Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sarah Lied to God

Chagall, "Why Did You Laugh?"


On December 10, 2008, the sons of Bernard Madoff, Mark and Andrew, told authorities their father had confessed to them that the asset management unit of his powerful Wall Street investment firm was a massive Ponzi scheme and quoted him as describing it as "one big lie.” He received the maximum prison term allowable for his many years of defrauding clients, which is 150 years. At the age of 72, it is not likely that he will get to enjoy all those years behind bars.

There isn’t daily news about Madoff these days as was the case when the story first broke, but occasionally additional details about the case do come to the attention of the press; and related stories are reported. Most recently, Madoff told reporters that numerous banks had to be involved in the Ponzi scheme in order for it to have worked so well for so long. When charges were brought against Madoff, all banks played innocent, but safely behind bars where bank thugs can’t hurt him, he is saying without hesitation that the banks knew. He called their position “willful blindness” and acted in such a way as to make it clear that if he were doing something wrong and they were complicit, they--the banks--didn’t want to know. But he insists that they knew and, in fact, had to know.

According to Janet Tavakoli:

JPMorgan allegedly was Madoff’s primary banker for more than twenty years. It might be argued that given JPMorgan’s position of leadership in the business and failure to disclose red flags that it alone knew, the bank lent sponsorship and credibility to Madoff allowing him to enjoy a “halo effect.”

JPMorgan had a responsibility to hold itself to a high standard of ethical conduct, due diligence, and disclosure with respect to Madoff’s fund. Yet, allegedly JPMorgan failed to take appropriate action such as investigating suspicious money transfers, investigation of concerns about structured products expressed by its employees, investigations of allegations that the fund was a Ponzi scheme, and terminating its business relationship with Madoff when Madoff declined to allow JPMorgan to perform due diligence on him.

I’d never heard of a Ponzi scheme until this story was splattered all over newspapers a couple of years ago. I had to find out to understand the story, which reminded me of all the study I had to do to understand the Enron scandal. A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that involves the payment of alleged returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors. In reality, the new investors aren’t investing in anything; their monies are paying off the longer standing investors, and down the road newer investors will do the same for those whose money is now used to make older investors think they are being paid off well for their investments. In the process, fraudsters like Bernie Madoff can take any amount of the money handed over to their firms since no one seems to be watching.

The eldest son, Mark, though never convicted of any wrong doing himself, faltered under the pressure of ongoing investigations and the disgrace that fell upon his father when Bernie Madoff was condemned as the most successful thief in American history and the person to have taken more life savings from modest income individuals and families than any other American crook. Mark Madoff tragically committed suicide, using a dog’s leash to hang himself, just before this past Christmas while his little two year old son slept in a nearby room.

Bernie Madoff is now in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Of course, he misses his family and his freedom. He didn’t seek permission to attend his son’s funeral. Does he feel remorse for what he did? When one reporter asked him that question, his reply was: “Bleep my victims.” I guess that’s a no, no remorse. That’s honest, though. I mean, how could someone steal consistently from those who trusted him for sixteen or twenty years or more and have remorse? It would not have been possible to propagate the lie for such a long time if she or he had remorse, and the way long-term lying works is that it gets easier all the time.

A few years ago, the BBC did a multipart series on ethics, and lying was one of its key topics. Early in the study the question was raised, “Why is lying wrong?” Here are the answers given by the BBC reporting team:

  • Most people in most cultures, we rather widely believe, think lying is bad because a world where truth generally prevails is a good thing. If our physicians, clergypersons, bankers, newscasters, and significant others lie to us, what can we count on?
  • A lie, once it is discovered to be a lie, diminishes trust between human beings, those with whom we must share life during our sojourn in this realm of living.
  • Some moral philosophers who deal heavily with the use of language as reflective of right living--even though the philosopher probably wouldn’t use the phrase “right living”--say that lying is bad because language is essential to human societies and carries the obligation to be used honestly. An unwritten contract in oral communication is that the speakers will not use language deceitfully.
  • Lying treats those who are lied to as things, as parts of a liar’s means to an end, not as persons of value as they are uninvolved in the lying chain.
  • Some people, many people, after all, are unwitting liars. They lie only because they have been lied to by people whom they trusted. Many of you newbies, and I’m so glad we have so many newbies around Silverside these days, will not know that the Pastor Relations Committee before it became the Pastor/Staff Relations Committee or the Staff/Pastor Relations Committee--there is widespread difference of opinion about what the proper name of the Committee became when it evolved to include attention to staff members other than the pastor--flattered me by collecting and publishing a group of my sermons, and the title they selected was the one proposed by my older son, Jarrett, “Lies My Sunday School Teacher Told Me.” As the booklet circulated beyond Wilmington, friends and non-friends began to see it and react. One of my most beloved friends, as I’ve told many of you before, was offended by the title because he said that those who had taught him in his growing up years in the rural church in which he was raised were doing the best they knew how. I saw his point and still do, but my response was that just because someone is well-intentioned and gullible in passing along untruths does not make her or him any less the liar if the information being passed along is untrue; there may be intentional and unintentional liars in the world, but if they haven’t verified for themselves the information they are passing on to others who trust them then, if the information is false, they are lying.
  • Back to the BBC. Lying is bad because the person lied to cannot make an informed decision about the matter concerned and how to move ahead. In other words, lies put many well-meaning people in the position of making decisions based on false information. A Ponzi scheme is the perfect example of this.
  • Lying is bad because according to any of the widely held and respected systems of morality held up around the world as a strong foundation for living, lying is wrong. Good people don’t lie, and we need good people to keep the world as safe and functional as possible.
  • Lying is bad because lying as a way of life corrupts the liar, and as with Madoff and coconspirators, the more lies that are told the easier it is to keep on telling them.

A little caveat. The BBC people remind us that an untrusting world, one made up of people who have been burned time and time again by lies, and a world made up of those who just give in and lie like so many others around them are bad worlds for liars since lying isn’t very effective if everyone’s doing it.

A pragmatic word. The highly respected and long remembered Greek rhetorician, Quintillian, said, “A liar had better have a good memory.”


Your perception of who God is and what God is will have a lot to do with how our story about Sarah today has an impact on you. If you have a highly anthropomorphized, humanized view of God, then when I tell you that Sarah lied to God, you picture someone lying bold-faced to the family patriarch or matriarch, as your imagination provides. It’s an awful, virtually unforgivable act.

If, in contrast, God is spirit who dwells throughout the cosmos including inside you, then lying to God isn’t exactly this, but is closely akin to lying to oneself. That may or may not seem like a major offense to you, but it can have damaging consequences nonetheless.

Then, there may be some deists among us, spiritually akin to many of the founders of this nation and framers of our constitution, who don’t think it’s possible to lie to God since God, after having created the world and put it into motion, took a break and has never come back. In this case, there still may be all sorts of powerful symbolic meanings in the story that make it worth our awareness and our study.

Those are the major perspectives on God I can think of, and yet I’m quite sure that there are other perspectives represented in this congregation that I haven’t thought of and have, thus, left off my list so to you I say: I look forward to our discussion in sermon talk back or our email exchange later in the day.

In our story about Sarah and God, primarily, her husband, Sarah’s husband, Abraham has an important role and to a lesser degree so do some messengers whom God sent to give the sweet old couple the news of their lives, and it had nothing to do with any lottery or the Publishers’ Clearing House. In our story, laughter and lying are interwoven, and laughing at God’s message is the real laughter on which the story turns. The funniest part of the story is not when one of the characters laughs, but rather when that character lies to God about her behavior. That is funny; at least on the surface it’s funny. Those who believe in an omniscient God, and I’m not sure to what degree that was the case when this section of the book of Genesis was written, believe that the Creator God knows all; thus it’s funny to them to think that someone would out and out lie to God, denying behavior that God knew for a fact she had done. She laughed at God’s message. Then later on when God asked why she laughed, she denied laughing all together. Let’s outline our story this way:

  1. News
  2. Laughter
  3. News Repeated and Clarified
  4. Laughter Unheard and Out of Sight
  5. God’s Question
  6. Sarah’s Lie
  7. God’s Response

Now let’s flesh out this story, which is one of the most wonderful and insightful stories in the Hebrew Bible.

I. News

There are seven turns or twists to this story as I have outlined it for you, and the first of the seven is “News.” Here’s the news.

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...”

So, this is pretty important news. It came from God Godself--not from a messenger, which was the most frequent way God got news out to God’s people.

Abram, soon to be renamed Abraham, was 99 years old when God came to him with life-changing--indeed, world-changing news, and he was still agile enough to fall on his face before God, the sign of absolute and total respect for the one before whom the person bowing bowed. The news is that Abraham will be fruitful--that is, the father of many children and grandchildren. With his face in the hot dust, the old guy is thinking that he may need to take off his turban, that God has the wrong guy. At 99 years of age, he has only managed to have one child--and that child, a son, not through his wife, but through her maid. Certainly, Abraham loved the son he did have regardless of who the boy’s mother had been, but, naturally in his culture, he had longed most of his life to have a child with his wife. Those hopes had faded with menopause and with his own loss of sexual capabilities as age took its toll. Sex, now, was for birthdays and anniversaries when possible, but things didn’t always happen as planned or hoped for on those special days.

