Sunday’s sermon: Laughing Matters

Laughing out loud

Text used – Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • One night, there was a family sitting down to dinner. As they were eating, they were talking – about their day, about school and work, about the people they had talked to that day and what they had learned, about good things and not-so-good things that had happened. In the midst of this conversation, the little boy said, “Dad, are bugs good to eat?” His father was both taken aback and understandably grossed out by this odd and sudden shift in conversation. “Ugh. Son, that’s disgusting. Don’t talk about things like that over dinner.” The boy started to object, but with a look from his father, he shrugged his shoulders, and continued eating. Later, as the boy was going through his usual bedtime routine, his father (who was feeling a little guilty for curbing his son’s curiosity over dinner) asked him, “So … what was it you wanted to ask me?” The boy looked puzzled for a moment, then shrugged. “Oh, nothing,” he said breezily. “There was a bug in your soup, but now it’s gone!” [[PAUSE]] Laughter. It’s a strange and powerful thing, right?
    • Healing power of laughter[1]
      • Short-term
        • Special trigger for many systems in your body (greater intake of air; release of endorphins; stimulates heart, lungs, and muscles)
        • Through that triggering, it activates and relieves stress response in your body, first increasing and then decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure → leaves you feeling relaxed
        • Soothes tension by stimulating circulation and aiding muscle relaxation
      • Long-term
        • Improve your immune system by releasing neurotransmitters that cane help fight stress and sometimes even more serious illnesses
        • Relieve pain by triggering the body to release its own natural painkilling compounds
        • Increase personal satisfaction → “Laughter can make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.”
    • Laughter as a social signal
      • Research out of MIT: The social brain hypothesis is that language evolved as a way of establishing and strengthening bonds with larger numbers of individuals in a shorter a period of time. … Laughter is simply an extension of this process. Since the act of talking limits the number of individuals who can take part in a conversation, laughter is a method that individuals use to signal their participation in larger group chats. And the result of all this extra bonding is that the larger group, and hence the individuals within it, flourishes.[2]
      • Psychology Today [3]: laughter as a tool we use against suffering and despair: If we can joke about a disappointing or traumatic event, we’ll often find ourselves feeling that what’s happened to us isn’t so bad and that we’ll be able to get through it. This expectation serves two vitally important functions:
        • It diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which
        • Actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred and flourish once again
    • Find all of these elements of laughter – healing nature of it, self-preservation nature of it, coping nature of it – in our Scripture reading this morning
  • Significant because it’s one of only two times in all of Scripture when God appears in human form (other than Jesus) → times when God is bestowing great promises of covenant and relationship
    • Other time = God wrestles with Jacob (actually going to read that story next week) and changes Jacob’s name to Israel → God bestows special blessing on Jacob/Israel
    • Today’s text = God visiting Abraham and Sarah in the form of three strangers → God’s vow to fulfill previous promise about how numerous Abraham’s descendants will be
      • Gen 12 – God to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.”[4]
      • Gen 15 – again God to Abraham: “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have.”[5]
      • So these are the things that God has already said to Abraham … and yet in today’s text, we hear that Abraham and Sarah are both advanced in years – far past child-bearing age – and they still have no children. And yet in comes God in the form of these three strangers with yet another promise – text: Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”[6] → And Sarah’s response is … to laugh.
  • Pause for a moment to address 2 important things
    • FIRST: difficulty that preaching and hearing this text can be → Because the reality of the world that we live in is that not all those who desire to be mothers and fathers get that opportunity. Even in this medically advanced day and age, with all the medications and all the shots and all the procedures in the world, sometimes parenthood remains a maddening impossibility for some people, and that is a painful, painful thing. No amount of praying, no amount of begging or arguing or negotiating with God can change that, and that is truly a painful, painful thing. So when I read this text, having known the pain of that kind of loss myself as I know many in this room have, my heart breaks. And there are no easy words, and there is no simple balm for that kind of ache. It is an ache that Sarah surely felt. It was an ache that many people feel today. And frankly, it’s an ache that we as a society and even as the Church have dealt with poorly (or actively ignored) for far too long. So before we move on with our story this morning, I want to create space for that particular facet of this narrative. [PAUSE]
    • SECOND important thing: Sarah has gotten a bad rap for far too long simply because she laughed → disparaged and even scorned because she had the audacity to question God and laugh at God’s response
      • Need to understand that questioning and debating with God were and still are part of the Hebrew religious tradition → way to mirror the important back-and-forth nature of being in relationship with others – Sarah was simply following suit!
      • Think about the purpose of laughter – healing, restorative, stress-relieving nature that we talked about → After so many years of waiting and hoping, after so many years of disappointment and sorrow, Sarah was being told that she was going to bear a child, and all of that emotion and hope and promise bubbled up inside her and she laughed. I don’t believe that she laughed scornfully or derisively. I don’t believe she laughed at I believe she laughed with God.
        • Linguistic reason for this – text: The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord?[7] → Heb. “too difficult” = tricky word with a variety of translations:
          • Too hard
          • Too surprising (connotations of “in a strange way”)
          • Too wonderful … too extraordinary … to marvelous. So even God is acknowledging the complete out-there-ness of the promise that God has just reiterated, but God is making that promise – a promise of hope and a promise of life – just the same.
            • Scholar: A text such as this calls for sentences in which God appears as the subject. God makes the promised future possible. God serves as the source of hope in situations where the way into the future seems entirely blocked off. God gives shape to possibilities when all around us seems impossible. The active engagement of God in the midst of the problems of daily life opens up the future rather than closing it down.[8]
  • Hope. Life. Relationship. Things that we celebrate in worship every Sunday, but things that we get to celebrate in a special way today as we prepare to baptize Harlow. Hope. Life. Relationship.
    • From the introduction section to baptism liturgy in our Book of Common Worship: The Reformed tradition understands baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant (God’s promise). The water of baptism is linked with the waters of creation, the flood, and the exodus. Baptism thus connects us with God’s creative purpose, cleansing power, and redemptive promise from generation to generation. … In this new [promise] of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole. … Baptism is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace.[9] → A grace that covers. A grace that washes. A grace that promises. A grace that hopes. A grace that surely and wonderfully and divinely laughs. Hope. Life. Relationship. The Good News today, tomorrow, and always. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] “Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456.

[2] “The Evolutionary Origin of Laughter,” https://www.technologyreview.com/s/421480/the-evolutionary-origin-of-laughter/. Posted Oct. 29, 2010, accessed Sept. 15, 2019.

[3] Alex Lickerman. “Why We Laugh: How laughter can help build resilience” from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201101/why-we-laugh. Posted Jan. 23, 2011, accessed Sept. 15, 2019.

[4] Gen 12:3.

[5] Gen 15:5.

[6] Gen 18:10a.

[7] Gen 18:13-14a.

[8] Terence E. Fretheim. “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 465.

[9] “Theology of Baptism” in Book of Common Worship. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 403-404.

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