Paula Northwood February 21, 2016
Scripture Genesis 18:1-15
We choose sermon texts and titles long before we know what a week will bring or in this case the last 24 hours where mass shootings have destroyed the lives of many in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. We give our love and sympathy to the families of those killed and injured. We give our thanks to first responders and those in the medical profession who bring healing to this tragedy. But my friends, we must do more. Join our group here at Plymouth that works for gun control or apply political pressure wherever you can. This is not the country we want to be.
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Several years ago, Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose introduced the villainous monk Jorge, who poisoned anyone who came upon the one book in the monastery library that proposed that God laughed. The investigator who uncovered the malice asked Jorge this question: “What frightened you in this discussion of laughter? You cannot eliminate laughter by eliminating the book.” Jorge defended himself by claiming: “Laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh, [but] the function of laughter is reversed in this book: It is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy, and of perfidious theology.”
From Jorge’s point of view, the possibility of anyone learning anything from laughter could not be tolerated. “I accept the risk of damnation,” Jorge boasts. “The Lord will absolve me, because He knows I acted for his glory.” Presumably, as a devoted bibliophile, Jorge could not bring himself to eliminate the book itself, which, after all, would have prevented anyone from discovering it. Apparently, eliminating people was a less serious offense.
The dangerous consequence of understanding laughter this way is that the Creator God has become a humorless being incapable of enjoying a joke. Unfortunately, the church has perpetuated this idea, and years of conditioning have rendered the Scriptures as predictable and innocuous stories in which serious people speak in a language filled with legalisms, lacking fun and surprise. The Mennonite church I grew up in was a serious place. Once the minister invited us to submit items for the Time with Children. Some kids offered pinecones and the like, but my cousin and I gave him some plastic fake vomit. We thought that was funny. It backfired a bit. He talked about practical jokes and how some are less than edifying.
We sometimes trivialize the stories of the Bible and make them silly when they were meant as mythological and symbolic stories that hold deep wisdom—and they are often deeply funny. The Creator of the Universe has a sense of humor. When you think about the story of Adam and Eve and the moment when they realize they are naked, that’s kind of funny. Or Noah, asked to build a boat to house two of every species of the world? That’s funny. Or Jonah spending three days inside a big fish? They all have potential for meaning and humor.
But the first time the word laughter is used in the Bible is in our text this morning when God tells Abraham at age 99 and Sarah at 90 that they are going to have a baby. They both laughed . . . and it is humorous to think of the impossible, but it’s also startling. I mean, for you older folks—think about it—what if you were to find out you were expecting? Do you know what the medical profession calls the pregnancy of women over 35 years of age? A geriatric pregnancy. So what’s Sarah? What’s older than geriatric? Ultra-geriatric?
Humor is complicated, however. What’s funny to one person is not for another. For a person who may be trying to have a child and it’s not going as planned, it’s not funny when it happens to others unexpectedly.
But in our story Sarah laughed out of pleasure, out of joy for this unexpected surprise. But then she denies it because she thinks it should be a serious matter. Laughing is a good and right response when life gives us the opportunity for new life, even if it is a bit out of the ordinary.
You can imagine later after Sarah gives birth and the little lad grows up a bit. He is sitting on Sarah’s lap while she tells a story. From time to time, he looks at her and reaches up to touch her wrinkled cheek. He alternately strokes his own smooth cheek, then hers again. Finally, he speaks up, “Mama, did God make you?”
“Yes, sweetheart,” she answers, “God made me a long time ago.”
“Oh,” he pauses, “Mama, did God make me, too?”
“Yes, indeed, honey,” she says, “God made you just a little while ago.”
Feeling their respective faces again, he observes, “God’s getting better at it.”
Abraham and Sarah named their son Isaac, which means laughter. Who names their kid Laughter? I’ve heard kids called a joke before but never laughter.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once preached a sermon on humor and faith. He described humor as a “prelude to faith,” meaning that it is our sense of the incongruous that can lead us to trust God. We laugh at an arrogant person slipping on a banana peel because of the incongruity between the arrogance and false dignity of the person on the one hand, and the humiliation and indignity of their fall on the other. That kind of humor can keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. If you have ever had a day in which everything goes wrong, and you were able, finally, to laugh at it all—at the incongruity of it all—then you understand.
It reminds me of a story my mother told me when she was battling cancer. She had been through a number of treatments and lost her hair and was wearing a wig. Not everyone knew this. She went into the restroom at church because the wig was itchy and hot and had taken it off when one of her grandchildren walked in. The child stood wide-eyed and frozen in place. She didn’t know what to make of the situation, but my mother just started laughing long and hard and so did the child—and it was okay. My mother would often say, “I can live without my hair but not my sense of humor.”
Too often religion has contributed to the incongruities of life. Growing up I heard that God loves me, but also that I’m going to burn in hell. The other one (that Beth talked about last Sunday) was that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth—and you should save it for someone you love and want to marry.
