Genesis 18:13-15 (CEB)
The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’
Is anything too difficult for the LORD? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah lied and said, “I did not laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”
February 25, 2018
Second Weekend in Lent
“The Gift of Laughter”
In this season of Lent, we continue with our Lenten theme of, “Feeding the Root: Nurturing the Spiritual Roots of our Faith.” The season of Lent is a time for reflection and taking a closer look at ourselves and our own lives. By feeding our spiritual roots, we nourish our efforts to care for ourselves and show and share God’s love with others.
Let me give us a bit of background about our Scripture story surrounding our passage from the Old Testament book of Genesis.
The main characters in this story are God, Abram and his wife Sarai. When Abram was 99-years-old, God changed his name to Abraham and told him he would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God also changed the name of 90-year-old Sarai to Sarah and said that she would give birth to a son.
Abraham’s response to this message from God was to fall on his face and laugh and say to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old and a woman who is 90 years old?’
But God says, ‘yes,’ Sarah will have a son and he will be named Isaac. In Hebrew, the name Isaac actually means, ‘he will laugh.’
Later, God sends three messengers to Abraham and Sarah. After preparing a meal of hospitality for the strangers, they tell Abraham again that Sarah will give birth to a son. Sarah overhears the conversation from a distance and she too laughs to herself, knowing that she is well past childbearing age.
We pick up the story with the messengers talking to Abraham.
(Read Genesis 18:13-15)
Last week, we learned about the spiritual discipline of quietness and this week, the gift of laughter. The two might seem like odd partners, but really they go quite well together. Think about those relationships you have with good friends or even family, where it is not awkward to spend long periods of time together in quiet. It is also comfortable to laugh with these same people and many times it is the laughing that has helped you through difficult times.
Laughter has the ability to produce habits of community that build relationships and give a sense of perspective even with people who think differently than we do or with whom we might not always agree.
Peter Robinson was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. He said, “President Reagan taught me to appreciate the uses of humor…But he also taught me to appreciate the meaning of humor.” He said, “The world contains more good than bad, more courage than cowardice, and more reasons for smiles than for tears.” He said, “Laughter is a profession of faith.”
It is also documented that President Reagan and then House Speaker Tip O’Neill used humor as a way to soften their often contentious relationship. They would fight over political issues during the day but frequently get together in the evening and tell each other Irish jokes. Their humor ensured they could disagree without being disagreeable.
As people of faith, we are called to worship God with all of our being and that includes laughter, which is one of God’s great gifts to us in our often troubled, stress-filled world. There is something about humor that brings us to life and we all need something that brings us to life.
Even the nervous, dismissive, disbelieving laughter of Sarah in the Genesis story, brought her back to life. Sarah had long since given up on the hope of having a child. Her initial laughter is born of a deep sadness and a hope unfulfilled. But now, even in the outrageous, laughable suggestion that she would have a child in her old age, she experienced a life-giving sense of possibility through her laughter.
Yet, not wanting to allow herself to believe God’s promise, she denies her doubt and lies about her laughter. Sarah doubted and denied; then she laughed and she lied. But her response was entirely human and not really surprising. It was the kind of laughter that happens when something is unbelievable or seemingly completely out of reach.
We probably have all given a sarcastic, dismissive laugh when we receive through the mail the news that we have won a free trip to some wonderful amusement park or island vacation. Or, when the postcard in the mail promises that we “may have already won” something big; all we need do is call this number or send back this information. We know that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
Sarah is one of those characters I can relate to in the Bible; as I’m sure any woman over the age of 60 can relate. If a messenger from God came to tell a woman well past childbearing age that she was going to have a baby, the first reaction would be laughter and more than just a giggle or chuckle, but as one older woman told me once, “I laughed so hard, tears ran down my legs!”
It is also humorous to think that Sarah goes through a pregnancy in her 90’s and more than that, she and Abraham will raise a teenage son when they are both over 100 years old…that should cause some of you to also laugh!
From a human perspective, Sarah’s disbelief and laughter was warranted, even appropriate. But her unbelief is met with rhetorical rebuke when the visitor from God says in all seriousness, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”
It is when our sense of doubt meets God’s great surprise of possibility and grace that we are enabled to live life a bit more lightly and with healthy laughter.
If we keep reading in the book of Genesis, we discover that God is faithful to the promise that Sarah will have a son. After she gives birth in her old age and Abraham names the child, Isaac, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (21:6)
We know there is a difference between laughing at people and laughing with people. Good manners and kindness tell us that we do not laugh at people, but laughing with others can be a wonderful gift and a form of compassion that shares the goodness of life with others.
Laughter can help us hold the concerns of life more lightly and helps us be more civil toward one another. An appropriate sense of humor is also an asset for leadership and in working effectively with others. Laughter forms relationships and community and provides perspective and joy that can sustain us in the midst of stress, uncertainty and even grief.
When I meet with families after someone has died and we are planning the worship service to celebrate the person’s life; even in the sadness of the loss, it’s amazing the amount of laughter that often takes place.
As family members share stories and memories of a loved one, laughter is shared not only as a release of emotion, but out of celebration for that person’s life and out of knowing that it is not the end of their story.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once preached a sermon on humor and faith in which he described humor as a “prelude to faith,” meaning that it is often our sense of doubt and the inconsistencies in our lives that can lead us to trust God.
Even in their laughter, Abraham and Sarah still trusted God…still remained faithful even in the midst of their doubts. Then, though the promise seemed too good to be true, they received a son whom they named ‘he will laugh.’ We trust that same God whose promise through Jesus the Christ is faithful and true.
When God reaffirms the promise of blessing to Abraham and Sarah, God restores their faith and hope, and their ability to laugh. When laughter is gone, so is hope, but restored faith and hope go hand in hand with laughter. It is said that only the laughers can believe and only the believers can laugh.
Nurturing the spiritual roots of our faith calls for times of laughter…to jiggle the soil in which we are planted. Laughter, even during the season of Lent, can clear our heads and our hearts of some of the heaviness we often carry and remind us that God’s presence in our lives is cause to celebrate.
I don’t want to take away anything from Holy Humor Sunday, which we will celebrate the Sunday after Easter, but, even in Lent, let’s go ahead and laugh.
So, John was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood. In fact, he was Baptist and on the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak.
Meanwhile, all of his Catholic neighbors were eating things like tuna fish casserole or frozen fish sticks. This went on each Friday all through Lent. On the last Friday, some of the neighbors got together and decided that something needed to be done about John…he was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent and they couldn’t take it anymore.
They decided to try and convert John to be Catholic. They went over and talked with him and were happy that he decided to join his neighbors and become Catholic. They took him to church and the Priest sprinkled some water over him and said, “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are a Catholic.”
The neighbors were relieved; now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved. When the next Lenten season came around, on the first Friday when the neighborhood was sitting down to their tuna fish casseroles and frozen fish sticks, the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill came from John’s backyard.
The neighbors could not believe their noses! What was going on?! They gathered together and went over to John’s yard to see if he had forgotten that it was the first Friday in Lent.
The neighbors arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling water over his steak on the grill, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow; and now you are a fish!”
As we journey deeper into this Lenten season, may the gift of laughter root us deep into the good soil of God’s loving, forgiving presence, allowing us to know that nothing is too difficult for God.
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.