Sunday, February 2, 2014

Just for Laughs

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
 They said to him, ‘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.’
Then the men set out from there, and they looked towards Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.  -- Genesis 18:1-16
Genesis is a book with so many stories that people remember when they think about the Bible. There are the creation stories, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers up to the beginning of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. One of the key players in Genesis was the patriarch Abraham. We see him in various stories from various times in his life. There is the recounting of his life in Ur and the beginning of his journey to the land God promised him. There are tales of various exploits including prevaricating to rather powerful people on two separate occasions when he declared that Sarah, his wife, was really his sister, a lie designed to spare his own life while using her like bait on a hook while stretching the truth just maybe halfway. It seems she really was his half-sister.

Today’s portion of Genesis is the story of a man having an encounter with strangers, a prophecy, and a laugh. In the days before Hilton Hotels and Motel 6, hospitality to strangers was the norm that could mean the difference between life and death, especially in the desert or more inhospitable areas. Any stranger could appear at a campsite and would be welcomed as if he were visiting royalty a member of the family. Even a person’s bitterest enemy could appear and be given three days of hospitality with no sign of violence or animosity. It was just that kind of thing done in that place and time.

Three strangers approached Abraham’s camp, and were, of course, welcomed in the appropriate manner. Food was prepared for them, they were made comfortable and Abraham served them himself. Perhaps names were exchanged, perhaps not, but the three visitors were never identified specifically so we’re left to speculate after the fact. When one informed Abraham that his wife Sarah would become pregnant a rather audible snicker a giggle or outright belly laugh came from someone just out of sight and behind a curtain or tent wall. Sarah, who like Abraham was well past the first blush of youth and even past the normal age of childbearing, must have thought it a comedy routine on par with Bill Cosby or Carol Burnett. Sarah had been out of sight but not out of earshot and definitely not out of audible range.

 There are lots of ways to receive news, depending on what kind of news and the apparent probability of that news actually being true. I can imagine that in a similar circumstance, were it on television, would result in a rather sarcastic “Say what?” Sarah just laughed. The whole thing had to be a joke, right? At about 90 years of age there was no chance of pregnancy, so what else can you do but laugh, especially if you have been childless for decades. I’m sure she must have cried her eyes out over her barrenness during those intervening years, and the only expression left to her was laughter.

Laughter is not one of the most frequent things to appear in the Bible. There are, depending on translation, perhaps 20 to 25 verses that use or allude to the practice. Sometimes laughter is done in defiance, and occasionally it is used as a pleasurable state. Most often though, it seems to be done scornfully or sarcastically in derision of a person or situation. It can almost be like a defense mechanism, which is how I think Sarah meant it. If someone walked up to your front door, rang the bell and informed you that you had just won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, after one jaw-dropping moment, I would guess most people would burst into laughter of disbelief commingled with excitement. It’s an instinct of sorts.

The Bible never says anything about Jesus laughing but it’s hard to believe he could live a human life without it, whether or not it’s explicitly mentioned in Scripture. There are a whole lot of things that a normal person would do that Jesus isn’t reported to have done and we don’t think much about those. I guess we just assume that he had to use the bathroom, had to take baths, ran and jumped and skipped, and possibly drank just a hair more than he should. Perhaps we would have a different vision of Jesus if some of those things have been included in the Gospels that we read today. As it is, it feels like we are so focused on his divinity we forget his humanity, and try to pattern our own lives based on that divinity, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We are pretty sure we are going to fail; it is just a question of degree. We are presented with something impossible and we laugh, thinking it must be a joke that someone would even suggest that we would be able to do something seemingly miraculous like having a baby in extreme old age or feeding all the hungry children of the world that already exist (or even just a few).

Laughter is a great thing; it eases tension, creates camaraderie, promotes enjoyment and lightens the spirit. Like in the song from Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” a sermon, a lesson or a life goes a little easier and is a bit more memorable when there’s something in it to provoke a little laughter. I’m sure had God not approved of laughter God would never have included both the ability and the desire to laugh into the human makeup. Laughter expresses joy as well as incredulity and happiness as well as derision. It’s a matter of learning when to use it and how.

 Sarah laughed. She laughed in disbelief, she laughed in scorn, and she laughed in pure joy, all at the same time. We could analyze it from all sorts of angles, and ascribe emotions and motives to the laughter but what it all boils down to is she heard something incredible and reacted to it. I wonder what would happen if we heard that everything bad that we had ever done had been forgiven by God before we even asked for forgiveness (if we ever did). Would we, like Sarah, laugh? Would it be a scornful laugh, a quizzical laugh, an “I can’t believe this” laugh, or would it be a laugh of pure joy? We think of the life of Jesus and figure we can never live up to that example. It doesn’t stop us from trying, but we tend to look at it with very serious eyes. What if we could greet those lessons and the example of his life with a joyful laugh? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to take and to work with and possibly with a higher degree of success?

I think that this week I will have to look at laughter in a slightly different light.  Maybe I will see places where laughter can lighten the load or express an unexpected joy. It’s worth a shot. Look what it did for Sarah!

Originally published at <a href=""> Speaking to the Soul </a> on <a href=""> Episcopal Café </a> Saturday, February 1, 2014.

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