Laughing at God
Carefully tucked away in a box in a storage room in my home are numerous photographs of my ancestors. Some are framed, others are printed in sepia tones and mounted on cardboard that is worn around the edges from being handled by generations of family members. Very truthfully, the men and women in these photos are the most dour-looking persons that I have ever seen. I’m sure that they were all very nice people, and I really wish I knew more about them, but it is very hard to picture even one of them smiling let alone laughing out loud. Black and white and sepia make them seem unreal, almost as though they never existed in living color.
The stories of the Hebrew Bible can seem that way as well. The long genealogies are devoid of color, and the descriptions of desert-dwellers can be hard to relate to. But once in a while one of these spiritual ancestors will do something that causes us to see them as very human, as more than an ancient photograph of an unsmiling face. One of those occasions jumps off the page in Genesis 17. Abraham doesn’t just crack a smile; he is so moved by God’s announcement that he and his wife are going to have a child that he laughs out loud. Then just one chapter later, his wife Sarah does the same.
I don’t get the impression that these were entirely happy, light-hearted laughs. Abraham and Sarah had been waiting for God to bless them with a child for many years. God had promised them. For a while they thought they could help God along by means of surrogacy in the person of Hagar, but to their chagrin that didn’t turn out as they had planned. I suspect the laughter rolling from their tent was as much about the irony of their situation and their near inability to believe the news. It’s likely they were laughing at God more than they were laughing with God.
Years ago, a family in a church that I served as pastor filled most of a pew every Sunday. Mom and Dad and kids joined in the hymns and written responses in the bulletin and then would settle in for the moments of silence and the pastoral prayer. Almost always, before the silence ended, one of the children would let out a snicker. Another would pick it up, and by the time I tried to lead the congregation in a solemn, dignified prayer, the whole pew would be shaking with laughter. They would apologize afterward and explain that they just couldn’t help it! Have you ever experienced something like that? The inability to suppress laughter when you just know it’s not the appropriate response? The harder you try to remain serious, the more difficult is to not laugh!
I imagine Abraham and Sarah might have felt that way. All of the pent-up expectation and hope and disappointment and now surprise couldn’t be contained. But you’re not supposed to laugh at God, are you? I mean, it would be impolite on a cosmic scale to laugh at the divine, especially if that laughter might be confused for laughing at and not laughing with.
Sometimes it’s hard not to laugh, especially when something is just too good to be true. And isn’t it wondrously ridiculous to think about a ninety-year old woman bearing a son with her one hundred year-old husband? Just try to picture them holding down a squirming newborn in order to secure a diaper! I’m thinking that after a few snickers at the irony of hit all escaped from the lips of Sarah and Abraham, their laughter erupted into giddy guffaws. The decades of waiting and sorrow were about to end. The answer to their prayers and the fulfillment of God’s promise wasn’t happening how and when they expected, but the gift would still be a beautiful child.
Humor comes in many forms. Sometimes people say things about others that they think are clever and humorous, but are said at the expense of someone else. What is funny to some is hurtful to others, most notably in the practice of bullying thinly cloaked in humor.
Slapstick humor is popular in TV sitcoms and the lame jokes that people pass around: “A minister, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar…” Most everyone loves the three stooges, at least those old enough to remember them, but slapstick can get old pretty fast.
Situational humor is something different. It’s the best humor: the actual things that happen to us in life that we could never make up. Life is pretty hilarious much of the time, and noticing and enjoying that is a great way to avoid taking ourselves and our life challenges too seriously.
Abraham and Sarah laughed. Not at God’s expense, but at the amazing and ridiculous and good and joyful gift that had been saved for the last years of their lives. We usually say, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But for the senior-senior citizens in this story, it was true.
And God got the last laugh.
In the Sufi tradition is a character named Mulla Nasreddin. He is said to have lived in the 13th century, and he is a character who is equal parts sage and fool. For centuries, each generation of Sufis has been re-imagining him and telling stories of his exploits. For example:
Mulla Nasreddin was in love and wanted to get married, but his mother didn’t approve of the young woman because she was an atheist. “What can I do?” Mulla told his mother. “I love her, and she loves me too.”
“If she loves you, she will listen to whatever you have to say. Start talking religion to her, and she will believe you.” Mulla agreed to the plan and went off on his date with the young woman.
A few days later, Mulla ran into the kitchen and into his mother’s arms, crying like a baby. “What happened?” she asked, wiping his tears. “Our plan isn’t working?”
“You were right,” Mulla sobbed. “I talked religion to her, and she believed me.”
“Then what is the problem?” his mother asked.
“She left me to become a nun!” cried Mulla.
These humorous Sufi stories most often are told to make a point about some aspect of living that creates heartache and struggle or to answer questions about faith.
Our Hebrew and Christian scriptures are much the same.
The prophet Isaiah said that when God’s reign is seen, people will re-fashion their swords into plowshares. Weapons of death will become agricultural tools used to feed hungry people. That’s kind of funny because of the irony of switching the intended purpose of a sword to achieve the peace and justice God intends for humanity.
In the gospels, Jesus said “love your enemies and pray for those who hurt or insult you.” That’s almost humorous not just because it seems so ridiculous, but because it restores power to those who have been insulted or hurt by others. When you pray for those who hate you, you are no longer under their control.
Abraham and Sarah are symbolic of God’s persistence in creating a world where life is understood as more powerful than death. This matriarch and patriarch were not going to pass from earth until seeds of life had emerged in the fulfillment of God’s covenant in the form of their child Isaac. And from Isaac would come the people of Israel. So Abraham and Sarah laughed.
In our gospel reading, Jesus also turned things around from what is expected. He said “those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for me and for the gospel will save it.” In the past two weeks, we have heard about Coptic Christians in Libya who literally lost their lives because of their identification with the Christian faith. Others have been kidnapped in Syria and their fate is still unknown. Most of us will never be martyred, but following Jesus is dangerous in many ways. The gospel always advocates for those who are on the wrong side of the balance of power, and those who take Jesus’ message to heart will not always be celebrated. Taking up the cross of Jesus means identifying with a man unjustly killed and continuing his work to welcome God’s reign of peace.
In 15th century Bavaria, Christians celebrated “Holy Laughter Sunday” one week after Easter. They told jokes, played pranks on one another, drenched each other with water, sang and danced and had a raucous time celebrating the ultimate joke: God’s triumph over death by raising Jesus to life. Pope Clement banned the practice in the 17th century, probably because people were having too much fun. How could anyone possibly laugh too much?
What would God say to you that would make you laugh? What is too impossible or too wonderful to believe? Is it possible that there are still unfulfilled hopes that God will bring to reality in your life; perhaps not how or when you have imagined, but still in a way that is life-giving?
Remember Sarah and Abraham, and take hope. Amen.