Laughter Transformed (Proper 6A)
Genesis 18:9-15; 21:1-7
[The three visitors at the Oaks of Mamre] said to [Abraham], “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
2nd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 6A)
Let me begin by saying, "Happy Father's Day!" to all. But, as it turns out, I'm going to spend this sermon talking all about the mother in the story. Sarah is really the main character today. We can talk about Abraham some other time :-).
This is a story about laughter. And it should be fun to talk about because I know this church and we laugh all the time. We know how to have a good time, filling the air with jokes and stories while we eat together.
But as we all know there are at least two different kinds of laughter that matter for this biblical story: There is “laughing at” and there is “laughing with”.
“Laughing at” is laughter at the expense of others. It comes from taunting or teasing, or from somebody else falling down or embarrassing themselves. When I see something wacky or silly, it’s really an uncontrollable response. The laughter usually bursts forth from me before I have a chance to even think about it. We do this kind of laughter all the time. It’s the basis for most all physical comedy.
The same goes when someone says something that sounds absurd or (to put it plainly) stupid. Again, a lot of comedy is built on us laughing at a clown figure who says or believes ridiculous things and repeatedly embarrasses himself. We do this quite naturally and easily, without much forethought.
But, when we peel back the curtain a little bit on this “laughing at” phenomenon, it may help us to learn something about ourselves. Now, I admit, there is nothing that kills a joke faster than over-explaining it, but I do want us to think critically about laughter here. It’s so central to this story about Sarah and Abraham that it needs some examination.
When we laugh at, for example, someone falling off a trampoline, what are we really laughing at? Do we think that her pain is entertaining? When we laugh at buffoons in comedy movies, what are we really laughing at? Are we actually proud of ourselves for being smarter than they are?
And likewise, what was Sarah thinking when she laughed at the Lord’s promise? When she heard him say that she would bear a son, despite being an elderly woman, she laughed. She thought it was impossible, and a stupid thing to suggest. Her laughter carried with it a sense of disbelief mixed with superiority. “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” (Gen 21:7). So she laughed.
This impulse to “laugh at” is deeply embedded in each of us, and in this I am the chief of sinners. You may have noticed that I laugh and giggle and chuckle a lot. And I’m not always proud of what that reveals about my inner thoughts. Maybe Sarah was also a boisterous and entertaining woman to be around, the life of the party. But in hindsight this laugh was not her finest moment. She laughed at God.
But there is a different kind of laughter too. “Laughing with” is not about taunting or demeaning another person. It’s a joyful response to the delights of family, friendship, and fellowship.
When someone says something clever and unexpected, and they surprise us with something good, we may laugh to express our approval. When you see someone living life to the full, acting like themselves and loving it, your grin might become a giggle.
“Laughing with” expresses camaraderie and community. It shows that we are in this together, that we love each other (and mighty even like each other). This sort of laughter doesn’t separate us; it draws us closer together. There isn’t a “laugher” and a “laughee”. No one is the butt of the joke who feels left out of the fun. “Laughing with” is an invitation for others to experience your joy with you. Both the motivation and the outcomes are different. It’s about growing the circle of love a little wider.
By the time Isaac is born, Sarah’s perspective has changed. She still laughs. But she is no longer laughing at God for a crazy proposition. Now she is laughing with God because she is thankful for God’s great gift. She is laughing with God and with her neighbors. Again, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6; emphasis added).
God transformed Sarah’s laughter. When God’s promises came true, her cynicism and skepticism transformed into joy and thanksgiving. Now she wants to share that joy with everyone who hears her laugh. She wants the world to know that God is faithful and does great things in her midst.
Laughter and Generosity
Laughter and joy are underappreciated virtues. To live a healthy, mature Christian life, you need a sense of humor. We need to be able to bask in the good moments and hold onto them when things aren’t so good. We need to be able to look for and focus on whatever is good, true, honorable, and just in the world (Philippians 4:8). We need to carry with us an attitude of gratitude for all of God’s good gifts to us. And we need to be able to laugh with our sisters and brothers, to share joy with somebody else.
A grateful heart is what leads people to live generously, to give boldly, and to serve gladly in their communities.
Abraham and Sarah met strangers passing by their home and pulled out all the stops to take care of them. They gathered water; they baked fresh bread; they killed a calf to make veal; they even served curds and cheeses. They threw a bona fide feast for these three travelers who they had never met before. That generosity came from their joy and thanksgiving to God. This is how you treat people in need because God treats us kindly when we are in need.
Similarly, Sarah attains to her fullest joy in this story when she has another person she can give to. She laughs with God and her neighbor when she has the opportunity to raise a child.
Our laughter and joy is a gift from God. And like all gifts from God, they are not meant to be purely self-serving. Our joy and gladness should lead to thanksgiving. And thanksgiving for our blessings should lead us to be a people who bless one another.
God is calling us to have some fun. And through it, God is calling us to give to our neighbors in need, to charities that do good work, to the church and other ministries that preach Good News of Jesus. And if we all work at giving of ourselves -- our time, our talents, and our treasures -- that means that each of us will receive in abundance too.
So when you’re surprised by God’s goodness, laugh with each other. And then remember to be generous with your joy and your possessions, as God is generous to us. Amen.