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 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
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
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
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
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
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.