Preached at Manchester Church of the Brethren.
Scripture reference: Genesis 18:1-15, 21: 1-7
**God has made laughter** (song by Kathy Wonson Eddy) Lyrics: God has made laughter, laughter for me. (x3) Is anything impossible for God? Everyone who hears will laugh with me! (x3) Is anything impossible for God?
Sarah is such a complicated character in our Bible stories. We don’t know much about her, quite honestly. She appears at the end of Genesis chapter 11 as Sarai, Abram’s wife, but without any telling of her history. Her death is recorded at the beginning of chapter 23, at the ripe old age of 127. In the 12 chapters in between, Sarah’s presence is mostly only implied. In these kinds of stories with characters like Sarah, I always find myself wondering… what was going on for the rest of her 127 years of life?
We get a few glimpses of Sarah, mostly having to do with sexual politics and child-bearing. And I have to say, the glimpses of Sarah we get are tough stories. We have the story of the couple going into an unfamiliar city and Abram asking Sarai to pose as his sister. He fears that she is so beautiful that the men will kill him to get to her. So she plays along and is given to the Pharaoh, while in exchange the Pharaoh favors Abram. But it doesn’t turn out well in the end.
In another story, Sarai must know of God’s covenant with Abram to give him many descendants, but by the time Abram is about 85 and Sarai is 76, she perhaps has given up on that promise or wonders if she needed to create her own destiny. So steely-eyed and hard-nosed, she brings her servant to Abram to give him heirs. It works, and Ishmael is born, but then Ishmael’s mother Hagar becomes contemptuous, Sarai likely becomes jealous and certainly is abusive, and Hagar runs away.
Later, after today’s text, there is another story of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister and giving her to a king. He evidently hasn’t learned his lesson, but Sarah goes along with it. Somehow, this time it turns out okay.
And again after today’s text is another story of Sarah mistreating Hagar and having her and her boy cast into the wilderness out of jealousy.
Sarah is incredibly human and flawed. And in those four stories, the character I see portrayed is a woman who tries to be faithful but who is often motivated by fear and jealousy. A woman whose practicality has a utilitarian edge to it – she puts aside whim and desire, and determinedly does what she has to, to get what she feels she needs.
But then there are also the parts of the story in which she is a silent character but always there at Abraham’s elbow. When he moves and travels, she is there. When he receives the covenant promises, when he settles things with Lot, when he bargains with God for the people of Sodom, when he nearly sacrifices Isaac, she is never far away. So for Sarah, there are likely also years and years of being quietly faithful, living life adjusting to the circumstances God put in front of them. And she is faithful even when promises are not fulfilled for a very long time.
In the middle of all that, this story for today stands out to me as a light-hearted, almost jaunty little tale. It seems like the kind of delightful circumstance that doesn’t happen very often for Sarah, and her response is surprising. Every time I read it, I can’t help hearing it as a little slapstick. Maybe to get a flavor, try imagining Lucille Ball as Sarah, Desi Arnez as Abraham, and Red Skelton as the Lord…
God has already told Abraham that Sarah will bear a son. What is Abraham’s response? He falls on his face laughing. God doesn’t question his laughter but tells him the name of his future son (Isaac, which means “he laughs”). Abraham asks if he can short circuit the whole thing by letting Ishmael be the one who fathers the multitudes of descendants that Abraham has been promised. God reveals that Ishmael will be a father of multitudes in his own right, but that Sarah will also have a son.
So Abraham already knows about God’s plan for a son. But he evidently doesn’t tell Sarah of this conversation.
In the text for today, the interaction seems to have Sarah in the periphery – overhearing from inside the tent – but really it is meant for Sarah. And much about the story is just a little strange. Abraham is lounging in the heat of the day at the entrance of the tent, maybe not expecting much but watching the world go by. Three men appear and Abraham springs into action, bowing and offering hospitality. One of them is the Lord… or maybe all of them together are the Lord… the story is not entirely clear. Abraham tells Sarah to make cakes of the best flour. While the men are eating outside, Sarah is inside overhearing. Like Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, I imagine Sarah eavesdropping eagerly, but trying to be casual and maintain deniability… and the Lord speaking maybe just a little louder than is strictly necessary, as he has just confirmed with Abraham that she is right on the other side of the tent flap.
