When All You Can Do Is Laugh.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on June 18, 2017.
I loved getting ready for this sermon.
The first one is about a young boy, visiting his grandparents and
attending their church for the first time.
Before the service, they got there early,
And he was wandering up and down the halls of the church
As energetic young boys do,
between the narthex and the fellowship hall
checking all the announcements and posters along the walls.
When he came to a group of pictures of men and women in uniform,
He asked the nearby usher, “who are all these people in the pictures?”
And the usher replied, “why, those are our church members who died in the service.”
Dumbfounded and a bit scared, the youngster asked,
“was that the morning service or the evening service?”
Okay, here’s the second:
A guy I know was once in Germany, doing mission work
with several other twenty-somethings,
And they decided to spend one of their free days vacationing in France.
Now, he had his eyes set on this beautiful young lady,
She was also part of the mission program too, and she seemed to like him,
So they decided to “hang out” together on this trip to Lyon.
Not long after arriving in Lyon the two of them started to walk the narrow streets
doing some “window shopping.”
It wasn’t long before they came upon this quaint gift shop.
In the window as a little porcelain frog. A knick-knack.
The tourist-trap type of souvenir that seem to be
all over the place in stores aimed at visitors.
Well, the young lady fell in love with it,
And she, knowing that this fella was a little bit enamored with her,
Commented oh-so-innocently that it was “such a beautiful frog,”
And “what a shame” it was that she didn’t know how to ask,
You know, in French, how much it cost.
Now, my friend leapt at this opportunity to impress the young lady.
I mean, he did take three years of French in High School, after all
And this was his shot to look good!
So he sped with intent over to the display case, and he picked up the frog,
And he sauntered over to the counter intending to say “Combien le prix?”
But, before he recognized what was happening,
He blurted out in the most ridiculous French accent you have ever heard:
“Zooooo. How much is zee price fur zee frog, eh?!”
Talk about embarrassing!
And if that wasn’t enough,
the clerk really knew how to kick a man when he was down!
His reply “About 5 bucks.”
Turns out the clerk was from Ohio![i]
Okay, final story.
I read this week about an elderly doctor on the cusp of retirement.
Lets call her Dr. Wise.
To help ease her transition into retirement,
To help her care for her long-established patients,
And to have a lucky-soul to whom she might hand over her practice,
Dr. Wise hired Dr. Greenhorn just out of medical school.
On one particular day, a woman in her late 60s was ushered
into Dr. Greenhorn’s examination room.
Only a few moments later Dr. Wise heard her
Just let out this awful scream
rush out of the room
down the hall
and out the front door.
The elder doctor, seeing all of this, ran after her.
And shortly thereafter, she came back in and confronted Dr. Greenhorn:
“Why, in heavens name,
did you tell Mrs. Abercrombie that she was pregnant?!!?”
“Well,” the younger doctor replied, “it got rid of her hiccups, didn’t it?”
Laughter is a good gift from God.
There is joy-filled laughter, and then there is laughter tinged with tragedy.
In almost all cases, though, laughter helps us DEAL with the paradoxes of life.
Reinhold Niebuhr, that great theologian of the twentieth century,
Saw an intimate connection between humor and faith.
This is how he put it:
“This intimate connection between humour and faith
is derived from that fact that BOTH deal with the incongruities of existence.
Humour is concerned with our immediate incongruities of life,
And faith with the ultimate ones…
[Humour] is the vestibule of confession.”[ii]
Or, to put it another way:
There is a deep connection between LAUGHTER
and our longing for wholeness, completeness.
Levity helps us keep our cool.
It helps us see the limits of what we are capable of.
Humorous stories are not just useful to the preacher,
who hopes that through their telling
You might be more attune to the working of the spirit in the message.
They are useful in another way:
They open up some of the situations in which
We just can’t make sense of how we got there
or what in the world we’re going to do.
You know those situations, right:
When all you can do is laugh.