Abraham is thinking that if what God says is true and the news really is for him and not for his neighbor in the next tent down the path, Ishmael, his only son, was going to have to get busy--albeit in an enjoyable way. There were worse pressures to place on one’s son to be sure.

There was more to the news, however. Something Abraham couldn’t have come up with in his wildest dreams. God continues sharing this news.

“ 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.”

OK, that was it! No more putting off being tested for hearing aids. He thought God had said he, a 100 year old man, and his 90 year old wife, Sarai--soon to be Sarah--were going to have a child of their own. He must have sat up for a moment to try to figure out what actually had been said. What news had God delivered?

II. Laughter

Twist two: laughter. Abraham was rethinking all he thought God said to him.

Then Abraham fell on his face [again] 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?”

Now, he isn’t face down in the sand. He’s rolling around in the sand, laughing his old backside off. This had to have been the funniest information he’d ever heard in his life. Robust, old man laughter. Laughter, joyous yet suspicious, that had built up for a life time. Notice that he says nothing to God about his glee or his doubt; he speaks only to himself. Of course, we will soon find out that God knows what people are thinking and doing even if they don’t know that God knows.

III. News Repeated and Clarified

Now, the news is repeated and clarified. Maybe Abraham doubted it more than he believed it and put it out of his mind, or maybe it was too much to hope for so he just didn’t let himself hope. Whatever the case, one day he is sitting at the opening of the tent he shared with Sarah when three men walk toward him, and we aren’t told how; but he recognizes them as God’s messengers. I can’t figure this out at all, but he refers to them collectively with the singular “lord.”

Abraham pled for the opportunity to show hospitality to the three messengers. He wanted to have their feet washed. He wanted to give them a bite of bread, and if they could stay around long enough, he wanted Sarah to prepare a fancy full meal for them. All of that panned out so while Sarah was in the tent getting the feast going--remember that she’s 90 or so and didn’t move around the kitchen as quickly as she once had--she couldn’t help hearing the conversation going on outside the tent.

The messengers tell Abraham that by the same time the next year, there would be a baby to tend to--not their grandchild or their great grandchild, but their very own son.

IV. Laughter Unheard and Out of Sight

Sarah nearly dropped her Martha Stewart mixing bowl. They say, you know they do, that a couple who lives together for a long time act alike and may even begin to look a little alike. She had exactly the same reaction her husband had when he first heard the news on another occasion. The writer of Genesis tells this brief, but vital part of the story in this way:

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?”

I have shared before when we have come upon this passage what the great writer and preacher, Frederick Buechner, had to say about it, and I can’t pass up the opportunity to share it again. Abraham and Sarah “are laughing at the idea of a baby’s being born in the geriatric ward, and Medicare’s picking up the tab.”


The last three parts of the story as outlined happen very rapidly, but they are very important to the story. We can’t let ourselves miss them if we want to take in the meaning of the story as a whole; indeed, what they story has been leading up to.

V. God’s Question

With Sarah standing right there, fully able to answer for herself, God Godself asked Abraham or the trio of messengers asked Abraham on God’s behalf, “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."

VI. Sarah’s Lie

Sarah knew for sure that she had not laughed out loud, and the questions she asked she asked herself silently. No way any one could have heard any of that, but she was fearful she would offend God or make God angry so she lied. Speaking for herself even though the question had been directed to Abraham about her, Sarah speaks up and lies to God, “I didn’t laugh.” Not all lies are Madoff lies; not all lies wound others. Not all lies are told just to be devious and deceptive.

VII. God’s Response

God’s response was stunningly direct and simple, “Oh yes you did laugh.” It’s bad enough to lie to God and have to carry the seriousness of that misjudgment with you for the rest of your life. It’s something else entirely to have God call you a liar right on the spot. “Yes, Sarah, you did laugh.”

What can we make of this powerful story punctuated with laughter? So, yes, even though she hadn’t laughed out loud, she had laughed in her heart for her own reasons; probably, she couldn’t help her laughter. It just came. She was quiet about it and never thought she’d have to explain something that no human but she knew about.

