Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our God is a God of laughter and joy. The God we worship is full of surprises, sometimes so unexpected they cause us to fall on our face, get the giggles, or laugh until we cry. This Sunday and next, we drop into the middle of a rich story from Genesis in which the main characters are Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. The story is full of highs and lows, twists and turns, comedy and tragedy. But the best line in the whole thing is spoken by Sarah when she says, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.”
Brings a smile to your face, doesn’t it? When was the last time God made you laugh?
It reminds me of a time when God did make me laugh just down the street from here.
It was a little more than six years ago, early in the morning as I was leaving Charley Bush’s house with Charissa Bradstreet. We had just attended a Service and Outreach meeting at Charley’s house and were walking to our cars. I had my daughter, Avery, with me who was only a few months old at the time and as we walked up the hill, Avery looked at Charissa and started belly laughing that rich contagious kind of laugh that babies have – it made us start laughing – which made Avery laugh even more – which made us laugh even more.
In the early light of spring, the three of us just stood there on the sidewalk, a trinity of souls, laughing until tears rolled down our faces. It was the first time I heard Avery laugh out loud and a moment I will never forget.
Laughter is sacred. Laughter is healing. Scientists also say laughter is a continuation of the fear reflex, that’s why it is so contagious, so hard to stop when you’re at it and often so unclear whether someone is laughing or crying. There is some of that going on in this story of Abraham and Sarah for sure, laughing or crying, maybe a mix of both?
Have you ever wondered where laughter first appears in the Bible? Was it with Adam and Eve in the Garden when they discovered their nakedness? That would be a good guess, but no. Was it Noah, when God told him to build an ark out of cypress wood 300 cubits long by 50 cubits wide, by 30 cubits high because it’s going to rain a whole lot? Another good guess, but no. Was God the first one to laugh? I’m sure it was God, but that’s not what is recorded in the text.
The first time the word laugh appears in the Bible is this story of Abraham and Sarah
when God told them at ages 99 and 89 that they would bear a son.
You see, not long before, God had called Abram and Sarah out of Egypt into the land of Canaan and promised them three things: God said Abraham would have many descendants who would inherit Canaan, and would also be a blessing to the world.
And so, Abraham and Sarah have been waiting and waiting and waiting… and they are OLD. They’re so old they don’t even buy green bananas anymore. So, when God tells Abraham that he will indeed bless them with a son, Abraham’s reply is to laugh so hard he falls on his face.
Laughter scientists (it’s a real thing) say there are two distinct types of laughter;
social laughter and spontaneous laughter. These scientists go out in public and eavesdrop on conversations, noting when people laugh and why. Most often, it’s for no real reason.
Someone greets a friend and says, “Hey Jim, it’s good to see you! How about those Mariners? Ha ha ha!” You know what I’m talking about it. Social laughter is relational, part of conversation and connection, but usually not anything funny. We laugh to make others feel good.
Only about 10-15% of laughter, according to these scientists, is spontaneous. Spontaneous laughter is when you’re 99 and God tells you that your 89-year-old wife will bear you a son. When that happens, you laugh so hard you fall on your face.
Laughing is a good and right response to God, particularly when God acts in ways which surprise or startle us. Can you think of a time in your life when something surprisingly wonderful happened, you received good news, or things just seemed to fall into place? What was your response?
This recently happened in my life and my reaction was to smile from ear to ear, and to laugh inwardly while quiet tears slid down my face. It was that mixture of laughing and crying mentioned earlier, a joyful response born from a place of prayer and relief.
God had promised Abraham and Sarah a child and still, still it had not happened. I know there are those of you here today who have experienced this kind of pain, the pain of waiting for a child who hasn’t come or who never came. Or those whose children haven’t lived into what was expected of them or hoped for them. The journey to and through parenthood is filled with laughing and crying, joy and struggle. In the midst of this, God gives us laughter; laughing to deal with the joy AND the pain. Poet Billy Collins writes, “Humor is the door to the serious.”
And so, here we are by the oaks of Mamre, in the heat of the day, as Abraham and Sarah wait. They were hanging out in their tent when three angels appeared. Abraham ran and greeted them as one greets the divine, his head bowed low to the ground and he said, “My lord, please, stop for a while and rest. I’ll get you water to wash your feet and bread to eat.”
As Abraham tended to these heavenly guests with lavish hospitality, they asked “Where is your wife Sarah?” and foretold that in a year’s time they would return to find Sarah having born a son.
Sarah, listening from just inside the tent, smiled, and spontaneously laughed within herself, tears silently sliding down her cheeks. I can imagine that contemplative moment to have been filled with many things: tender hope, grief, longing, joy, fear…
While outside that tent, the Lord and Abraham continued talking. The Lord asked Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Sarah, finally emerged from the tent telling the Lord herself, “I did not laugh”; for her laughter was in her heart and she was afraid.
Laughter and fear are intertwined. Our hopes and fears, our joy and sorrows bleed one into the next sometimes melting laughter into tears and back again. Laughing has the power to relieve pain and to relax us. Some studies have even shown laughter to reduce stress chemicals in the brain providing evidence for its pain relieving and relaxing capabilities.
Laughter can communicate complex emotions without words. Laughter is cross-cultural and works in any language.
As author Brene Brown says, “The only universal language I know of that wraps up joy and gratitude and love is laughter. And so I believe in the healing power of laughter. I believe laughter forces us to breathe. I think laughter between people is a holy form of connection, of communion. It’s the way you and I look at each other and without words, say, I get exactly what you’re saying.”
Wrapping up joy and gratitude and love into laughter. That’s how Isaac got his name.
God fulfilled that absurd promise and Sarah gave birth to a child. Abraham took all that joy, gratitude, and love they were feeling as they held that new baby boy and named him laughter. That’s what Isaac means.
Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.
Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born. And Sarah said: “God has blessed me with laughter and all who hear will laugh with me.” God has blessed me with Isaac.
Sarah’s laughing was a prayer: a prayer filled with thanksgiving, joy, tears, and relief. Our laughter is a form of worship, a good and right response to God, even when the world seems dark and we are fearful. Because God is still in control. God is bigger than our fears. God is large enough and has the capacity to hold our sorrows, our disappointments, our expectations, and our hope. And God laughs too.
That’s really why laughter is contagious. Laughing is worship and a blessing upon our souls. That’s why is spreads from one soul to the next; from a baby with the giggles to two women standing on a corner, laughing until tears stream down their faces. That circle of laughter was a prayer begun with the first audible laugh of a young child.
God gave us laughter as a gift, a blessing upon our lives to share and spread from soul to soul because our God is a God of laughter and joy.
Sermon Reflection Questions
1) How has God made you laugh?
2) God is full of surprises and states that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. In what ways has God wonderfully surprised you?
3) Abraham and Sarah react to God’s promise of a child with laughter. What do you make of their laughing? What kind of emotion is underneath their giggles?
4) Brené Brown says, “I think laughter between people is a holy form of connection, of communion.” How do you experience laughter as worship?