When you are being so ridiculous, or things fall in such a convoluted way
That they couldn’t have been better written by a screenwriter if she tried.
The ones where we have to deal with the incongruities of existence.
It doesn’t always fit together the way it should. Or we think it should.
I know you’re never supposed to explain a joke, but
These three stories, I think,
help us think through the various kinds of laughter that we experience
beyond that of pure joy and thanksgiving.
In the first story, we can perhaps EMPATHIZE with the young boy,
Whose ignorance is precious,
And with the kindly usher, who took his own lack of clarity in stride.
Its hilarious, precisely because of their innocence
And the pun contained in our own multi-faceted language.
As we reflect a bit this morning, we might remember
The ways in which the Bible itself uses puns and linguistic word-plays
to emphasize meaning, to endear our hearts, to open our minds to new possibilities
and to the Word of God itself.
You’ll see some of that here in this story, in just a moment.
Such is the beauty of such a tale.
The second story shows the humor of nascent love,
Of our faltering attempts to do anything to impress someone we care about
And the ways in which life sometimes turns
Even our most serious attempts into moments for laughter.
If I’m honest, and think about my own memories, I can all-too-easily relate.
Too many similar gaffs made for the sake of my loved ones.
Perhaps you can too.
These stories allow us to open ourselves to the humor of our finite-ness,
Of our mistaken attempts at being more than we are, better than we are
Of trying too hard to receive something
—like love—that is really a gift from another.
The last story, the doctor story, is humorous in a more absurd sense.
I mean: No one can truly imagine a doctor doing such a thing to a patient, could they?
Scaring someone with the hiccups through such a serious
and life-altering diagnosis as pregnancy is beyond the pale,
even for a novice like Dr. Greenhorn.
And no one, we must admit,
would ever imagine a sixty odd year old woman pregnant! Would they?
This story illustrates the witty qualities of our imagination,
And the way in which the OUTRAGEOUS can be the venue
for learning something more about the real
Now, with some preliminary exercise in laughter out of the way,
Let us turn to the texts for this morning.
Just what is this laughter of Sarah’s all about, anyway?
Is it a word-play: opening us up to God’s Word and inviting us to deeper meaning?
Is it about our finite situation: our inability to get it right on our own?
Is it about the ludicrous, absurd situation that seems unbelievable?
In truth, its about all three, and maybe a bit more…
In the Bible, there aren’t many accounts of people laughing,
But this story, the story Abraham and Sarah, has laughter at its core.
The chronicle of Abraham and Sarah marks an important TRANSITION in the scripture,
Before which we have the mythology—or stories with a purpose—
of the general mayhem and self-destructive tendencies of the human race.
Little to laugh about there, to be sure.
Here is Adam and Even, to whom was given all of creation in the garden
Who were instructed to be good stewards of that which God made Good.
“It’s all yours!” God says, to paraphrase.
“All of it, every last scrap. Except this one tree. It’s mine.”
Well, it didn’t take Adam and Eve very long to decide
That the tree was rather enticing
And that they were hungry, thank you very much.
So they ate from it. The one thing that God told them not to do.
Then we hear of Cain and Abel,
Where Cain murders Abel because he is jealous of his relation to God.
Nope. No comedic moment there.
Next comes Noah, where the narrator details how God rues the creation of humankind
Because of our corruption.
All human kind, that is, except faithful Noah.
We know the story, or the main part of it, at least.
Boat. Flood. Dove. Rainbow.
But it doesn’t end well, and is not a comedy, in any sense.
After the ark comes to rest on dry ground,
we read that God regrets destroying humanity, and vows never to do it again,
even though as scripture says “the human heart is evil from youth.”[iii]
And there to prove it is Noah, naked and drunk, not such a role model after all.
Then the tower of Babel, a story in which the people decide
to build a tower to heaven “to make a name for themselves.”[iv]
And it doesn’t work.
So they suffer a breakdown in communication,
Because their plans had nothing to do with God.
