Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Laughter of Sarah

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 17:15-19; 18:1-2, 9-15; 20:1-7; 21:1-7

A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous. They were always getting into trouble and their parents knew that, if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons were probably involved.

The boys' mother heard that a clergyman in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The clergyman agreed, but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the clergyman in the afternoon.

The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is God?”  They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"

The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"  The youngest brother gasped for breath and replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time dude. God is missing and they think WE did it!"

Last week my lovely wife said, “You like to begin your sermons with jokes,” and I said that I did because it was the only way I could guarantee that people would laugh during my message, and laughing is important.  Aristotle actually said that he believed that what separated humans from the rest of the animals was our ability to laugh.  He said that when a baby first laughed, that we went from simply being humans to becoming human beings.  That laughter made us different that it made us who we are.  In Navajo culture, the moment when a baby first laughs is so important that whoever is the first one to make the baby laugh is required to throw a party for the child in celebration, and they hold a special place in that child’s life for the rest of their lives.  And babies and children laugh a lot, especially in comparison to adults, and there’s something special about a child’s laugh.

The average 4 year old laughs 300 times a day, whereas the average forty year old laughs only twenty, and there is no difference between men and women on this, although adults tend to laugh more when they are around children, especially babies.  Two-year-old infants laughed on average about 18 times an hour when interacting with their mothers, whereas the mothers laughed an average of 33 times during these interactions.

Laughing is a social activity.  When people are alone, without any media activity, people as a general rule don’t laugh, and when they do laugh when in solitary, as they say you can’t tickle yourself, and if you do laugh when by yourself it’s normally because they are thinking of something funny that they remembered from a social situation, or they thought of a joke that they want to tell someone else.  Laughter brings us together, it forms bonds, it says that everything is okay between two parties, and this is borne out by studies that show that in interactions 85% of laughs do not follow something funny that was said.  Instead the laugh was about social relationship.

What did God say after he created man?  Oh, I can do much better than this.  (wait until the men get the joke)

Now I say all that as introduction to the fact that laughter plays a significant role in today’s story, and in the future of the faith.  In the chapters before today’s passage, Abraham has been called by God to leave his homeland and travel to the promised land, which he does taking his wife Sarah along with him.  Sarah is really the first woman who is truly named in scripture.  We do have Eve, but we are told her name because Adam names herm and Eve means mother of all mankind, which is the significance once they are expelled from the garden.  But we don’t know the names of any of their daughters, or the women who marry their sons.  We don’t know the name of Noah’s wife, or the names of his son’s wives.  We don’t know the name of Lots wife.  But we are told that Abraham’s wife is Sarai, and she travels with him following his call from God.  What we also know is that she is barren, and it should be noted that this claim is made about her, not about Abraham.  It is not that Abraham and Sarah are without children, but instead just Sarah is barren, and obviously this is a significant claim.

Did you hear about the redneck who brought a dead raccoon onto the plane?  When the flight attendant said you can’t brink that onto the plane, he said, “what do you mean, its carrion”

Mother’s Day, especially mother’s day in the church can be painful for many women, and some don’t even want to come today because of the preference given to women with children.  There are women who want children, but who were unable, who feel alienated and left out.  There are women who chose not to have children, who feel like this decisions has been discarded by the church and who believe they are being made out to be less than a woman.  And there are women who have lost children, through miscarriage, still birth, illness and accidents or other events, for whom that hole will never go away and for whom today reminds them of that pain.  And there is Sarah in the midst of all of this. In the Bible, except for a few situations, female identity comes from having children, and yet Sarah is barren, but we still know about her.  Of course we also know the outcome, that she will in fact give birth to a son and through that son, she will become the mother to the faith.

We claim to be an Abrahamic people, but we could probably just as easily claim to be a Sarahic (sarah-ic) people.  There are several people in the Bible whose names are changed either by others or by God.  But normally when their names are changed it’s because they have already accomplished something, have proven their faith in some significant way, or are taking on a new identity because of these things.  That is certainly what is happening with Abram.  He has proven his faithfulness to God by following God’s instructions and believing in the promise that God has set out for him, and the name he takes on, Abraham, which means father of the nations, will come to signify this promise.  But none of this is really true for Sarah, and yet her name is changed as well.  The meaning of her name, which is princess, stays the same but God changes her name before she has Isaac, even before she knows that she is going to give birth to Isaac, and as far as I know, and if I’m missing someone somewhere, but I believe that Sarah is the only woman in scripture to have her name changed.  She has identity and importance outside of her role as a mother, and she does not seem particularly upset about this circumstance, nor does Abraham, and yet her importance is also because of her role as a mother.  This tension just as prevalent as it is today, is being played out in this text as well.

Did you hear about the hole that was made in the fence at the nudist colony?  The police are looking into it.  Two economists are at a nudist colony, and one turns to the other and says, “have you read Marx?’ and the other says, “yes, it’s from these wicker chairs.”

Laughter, and joking, can take many forms.  It can be community building and it can also be isolating and cruel.  It can be something which brings everyone together, or jokes, like ethnic jokes, can seek to separate people into different groups and hierarchies.  We can laugh with people or we can laugh at the expense of people.  In other words, laughing can make us happy or sad, full of joy or full of pain.  I actually expected that laughter would be dealt with, or talked about in the Bible a lot more than it is.  Laugh, and derivatives of that occur only 28 times in the entire Bible, and 7 of those times are in what we heard this morning.  In addition, in most of the others times in which laughter is discussed, it tends to be laughs of derision, including in the New Testament, where it tends to be people laughing at Jesus because they think he’s wrong.  It could be argued that even Abraham and Sarah’s laughs are laughs of derision, but it’s really more that it’s a situation they can’t believe.

