Every entrance to every field, every gap in the hedgerows is blocked by a felled tree or a trailer bed or a low metal gate, padlocked. Surveillance cameras mounted on barns and grain silos lend the village a ‘Private: No Entry’ aspect. They’re there for a reason.
Illegal in this country since 2004, hare-coursing has gone from being a niche blood sport to big business. Webcast from mobile phones or uploaded on YouTube, the chases attract large audiences of gamblers all over the world. With huge sums at stake, the hare-coursing gangs are not local enthusiasts, they’re armed, professional criminals.
There’s a legend in the village. A farm foreman was once plagued with a particular hare that was ruining his newly sown crop, perhaps in that field where the lane meets the top road; I always see hares up there. This foreman goes to the field and shoots the hare. He fails to kill it though, and the animal manages to limp away. He follows the mortally wounded hare, its trail of blood leading him to a poor widow’s cottage. Inside, he finds the widow has bled to death, from a gunshot wound in her leg.
The story is about change, about transition: from hare to human, from life to death, from the hidden to the disclosed. As we reflected yesterday, change frightens us. We seal all the gaps and breaches, close the borders against change, put up ‘No Entry’ signs. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
Down to the tiniest detail I can remember the first time I was scared by a film. My brother and I were little. It was teatime, and we were watching an old black and white werewolf movie. It could have been The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney. I remember clouds drifting across a full moon. The film cuts to a man’s face, his eyes staring but somehow focussed inwards, as though he’s aware of some inescapable and internal tug. He grimaces. Hair begins to sprout, ears to extend. He looks down at his hand as it bristles with new coarse hair, and claws grow from his fingers.
The effects were crude by 1980s standards. My brother and I were growing up on a healthy diet of Scooby-Doo, Dr Who, and Spielberg. But there was something that terrified us in the film. The werewolf isn’t scary. It’s not the end result that frightens; it’s the process of changing from one thing to… another.
In her book Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that fear of change lies behind the Jewish dietary laws. These laws, she says, aim at wholeness and integrity and abominate mixture as contamination. Thus, it is forbidden to plough a field with a donkey and an ox yoked together (Deuteronomy 22:9), or for a garment to be made from both wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11). It’s the blending that is abominable: wolf-man, hare-woman. Obeying the rules is a way of policing the border against mutation, adulteration, against change.
Yesterday, we thought about Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre. Today I want to look at Sarah’s side of the story. While Abraham is all action, duty and business, Sarah responds to the change God brings in an entirely different way. She laughs.
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.”Genesis 18:9-15
Sarah’s secret laugh is one of the great human moments in scripture. But it’s more than that.
Sarah laughs; God asks why she laughs; Sarah denies she laughs; God denies the denial. This is not a pantomime ‘Oh no I didn’t/Oh yes you did’ routine. Sarah’s laugh echoes through the whole of the Bible, through the whole of creation.
The laugh is hidden, private, closed. Then it is hidden again by her denial. She wraps it up and hangs a No Entry sign over it. This double ‘No’ is contradicted by God with a simple Yes. Not only is her laugh revealed by the Yes, it cannot not be revealed. After all, we’re reading this: her laugh is there on the page: we heard her. We are implicated. ‘Oh, yes, you did laugh,’ God says to Sarah, then turns to us, ‘Didn’t she?’ Sarah’s No is doubled, but God’s Yes is doubled too, to include us.
For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.Luke 8:17
Sarah’s No is a closure, a pregnancy; God’s Yes is an opening, a revelation, a birth. Above all, the Yes is a dangerous demand for change Christwards. Trespassers will be forgiven.
Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,Ephesians 5:13-14
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’
I can’t imagine how we got this far without hearing anything from Sufjan Stevens. This is a slightly odd choice to make from all his recordings, but I love it: a joyful minimalist instrumental with clear echoes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. This is the last track from his 2005 masterpiece, Illinoise. It’s called:
Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I shake the dirt from my sandals as I run
It should make you feel like laughing as you listen.
come to us as you came to Abraham and Sarah in the desert,
unexpectedly, inconveniently with news of change.
Open us up to your Grace,
turn our No to Yes,
our denial to affirmation;
force open the gates of our hearts,
and implicate us in your loving will
for all creation,
through your Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.