Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Luke 10:38-42
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Holy and Loving God, write a message on our hearts. Bless us, direct us, and send us out, living letters of the Word. AMEN.
It was Lent. I was the Rector of little All Saints’ in Gastonia, North Carolina and I wanted to approach the somber season with all the formality and dignity the season deserved. I had just finished the announcements, I turned, walked to the altar, and donned the chasuble: the ancient garment warn by priests while presiding at the holy mysteries, the garment meant to recall the seamless garment of Christ. Once the chasuble, adorned with the deep violent of the season, was on, I turned to the altar and paused, preparing myself for the sacrament. And then my friends, I heard a voice. I kid you not, I heard a voice, familiar, loud, and frightening. “Daddy’s wearing a purple dress!”
I tried to keep it together. But it was too late, for the entire congregation, hearing Anna’s observation burst into gales of laughter. I too, could not contain myself, and doubled over with giggles. The composition of my sermon earlier in the liturgy, the beauty of the music, the profundity of the sacrament – all of that went out the window and all the community talked about Daddy's purple dress.
Laughter is a very primal reaction to life itself. A good joke, an awkward moment, a surreal juxtaposition – all of which can elicit this guttural utterance. Many of our emotions trigger physiological responses – sadness begets crying, fear might give us goosebumps, and so on. When I was a teenager, and first awakening to the great mystery of women, I knew that I liked a girl if her mere presence induced a strong feeling of deep nausea. But all of these pale in comparison to laughter. Scientists theorize that laughter encourages the body to release endorphins which encourage blood flow, strengthen our immune system, relieve stress hormones, and reduce physical pain. No wonder we all feel better after a good laugh.
Laughter plays a recurring role in our Old Testament story, and not just the scene we read, but the entire saga of the calling of Abraham and Sarah and the foretelling of the birth of Isaac. In Chapter 12 of Genesis (as I am sure you all remember from Sunday School), the Lord calls to a man named Abram and instructs him to, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Now, Abram and Sarai are devout followers and lovers of God and so their consent to this strange instruction is rooted in their relationship with God. But, they are also human, seventy-five and sixty-five year old humans, and they had not been blessed with children and they desired nothing more, so God's promise, especially considering their age, must have been staggering. So they pick up everything they knew: their life, their livelihood, their familial connections and move.
Years pass. Twenty-four years pass, and the Lord's promise has not been fulfilled. In Chapter 17, the Lord again speaks to Abram and renews their covenant. And as a symbol of this renewal, the Lord changes Abram’s name to Abraham and the Lord says, “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous … You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Fast-forward to today’s reading. Three men – presumably three angels – visit Abraham and Sarah. The couple being good hosts, present their guests with water and fresh cakes and curds and the fatted calf and a spot in the shade. After their guests eat and are refreshed, one of the angels says to Abraham, “your wife Sarah shall have a son.” The Lord's promise is repeated again and again.
Now, let’s read between the lines for a moment. Twenty-four years has passed since Abraham and Sarah, picked up everything and moved to a land where they had nothing: no life, no occupation, no reputation or family to open doors or garner respect - valuable commodities in that time and place. Perhaps you are more faithful, more patient than I, but after twenty-four years, when God approaches, my response would have been … colorful. I wonder if such thoughts passed through Abraham and Sarah’s minds as well. For scripture reports that each of them, upon hearing the Lord's promise repeated, laughed. Sarah exclaims in exasperation, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord hears Sarah’s laughter and says to Abraham, “‘Why did Sarah laugh … Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” … Sarah [denies it], saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ [but the Lord says], ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’”
Can we blame them? We could have an interesting discussion about the misogyny inherent in ancient cultures and how whether one procreates should not effect one's value as a human being, but that does not explain away the fact that Abraham and Sarah deeply wanted a child and gave up everything in pursuit of God's promise. Perhaps some of you have made similar sacrifices. And after a lifetime of waiting, upon hearing the Lord, they laugh. Not a laugh of joy, but a laugh of deep pain and anguish.
Our Good News this morning is that we know a God who keeps promises. Perhaps not timely, perhaps not immediate – God would not tolerate our obsession with instant gratification – but God is faithful and God keeps God’s promises. God hears the yearnings of our hearts and souls and responds with grace and love. Our laughter of despair or disbelief may be real and valid and prolonged, but the laughter of God, the laughter of Easter victory, will always be the last laugh. God kept God's promise to Abraham and Sarah. In the 21st chapter, Isaac is born. Sarah says, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’” And what does the name Isaac mean? He who laughs.
I read an interesting column in last Wednesday’s New York Times. Nicholas Kristof was writing about Africa and how certain diseases, which have crippled the continent for generations, are finally being eradicated. Subsequently, Africa is booming and six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Kristof remarked, “Don’t think of Africa as a place to pity, but as a place to invest.” He also tells a story of Yagare Traoré, a woman who suffered from trachoma, a disease that besets the victim with extreme pain and blindness. Yagare had spent years in her hut, unable to farm or care for her 11 children, six of whom died. Then she received a fifteen-minute, forty-dollar surgery. When her, “bandage was removed, a boy stepped forward to guide her home, [presuming she would still need help]. She said, 'Get out of my way … I can see! I can walk by myself!'”
When she did get home, I wonder if she laughed. AMEN.