. We laugh when we hear about people so old doing things usually reserved for the younger set.
Sarah would have understood. She was 90-years-old when she heard that she would become pregnant. She laughed and rightly so! “Ha!” she thought, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” We understand her laughter. We’d laugh now if we read of a 90-year-old woman having a child. We laugh at the thought of a woman over 60 giving birth to a child, let alone 90.
“Ha!” we would laugh in disbelief. “Such a thing could never happen.” But, it has happened. In fact, the oldest American woman to give birth is believed to be a 63-year-old woman from Highland, California. The oldest American to give birth to twins was 57-year-old Judy Cates, on December 9, 1998. Later in Genesis chapter 21, we read more about Sarah. She laughs again, this time with delight, because she has given birth to a son. To mark her delight, she names him Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “laughter.” You can bet he probably got ribbed a lot on the playground. These other older women who gave birth could understand Sarah’s delighted laughter because they too did something we would scoff at – a woman over sixty, and another nearing sixty, giving birth? Ha! To quote Daffy Duck, “It is to laugh.” We laugh with scorn at so many things in our lives – things we refuse to believe will come true, even if God has promised us it will come true. But, that laughter of scorn often turns to giggles of delight when we see the impossible come true.
I’m sure there are some things in your life that you laughed scornfully about when you heard them or thought them. I remember growing up I always wanted to be a writer. It was my dream. I remember a guidance counselor telling me in a very sober tone that writers couldn’t live on words alone, and I’d better learn to type and file so I could support myself some other way. “Ha!” this woman said to me – you’ll never make a living off of words. I laugh with delight when I realize that for the past 20 odd years (and they have been odd), my bills have been footed by words. One of my earliest dreams was to be a pastor. I remember as a child I’d come home from hearing my father preach and I would re-write his sermon. I would address them to the dogs, and go out and preach to the dogs. But, I abandoned this dream very early on because I heard my denomination – the Southern Baptist Church – give me a collective “Ha! You’ll never do it because we won’t let you! It won’t happen. We won’t allow it.” Can we all give a delighted laugh this morning at that one? Here I am! Doing what they said could never happen. Both personally and as a society, we laugh with scorn at things that seem to be impossible for us to do or to overcome. One day, we’ll land on the moon ha! One day, we’ll cure polio ha! One day, slaves will be free ha! One day, African-Americans will have equal rights ha! One day, women will vote ha! One day, sodomy laws will be struck down ha! One day, homosexuality won’t be considered a mental illness ha!
It’s easy to laugh with scorn at things we can’t ever see happening. Recently, Wanda and I went to a film screening sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement. One of the films showed a group of gays and lesbians from the Mattachine Society that began, back in 1965, to hold yearly protests in cities like Washington and Philadelphia. Each year they would protest silently with signs asking for equal rights for gays and lesbians. When you think about it, you realize that now, even 40 years later, the battle for our rights continues. It is tempting to fall into despair. After all, some of the things those protestors were asking for, we are still asking for now, like marriage, federal worker protections, hate crimes legislation and other equal rights. It would be easy to say, “Ha! Gays and lesbians will never get equal rights.” But instead of looking at what we don’t have, we need to focus on how far we’ve come. In 1965, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. In 1965, homosexuals were still de facto criminals thanks to anti-sodomy laws. In 1965, the police could raid gay bars and arrest everyone in the place, just for being there. In 1965, there was no church where gays and lesbians could worship openly in spirit and in truth. In 1965, no university or company offered partner benefits. And in 1965, gays and lesbians couldn’t get married in Massachusetts, or get a civil union in Vermont or Connecticut. Today, we laugh with delight, because all of those things have come to pass.
Peter Paige who plays “Emmet” on Queer as Folk said recently:
“I think we’ve already won [the same-sex marriage battle]. And that’s a hard thing to remember because it’s really a scary time. But when you look at what has happened in the gay-rights movement in the last 36-37 years, we have progressed further, in a shorter period of time, than any civil-rights movement in the history of the planet, and there’s bound to be a backlash. … Uppity people get uppity and get excited and get organized and there’s a backlash. But I truly believe that we have so profoundly impacted the generation behind us that we’ve already won. We just don’t know it yet.”
Just like Sarah, our promise has already been fulfilled – we’ve already given birth to our laughter – we just don’t know it yet! The same thing is true in your personal life. I’ll bet each of you can think of areas in your life when society – or that scornful voice inside of you – has said, “Ha! You’ll never do it. Give it up now.”
You probably feel like Alice in Wonderland when she, like Sarah, laughed scornfully.
“There’s no use trying,” Alice said, “one can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen said to her: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…”
This is God’s challenge to us, brothers and sisters, let us believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast every day. Whatever you’ve been told is impossible in your life, believe them – believe that they are possible, even if those dreams of yours seem absurd.
Abstract artist M.C. Escher once said: “Only those who attempt the absurd…will achieve the impossible. I think…I think it’s in my basement… Let me go upstairs and check.”
The Apostle Paul understood what it felt like to be laughed at with scorn. He was charged with bringing the Good News of Christ’s message into a harsh, unbelieving world. He suffered for his efforts. He was beaten, shipwrecked and imprisoned for going around and telling the world about the wonder of God’s grace and that they ought to love one another as Jesus has loved them. He tells the Romans not to despair when the world laughs with scorn but instead to “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Hope does not disappoint us, because hope always ends with giggles of delight. We cannot stop striving for the things that the world – or even our internal voice – laughs at with scorn. We may suffer because of that scorn, but instead of giving up hope, of sinking into despair, we must remember that our suffering produces endurance and character and hope. Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis says that, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
We live in a world that seems to always be against us – simply because of who we are, who we love, what we look like or what we believe. Instead of giving up, we need to keep working toward our goals, toward our dreams – not just individually, but also as a community because what we do today affects tomorrow. As Billie Holiday sang, “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.” We need to keep believing that with God, even though it might take a little while, nothing is impossible – and then watch as the evidence changes.
I want to tell you the story of a woman named Wanda – and for once this is not a story about my partner (much to her relief). Wanda Wishon is deaf, blind and mentally retarded. She has been in her brother’s care for 20 years. When Wanda wanted to get a job and work, the world said, “Ha! No way! This person will never be able to work. She’ll never be able to take care of herself or contribute to society in any way. Look at her. She’s deaf, blind and mentally retarded! It can’t happen.” Wanda’s brother, Brad, is the pastor of Gentle Shepherd MCC in Phoenix, Arizona. He reports that against all the odds his sister does indeed hold down a job. She is able to communicate using symbols and she understands tactile signing. In a recent sermon Rev. Wishon held up his sister’s paycheck and said:
“There are lots of people who said this will never happen. There are lots of people who are wrong. And if those people, who would label Wanda, deaf, blind, mentally retarded, incapable of caring for herself, incapable of doing something meaningful in this world – if they were wrong about Wanda then maybe, just maybe they’re wrong about you as well. I hope they are. Maybe you heard a thousand voices telling you what you are not, what you cannot do, what you cannot be. Today you are hearing the voice of God telling you who you are, what you can be, what you can do.”
And when we hear that voice of God telling us who we are, what we can be, and what we can do, how can we not laugh with delight?
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.