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Holy Laughter Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 June 15, 2008—Covenant Presbyterian Rev. Catherine Robinson The story says that the Lord appeared to Abraham in the “heat of the day.” We know about the “heat of the day.” Actually, I understand that an afternoon siesta was very much a part of the “heat of the day” routine in Abraham and Sarah’s culture. And without stereotyping too much, maybe for a couple in their ‘90’s it was not just a siesta time in the day. Maybe it was kind of a siesta time of life— a time that one might expect to slow down and rest just a bit. But into this siesta time of day and into this siesta time of life step three visitors. And, siesta time or no, Abraham jumps up and becomes the model of Middle Eastern hospitality— getting water to wash their feet, asking Sarah to make cakes, choosing a tender and good calf, and asking the servant to prepare it. It’s beautiful to watch him. We just don’t extend that kind of hospitality in our culture. Well, the next thing that happens is that the honored guests break some earthshaking— no, perhaps we should side-splitting—news to Abraham. Pack your bags, old man, and start practicing your breathing exercises because you and Sarah are headed for labor and delivery! 2 Well, so what does 90 year-old Sarah do, as she’s peeking out from behind the tent flap and listening to the goings on?.... Well, wouldn’t you laugh? I’d laugh! At age 90… I imagine I’d laugh… or more likely, I’d cry… and I don’t think that I would be crying tears of joy! After a seeming endless stretch of barrenness, after longing for a child for so long that she had given up longing— Now—in the siesta time of her life— someone says that she’s looking at dirty diapers, and two o’clock feedings, and terrible twos, and everything else that comes along with being a parent? Right! God isn’t too happy with Sarah for laughing. Sarah’s laughter here is definitely not the laughter of joy. Sarah’s laughter is the laughter of disbelief, the laughter of derision and contempt. But lest we blame all of the disbelief on Sarah, we need to realize, on this Happy Father’s day, that when God comes to Abraham just one chapter earlier, with similar news (that Abraham is to be a father!), the story says that Abraham falls on his face laughing at God! One preacher suggests that that maybe Abraham and Sarah feel kind of like we might feel if we’re having a big party and we have our heads set on playing one special song. But we can’t find it. 3 So, we scramble around like crazy people all evening, searching and searching for the song. But we still can’t remember where it is. And then, finally we find it. And we run to play it. But it is too late. The party is over. Everyone has gone home. Abraham and Sarah are at the party saying to God the Host, “Hey God! There’s no point in playing the song, now! Don’t bother! It’s too late.” (John Unger, “Faith in the Face of Doubt, http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?640) Hey God! Abraham and Sarah say. It’s too late! They don’t allow cribs in the nursing home! Besides, God, we really are okay, now, with what we’ve got. We’ve made do with the life we’ve got. Sure, it wasn’t exactly the life we had hoped for, but it’s been a good life. We’ve got Ishmael, Hagar’s boy. No, he’s not really the son we wanted, but he’s a good boy. We’re okay, God…really! We’ve actually gotten kind of used to this barrenness business…finally. Barrenness is our way of life now. Don’t spring a future on us now! We’re too old for a future! So, when God gives them a future, Abraham and Sarah laugh in disbelief… because at this point, they’re not sure that they even want a future. They feel too worn out for a future. They just want God to leave them alone so that they can take their siestas in peace. Sometimes we get that way. 4 We get used to some kind of barrenness in our hearts, in our lives, even in our churches. And when someone suggests that some new life may be on the way, we just roll just our eyes and laugh. We don’t want to have anything to do with it. It is no state secret that our Associate Pastor Nominating Committee has been conducting on-site interviews for our associate pastor position. We have interviewed three extraordinarily gifted candidates. As you know, our associate pastor will spend a lot of time working with children, youth, and their families. So, of course, we have asked these bright young folks a lot about what they would expect to do with our children’s and youth programs. Each has offered some very exciting ideas. But do you know what each one has also said? Each one has said, “If any of this is going to work, we have to have adults in the congregation who are willing to be a part of the program, who are willing to teach and lead and love the children and youth. None of these ideas can work without committed adult leadership.” There it is, brother and sisters. A call out of barrenness. It is a call, in one way or another, to you and to me… It is a call to teach, to lead, to cook, to drive, to hug, to give money, to do something! So, are you rolling your eyes and laughing? Are you saying, “I’m too old for that?” Are you saying, “I’d rather just take my siesta right now?” And Sarah laughed. Sarah laughed. And then, just a few verses later, 5 God asks Sarah, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Well, that’s a good question. What do you think about that? Is anything too wonderful— is anything too hard— is anything too impossible— for God? Let’s just leave that question hanging there, because really, that’s what the story does. Did you notice that, at the end of that first passage that we heard, Abraham and Sarah still seem to be doubting? Sarah is afraid, and is denying that she laughed. And God is saying, “Oh yes honey… oh yes, you did laugh.” Is anything too impossible for God? Now, look at the second passage we read. Ah, here the laughter has changed! Somewhere between Chapter 18 and Chapter 21, there clearly was a point when it hit Abraham and Sarah that this absolutely insane picture of their having a child was true and they decided that it was glorious after all. They embraced the miracle, embraced the promise, embraced the future that God had in store for them. And now, their laughter is full of joy. So by now, this story is absolutely brimming over with laughter. Who’da thunk it? As we were saying with the children, Ha! It’ll never happen! But it did! Bill likes to tell the story of a sleepy afternoon— maybe it was about siesta time?— when he was plodding along leading a confirmation class 6 for 7th graders. He says that he doesn’t really remember what he was talking about, except that he was probably trying to get those wonderful, bored kids to see how the story of Scripture is a story about how God keeps on pursuing us, no matter how much we run away and try to hide. And all of a sudden, Tammy, in the midst of all of the usual 7th grade squirming and impatience, looked up in a moment of surprise and she said, “Well, why? Why does God love us so much?” And there was this moment of stunned silence in the group. Then they all eyed each other cautiously to see if it was all right to giggle. And then they all began to snicker and then to laugh— not at Tammy, but with her. They laughed because they had never heard the question put that way. They laughed because they knew that there was no answer to the question. They laughed because maybe the news was better than they guessed. And Tammy laughed too, because she knew that she was not alone in asking that unanswerable question. “Well why? Why does God love us so much?” That, brothers and sisters, was holy laughter. It is a kind of laughter that can sneak up on us in all kinds of ways. Maybe it snuck up on you in the words of a hymn 7 that you had sung all of your life, but all of a sudden these words jumped out and grabbed your soul and you were singing with a lump of joy in your throat. Maybe it snuck up on you in hearing words that we hear each Sunday— “In Jesus Christ you are forgiven!”— and for some reason, the forgiveness bathed you that day, and you were truly at peace, and maybe no one but you noticed the silly little grin on your face, Maybe it snuck up on you in the experience of having been at a dead end in life and in some unexpected way the future opened up and suddenly you were walking through life with a new bounce in your step— practically dancing with the possibility that God’s hand was at work in all of this. Because of our dour Scottish heritage, Presbyterians have a reputation for being rather serious and solemn. You know…God’s frozen people, and all of that. At Covenant, we try hard to buck that reputation! And sometimes we succeed pretty well! But sometimes, we still need to hear the invitation of this story to throw off the wet blanket of pious solemnity, and to let the tears of holy laughter roll down our cheeks. Abraham and Sarah looked at their barrenness and they said, Ha! It’ll never happen! But it did! Oh yes… It sure did! And his name was “Laughter.” You’ve gotta love it! Oh, you’ve gotta love it! Thanks be to God. Amen.
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