What are you laughing at?

As Abraham welcomed the strangers so God welcomes us.
God greets us with joy and says, “rest here for awhile.”
God brings out water to wash our dusty feet.
God prepares a meal to nourish our weary spirits.
So let us receive the gracious hospitality of our God.
Let us rest in this holy place where there is shade and water, food and laughter. 1

Laughter is a physical response to external or internal stimuli. Laughter can arise from being tickled, or from humorous stories or thoughts. Most commonly, it is considered an expression of positive emotional states, such as joy, mirth, happiness. On some occasions, however, it may be caused by contrary emotional states such as embarrassment, apology, or confusion such as nervous laughter or courtesy laughter.

The study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body, is called gelotology.

Laughter researcher Robert Provine said: “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter.”

Did you know that laughter can be classified according to 5 of its characteristics?
1 intensity: the chuckle, giggle, chortle, cackle, or belly laugh
2 the overtness: snicker or guffaw
3 the respiratory pattern: snort
4 the emotion it expresses
5 the sequence of notes or pitches it produces

Common causes for laughter are sensations of joy and humor. Laughter can also be a coping mechanism when one is upset, angry or sad.

It’s been said that “laughter is the best medicine” and Norman Cousins proved it. After being diagnosed with a painful disease, he developed a recovery program that incorporated laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. He writes, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.” 2

Not only does laughter have healing benefits, but scientists also believe that laughter releases tension and stress. Dr. Madan Kataria has taken these benefits of laughter to new heights. He has launched Laughter Yoga Clubs all around the world; people gather for the express purpose of laughing together. I’ve participated in one of his classes. Trust me… it’s a stitch!

Our scripture lesson for today invites us to consider one of the Bible’s most well-known incidents of laughter.

Genesis 18:1-15 (CEB)
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. 2 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. 3 He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
6 So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” 7 Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
10 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!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.
13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”

Sarah laughed. Now, I’m willing to bet that she did not chuckle out of some sense of joy or mirth. She was not tickled nor was she reacting to the visitor’s wit. Sarah’s laugh could probably be classified under nervous laughter: not knowing how else to respond, she snickered to herself… or paradoxical laughter: out of sheer disbelief at the impossible promise, she snorted in derision. A baby, yeah right… or a coping mechanism: having hoped for a child so long to no avail, she cynically chuckled to cover her deep grief and profound sadness.

Sarah laughed. And we know there wasn’t anything funny about her situation. Instead, the man’s promise echoed in her ears like a bad joke.

In all the scientific theories about laughter & humor, two elements seem always to be present: incongruity and surprise.

Incongruity means contradictory or unrelated ideas. Surprise is something totally unexpected and unanticipated. Incongruity and surprise are closely related and are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Both capitalize on the twist, the unforeseeable. Both jolt us out of one mental attitude into another, which may be completely opposed to the first. It’s incongruity and surprise that lie behind the humor of one-liners like Henny Youngman’s: “Take my wife. . .please.” Or Woody Allen’s: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m taking along an extra pair of underwear just in case.”

Incongruity and surprise go together in humor. But—and this is the crucial point for us in understanding Sarah’s laugh—it is possible to have humor that deals only in the incongruous and is completely without surprise. That is Sarah’s humor. She can laugh at the preposterousness, the incongruity of an old lady having a baby, of having one foot in the grave and the other in a maternity ward. But that is all she can laugh at: its incongruity. She expects no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world she has grown accustomed to living in and, as a result, her laugh can be only bitter and cynical.

She can hear the Lord say, “your wife will have a son;” and she can crack up in her bitterness. She cannot hear God say, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” If she could, incongruity and surprise would come together, and she would really throw her head back and laugh as she has never laughed before. 3

I want to put two questions before us today, and we will consider them as a community. Remember that even though God made these incredible promises to Abraham and Sarah, God’s promises were never simply to fulfill their individual desires, hopes, and dreams. From the very beginning God’s promises are for a people… God used Abraham and Sarah to bless the whole world. You might consider individual applications of these questions, but don’t forget that God is always looking at the larger picture of redeeming and blessing the whole world. If we are willing, God will use us to bless this faith community and in turn use this faith community to bless the world.

