Genesis 19:1-8, 9-15

Rev. Dr. Heather G. Shortlidge

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These days, when people say the name Hamlet,
it's usually just a metaphor—
shorthand for a person who is afraid to act, or someone who dithers around and thinks too much.

But inside the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center,
Shakespeare’s play resonates a bit more deeply.[1]

Remember how the story goes?
Hamlet’s family has been turned upside down by his Uncle Claudius.
Claudius wanted to become king,
so he murders Hamlet’s father and hastily marries Hamlet’s mother
As Hamlet is trying to make sense of it all,
a ghost appears, his father’s ghost,
commanding him to avenge his death by killing his Uncle Claudius.
Hamlet spends the entire play
trying to decide whether or not to commit the murder—
“to be or not to be…”

Inmates inside the high security prison just outside St. Louis
know a thing or two about contemplating a murder.
36-year-old Manuel Johnson was serving time for two first-degree assaults,
“I have experience hurting someone,” he shared.
“I shot two people and left them for dead.”
Cast as Hamlet in the prison production,
he can see something in this story that the rest of us cannot.

Seasoned theatre director, Agnes Wilcox,
started bringing Shakespeare inside the prison
because she believed it was never too late to begin again.
“Many people are in prison,” Agnes explains,
“because they have limited problem-solving skills.
Their lives have been chaotic,
and they’ve never been able to create a structure for that chaos.”

But with the help of Shakespeare’s tragedies,
She is creating space for inmates sort through complicated emotions
and make much needed connections between actions and consequences.

Because it's against the rules to congregate an audience of felons
for the four hours it would take to perform all of Hamlet
Agnes stages one act every six months.

During rehearsals for Act V,
the cast is half black and half white
ranging from young lifers in their 20s to old timers in their 50s.
Prisoners practiced their lines wherever they could,
often shouting them from cell to cell.

When asked why they were doing this,
inmates had powerful responses.

One guy, with just a third grade education,
said he was surprised to find out that he wasn't stupid, just uneducated.

Another said,
“This is the first time in my life
that someone has ever applauded for me.”

And another went a little further:
“It makes me feel human.
When I go in that classroom, I have to get butt naked
so some man can search every part of me—
just one of the humiliating things that they do to us here.
But when we’re learning Shakespeare,
for that two and a half hours,
I at least can feel human in here.”

Despite their atrocious crimes,
a feisty, white-haired theatre director gathers up the tragedies of Shakespeare
and helps violent criminals learn how to begin again
one line, one character at a time.

Abraham and Sarah didn’t really feel like they could begin again.
Sarah was pushing 90 and Abraham had passed 100.
They were old. Really old.
And life together had not been a bed of roses.

They had been promised by God that it would be a good life together.
Lots of land. A big family. Plenty of descendants.
But as the years wore on, none of that was happening.
And bitterness began to build.

In Egypt, Abraham became a con artist,
telling people that Sarah was actually his sister, not his wife.
In order to balance the books, he trades her to Pharaoh,
who takes this Sister Sarah as one of his wives.

Later on, once out of Egypt,
Sarah is unable to do what seems like every other woman can do—
conceive and bear a child.
So she makes Hagar, her Egyptian slave, sleep with Abraham,
and through surrogacy, a child is born.

I’m guessing Abraham and Sarah spent a small fortune
on couples counseling—trying to make sense of all their wrong turns.
Through all the ups and downs,
their hope was shredded
and they had the scars to prove it.

So when a trio of divine messengers
arrive just as the two start to discuss assisted living arrangements,
you can understand why there’s no standing ovation.

An old woman like me?  Sarah throws her head back and laughs.
With this old man of a husband?

And she’s not the only one snorting in disbelief.
Just one chapter back, in Genesis 17,
God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son
and he laughs so hard he tips over and falls flat on his face.

But it’s only Sarah’s laughter that seems to reach the divine ears.
When God hears Sarah chuckling outside the tent
God confronts Abraham, asking why his wife can’t seem to keep a straight face.
But like most spouses who feel cornered,
Abraham pleads the fifth and doesn’t say a word.
Once Sarah pulls herself together enough to speak
she argues that God should have God’s hearing checked
because she did not get the giggles.

