You Will Go Out With Joy

July 15, 2018
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

I know it will come as a real shock to most of you, but, truth be told, I am not the funniest pastor on our staff. It’s a real struggle, too, because, as most of you know, among the clergy we tend to be a little… competitive. Just for fun, though, does anyone have any guesses on who the funniest one is? Throw out your ideas.

David is the funniest. The secret’s out. And I’m not just saying that because he’s the only other pastor here.

I do think about being funny, though, especially when it comes to preaching and sharing the stories of scripture with you. When I was growing up my dad was the preacher and one of his gifts was self-deprecation. He had also mastered the art of laughing at his own jokes, which usually made everyone else laugh whether or not the actual joke was funny.

It’s good to laugh in church. Because, gosh, we need to laugh more nowadays, am I right? Joy and laughter are spiritual- “Carbonated holiness” as Anne Lamott would say. Laughter can be a release from the sorrow and cynicism of our lives. It’s also, I would argue, a healthy defense mechanism. Make something funny so you don’t have to deal with it. It’s a form of freedom from what you think can’t be changed.

Joy, laughter, and comedy- the Bible is full of these things. Except scripture’s humor often comes from the absurdity of the Gospel. Jesus flips the world around. The impossible becomes possible. The low are lifted high. The privileged are challenged and loved at the same time. Borders are crossed. Death is defeated with resurrection. Love wins. It’s crazy if you think about it! Because this is not the story the world tells us. Rooted deeply at the very core of our theological understanding of grace is the idea that we don’t deserve it. And, therefore, we are thrown off guard when it shows up. Real experiences of grace come to us unexpectedly, in such preposterous ways that they often make us laugh.

There is always an element of surprise to God’s grace. But, as the story we read for today teaches us, we can live lives that make us more susceptible to receiving it.

The way this story about Abraham and Sarah starts is kind of funny, depending on how you look at it. Here, in Chapter 18, we find Abraham sitting under the shade of a tree. He’s resting there because it’s the hottest part of the day. He’s also… recovering. In the previous chapter God makes promises to Abraham, and, as a sign of this new covenant, Abraham is circumcised. At 99. He’s healing under the great oaks of Mamre when all of a sudden three travelers come walking by. Immediately, Abraham gets up, greets them, offers to wash their feet and get them water, then he rounds up Sarah and a servant to kill a calf and prepare it for dinner along with some side dishes. Abraham sets out the dinner before the travelers and, as the story says, doesn’t even sit down- he stands by while they eat. In the study of the Hebrew, here, we learn that this is a lot of food that has been prepared- really, an amazing amount of food that three travelers couldn’t possibly have eaten. We also know that these travelers weren’t “resident aliens,” or asylum-seekers- they were on an even lower rung of society, which makes Abraham’s hospitality toward them all the more radical.

The reason the hospitality is so important in this story is because it opens up Abraham and Sarah to the greatest surprise of their lives. The presence of these travelers ends up being an encounter with God, and they give Abraham the shocking news that they will return the following year to meet the child Sarah can soon expect.

Sarah, as it turns out, isn’t even present for the announcement. Usually women know they are pregnant before their partners, but, despite the fact that she is left out of the conversation, she hears them from the entrance of the tent, where, presumably, she has been busy preparing everyone food. And, of course, she laughs! She is, after all, in her 90s! It’s biologically impossible!

In her laughter, though, we also hear the hurt… of years gone by without the blessing of children, her body letting her down, no future generations to take pride in, the disappointment in  God, and the jealousy of Abraham’s son, Ishmael, with Hagar. She laughed to protect herself from shame. It is much easier to be cynical than to face the insensitive notion that at this old age she could experience the joy of a child.

My friend Tim, a different Tim, says that “Sarah’s initial laughter is confirmation comedy. If you had lived the life I’ve lived, she is saying, you would be laughing too. Irony protecting her from the hurt that hopefulness might bring. David Foster Wallace famously said that irony was the song of a bird who had grown to love its cage.”

Sarah has learned how to deal with her cage, and so she laughs. She laughs in the face of the traveler, who pushes her with the rather startling, existential question: “is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” It ends up being true, but I’m sure it must have stung a little.

Before I go any further, I want to recognize that there is some real sadness to this passage. For many women who have not been able to have children, it can be a painful one. Not everyone gets the surprise of their life in the form of a baby. There are, in fact, wonderful things that do not happen for some.

