By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
November 22, 2020
Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/700673370846914
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-5
A couple of Saturdays ago, I had a Zoom meeting with the Vital Congregations Board of the Great Plains Annual Conference. (The Conference is the Methodist body we are a part of – they oversee all the churches in Nebraska and Kansas.) The Vital Congregations Board is the group who, among other things, determines which churches are awarded Urban Ministry Grants and how much money those churches will get. I was there asking for start-up funding for our ministry with New Americans (immigrants & refugees), so that we could bring our summer intern Pastor Peter Karanja back to Hanscom Park to be our Associate Pastor for Community Outreach.
I was nervous. Not because I don’t believe in the project. I do. 100%. I was nervous because I had been told that the most funding that had ever been awarded in one year for an Urban Ministries Grant was $40,000…and I was asking for $70,000. Don’t get me wrong. I had done my homework, and I had talked with the District Superintendent and Conference Staff ahead of time. I had made my case for why we needed a larger amount up front which would be stepped down as we were able to show the effectiveness of our work to foundations and other granting agencies who would help with future years’ funding. But they did keep telling me the same thing. We support your project, Chris, but the most we ever give out for an Urban Ministries Grant is $40,000.
So I go to this Zoom meeting. I’m ready. I have seven minutes total to talk, so I brought pictures. I show them a slide show starting with the immersion baptism from last year, showing that Hanscom Park is prepared to welcome new folks and do things in a new way. I show them a picture of Peter welcoming New Americans to our Backpack Blessing this summer. I show them a photo of hundreds of New Americans on our church lawn during the Fall support event.
I didn’t even have time to tell them full story of how we have gotten here. I didn’t have time to tell them how Peter and I met each other in Zimbabwe almost seven years ago, and how I sensed that my time at Africa University was going to profoundly affect my life and ministry in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I didn’t have time to tell them how I reached out to Peter in January of this year to see how his studies were going and how he casually said to me, “Oh, I applied for an internship program in the Great Plains Annual Conference because a friend told me about it.”
Now, I’m not sure if you know about how people think of the Midwest or not…but trust me, people living in New Jersey (like Peter is) call this “flyover country.” In fact, some of the people I went to seminary with still think I live in Oklahoma. So Peter was surprised when I laughed and said, “Peter! The Great Plains Annual Conference is MY conference!” And then I was like, “Holy cow! Peter’s gonna come to Hanscom Park church.”
So that’s how Peter got here this summer. But I didn’t have time to tell the Team that story. I also didn’t have time to tell them how Peter’s family was once internally displaced refugees themselves or how a United Methodist Church in Naivasha, Kenya basically adopted his family as their own and brought them food and helped his dad start his clothing business and welcomed the gifts of his mom, an accomplished Lay Speaker, and then sent Peter to Africa University to be trained as a pastor. Nor did I tell them that Peter was so called to work with immigrants and refugees that he traveled all over the world to do so – to the Philippines and to work with Syrian refugees in Germany and of course then here to Omaha, Nebraska of all places.
I didn’t have time to tell them any of that. But even so, as I talked about Pastor Peter and the fruit of his ministry that we have already seen at Hanscom Park church and about Pastor Eddie who so randomly came to our door one day and who is now a partner who connects us with New Americans from all over the world…as I talked about all that, the chair of the Team said to me, “I can feel the Holy Spirit as you are talking about this ministry.”
As she said that, I laughed. I laughed, and I told her that this was not my idea. I told her that if you had told me, three years ago when I arrived at Hanscom Park church that this amazing ministry was going to take root and sprout under our feet, I would have told you it was not possible.
Everyone smiled and thought that was great, and then they asked, “So how much money are you asking us for?” despite the fact that I had clearly told them I needed $70,000. Because they were thinking, I imagine, about that maximum of $40,000 per year. And I just smiled and said, “Yes, I need $70,000…and I hope that conference will find a way to make that happen.”
Then I said “goodbye,” I logged off, and they deliberated.
