The story is told of a noted scientist who was boasting of how advanced science has become- humans have cloned animals and are able to live up in space. Humanity, he argued, does not need God. God interrupted and said, “Ok then, let’s have a competition.” The scientist agreed. God said, “Let’s see who can create a better human. Let’s start from dirt and create a person.” The scientist bent down to pick up some dirt. God interjected, “Not so fast. Get your own dirt.”
Laughter is a wonderful thing. It’s been said that “Laughter is the antifreeze of the soul.” Particularly on a cold day it helps keep us going and allows us to be cheery when things seems dreary.
Laughter comes most naturally when there is something slightly out of whack in our experience compared with the rest of life as we know it. My girls will laugh whenever I put a book or stuffed animal on my head because it doesn’t belong there. We laugh at television sitcoms when there is just enough break from reality to help us see life in a new way. Something bubbles up in us that helps us make sense of it in a positive way and we laugh.
Laughter helps when we humans take ourselves too seriously and God not seriously enough. It expresses irony, escape, hope and joy. For we were crafted by God to be more than dry dirt. We are to be joyful celebrants of life.
Last Sunday we talked about Abraham’s trust in God and how we can cry with God. Today we look at the experience of Abraham, and his wife Sarah, and realize we can laugh with God too. Let us pray. Loving God, help us to recognize and use the gift of laughter you have given to us. Help us share it with the world. Through Christ, Amen.
I can remember as a junior high student sitting in the back of an award assembly for some sporting event I was in in Ohio. All of us competitors had been working hard and were receiving recognition. After the length of the awards ceremony began to exceed the attention span of we junior high students, as such ceremonies tend to do, several of us were having trouble sitting still. One of my teammates said something that I found particularly amusingg and I burst out laughing. Then I immediately caught myself and tried to stop, but it was too late. My coach and my parents were far less amused than I was and I got in trouble. I know versions of this scenario take place in classrooms each week throughout the nation and as a parent I now appreciate the importance of being respectful.
But I have often thought about that experience in terms of the fine line many of us feel we might walk in our laughter around God. Someone asked me, “Is it ok to laugh around God?” It’s an interesting question of deep theology. We know that Jesus cried. Biblical trivia experts are fond of saying that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” But there aren’t any verses that tell us that Jesus laughed.
We prepare our hearts for worship in silence, so are we supposed to be serious and pious and therefore, is laughter frivolous to our faith? Far from it; I believe laughter is central to our spirituality.
Our lesson this morning demonstrates the complexity of laughter. Within the story of Sarah and Abraham, we hear of three different kinds of laughter.
First, the ironic laugh. Abraham had been loyal to God for decades and God had promised him a child with Sarah. Abraham and Sarah waited and waited and waited. Then in Genesis, chapter 17, when finally God said to Abraham that a child would arrive they were long past childbearing age. So Abraham fell on his face and laughed in disbelief and, in no doubt, a bit of frustration. Sarah overheard the news that she would be delivering a child at age 90 and so she laughed in much the same way. They could not believe God was finally going to fulfill God’s promise. They were getting ready to retire and now would be sending baby announcements. It was almost like the punch line in a bad joke. They say that a lot of comedians come from cultures where there has been trauma, in part because developing ironic humor helps people cope.
Secondly, chapter 18 contains an uncertain laugh. When she finds out she is going to have a baby at an advanced age, Sarah laughs to herself but then denies to God that she has laughed. This is the uncertain laugh, kind of like my laughing at the awards ceremony as a young person. Like a student who has been caught by a teacher and feels guilty laughing because the assumption people have is that the student must be up to no good, Sarah laughs at the news that she, many years later than she had hoped, would finally have a child. When God calls her on it she denies it at first. Then in chapter 21, when the child actually arrives and the promise is fulfilled, Sarah is finally able to express a free, joyful laugh. A laugh as an expression of joy and true happiness.
I believe we come to worship to meet God and to understand what God is like. We bring our respect and our attention to this holy, sacred time. The God we find in worship is often more exciting, fun and unpredictable than we often give God credit for. We find that all three types of laughter from our Genesis story are present in Sarah and Abraham. We discover that laughter is a most appropriate response to this God.
Poet Maya Angelou tells the story of once being at Trinity church in New York City, and the processional at the service was a formal, serious affair with lots of robes and tassels and flags and colors. Angelou says she noted that in Southern plantation days the slaves were not allowed to laugh around the master. The idea being that if they laughed at the master it somehow reduced his authority and power and they’d get into trouble. But when you have to laugh you sometimes have to laugh, so there was often a barrel on the grounds and whenever a slave was tempted to laugh they would go over to the barrel and stick their head in and get the laugh out of their system. Angelou said that when she was at the church and saw all the robes and tassels and colors and flags, she just felt like going to find a barrel in Trinity church and laughing.
In our Genesis text, Sarah is nervous about laughing at God’s news. For she did not want to disrespect God. She is nervous about God’s reaction. What she discovers is that God encourages us to laugh along with God.
