God and Laughter
Passage: Genesis 18:1-15
Date: June 18, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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God and Laughter
The year before we moved to Portland, Gregg was working full time and I was doing little gigs here and there, my main work being parenting a young child. That meant that we could fully participate in the life of a congregation, one in our neighborhood and full of friends. People knew us, knew that we were both pastors as we both preached there from time to time.
They had a tradition of singing one verse of a hymn as their benediction response, and they printed the words in the bulletin. One Sunday for the benediction response we sang the last verse from hymn number 343, “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service.” “So God grant us for tomorrow ways to order human life/that surround each person’s sorrow with a calm that conquers strife.”
Except there was a typo. And instead of a calm that conquers strife, we sang about a clam that conquers strife. Sarah was standing on the pew between us, and she was first to notice our shoulders shaking, the tears that came to our eyes, our stifling of the laughter that so wanted to escape our lips. Let me assure that while we all know giggling inappropriately at church is hard; being a known pastor giggling inappropriately at church is worse.
I think it wonderful when we can laugh in worship, and I say that because life is very serious, and the world has thrown some nasty curveballs this week. I know you all are as tired as I am with all the violence and all the tragedy and everything. Maybe this is not the best week to preach on God on laughter; but maybe it is.
Let’s start with the biblical text. I go with the assumption that human life 3000+ years ago was pretty hard, and very serious, and survival was a daily goal. Yet archeological evidence shows us that people who lived then also created things, and sang, and danced. I imagine they laughed, too.
So it was with Abraham and Sarah. By the time we reach today’s story in their larger saga, they have uprooted from their home and moved several times, with their tents and camels and livestock and shirttail relatives. They survived a famine by moving to Egypt, where they had to pretend that Sarah was Abraham’s sister so that the Egyptians wouldn’t kill Abraham to get Sarah for themselves.
They are found out and forced to leave Egypt and move back from whence they came. Abraham’s nephew Lot is taken captive and must be rescued. And despite numerous promises from God, promises that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars, Sarah remains childless. They have known homelessness, hunger, fear, danger, infertility, and disappointment in their soul.
We moderns would say that their lives were full of trauma, and unfulfilled promises from God may be the worst kind of trauma. So here we find them, at their tent under the oaks of Mamre, living without much hope for their own family, for a child they could call their own.
Three strangers appear, and somehow we are to know that it is actually God and two angels who have come. The three receive hospitality, and in return, promise that Sarah will bear a son. And then – after homelessness and hunger and fear and danger and infertility and disappointment: laughter.
Sarah laughs to herself inside the tent. I wonder about that laughter. Was it a snort of disbelief? Was it a laugh that as much as said, yeah, right, I’ve heard that before. Was it a laugh of derision, an angry laugh at a God who promised so much yet never delivered? Today, as I read and contemplate the story, I think her laughter was an unrehearsed response to that chasm between the reality of her disappointment and the hope in the promise God made to her. It was a space-filler, something that eased the tension between what had been and what might be. Sarah’s laughter was a gift to herself, from herself.
Nowadays I wonder about the role of laughter in this world where congressmen practicing baseball are shot, where the poor in London living in substandard housing flee or die in a horrendous fire, where it starts being commonplace that a frequent outlet of one’s anger is shooting co-workers, or strangers, or children.
Laughter these days often feels more like a sound for irony, despair, or pure escapism. But is it possible that we can make laughter another one of our tools of faith, a tool that helps us live with God and for God while we live in this world and for this world?
Perhaps we, following Sarah, can consider laughter the thing that fills the gap between reality and hope. Greater minds than my own have thought this. Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian and arguably the greatest theologian of the last century, cherished humor even as he wrote tomes of serious stuff. As one pastor says, “…for Barth true humor, far from being an escape from the realities of suffering and evil in the world, is ‘laughter amid tears.’ True humor ‘presupposes rather than excludes the knowledge of suffering’ (Ethics, 511). As the child of suffering, humor takes suffering seriously but refuses to give it the last word.” (https://richardlfloyd.com/2009/11/22/the-humor-of-karl-barth/) Barth even said that laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
Do you think that laughter is a gift from God, a tool of faith? When you laugh in worship – intentionally or unintentionally – is it a release, a response, a joy? What do we do with our laughter in the face of such a sad and serious world? Is laughter a gift that the church can offer the world?Well, that’s a question, isn’t it? We Christians aren’t generally known as a funny people. No one sings, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our jokes, by our jokes….”
But I think that the church can offer the world a larger laughter, something warm and spontaneous that fills the gap between reality and hope. Laughter can diffuse a situation, break the tension, offer room to take a deep breath and a step back. It can provide a moment of calm that might conquer some strife. If this life from God is part of a divine comedy, then laughter is sign that God has not left the building.
When I officiate at a wedding, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Some of you know how tense the beginning of a wedding is. Is everyone on time? Are there wardrobe malfunctions? Will anyone of the bridal party faint or throw up? Will I trip while a church full of people is looking at me? Once the bride and groom are up front, and the music has ended, and they’re facing the commitment of a lifetime, I try to find a way to break the tension. Flower girls and ring bearers are often good for this. But something happens, and people smile and laugh a little, and then everybody’s ready to go on.
What if the church could offer such a moment for the world? Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman, psychologists who developed family systems theory, both advocated strongly for a sense of playfulness when dealing with life’s emotional pits. The more serious we are, the more locked up we become. We can’t move or breathe well. When we are playful, even with the serious stuff, there is room to breathe and ponder.
I do not mean to make light of the real tragedies and traumas our fellow human beings know. I read the news religiously, and Wednesday morning’s headlines sucked all the joy out of me. I’m not saying we should tell jokes about tragic situations – please, don’t.
What we can offer a grieving, fearful world is space and light and laughter. Those are things we people of faith have because God has given us just that: space and light and laughter, except here in church we call it grace.
I’d like to end today’s sermon with a prayer by Walter Brueggemann, words that speak to reality and hope, and how God fills that space. Let us pray.
You are a God who awes us and astonishes us.
You are a God who selects a dysfunctional family to carry your future.
You are a God who dwells with barren women who become mothers in Israel.
You are a God who makes promises with no evidence at hand or in sight.
You are a God powerful in purpose, hidden in performance, faithful over time.
And we are among those drawn into the orbit of your life;
A life teeming with impossibilities so hard to trust, so impossible to explain, so precious to treasure.
Give us this day the freedom to be amazed and to trust your way among us,
Even when the world seems closed to all futures.
We praise you, future-creating God. Amen.
(Inscribing the Text, Walter Brueggemann, 2004)
The Reverend Beth Neel
Westminster Presbyterian Church
June 18, 2017