And yet, our lives, even with their painful disappointments, are full of surprise, wonder, and joy if we remain open. The story of Sarah and Abraham is not just confirmation comedy, it’s also comedy of surprise. And the set-up to the punchline is hospitality. Their extravagant welcome of these travelers opened the door to a gracious, extraordinary gift. It was so wonderful and joyful and absurd that they laughed, and received the blessings God had in store for them all along.

It teaches us that we can set-up the punchline to our own lives, too.

Many of you have probably heard of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is partly famous for her clever writing and tattooed arms. Prior to ministry in the Lutheran Church she was a drug addict and standup comic. But, she got sober, went to seminary, and started a church in Denver called House for All Sinners and Saints. She pastored the church, she says, to serve her friends, which included anyone and everyone at the margins who didn’t feel welcome in regular churches. Her ministry caught attention and her church gained popularity after she preached Easter morning at Red Rocks amphitheater and made the cover of the Denver newspaper. In her book, Pastrix, she talks about how, after that happened, people started showing up at her church who she called, “the wrong kind of different.” She writes, “As the week progressed during the early summer, I found it increasingly difficult to muster up a welcoming attitude toward a group of people who, unlike the rest of us, could walk into any mainline protestant church in town and see a room full of people who looked just like them… So here were a bunch of baby boomers who wore Dockers and ate at Applebees, who had driven in from the suburbs to consume our worship service because it was ‘neat.’… It felt horrible… My precious indie boutique of a church was being treated like a 7-Eleven, and I was terrified that the edgy, marginalized people whom we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think, ‘this isn’t for me.’” Nadia goes on to tell about her angst, and how she responded to this shift in visitors at her church. She called a congregational meeting to talk about it after worship and invited her people to share their thoughts and feelings. At the meeting a teenager named Asher was one of those who spoke up. He said, “As the young, transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record and say that I’m really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t have with my own mom and dad.”

Nadia has said she doesn’t know how people become preachers without having been standup comics beforehand. I sometimes think it would have been helpful, though I’m fairly certain I would have failed miserably. But her stories and words make me laugh, and remind me that I can at least set up my life for the punchline. The hopeless side of her felt like all the work she had done to create this welcoming community was being ruined, until the very people she sought to serve, in a surprising moment of grace, told her she was wrong. And, I’m sure she laughed at the incongruity of it all.

That joyful, laughter-inducing, comedic level kind of gracious surprise can change us profoundly. It can deconstruct cynicism, fear, hurt, and all the brokenness in us. It can also rid us of certainty about the world. But, we have to be open to it. Thank God Nadia called that meeting. Thank God Abraham welcomed those travelers. In both cases, it turned their lives around.

Mary Oliver writes in one of her poems,

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

And Wendell Berry, in one of his poems writes this well-known phrase,

Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

I agree with these poems to a certain extent. Remaining open to God leaves room to let the surprises in. But, again, God’s grace isn’t dependent on us. God doesn’t stop showing up when we stop believing.

Once Sarah gives birth to a baby boy, and they name him Isaac, which means laughter, she says maybe one of the most beautiful things in all of scripture. “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” The birth of Isaac is a surprise, no doubt. But, the lesson here is for all of us to enjoy. God wants to make good on promises, promises that can turn our lives around, promises that can turn around the life of the world. And God even wants to make good on these promises when we have stopped believing they are possible- when we have considered all the facts and given up. God is on the lookout for us, urging us and nudging us to keep our end of the covenant. To welcome strangers and practice radical hospitality. To assume the best is yet to come and believe with an open heart that nothing can be too wonderful for the Lord. Because God wants nothing more than for all of us to lead lives of joy.

Writer Steve Salonga writes that, “the intimate relationship between comedy and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. Comedy is concerned with the immediate incongruities of life and faith with with the ultimate ones.” In other words, comedy and laughter help us cope in the short term with the absurdities and difficulties in life, but it is ultimately the astounding, joyful encounters with God surprise us, and transform us. The world often feels that it is not as it should be- so out of whack and hopeless. But, we continue to find joy in those moments of wonder, because instead of confirming our cynicism, hurt, and fear, God makes good on promises, and through the sheer grace of it all we can laugh.

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