Sarah bears a son and God tells her to name him Isaac which translates literally as “God laughs.” So the great gift that God gives, that Sarah and Abraham waited so long to receive, was the gift of Laughter, their son. And Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh with me.” For Sarah’s laughter, like God’s, is contagious. Psalm 59 tells that God laughs. I’d like to think Jesus smiled when he told some of his stories, when he celebrated at weddings and when he walked with disciples. And certainly he laughed when he welcomed little children.
Aren’t we naturally made as people who want to laugh? Woody Allen once said, “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” Doctors tell us laughter is the best medicine. Dr. Melanie Winderlich writes, that laughter can support the immune system, improve blood pressure and reduce pain.”[i] Laughter relaxes the whole body and relieves physical tension and stress. Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Laughter protects the heart. Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack.”
Poet Francis Duggan once wrote, “The sound of laughter is a thing of beauty for laughter spreads the very gift of joy.” It did for Abraham and Sarah.
This afternoon at 4pm Pastor Kori is being installed as a pastor here at Bradley Hills. Kori has the gift of laughter. When the committee was interviewing her I understand they asked her to share something they might not have realized and she talked about her laugh. So have many others. I am not sure I have ever met someone with such a contagious laugh as Kori.
This is also a day when ten women and men will take on the mantle of leadership as officers of our church. Being an elder and a deacon is a great honor and calling. You are set apart for service. You inspire the rest of us to service. You want to take God very seriously. But not take yourself too seriously. Sarah’s advice might be to find ways to laugh in the face of challenges. Laugh in joy at the high points. Ask yourself, what would Abraham laugh at? What would Sara laugh at? What would Kori laugh at? Laugh throughout your service as elders and deacons and it will disarm even the tensest meeting. Laugh and you’ll enjoy the journey. And you have permission to laugh at us when we get too serious. This morning I went out to my car to get my anointing oil for our officers later in this service and found that I had left it out overnight and it was frozen in the car – frozen oil. A liturgical error on my part. All I could do was laugh at myself. Laugh and others will laugh along with you.
God laughed along with Sarah and Abraham and through Isaac, the gift of laughter, the whole world laughed along with them.
One of the Great Reformation Confessions, the Shorter Confession, asks, “What is the chief end of humanity? And answers, “Our chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.”
God is not a dour deity. Rather, God is a Lord of joyful exuberance. Laugh along with your unpredictable, exciting God and enjoy God now because one day we will enjoy God in the life to come. We practice that here when we laugh.
As Ross Snyder sums it up, “(In life) we are meant to enjoy, to delight, to celebrate. To be fascinated by presence, by mystery. To be so sensitive to patterns of beauty that they dwell in us from this time on.”
The story of Abraham and Sarah is really a lesson about grace. That what we cannot accomplish, God can do. That the greatest parts of our lives are not our fulfilling our goals, they are God giving us what we don’t expect.
The unexpected joys that seem so incongruous with the rest of life that all we can do is laugh at them.
It’s why the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that humor is the prelude to faith and laughter the beginning of prayer. Because so many things in life don’t line up exactly as we would expect them to or even like them to, humor often expresses our trusting God in the unknown, and our laughter communicates that trust.
So our laughing in the face of irony, uncertainty and joy is appropriate. We laugh in the image of our creator.
Author Elizabeth Elliot writes in her book, A Lamp for My Feet, “We cannot always or even often control events, but we can control how we respond to them. When things happen which dismay or appall, we ought to look to God for meaning, remembering that God is not taken by surprise nor God’s ultimate purpose be thwarted in the end.”
The closer we get to God the more clearly we can hear God’s laugh. For there is always another way.
Thinking of installations here, I remember the day of my first introduction to Bradley Hills like it was yesterday. I had been a member of this Presbytery but hadn’t crossed paths with the staff, ministry or congregation here much. I had decided to leave my previous church, a place I had loved and where we had been in very fruitful ministry together, because I sensed there was something else God had in store for me within parish ministry or without. I honestly wasn’t sure if I was meant for a church next or not. I was looking at all sorts of ideas and jobs throughout the nation, many not in the church.
Yet something compelled me not only to apply but to come up here and meet with a group from Bradley Hills. Walking out of that meeting I had that feeling, Kori, I think you had it when you first met these folks in person, of being home where I belonged.
As I drove home I smiled. I could feel God’s face shining upon me. And I laughed thinking, “So this is what you have in store for me next God. Another parish, and one ten minutes from my house after all. I hadn’t noticed it before.” God’s unexpected joys.
We are heirs to Abraham and Sarah. Our laughs may be ironic, uncertain and joyful all in one because God is one of unpredictability. The divine that comes in a manger, on a donkey and on a cross. God walks out of tombs, ascends into heaven, and reigns over our lives. God comes in incongruous ways that turn decay into blossom, dirt into soul, lemons into lemonade, death into life.
For when we have waited and waited and have grown tired of waiting, when we are burned out at work or are stuck in relationships or are in a dry place in our lives. When we forget what our dreams even looked or felt like, don’t give up, keep going, look around the corner. For sometimes God has a way of reminding us that nothing is impossible for God, nothing is too unpredictable, and nothing is too wonderful for God. And then all we can really do is laugh. And give thanks. Amen.