She was 90, and she didn’t remember every little thing. Maybe she forgot for the moment that she had laughed, or at least she forgot why she laughed so that in retrospect it didn’t seem like a lie at all to deny to God or to anyone else that she had laughed.

God’s response to Sarah’s lie may be much more important to the story than the fact that Sarah lied. It is my guess that many who hear this story expect God to jump all over Sarah for lying about her laughter. That is not what God does, though; nothing at all like that. God doesn’t criticize her. God doesn’t chastise her. God doesn’t demand her repentance and an apology. God doesn’t call down any curses on her head. God simply corrects her. The God of Genesis 18 will not let Sarah lie to herself. After a lifetime of disappointment over this barrenness thing, she thought that chapter of her life was closed. After preplanning her funeral a few years earlier, she simply wasn’t prepared to be sketching out the way she wanted the tent rearranged when the baby came, stocking up on diapers and swaddling clothes, having a servant build the safest possible infant seat to affix to a camel’s hump, and getting advice from women a fourth of her age on how to breast feed with the fewest complications. Her whole life had been turned around by this divine promise to Abraham, and Abraham couldn’t make it happen all by himself; he had to have Sarah in on this one.

Perhaps the answer God was looking for was, “You bet I did. God can do great things, but this is too wonderful for me to believe. Many people have witnessed the overt blessings of God in their lives year after year, but I haven’t. My life has been largely a sad life, and I don’t know how to take it all in so deep down in the silence of my soul where all the sadness resides, I laughed a laugh of someone who knows how to carry sadness, but who doesn’t know how to carry joy. I didn’t expect to laugh. I didn’t mean to laugh, but I did laugh.”

When God corrected Sarah by saying, “Oh yes you did laugh,” God was saying, “Yes you did. I know you did. It’s wonderful that you could, and there’s no need to lie to me about it.” It was a simple divine correction for Sarah’s well being, not thunderous condemnation and threats of death for daring to lie to Almighty God.

I know many people who seem to be able to make a very clear distinction between what they believe God is saying to them and what they are saying to themselves, between what God wants them to do and what they themselves want to do with God on board or not. I think the line between those two voices, if there should be a line at all, is much thinner than many are willing to admit. In reality, Sarah was lying to herself about her laughter because she was afraid of offending God and afraid to believe that her greatest life dream was now about to come true, and what the writer attributes to God as a corrective may also have been Sarah’s own inner voice calling her to honesty about her true feelings.

Hanging around seminaries as much as I have over the years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about calling into ministry. Some students have experiences with God almost as dramatic as Paul’s conversion, falling from a horse by the force of bolt of lightening so bright he was nearly blind for the rest of his life. Other students keep seeing themselves in the pulpit every time they hear someone else preach. Religious experiences including a sense of God are so widely divergent and nearly unique that it’s tough to say one person’s experience should be very nearly like the experience of someone else. Regarding calling to ministry or any other vocation, my very wise doctoral supervisor used to speak of inner consent. He didn’t play down the dramatic experiences that many claimed to have had, but he used to say to me it isn’t as complicated as many want to make it. What it takes is inner consent.

Sarah needed inner consent to take in the gift that was coming her way, and as the story is told, God’s correcting her lie was a way for the story teller to say God wouldn’t tolerate anything that kept Sarah believing that she was unblessed and that life was designed to be mostly one sadness after another. God’s corrective was God’s voice or Sarah’s inner self saying, “Love every minute of this joy that is coming to you, girl! God, as it turns out, wants to share the festivities with you so don’t pretend that laughter deep down in those sad spaces escaped you. Don’t do that to yourself.”

The story is for all persons and all institutions who have ever believed that they are old, washed up, and passe--with nothing left to offer a world in which they have struggled too hard and carried sadness too far. Some bright promise suddenly gleams in your eye, and you get all excited deep down inside like you did when you fell in love or held your precious baby only minutes out of the womb. Then in the face of that gleam in your eye because you were more accustomed to disappointment than delight, you tried to cap that little bit of laughter, which had already begun to check the sadness welled up and walled up down in there.

Then God asks, “Did you laugh?”

You say, “No. It couldn’t have been me. I forgot how to laugh long, long ago.”

God says, “Yes you did. You laughed, and there’s much more laughter where that came from. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop!”

Never forget when you hear or think about the story of Abraham and Sarah and the ER nurse who is trying to page psychiatric services to help out the old gal who thinks she’s having a baby, that when she finally saw her child of promise, she and Papa Abraham knew there was only one name for the little boy, “Isaac,” which meant laughter.