The Lord says…“Sarah’s going to have a son.”
And Sarah can’t help herself. She snorts. (or at least that’s the way it happens in my imagination…) Any women in their 90s here? Okay… good. Keep your hands up if you want to have a baby this year… (why are you laughing?) So you can hardly blame Sarah for first thinking “But I’m old!” Then she has another thought – “Besides that, my husband is old! What, am I gonna have pleasure??” Is it any wonder she laughs? [I once had a confused 85 year old tell me that she was having contractions and the baby was on the way, and I confess that I had to work hard not to laugh… I quickly shifted to trying to meet her where she was and figure out what was going on for her… but I remembered Sarah.] It’s a funny, preposterous, surprising thing that God has just said!
So Sarah laughs. Because the laughter becomes the inspiration for Isaac’s name, and because a son was likely Sarah’s deep desire that she gave up on decades ago – I don’t hear this as scoffing laughter or the “ha!” of a cynical “yeah, right,” although it does have a tinge of “what?” I think Sarah imagines the whole scenario and genuinely laughs at its surprise and delight.
The Lord says to Abraham “why did she laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (At this point I imagine Desi Arnez as Abraham doing his best “I had nothing to do with it” face, but half guilty because he remembers his own laughter)
Sarah pokes her head out of the tent and says “I didn’t laugh,” which is about as effective at that point as saying “I wasn’t listening, honest.”
And this is one of my favorite details of this story – God turns to her and says (direct quote), “Oh yes, you did”
And then the three men leave with Abraham to go see what’s happening in Sodom and Gomorrah, but that’s a story for another time…
Nine months later, Sarah bears a son and he is named Isaac – “he laughs.” Her reason was this – “God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
**God has made laughter**
We Jesus-following people can be very sincere. We care deeply about being disciples, living Christ’s way in the midst of our lives and circumstances. And we know, from our history and even from our lived experience, that being a disciple requires counting well the cost. Finding a nonviolent way requires being vulnerable to danger. We consider carefully what it means to be faithful and we try to do that, even if it means setting aside our own comfort or desires. We seek to speak and, more importantly enact, risky love in the midst of our broken world, and we do this because Jesus calls us to.
And in our individual human lives – there are many ways in which we do not choose our circumstances, and fairly often we find ourselves confronting life that does not look like we would prefer – tragedy, death, or illness; financial, career, or relational concerns are never too far away. So we know well what it is to be faithful in small things, to find God in the midst of difficult times.
In these ways we are not so unlike Sarah.
But what if God is also trying to reveal Godself in playfulness, in delight, in uncontrollable and joyous laughter? What if, like in this story with Sarah, God wants us to pay attention to the surprising circumstances of life that make us laugh?
Anne Lamott has this to say about Grace and laughter – in a recent TED talk…
“Grace is spiritual WD40 or water wings… The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us, and heals our world. To summon grace say, “Help” and then buckle up… Grace doesn’t look like Casper the friendly ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and against all odds you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back.
She continues… “Laugher 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. And remember, grace always bats last.”
Hear that last part 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.”
How many of you were at Vacation Bible School this week? How many of you heard laughter? How many of you laughed? How many of you were part of the kind of incontrollable, delightful, pure laughter that just can’t be helped? While there was learning and fellowship, there was laughter and delight, and I imagine you perhaps sensed the carbonated holiness in those moments.
Fun fact about laughter (from researcher Sophie Scott) – The older we are, the more we analyze laughter and understand its meanings and purposes. But the younger we are the more easily we laugh. We have something to learn from children in this – ease of laughter is one of the qualities of a child-like disciple.
Now think of a different time this week when you laughed… where were you? Who were you with? Why did you laugh?
Another fun fact about laughter – we are 30 times more likely to laugh with other people than we are to laugh alone. 30 times! And we are more likely to laugh with people with whom we have an emotional connection. As human beings we use laughter to indicate connection and also to create connection. And pure laughter is incredibly contagious.
