A Laughable God

Cachinnation. Guffaw. Cackle. Chortle. Bray. Titter. Howl. Snort. Hee-haw. These are just some of the words I found when I searched on-line for types of laughs. My favorite was “cachinnation” mostly because I had never heard of it before. It means “loud convulsive laughter.” I searched for these words because I know from my own experience that laughter can signify all sorts of things: pleasure, knowing, humor, bitterness, pain, and even despair.

The word laughter or laugh occurs six times in the Genesis reading today and each mention relays a different emotional content, from derision to disbelief to unfettered joy.

So what was all that laughter about? Well, before we get there, we have to set up the story. You might remember that God had spoken to Abraham (then named Abram) when he was already an old man and told him and Sarah (then named Sarai) to go to a land they had never been before in order to found a great nation from their offspring. It was an outlandish idea, not only to go to a foreign country to live but there to have babies. Sarah and Abraham were already long in the tooth, and Sarah had never been able to have children.

But this voice was compelling and so they moved, living as nomads in a foreign land. And years passed, but no children were born. Just when Abraham began to despair, God spoke to him again: “Look toward the heavens and count the starts, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.”

And so they waited and more years passed but the promise was still not fulfilled. One day, Sarah decided that enough was enough. So she called her husband aside and suggested that he have a child with her slave, Hagar. Abraham, being a man, didn’t need much convincing. And Hagar conceived and gave birth to a little boy named Ishmael, whom tradition says is the ancestor of the Arab people. So at last Abraham had a son at the ripe old age of 86. But the promise was also made to Sarah, and that promise was not yet fulfilled.

It was at this point that God changed both of their names: Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, meaning Princess. Sarah’s name change is significant because it is the only instance in the entire Bible of the renaming of a woman. And it is at this point that this story becomes more about Sarah than it is about Abraham. And that’s pretty radical for a story coming out of an ancient patriarchal culture.

And with that, we arrive at the events of today’s lesson. One day three strangers appear at the entrance of Abraham and Sarah’s tent. But these were not just any visitors. Instead this was a theophany, that is the appearance of the deity to humans. And isn’t it interesting that God appears as three humans.

So Abraham did as anyone in that culture would have done to show extravagant hospitality to strangers: he bowed low to the ground in front of them, he brought them water to wash, and he asked them to sit in the shade and rest. He told Sarah to make fresh bread. And he ordered a servant to slaughter a calf so that a feast could be prepared.

With mouthful of veal, one of the strangers asked: “Where is Sarah?” “She’s in the tent,” Abraham replied. “Why do you want to know?” The stranger smiled and said, “Your wife is going to have a son.”

Now Sarah, who was not allowed to mingle with the men, was listening to all this just inside the entrance of the tent. And when she heard the same tired tale from a stranger, no less, she laughed. “Oh that’s rich!” she exclaimed. “I am old and my husband is older still. And quite frankly, I’m just not that interested anymore!”

“Why is she laughing?” the stranger wanted to know. And then he asked a question that God continues to ask each generation of believers: “Is anything too marvelous for the Lord?” --Well old Sarah was embarrassed and so she did what lots of us do when we get caught. She lied. “I did not laugh!” she said. “Sure you did,” said the stranger.

So after years of waiting, after years of promises, after disappointment and heartache and longing, Sarah finally became pregnant at the age of 90. And she gave birth to a son and named him Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “he laughs.” This story ends with Sarah’s marvelous words: “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And this woman, who had been the brunt of jokes all her married life, had the last laugh.

This is a deeply human story for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that we too use laughter to mask our pain and to keep people away from what really matters. And this is also a deeply spiritual story, because we all know what it’s like to wait on God, who never seems to be in a hurry.

And yet, week after week after week, you come to this room and bring with you your troubles and the troubles of the world. And week after week after week, we sing and read and proclaim the promises of God for this world. We pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And we keep doing that even as the planet warms and the seas rise. And despots reign. And the poor get poorer. And these systems seem intractable. And when I am having a really bad day, I think about all the troubles and all of those pesky promises of God, and I snort with derision. And I wonder, “Campbell, what are you doing with your life?!”

But when I pause and breathe, when I pause and reflect, I realize that my cynicism is based on my very short view of history. And the challenge of our faith is to have a very long view of history and a rigorous faith in the God who actively engages in history.

And that is the greater challenge. Most Christians practice something called “functional deism.” Functional deism never denies the existence of God, but it also never expects God’s decisive action in (our) personal affairs.” (1) Functional deism is a way to protect yourself from disappointment. It’s safe and it makes sense. Except that faith is not about making sense. It’s not logical. Faith is about naming human longing. It’s about hope. Faith is about those haunting stars of the sky and whispers heard in the middle of the night and promises that seem too good to be true.

And so, still we gather, week after week, to sing and say the promises. We bear children and build houses and work for justice and love our enemies because of the power and beauty of those promises. And just about the time we are ready to guffaw at the ridiculousness of it all, we see something that makes us believe. We see God intervene through the agency of human compassion or a confluence of mysterious events. We see light in deep darkness and we laugh from pure relief. We laugh with renewed hope. We laugh and actually believe, if only for a second, that nothing is too marvelous for the Lord!

1 - Daniel Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net, lectionary essay “God Has Brought Me Laughter”. Accessed June 12, 2017