Or maybe you have heard this one about spiritual maturity: If you can live without caffeine; if you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains; if you can resist complaining; if you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time; if you can take criticism and blame without resentment; if you can ignore a friend’s limited education and never correct him or her; if you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend; if you can face the world without lies and deceit; if you can conquer tension or stress without medical help; if you can relax without alcohol; if you can sleep without the aid of drugs; and, if you can honestly say that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, color, religion, gender preference or politics . . . then you have almost reached the same level of spiritual development as your dog!
Niebuhr says that there are other incongruities, which he calls the “ultimate incongruities” of existence, and, while we might laugh at them, the better response is faith. The Abraham and Sarah story is a good example of this. Sarah laughed at the impossibility of the pregnancy but then she had faith: She trusted in the promise of God. Against all probability, she put her faith in something beyond herself, and—surprise of all surprises—she gave birth to new life.
I have been thinking about the “ultimate incongruities” of life. It seems we are greeted by them daily. Boisterous bragging, hyperbole, posturing and threats are doled out by our leader. We struggle to simply not laugh at the absurdity of it all. Other times we want to weep when violence or hatred is a result of such behavior. This is where satirical humor can be important. Only in a democracy is it okay to poke fun at the powerful. If you remember the classic Hans Christian Andersen fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” we have a perfect example of this type of satire. It bears repeating in our current situation.
Once upon a time there was an emperor whose only interest in life was to feel important. He said certain things and wore particular clothes so that people could admire him. Once, two con men decided to teach him a lesson. They told the emperor that they were very fine tailors and could sew a lovely new suit for him. It would be so light and fine that it would seem invisible. Only those who were stupid could not see it. The emperor was very excited and ordered the new tailors to begin their work.
One day, the emperor asked his second in command to go and see how much work the two tailors had done. He saw the two men moving scissors in the air, but he could see no cloth! He kept quiet for fear of being called stupid and ignorant. Instead, he praised the fabric and said it was marvelous.
Finally, the emperor’s new suit was ready. He could see nothing, but he too did not want to appear stupid. He admired the clothes and thanked the tailors. He was asked to parade down the street for all to see the new clothes. The emperor paraded down the main street. The people could only see a naked emperor, but no one admitted it for fear of being thought stupid.
They foolishly praised the invisible fabric and the colors. The emperor was very happy. At last, a child cried out, “The emperor is naked!” Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing and very soon all shouted, “The emperor is not wearing anything!”
While the story does not say the townspeople laughed, we do. In hearing the story, we understand that “we, the people” will no longer conspire in supporting the illusions that corrupt leaders use to maintain control. Using laughter, we discern the difference between reality and illusion.
Humor helps us with perspective. About perspective, we at least know this: we can keep it, gain it or lose it. Keeping or gaining perspective is positive. It means that we are reading reality accurately—that we see things as they truly are. Someone who has lost perspective, however, is no longer able to report the world with fairness and objectivity because their judgment is impaired. The gracious gift of humor juggles perspective and coaches us not to be too anxious but to use our wits and, like the townspeople, call out the truth, strip the illusions. We must keep a sense of humor during this time. In fact, we must make it a spiritual practice amid all the heartache of our world. It is the antidote to despair. Laughter is the antidote to despair.
Jesus used a great deal of humor to get his message across and give people a new perspective. He was witty, unpredictable and a person who delighted in, celebrated with and was open to surprise. He used stories to express the ludicrous, the incongruity of things, such as when he put a child in their midst and told adults they must become like a child to understand the realm of God. He described the busybody, with a huge log in his own eye, rushing about trying to locate the tiny splinters in other people’s eyes. He told a parable about leaving the weeds in the field. Weeds! Or the one about the camel that could go through the eye of a needle easier than a rich person could get into heaven. Though Jesus is usually portrayed as a somber savior, it’s obvious that he used humor to touch people in moments of incongruity and to point them toward truth, healing and faith.
In our story about Sarah, she harbors a deep woundedness, and God brings about healing in a surprising way. And part of the healing is her laughter. Author Brené Brown says, “The only universal language I know of that wraps up joy and gratitude and love is laughter. And so I believe in the healing power of laughter. I believe laughter forces us to breathe. I think laughter between people is a holy form of connection, of communion.” So let us cry when we need to, but then let us laugh, for in doing so together we can heal our community.
Writer Anne Lamott spoke about grace and laughter in a recent TED talk: “Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith and life in each other.” Read that again: “Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith and life in each other.”
God is revealed in playfulness, in delight, in uncontrollable and joyous laughter. New life, new perspectives and new resolve are birthed out of joy. In the story of Sarah, God invites us to pay attention to the surprising circumstances of life that make us laugh. Be open to joy, for the world needs its healing power more than ever before! May it be so. Amen.