The Breath of Laughter

Scripture can be found here...

A friend of mine attended Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where she took a class titled “Everything I learned about Christianity I learned from a Rabbi.” The class was indeed taught by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, the senior rabbi at the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis. The rabbi began the class with the passage we have before us today: the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish faith, and so he asked the question, “Why do you think God chose Abraham for this honor?” The class took his question very seriously, thinking long and hard before raising a hand. (No one wanted to embarrass themselves right off the bat.) With every answer that was proposed, the rabbi would say, “Excellent” or “Yes, that’s good.” Finally the class was ready for the answer. They asked, “Well, which is it? Why did God choose Father Abraham?” Rabbi Howard responded, “I have no idea. I was hoping you’d know.” [i]


Rabbi Howard helped a nervous class of would-be ministers loosen up and laugh.


What makes us laugh?


I had a truly deep laugh this week at breakfast with some friends. What were we laughing about? I can’t even remember. All I know is, the sound of it rang out in the Apple Hills Café last Wednesday morning, and people at the other tables turned around to see what was so funny.


Sometimes, we laugh because something is funny.


Sometimes, we laugh because we are nervous. This often happens when someone is switching gears on us, moving the conversation in a direction we weren’t expecting.


Then there is the bitter laugh, the laugh that has no good humor or good feeling in it at all. It is technically a laugh, but one infused with anger or despair.


There are many kinds of laughter. Laughter is at the center of our story this morning, laughter from a woman “several decades past childbearing years,”[ii] who is married to a man who was last reported to be 99 years old. She laughs upon hearing three strangers opine that in less than a year she will give birth to a son.


Sarah laughs.


What kind of laugh is this, exactly?


Is it a belly laugh, brought on by a statement that seemed so absurd it could only be heard as comical?


Was it a nervous laugh? A, “Wow, what a completely weird thing to say, and who are you guys again?” laugh?


Was it a bitter laugh—that laugh that can sound like a kind of bark—a, “Yeah, a little late for that” laugh?


I wonder.


So much has happened in the story of scripture since we worshiped together last week. We left off with the first couple, the beginnings of the first family, before everything went south, and they were expelled from Eden and sent out into the world. Stories of early humanity follow—people doing things like planting crops and herding animals and building cities… and discovering the truly heartbreaking truth about themselves, that they can be angry or indifferent enough to kill one another. Things deteriorate to the point that God chooses to wipe the slate clean and start again, and so we have the story of the flood, and the remnant that remains through the family of Noah. And if we have a hard time understanding how the Creator of everything could choose to wipe it out, at least we have the somewhat encouraging information that God seems to regret that particular decision. And with the setting of a rainbow in the heavens, God promises not to do it again.


A few chapters later, the story focuses in on this couple, Abraham and Sarah At 75 and 65 when we first meet them, they receive God’s promise of offspring, and land, and blessing. And the promise does not materialize, for a good long time. For nearly 25 years. But God keeps reiterating it. Even when the actions of the couple are less than faithful. Even when Abraham has a child with Hagar, Sarah’s slave. Even later, after this, when Abraham and Sarah throw that mother and child out into the wilderness. God remains faithful.


God keeps restating the promise. Again and again. God is up to something.


This is a story about a pregnancy and a child. And, it is also a story about everyone whose life took an unexpected turn. Or two. It’s a story about every one of us who thought we knew exactly what our life was going to look like, and then was surprised.


Yesterday I heard a speaker at our Presbytery Assembly, who came to help us think creatively about the work we do together. Actually, I was surprised by her presentation. It wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting to learn things about how to revitalize small churches, or how to band together to do new things in ministry. I wanted a list of things I could stick in my pocket, and carry to the churches I work with through the Committee on ministry.


She started out by telling us we need to know how stupid we are.


That doesn’t sound exactly right. Let me try again. She started by telling a story of an experience that helped her to discover humility in the face of very difficult, very complicated, pain-filled scenarios. Because, let’s face it. The church, the world, the neighborhood…. these are all what our speaker called “problem-saturated narratives.”


The story of Sarah and Abraham and their 25-year wait for God to come through is a problem-saturated narrative, and we haven’t even talked about the times when Abraham pretended he and Sarah weren’t married in order to protect himself from foreign kings who wanted to snatch Sarah up and take her into their harems.


Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with problem-saturated narratives. Whether we’re talking about family, or work, or relationships. Whether we’re talking about personality issues or health concerns or heartless corporations that lay people off a few months before their retirement benefits are guaranteed.


For Presbyterians, none of this is shocking. We understand that there is a kind of brokenness at the heart of things. A kind of tilt to the universe that keeps us off-center, as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes in his poem, “God’s Grandeur”:


Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil…


But. But. God is up to something, isn’t God? Again and again, God keeps reiterating the promise. Hope. Hopkins goes on,


And for all this, nature is never spent;

    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


God is up to something. For Sarah and Abraham, the Holy Spirit broods by showing up in the guise of three men, not powerful and awe-inspiring, but needing water, and bread, and a place to rest out of the sun. This is how God comes to us, mostly. Not with clouds parting and glorious light filtering down through bright wings, but human, like us. Needing all kinds of things, like us. Ready to sit down at a table, like us. This is how God breaks in. This is when we find out what God’s plans really are.


For Sarah and Abraham—against all expectations—God’s plans do include a baby, and I do want to acknowledge—scripture’s focus on miraculous stories of babies can feel painful for many people who have intimately known that particular struggle. For those who have longed to hold a baby in their arms—people like my own parents, for instance—God’s plans have sometimes included the unexpected baby, the one they never dreamed of, or the life in which they discovered other ways of parenting or mentoring… teaching, coaching. Being the beloved aunt or uncle. God’s plans often include a life that was unpredictable… but which, in the end, revealed God’s faithfulness in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined.


In three short chapters, when Sarah finally gives birth—just as the hungry and thirsty visitors had said she would—she laughs again. In fact, Abraham names their boy Isaac—Yitzhak, which means “he laughs” in Hebrew. Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”


Why do we laugh?


Sometimes, we laugh because something is funny.


Sometimes, we laugh because we are nervous.


Sometimes, we laugh in bitterness.


But sometimes, when the problem-saturated narrative we were living in suddenly bubbles up, sparkles with the unexpected, even un-looked-for gift of God we didn’t even know we were longing for, that we didn’t even know we needed… then, we laugh for pure joy.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] True story, shared by Rev. Robyn Provis, Minneapolis, MN.

[ii] Roger Nam, Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7, Working Preacher website.