I’ve noticed in my sermons that I always get a laugh when I make oblique references to my age. I remember people chuckling when I’ve said: “A decade ago, when I was a sophomore in high school,” or “Back in 1993 when I was 10 years old” or “I was born during Reagan’s first term.” Now, I’ve never thought that the congregation was laughing at me; they weren’t laughing because someone half or even one-third their age was preaching to them. They laughed because they remembered themselves at 25, remembered how young or naïve or wide-eyed they were. They laughed because their thoughts of themselves in decades past were pretty darn funny. I wonder if their quarter-century selves laughed back then thinking of 25 or 50 years down the road. Laughter marks our journeys. Laughter, in all its tones, for all its reasons, tells us where we are and how we are experiencing life. And laughter is one of God’s most effective means of communicating God’s plan to us.
You see, there’s not just one kind of laughter. You can chuckle or guffaw or cackle or giggle or chortle or snicker or double over and slap your knee or, if you are the Queen of England, “express amusement.” Different kinds of laughter fit different situations. You might not realize it, but God speaks to us in laughter. When we discover why we are laughing, God’s movement in our lives becomes much clearer. Here’s four kinds of laughter to illustrate what I mean.
In our story from Genesis today, the LORD appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre and makes a startling, even comical, announcement: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” The narrator explains why this is so funny: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in years.” The King James Version puts it a bit more colorfully—the couple was “well stricken in age.” Now, whether she is advanced in years or well stricken, Sarah is most definitely post-menopausal. So Sarah laughs the incredulous laughter of impossibility. This laugh usually consists of one loud sound, almost a bark. There’s no way she can have a baby! God is really selling something this time.
How often does God ask us to do the seemingly impossible: from loving those who hate us to holding the hand of a dying friend to working for justice in a world where disparity is the overarching reality. Sometimes, all we can do is laugh at the hopelessness around us. Thinking God is changing our world is incredible—incredible, as in, “not credible.” This is the incredulous laughter of impossibility. Sarah and Abraham (in the previous chapter) both laugh at the possibility that God can do the impossible.
But as a recent Adidas ad campaign reminds us: “Impossible is nothing.” I think Adidas’s marketing department has been reading Genesis. God hears Sarah laugh and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” This may sound like a question, but there’s only one answer. “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” No. In another story we all know about a woman (who shouldn’t be able to have a baby) having a baby, the angel Gabriel says: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Believing that impossible is nothing can spur us to laugh the zealous laughter of confidence. This laugh comes from the belly and usually generates a hair toss or the placement of hands on the hips. This is the fresh, unrefined zeal that accompanies a mountaintop experience or a revelatory conversion. Of course nothing is too wonderful for God! How could I ever have doubted?
But fresh, unrefined zeal has a short shelf life. Don’t misunderstand: there aren’t too many better feelings than riding a spiritual high. But there is a danger when these mountaintops, these highs points become the focus of a life of faith. Too often, spiritual high seekers becomes self-centered, always looking for another buzz, never stopping to realize that God has already filled them with every good thing.
When fresh, unrefined zeal deepens past the surface, past the level where the erosion of daily life always threatens to wash away our confidence in God, another kind of laughter emerges. The narrator of Sarah’s story says, “The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.” Believing God’s promise to fulfill all of God’s promises leads to the thankful laughter of surrender. This laugh of relief usually begins with a long exhale and ends with a small, almost inaudible chuckle. This isn’t surrender in the sense of “giving up,” but in the sense of “giving over.” When we give over to God all of our insecurities and anxieties and fears and limitations, we realize that God has already given us the ability to rest in God’s promises. And we thank God for the willingness to embrace us, love us, and transform our lives.
Sarah’s life changes when she conceives and bears her son Isaac. Nine months before, she was laughing incredulously at the thought that she could have a child. But here he is. And Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me.” In saying this, she’s having a little joke of her own—in Hebrew, Isaac means “laughter.” I imagine Sarah holding him in her arms, a small swaddled gift from God. I imagine his little fist clutching her old, leathery finger. I imagine her throwing her head back and laughing the sparkling laughter of joy. This laugh is unrestrained and spontaneous and unique for every one of God’s children. This laugh connects us to the God who is the source of our joy. When sparkling laughter wells up within us and spills from our lips, we proclaim that God has made our joy complete, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel.
Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me,” and then she continues, “Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Our laughter is a testimony, a witness to the movement of God in our lives and in the world. In the story of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie echoes this witness: “When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” When God’s movement in our lives causes us to laugh—incredulously, zealously, thankfully, sparklingly—our laughs break, like our bread, and skip across a world in dire need of something to laugh about.
So laugh for the joy that God is calling us to love and serve God and each other. Laugh for the thankfulness that God equips us for this loving service. Laugh for the faith that nothing is impossible and nothing is too wonderful for the LORD.
(Sermon for June 15, 2008 || Proper 6, Year A RCL || Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7)