The following Thursday, I received in my email inbox a letter on official Great Plains Conference stationary stating the following: “I am glad to let you know that the Vital Congregations Board has approved the Urban Ministry Grant request of $70,000 for 2021.”
And I just laughed…and cried a little bit. Every time I thought about it or told anyone about it, I would just burst into laughter. Honestly, I thought it was a little weird even for someone as prone to laughing as myself.
Then I remembered the story of Sarah laughing that we heard in today’s scripture. You heard the story. These three strangers show up at the home of Abraham and Sarah. Now, we know that one of these strangers is God – Yahweh godself – because the narrator has told us. But Abraham and Sarah do not know this.
So when one of these strangers says that Sarah, despite her advanced age, despite her being post-menopausal, will have a baby…well, Sarah laughs. Now some commentators like to pick on Sarah here. They like to say that she is faithless, and God was angry with her for not immediately believing God’s words. But when you read the text closely, there is no reason to read anger into this text. And besides, just one chapter earlier, God tells Abraham the same thing, and Abraham also “fell on his face and laughed.”
God’s response to Abraham, just as it is here, is to persist in reassuring the couple. God says, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Then God repeats, “I will return, and in due season, Sarah shall have a son.”
Now, neither Sarah nor Abraham answer God’s question: “Why did Sarah laugh?” But I wonder if the answer was in the next words out of God’s mouth. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” The word wonderful in this sentence is the Hebrew “pala’.” It means both wonderful and marvelous and awesome, and it also means hard and difficult. Maybe Sarah laughed not because she doubted, but because she believed. Maybe Sarah laughed with joy and shock and no little bit of fear. Maybe she truly believed that nothing is too wonderful, too marvelous, or too hard for the Lord.
But maybe she also thought this might be a little too marvelous, a little too wonderful, and pretty darn hard for HER. I don’t know if you see how this system is working in this story or not. But God makes a way – God is going to make it so Sarah can conceive a baby. That is pretty wonderful and marvelous and I’m sure quite difficult when the woman is 90 years old.
Also, I’m not sure how many of you have had babies or been around babies and tried to raise children. But I wonder if Sarah was thinking, “Hey, I mean this in the nicest possible way, God, but conceiving the baby is the easy part. Now, me, Sarah, a 90-year-old woman…I’m going to have a baby? I’m going to raise a baby? What?!”
I would be laughing and freaking out, too.
But that seems to be how God works, all throughout the biblical narrative. This pregnancy miracle. It’s just a tiny moment to help fulfill the promise that God has given to Abraham and Sarah. God has said to them, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful. I will make you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.”
God intervenes. God intervenes with the spark. God’s all like, “Here’s your spark. Here’s your catalyst. NOW birth that baby and raise that baby, and count on your offspring to do the same over and over again.” I mean, this is not God just snapping God’s cosmic fingers and making it so. God leaves a LOT of work and struggle for Abraham and Sarah and their offspring. They must build that great nation. They must build that future with hope. God is always going to be there, providing the vision, even making a way when there seems to be no way. But mostly God is counting on the people of God to follow God’s call.
A lot depends on us. God provides the vision, the catalyst, and the opportunity. And then trusts in us. No wonder Sarah laughed. That is ridiculous. That’s terrifying. God’s promises are wonderful and difficult. It makes sense that when confronted with such a promise, we might laugh with incredulity, with hope, and even with fear.
But Sarah and Abraham’s story show us that God chooses humans who are laughing with hope and with doubt – and maybe because they can’t friggin’ believe what is happening here. God chooses humans who might sometimes be fearful and overwhelmed. God chooses humans who worry that maybe they can’t be who God knows they can be. God chooses humans who are so sure they are seeing a miracle that they can’t help but laugh.
God chose us for the same purpose. I’m going to be honest with you. When I think about starting this new ministry, I’m afraid. But I am also filled hope and with joy. Because we get to be part of this miracle. We get to say, “OK, God, you made a way for us to start this ministry. We are going to do the hard work of making it happen.”
I get to be part of it, and you get to be part of it through all the ways you support this community. We will do this together, and we will laugh. Because nothing is too wonderful for God.
Thanks be to God.