All of these are pre-history. Preliminary, introductory stories.
Pre people-of-God, Stories.
The story of Abraham and Sarah, which comes next, narratively, is so important,
Because here it is that God chooses to become more actively involved with humanity.
After creation and floods and towers,
God decides to make a new covenant with God’s people
Chosen to become God’s partners in service and holiness.
The roots of OUR identity as God’s people is here,
In the story of Abraham and Sarah,
When they are told that they will be ancestors of a multitude of nations.
So God promises Abraham and Sarah
that most precious of things to a nomadic culture: Offspring. Progeny. A future.
But… There’s a catch.
Abraham and Sarah are no spring chickens, are they?
Abraham is almost a hundred years old,
and Sarah is pushing a youthful ninety!
Nevertheless, in the five chapters before our reading for this morning,
God renews this promise four times! Four times!
Remember, if you follow the Bible’s take on it
Abraham had been wondering the earth for at least 36,525 days,
If we use our calendar and include leap years.
And yet he was still without an heir through his wife Sarah.
And there, in Chapter seventeen, just before today’s reading,
where Abraham is given this promise for the fourth time
there we see laughter for the first time in the biblical record.
Here’s what the text says in Chapter 17:
“God said to Abraham,
‘As for Sarai…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.”
And here’s Abraham’s response:
“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?”[v]
So it is important to note that it was Abraham who laughed first.
Many commentators see Sarah’s laugh as a sign of insurrection
Of faithlessness. Of defiance.
But I’m not sure that it is.
And if so, then Abraham has to share some of that blame,
At least if we open our vision to this earlier chapter in Genesis.
But the laughter of Sarah and Abraham seems to be
borne of pain rather than defiance,
desperation rather than insurrection.
Both the account of Abraham’s laughter and Sarah’s laughter
reminds us of the absurdity of the situation.
Both of them raise this very point in their laughter.
Abraham asks whether a man who is a hundred can father a child
And our reading for today has Sarah raising it too:
“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?”[vi]
It is clear, don’t you think, that the pain of going childless
was real in the minds of Abraham and Sarah,
and that reveal as much through their laughter.
Bearing and Raising children, whatever it might mean for us in our culture,
Was crucial for people trying to live off the land in the biblical period.
Crucial for tribal identity. Crucial for family happiness and sense of fulfillment.
But Abraham had not been successful in fathering a child with Sarah,
And Sarah, she has passed menopause and her childbearing years.
She had ‘ceased to be after the manner of women.’
Here’s how Eric Folkth puts it:
“What’s interesting to me is that Sarah’s laughter
…is the laughter at something so outrageous
that one would think that it could never possibly happen.
In a sense, it’s a laughter born of pain…
a laughter born of the absurdity of the situation.
Saying she would have a child is an absurd thing to say –
Physically, psychologically, emotionally –
And her laughter…is not a recognition [and rejection] of the truth of that claim
But a recognition of how utterly ridiculous it is.”[vii]
So Sarah – And Abraham – are laughing out of recognition
of the absurdity of the promise
Of the pain of longing for that which they cannot conceive possible
Of their need to continue on in hope, even though their finite frames
Surely wouldn’t support the torturous act of childbearing
Much less child-rearing…
Have you seen what it takes to raise a child?
If we ended here in the Abraham narrative, right here
we would learn something about the human spirit:
Something about the reality of pain and the struggles we have
in believing some of the most incredible promises of God.
But we cannot stop here.
We must see it within the entire flow of these first few chapters of Genesis,
Juxtaposed with the way in which God stays faithful to humankind,
despite OUR limitations.
And the proof of this lies just a few chapters later in Genesis 21,
When God fulfills the promise made five times now to this elderly couple,
When Isaac is born.
Now get this:
The name “Isaac” means “laughter” or “he laughs”
I suspect it means God’s laughter,
Or Abraham’s Laughter,
Or Sarah’s Laughter,
Or maybe Isaac’s own laughter when he heard the story later.
