Laughing in the face of the impossible

Genesis 18:1-15; Matthew 9:35-10:8

Whatever you do don’t laugh! Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you know you’re not supposed to laugh but you just can’t help it? In a scene reminiscent of countless school assemblies where the headteacher calls out the names of people who are laughing, Sarah denies she was laughing. “It wasn’t me!” “Oh, yes it was,” comes the reply.

It was funny, but like school humour can be, also cruel. Promising Sarah a baby when she and Abraham are ‘old, advanced in age.’ Something Sarah had been longing for. The idea was ridiculous even when she shouldn’t have been listening in. It must have seen an impossibility for Sarah, and I wonder if the disciple/apostles offered a similar response when Jesus said to them: ‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.’ Yeah right, Jesus. Matthew does not record the disciples’ response but at the very least they must have wondered whether such a thing was possible for them. Fine for Jesus, but for them?

With Sarah the birth didn’t happen immediately – it took, I assume, nine months. Matthew’s record of Jesus talking to the disciples is a remembering set down for the early church (We hear Judas listed as one of the 12 apostles and described as the one who betrayed him – the ‘audience’ of the gospel already know the story). Perhaps then this account from Matthew is a remembering that sets out something like a manifesto for the early church. They are to carry on the mission of Christ. They are to proclaim the kingdom is present (at hand/near/within). Like Sarah, this takes time and the seemingly impossible is not accomplished overnight.

Worshipping together in a church building, singing hymns is an impossibility for us at the present time but that will change – even if it takes 9 months. The impossible, unlikely might seem laughable or even cruel at times. Yet God sits in the midst of all of this. The mission of the church has grown – starting out with the lost sheep of the house of Israel – the mission, our understanding and context has grown and changed. We are still called to point out the kingdom, to be healers, challengers of evil, and to do so freely with hope recognising the grace and hope we have received in Christ.

The blessing of a child for Abraham and Sarah comes after their generous hospitality to the strangers. One of the consequences of the global pandemic is that we have all been chucked out of our church buildings, but we are finding different ways to meet, to be church. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is nudging us. We have tended to think of mission in terms of getting people (especially young people) to come to ‘our church.’ We can’t do that. This is an opportunity to ask about our calling. Rather than asking questions like ‘what are the barriers that stop people coming to church’ perhaps we need to be asking questions like ‘what are the barriers to the mission of the church?’ Consider where Jesus spends his time and focus. It is those on the ‘outside’, those in need.

We need to learn from the ‘black lives matter’ movement. The kingdom is at hand amongst those who are experiencing oppression, those who are beset by the evils of racism rooted in our structures, those who are struggling to put food on the table because of the way society is organised. For the church to be truly church, we need to seek out the help of such people, to listen and act. The barriers that exist in our society not only bar people from fair access to education, healthcare, jobs, justice etc but are also barriers to the ‘privileged’ joining in the kingdom – look where Jesus meets conflict in the gospels. In churches we have often seen ourselves as the host inviting others in, but in Christ we see the kingdom revealed in those whoare on the ‘margins’ and perhaps we need to think of ourselves as guests amongst those on the margins. In so doing we begin to discover the kingdom afresh, pointing it out, and will be enriched.

Freely offered hospitality, free giving shapes the church and in our suffering of not being able to meet together there is an opportunity to remember our calling. We cannot go back from here, only forward. There is a huge task ahead for the church – impossible? I don’t mind if you laugh because I certainly do, but do also remember God’s response ‘Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?’

Peace be with you

With love, Nick

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