We are headed toward Annual Conference, a return to a setting where last time emotions were highly charged. And the future of the church is at stake (or at least, that’s how it seems). We are rightly engaging in communal prayer and study and discernment around the documents coming to conference, as is the call of our faithful discipleship. But what if we also learned from Sarah, learned from our children, and looked for spaces of laughter, of crazy ideas that release some of that carbonated holiness… What if God is also moving in those spaces?
Sarah’s life was likely hard – filled with human mistakes or even evil, filled with God’s call to uncertain and risky things… Yet in this moment, God called her to laughter – God made laughter for her and because laughter creates connection, everyone who hears laughs with her, even us. Everyone who meets Isaac knows him, for all his flaws and faithfulness, by his name, as one who laughs.
In all this, I’m not saying to laugh more or be funnier. I, for one, find that very daunting – as I found contemplating this sermon topic a bit daunting. I love laughter, but I’m definitely not a comedian! Laughter is like grace or joy – we can’t create it, exactly. But we can open spaces for it (internally and externally), we can notice it, and we can be curious about it rather than too quickly shutting it down with “adulting” or analyzing. When laughter is given to us, made for us by God… in those surprising moments, we can welcome it with outstretched arms and let it open us to possibility and joy.
Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish philosopher writing at the end of World War II, said that totalitarianism is organized loneliness. For her, totalitarianism works because of terror – Terror atomizes human social connections and makes individuals feel utterly alone and insignificant. Totalitarianism, then, creates, perpetuates, and uses that terror and its resulting abyss of loneliness. William Cavanaugh, writing about the Pinochet regime in Chile says a similar thing – torture is not intended primarily for the physical body. It is intended to dis-member the social body through suspicion and fear.
So for both of them – anything that re-members the social body, anything that connects us honestly to one another, is a radical act. Not only that, but honest connection is a radical act that is dangerous to totalitarianism. One of the things that totalitarianism cannot recover from is a people who will not be ruled by fear. And the good news for us this morning – delighted laughter, with its relational qualities, is an antidote to fear, loneliness, and disconnection. Along with music and art, fellowship and ritual, eating with and taking care of each other, and many other things – these are things that make us less afraid… things that keep the claws of terror from getting under our skin… things that make loving one another more possible and natural.
We easily sense how vulnerable and small, things like fellowship and rituals and laughter are in the face of international violence, brutality in our country, brokenness of systems, myriad evils. But we also hear from Jesus that the kingdom of God is like tiny things that are powerful in a different way – mustard seeds, yeast, salt, light. The small but contagious, vulnerable but resilient has always been how love works best.
Some of the most radically unafraid, radically loving people have also had keen senses of humor about themselves and life – I think of Ghandi cracking jokes, Desmond Tutu dancing, the Dalai Lama being playful. You likely have many more you could add to the list. In these folks, as in Sarah, as in us, laughter is both an outcome of being released from fear and also a path toward being released from fear. So laughter becomes a tool for connection, revolution, and peace.
God made laughter for Sarah. She shut it down at first – “nope, I didn’t laugh, definitely not”. We do that, don’t we? Our laughter at things delightful but seemingly impossible – we move right past it into “yeah, but…” Why did Sarah shut it down? The Bible says she was afraid. But the Lord pushed the issue, perhaps to say she need not be afraid – “yes, Sarah, you did laugh.” Maybe it’s not too far from truth to hear in that a light hearted nudge, “Stay in that moment for a little bit, Sarah. You laugh at delightful impossibilities, but is anything too wonderful for God? Stay with your laughter for a moment, and let it open you up to what surprises and delights God can work in the world.”
Kingdom purposes are served by our faithfulness, our sincerity and integrity, our discernment and discipleship, yes. But what if… What if our sharing of laughter, creating space for playfulness, noticing delight, and being curious about all of it… what if that also is where God is? What if the kingdom purposes are also served by these little things – by playfulness that has us chasing butterflies of possibility, by laughter that bubbles up and ripples out, by delight that trusts in an eternal parent’s loving care.
**God has made laughter**
May God make laughter in our midst, and may everyone who hears laugh with us, as we find joy in the promise that nothing is too wonderful for God.