Holy Laughter

2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2017

1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” 1The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” – Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

35Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. -Matthew 9-10, selected verses

When the pastor of my church when I was in middle school first suggested I think about becoming a pastor, I laughed. I probably was too polite and/or intimidated to laugh right there in his face, but I definitely laughed. “Real people don’t become pastors!” I thought. In my defense, this sentiment is periodically reinforced when I hear poorly reported statistics from church events about there having been, say, a total attendance of 200 – 80 clergy and 120 people. But those words from my pastor were spoken with the knowledge of something I couldn’t yet fully see or understand, so I laughed a kind of nervous, dismissive laughter of one who thinks he knows better.

Sarah, one of the great matriarchs of faith, laughed, too, when three strangers showed up at their tent and sat talking to Abraham. This couple had years before picked up their lives at the call of God to wander to a new land. They tried their best to trust in God’s promise to make of them a great nation which would bless the world. They even kind of believed that there could be descendants, which they now thought would come only from Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar. But in her very old age, these visitors said, Sarah would bear a son, too. Ha! What do they know about anything! So they laughed, too – a different kind of laughter that communicated something more like, “You just wait and see.”

She can’t be blamed for having a realistic picture of the world. She knows 100-year-old women don’t have babies. Just as well as she knows that not every sick person gets well again. And just like she knows that true peace between people and between nations is always short-lived. And just like she knows that the system is always a bit rigged against some group of people. She could have told you that there would almost never be legal consequences for shooting black men at traffic stops. Because she knows how the world works. It’s laughable to think otherwise.

And I have to imagine that Jesus’ disciples laughed, too, when Jesus sent them out into the world. Because they know as well as Sarah what the world is really like. They know justice doesn’t come to everyone. They know there are plenty of inhospitable people who won’t give them the time of day. They know there is simply more need out there than they can meet. And into that world, Jesus sends them with these words: “Cure the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.” Ha! With what are they supposed to do that? Maybe between them they know something about healing ointments, something about the power of prayer, something about compassion for the outcast and sick. But they know that stuff doesn’t always work. And none of it will raise the dead. So what else is there to do but to laugh right along with sickness, death, demons, and fear at Jesus’ crazy instructions, if not right to his face, then surely as they started down the road. The difference between God’s promise and our day-to-day reality is so large that the proposal we just go out and fix it is more laughable than 100-year-old woman giving birth.

Let me just say this is its own kind of holy laughter. Because it’s laughter born out of the truth of our human experience. It’s the release of the tension we feel between the promise and the reality. It’s a prayer in itself, even the scoffing, derisive laughter that speaks disbelief and lack of hope is a prayer of recognizing what is and what could be.

And in response to our laughter God enters. God makes reality for Sarah what no one thought possible – a son born to her, the fulfillment of the long ago promise, the answer to her laughter and tears. And Jesus gives the disciples the power and authority to do the impossible task that is asked of them, which in and of itself is worth a pause to notice – a God who shares power with us– the power to heal and to welcome the lost and banish evil and even raise the dead.

And we know it does not happen every time at least as far as we can see – not every illness, every death, every demon, every separation is healed. Not everyone longing for a child bears one into the world. But it happens often enough that we recognize in Sarah and Abraham the sound of a different kind of laughter by the end of the story. The kind of laughter that comes when we see before our eyes the miraculous, when we see before us what we thought impossible and we just can’t believe what we’re seeing. We recognize the laughter of relief from years of longing and hoping and wanting and praying. We recognize the laughter because we, too, have seen it. Maybe only glimpses, maybe only in our old stories, but we have seen the transformation of laughter and with it the transformation of lives.

Did you notice the naming of the long awaited son? Abraham and Sarah who laughed off God’s promises name their child Isaac, that is, “the laughing one.” They memorialize their own laughter – their laughter of skepticism and their laughter of relief, their doubt and their hope, their pain and their joy in the name of their long-awaited child. Perhaps to remind themselves in moments of fear and doubt that laughter can be transformed into the awaited promise.

Go forth then with Jesus’ call to you: cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, cleanse the lepers. It sounds like an absurd command. It sounds like setting us up to be laughed out of town. But it’s the baptismal call – to go forth healing and raising and casting and cleansing, to go forth proclaiming justice for people whose skin color or immigration status or religion makes them vulnerable to violence and hate, to go forth proclaiming that new life is possible from our broken lives.

And in the presence of our skeptical laughter, God comes as God did to Abraham and Sarah, to be present at our table and there in bread and wine remind us of what is yet to be, to remind us of the coming reign of peace and justice, of wholeness and life. To remind us that God’s vision and also God’s present reality, if not yet ours, is that all life might sit together at that table laughing with relief and joy at the promise fulfilled. Amen.

-Pastor Steven Wilco