Her denial is not well received.
For the first and only time, God speaks directly to Sarah,
reprimanding the senior citizen for her disbelief.

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
God punches back.
But as they reached for their walkers
and rubbed one another’s achy joints,
neither one could envision how an infant at this age
could be part of the equation.

Like many who suffer and struggle through infertility,
Abraham and Sarah had finally let go
of their dream of making babies together.
The pain of it never really went away,
but they had moved on with their lives.

But too often this story is preached in theologically dangerous ways.
When people long for a child and for whatever reason
are not able to have one,
I’ve heard it said that if one just waits patiently, hangs in there long enough,
God will indeed provide, just as God did for Abraham and Sarah.
And yet I’ve sat with too many couples,
agonizing over miscarriages or downgraded embryos
or the long haul of an adoption,
to know that sometimes a child does not come.
And rather than help hold people through that pain,
I’ve heard the church seem to blame couples
for not having enough faith,
for not trusting God’s plan for their life.

So for anyone who finds the birth stories of the Bible painful,
especially on this day when fathers are honored,
please hear that it is not about your faithfulness.
Sometimes God shows up in very unexpected places.
And sometimes God does not.

It’s why I think faith is not for the faint of heart.
Because we don’t always know how the story turns out.
And yet we forge ahead in faithfulness,
trusting that God does initiate new life
and chances to begin again
even when we think all of our chances have expired.

I often hear from worried church members
that they need to have more faith—
that they must not be very faithful
because they still have a lot of anxiety inside them.
But I tend to think quite the opposite.
Being faithful in this world means that we hold onto hope.
And hope, I think, always has anxiety attached to it.
In fact, if your hope isn’t a little ratty and banged up,
if it’s not the least bit uneasy and laced with worry,
it’s probably more like pixie dust
and less like the hope of the Christian faith.
Think of faith as an AP exam in trusting, and loving, and hoping
that you take every single day of your life.
It’s why we do this together
and why there’s no such thing as a part-time Christian.

I went to the Fidos for Freedom fundraising banquet last night.
Many of you know that it’s a non-profit I support,
by raising puppies who become service dogs for differently abled people.[2]

One of the clients who was graduating gave a speech of gratitude
for the service dog who had literally changed her life.
Before FIDOS, she relied heavily on her husband and teenage children
to help her maneuver through the world.
She had a cochlear implant, so her hearing was getting better,
but not her balance and stability issues.
She hardly went out and felt helpless in the narrow world
that a disability often creates.
In many ways, she had given up hope on having a bigger life.

But after FIDOS, after having a service dog by her side,
she had regained her confidence
and started making plans for a bigger life.
In fact, she’s finishing up the last pages of her dissertation
and now easily stands up in front of students
and teaches at Anne Arundel Community College.
Beginning again.
New life where a new life seemed pretty impossible.

One of Kol Shalom’s members wrote a powerful poem
that I included in this week’s congregational email.
It’s called “Letter to Abraham,”
and is written to the withering patriarch.
The poem ends with the phrase,
because of you/
We know that nobody, but nobody is too old to beget.[3]

Agnes Wilcox, the feisty white haired theatre director
lives this out with inmates at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center,
teaching them Hamlet, teaching them humanity.

A now professor, once hiding out in her house,
lives this out with the assistance of a black lab always by her side.

Abraham and Sarah,
who had endured plenty of hard knocks,
lived it out by birthing and naming their son, Isaac,
which means none other than laughter.

Nobody, but nobody is too old to beget.
To begin again. To be someone new.

Perhaps the reason Sarah and Abraham laughed out loud
was because it suddenly dawned on them
that the wildest dreams they’d ever had
had not been half-wild enough.[4]


[1] This American Life, Episode 218: Act V August 9, 2002

[3] Lose, Natalie “Letter to Abraham”

[4] Buechner, Frederick, Beyond Words