Sarah laughs because she says she has grown old, she’s a spritely 90 according to the passage, so she’s well past childbearing age, and then she adds one more piece of information and then she says, “and my husband is old,” and we might add to this as Monty Python used to say, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more.”  And so she laughs, and God asks why she laughs, which she denies, but God of course knows exactly what she has done, and perhaps he has even expected it because we are already told before this happens that their son is to be named “Isaac” which means “laughing one,” or “he laughs,” and Isaac is the only patriarch who does not receive a new a name.  Abraham has his name changed, Jacob has his name changed, and Joseph has his name changed, but Isaac, the “laughing one” is called that for the rest of his life.

A Methodist minister and a priest sit next to each other on a plane, and the airline attendant came around and asked what they wanted to drink, the Methodist minister ordered a soft drink, and the priest ordered a whiskey.  After they got their drinks the methodist turned to the priest and said, he though Christians should avoid alcohol, and the priest said “but Jesus drank wine.”  And the Methodist said, “I know that and I would think a lot more of him if he hadn’t”

Or as they say, Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the messiah.  Protestants don’t recognize the pope as the head of the church, and Baptists don’t recognize one another in the liquor store.

Then there is this interesting story of Abraham trying to pass Sarah off as his sister because his fear is that Sarah is so beautiful that the ruler will order Abraham killed so that he can take Sarah into his household.  This is actually the second time this has happened, as Abraham did something similar in Egypt, and Isaac will do exactly the same thing also to Abimalech later in Genesis.  Now what is striking about this story this time around is that when this happens, Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90, and one of the things that has been greatly debated is why Abraham felt he needed to protect a woman who was 90, after all, and no offense intended here, but few people lust after 90 year olds.  And so Biblical commentators have sort of puzzled over this, but there was one Jewish Midrash, that is a teaching of the rabbis, that says that Abraham loved Sarah so much, adored her so much, and thought her so beautiful, that instead of appearing as a 90 year old woman to Abraham, that instead she appeared to him as the young girl he originally married.  And because she appeared to Moses that way, she also appeared to others that way.  Something to keep in mind gentlemen.

An agnostic and an atheist got married, and everything was great until they had a child, but then the arguments started because they couldn’t agree on which religion they weren’t going to raise their child in.   What’s the atheists’ favorite Christmas movie?  Coincidence on 34th street.

One of the things that makes the stories of the patriarchs and the matriarchs so remarkable is that they are so flawed.  None of them are perfect, but rather than covering up their failings, instead their flaws are exposed to all of us, and in that we can identify with them.  Sarah is not perfect.  She abuses Hagar, who has given birth to Abraham’s other son, and she does so because she can, and through that abuse also abuses Ishmael, a story we will cover in a few weeks.  But just like with all mother’s, both the good and the bad, I think that Sarah does the best she can, she has to make things up as she goes along, and certainly some of the things that happen to her are not ideal either.  But that’s the other thing we know about laughter, is that there can be laughter in the midst of pain.  In fact sometimes that laughter comes out because of that pain, just think of what is called gallows humor.  Stephen Colbert’s father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was ten years old, and he has said that he became funny in order to make his mother laugh to help them all deal with the tragedy of that event.   I think there is a reason why there are so many Jewish comedians, because it is one of the ways in which they cope and deal with their situation, just like African-american comedians or native American comedians.  Laughing in the face of pain is not only a way to deal with the pain, but it is also a way to overcome it, and I think that is what Sarah is doing today, but her laughter still rings out to us as the mother of the one who laughed, and as the mother of the faith.

A man’s watch stops working and so he takes it to a swiss watch repairer, and he tells the man that he watch used to get tick tock, tick tock, but now it only goes tick tick tick.  And the swiss man says that he can’t help him, that he needs to find a german watch repairer.  Well he decides that doesn’t make any sense, and so he goes to another watch shop, and this time the man is Japanese and he explains the problem.  And again he is told that he needs to find a german watch repairer, and so this time he follows the advice and finds a german watch repairer and he goes in and tells him the problem, and then says, “you know I’ve been to see two other repairmen and they both told me they couldn’t fix it that I needed to find someone who is german, so I just have to know how are you different?”  and the german says, “oh, we have ways of making them tock”

We are indebted to our mothers in so many ways, just in the fact that they gave birth to us.  some of us have good relationships with our mothers, and some of us have bad relationships with them.  Some of them are alive, and some have passed on to their eternal rewards.  Some have been a blessing to us, and some have been a hinderance to us.  There is no such thing as a perfect mother, but all of us have one, and all of us have been mothered in so many ways by so many women, some who never had children of their own.   We have all been impacted by hundreds or thousands of women in our lives, who have made a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. Many of you probably saw that one of the Boston bombers was buried this week, and it was finally accomplished by the work of a woman who also happened to be a United Methodist, but she attributed the work she did to her mother.  She said that she found what he did to be atrocious and she could not condone it, but what she was taught by her mother who was a Sunday school teacher for forty years, was that Jesus said that we are to love our enemies, that justice and judgement and vengeance belong to the Lord, and so in honor and memory of her mother she wanted his remains properly buried.  There’s a lesson I think in there for all of us.

But I’d like to close today with a poem by Billy Collins, about a gift for his mother, entitled The Lanyard:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I , in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

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