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Who Would Have Ever Said? - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on May 10, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Who Would Have Ever Said?

(Zoom Worship during COVID-19 Pandemic)

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 & 18:1-2, 9-15

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

[Later,] the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Who Would Have Ever Said?

Almost ten years ago, I was invited to contribute a chapter to an ebook titled Renew 52: 50+ Ideas to Revitalize Your Congregation from Leaders Under 50. With your indulgence, I want to read you the first three paragraphs of the chapter I wrote, which was titled, “Failures of Imagination”:

“I believe the church today is suffering from a failure of imagination. We have a long and distinguished history of being the church and this tradition has served us well. It allows us to function and helps us remain faithful to God’s call. But I wonder if we are too comfortable with this tradition and history. I wonder if we are resting too much on the foundations and structures provided by those who came before us.

I have attended, worked at, and visited more churches than I can count. And while each congregation, each community, brings God’s presence to life in their own unique way, I find there is a sense of the expected in each of them. When we gather to worship on Sunday mornings, we know what to expect. When we become involved in the governing of the church, we come to know what to expect. We know what our committee meetings will look like, how long they will last, and, often, what their outcome will be.

When we sit in the pews on Sunday morning and hear Scripture readings and sermons it is often as though the stories of our faith have become old news rather than good news. We are suffering from a failure of imagination—a failure to imagine the new ways in which God might be calling us to be the church, to do ministry, to live as Christians.”

I was reminded of this chapter this week when a small task force from Covenant’s session began meeting, via Zoom, to talk about what it will look like to worship and be the church when Wisconsin’s Stay at Home order is lifted.

This, of course, is a question we’ve been asking, and wondering about, from the very first week we worshiped from home. In the first few weeks, the question was one of timing and celebration—would we be able to be back in the sanctuary for Easter? How would we celebrate our return?

More recently the question has become one not of timing but of practicality: how do we return to normal once states’ stay-at-home orders are lifted? How do we ensure that everyone remains as safe as possible? The Wisconsin Council of Churches has put out the most helpful and popular documents so far entitled, “Returning to Church.” In it, they helpfully suggest phases that churches might follow that comply with the Wisconsin Badger Bounce Back plan for the state.[1]

Phase One has churches continuing to offer only online worship, but perhaps offering them from the sanctuary and perhaps opening the building to outside groups if they’re able to follow the state protocols for distancing and cleaning.

Phase Two offers some more options—continue holding services online, but maybe allow some people to be in the sanctuary; or hold multiple services that people sign up for in advance so you can control the crowd, and then stream one of the services online for folks who don’t feel comfortable going out yet.

Phase three allows for everyone to be back in the building, with fewer restrictions. but likely no singing, no hymnals, no offering plates, probably no shared communion unless there are individual pre-packaged options, plus significant crowd control, and no fellowship before or after the service. Oh, and anyone with underlying medical concerns or who is over 60 should probably stay at home.

It is a helpful document that asks good and practical questions. And it is one that churches across the US are using to shape their conversations about how to move forward. But I actually want to suggest that perhaps it is asking the wrong questions—perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

Rather than asking, “how do we make this work,” perhaps the question ought to be “should we make this work?” Should the church’s goal be to return everything to normal as soon as possible? Or should the church be asking different questions. Questions like, do we, as a church, even want to return to normal? Can we return to normal if over half of our congregation are over 60 or have underlying medical conditions that mean they likely won’t feel safe returning? What might God create in our midst if we didn’t return to normal?

There’s nothing wrong with missing what we had before. Even I, as the world’s most introverted introvert, miss being with all of you in person on Sunday mornings. But as people of faith, we are called to ask different questions.

In our scripture reading for this morning, we hear the absurd, completely impossible promises that God makes to Abraham and Sarah—that in their old age, despite Sarah’s barrenness, they will give birth to a child. And we read of Abraham’s and Sarah’s response to hearing that promise—laughter. Abraham laughs so hard he falls on his face. Sarah cannot contain her laughter and is overheard by God. Picture, if you will, someone you know who is in their nineties (some of you can just look in the mirror); now imagine that they are pregnant and expecting. It’s hard to imagine, and as one of our nonagenarians (which I learned this week is the term for someone in their 90s) said in Bible study this week, it’s not only hard to imagine, if you’re in your 90s, it’s downright terrifying. And yet, the story goes on to say that Abraham and Sarah do give birth to a child, a baby boy they name Isaac, which, appropriately, means ‘laughter’ in Hebrew. And just in case you missed how old Abraham and Sarah were, the text repeats it a few more times when it announces Isaac’s birth, “Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age … Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.  … And Sarah said, ”who would have ever said to Abraham that I would nurse children?”

Regardless of whether or not you believe the stories in scripture are factual, and I for one, have strong doubts about a number of them, we can still ask why this story was told and retold so many times that it became part of our sacred canon. Revered Elizabeth McGreggor Simmons, in reflecting on the story of Abraham and Sarah, suggests that perhaps it is so that generation after generation might reflect “back on all the times that God has transformed the question, "Who would ever have said...? " into something mysteriously powerful, real, and wonderful. Who would ever have said, for instance, that God would put the finger on Noah who was known as much for hitting the bottle as for his righteousness as the means by which humanity might re-inhabit the earth after the great flood? Who would ever have said that Moses who was hiding out in Midian after committing murder would lead God's people out of slavery? Who would ever have said that the son of a poor unwed teenage girl would be the Messiah, God's own Son? No one would have said or even imagined any of these things, but it is the way that God works: by transforming "who would ever have said... ?" into amazing life-filled reality.”[2]

Who would have ever said? I’m guessing that you too have a story from your own life that you could put at the end of that question—who would have ever said that cancer would be a blessing? Who would have ever said that losing children would help me become a pastor?  Or as more than one of you has said in the past few weeks, “Who would have ever said that being forced to cancel doctor’s appointments and stay-at-home would make me feel like I’m living in a retreat center, like life is mine for the living for the first time in a long time?”

Most of us have strong imaginations when it comes to the negative—many of us have laid awake at night worried about how we would handle futures in which someone we loved has been diagnosed with Coronavirus or we have lost our job or our children can never go back to school and we have to try to get work done at home while caring for them and educating them and they never grow up, and … ! Okay, it’s possible that last one is just mine, but you take my point—we can all imagine worst.

Where we so frequently fail, is in imagining the good—and not the good we already know or have already seen, but a new good, something as of yet unimagined. But a significant, if infrequently discussed, part of the work of faith, is to imagine, to practice having eyes that can see—not only the world around us, but also the world God desires for us. So this week I want to invite you to practice your faith by strengthening your imagination—not on disaster scenarios, but on possibilities—and I want you to share—what positive possibilities can you imagine coming out of all of this … for yourself, for the world, and particularly in this moment, for Covenant? Because who would have ever said that the Coronavirus would lead Covenant Presbyterian Church to ____________ (you fill in the blank)?

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Wisconsin Council of Churches. “Returning to Church.” April 23, 2020.

[2] Elizabeth McGregor Simmons, “A Summer Staycation in Genesis: Preaching the Old Testament Texts During Ordinary Time.” Journal for Preachers. June 2011, pp. 3-8.

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