Its all of that.
We can laugh, too, because right HERE at that defining moment
When the first child of the covenant is born
At the BEGINNING of that twisted, tortuous tale of the people of God
The sound that we hear….is laughter!
–It’s a word play, opening us to God’s Word,
a moment of importance for us to attend to.
–It’s laughter at our finite, failed attempts at receiving
What must be freely given from others, and from God.
–It’s laughter at the absurd, the inconceivable, the painful, the tragic.
But most of all, it is the laughter of Grace, where God fulfills God’s promises –
Even those that seem unfathomable –
And makes a people God’s very own.
Paul, the apostle, knew something about this kind of laughter himself,
And of the Grace which redeems all human laughter into God’s loving plan.
This reading from Romans
Transitions right from Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s righteousness
To the nature of life in Christ.
Paul points out the ridiculous and paradoxical in Jesus’ loving gift to us:
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—
though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.
But God proves his love for us in that
While we were still sinners
Christ died for us.”[viii]
That’s a laughable claim, isn’t it?
Truly mind-boggling, the paradox of faith!?
That God would redeem a people with as many problems as we’ve got!
That God truly, passionately, loves me!
But its true!
Its almost incredible, audacious, unbelievable. Laughable!
Through Christ, as Paul says, we are given a sure hope, and
“hope does not disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit
that has been given to us.”[ix]
Through Abraham and Sarah, God has covenanted to remain faithful to God’s people.
In Christ, God unites us to Godself so strongly that,
“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else, in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[x]
Such are God’s actions in the Christ.
And in them, we can laugh the laughter of joy,
Such as Sarah and Abraham did upon the birth of Isaac.
The question to close with this afternoon is:
Which are the promises of God that we find ourselves laughing at?
Which are those that seem too audacious to be real, to be possible?
Maybe we could start with the obvious fact that remain in a troubled world,
One of terrorists and global insecurity,
One of ethnic and religious conflict,
One of abuse and abduction and rejection,
And the list goes on and on and on.
We live under the name Christians,
yet we live two thousand years since Christ walked the earth.
We remain finite, fragile creatures,
Trying to do right and sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing,
but always longing for wholeness and comfort.
When we compare our world with the promises of redemption
that we find in the Bible –
–That time when the lion will lay down the lamb,
–Or when swords will be beaten into plowshares,
–Or when neighbor will love neighbor
with all their might and soul and strength –
Such promises can seem to be somewhat laughable, too.
But this is just the situation for which the Word of God has a resounding answer:
Throughout all of our striving, God is faithful still.
God has promised to remain with us,
Beyond all our wildest and laughable hopes and dreams,
Beyond all our failures and limitations.
The promise was fulfilled in the granting of a son to Abraham and to Sarah.
It was sealed for all humankind, to all people,
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
It becomes real in the fellowship of believers that we call the church,
Sealed by our baptism and confirmed anew in communion.
It is there in the loving kindness of family members to one another,
In the acceptance of one rejected and outcast by society
In deeds of love and stewardship that we do collectively as a people of God.
When we embody the love of God, God is faithful still.
And this is the hope, the promise, and the assurance that will enable us
to embody the love of God for our neighbor,
and to respond to truly laughworthy situations
with the laughter of joy and hope and grace.
In thanksgiving for what God has done,
And for what God continues to do in our midst,
May we go from here and laugh boldly,
Confident in the love given to us in Christ Jesus.
[i] Previous two stories thanks to Raymond Osborne, Sermonshop Sermons, ecunet. 6/13/02
[ii] From Niebuhr’s essay “Humour and Faith,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses” edited by Robert McAfee Brown. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1986. Page 49
[iii] Genesis 8:21
[iv] Genesis 11:4
[v] Genesis 17:15-17
[vi] Genesis 18:11-12
[vii] Email, June 11, 2002
[viii] Romans 5:7-8
[ix] Romans 5:5
[x] Romans 8:38-9