The first, what are we laughing at?

This is a probing question for the congregation. It requires us to be honest with ourselves. Think about the things that don’t make any sense at all – the things that are completely illogical and incongruous. Consider the seemingly impossible things – the things that would require a miracle to pass. Like for instance, $20,000 on a single day in a single offering… or 2 twenty-somethings returning to a childhood church to serve in leadership even though they are the only young couple in sight… or a few people donating 500 hundred of pounds in 5 months… or a group of people with right-wing republicans, left-wing democrats, and progressive independents choosing to worship together and love each other in spite of their differences… or a group of people who voice concern and pray for others whom they love, sure, but also for those they don’t even know.

These things are unlikely and laughable even.

What if God even wants a congregation of retirees to grow as disciples of Jesus, to embrace change and renewal, to engage vibrant, relevant ministry serving a world that needs to hear and experience the gospel?

Perhaps you think that is laughable, but it leads us to the second question.

The second, is anything too hard for the Lord?

That is an overwhelming and shattering question. It demands an answer. If we answer yes, the world is shut down, the universe is closed, and God is no longer God: benevolent, maybe; kindly and concerned, perhaps; but as powerless as we are in the face of our senseless world. If we answer “No, there is nothing that is too hard for God,” then we are in God’s hands, and the possibilities are endless. And God is radically free to keep promises, despite the odds against them.

But beware. When God’s surprise completes our incongruity, we had better be ready to be shaken out of our customary, stable, reliable but hopeless existence. Sarah will go through a pregnancy in her nineties, and worse, her son’s adolescence when she is over one hundred!

The ultimate question becomes, “do we really want to believe that with God there is nothing that is impossible?” For if we believe that, then we can no longer be content to keep on living our lives and coming to church on Sunday mornings as though business were normal. Wild and crazy things can happen and usually do. 4

Money (lots of it) is given cheerfully. Young people show up to participate and lead. Food is shared. Different kinds of people choose to be part of the same faith family. Prayers are lifted to God on behalf of total strangers.

If it weren’t true, it would be laughable. But, we believe it because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. The Lord enables selfish people to be generous. The Lord draws young people to an older congregation. The Lord beckons people to share their food. The Lord empowers diverse people to set aside their differences to be beloved community. The Lord puts prayers in the hearts of the caring. Nothing is too hard for the Lord.

Perhaps we laugh because we hope… deep down we secretly believe that miracles happen.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that laughter was a prelude to faith. It is critical in this life of ups & downs where often situations & circumstances don’t make sense that we keep our sense of humor, our ability to laugh. If laughter goes, so does hope.

Faith and laughter go together. Only the laughers can believe. Only the believers can laugh. The only thing worse than waiting for God to act in a particular situation or waiting for a time of trial to pass is waiting without laughing.

When God reaffirms his promise to Abraham and Sarah, he restores not only their faith, but their ability to laugh for real… for sheer joy. 5

Sarah did indeed laugh again. Months later when that baby boy was born and it was time for a name, what better choice than Isaac, which means “he laughs”? Genesis 21:6 reports that at Isaac’s birth Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.”

A few months ago, you may have laughed at the prospect of the surprising things that have happened around here. But, truly, nothing is too hard for the Lord. Aren’t you just a bit curious to know how God might surprise us in the coming months and year?

While we wait and believe and hope for the next surprise, let us throw back our heads and laugh from of the sheer joy and delight of it all. Amen.

  1. https://spaciousfaith.com/2011/10/19/wednesday-worship-piece-calls-to-worship/, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  2. Laughter, Wikipedia, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  3. Excerpted from http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  4. Excerpted from http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html, Accessed June 12, 2017.
  5. Excerpted from http://www.directionjournal.org/issues/gen/art_639_.html, Accessed June 12, 2017.
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