From Eden to Egypt 2: From Cynical Laugh to Belly Laugh
SECOND AFTER PENTECOST JUNE 14th, 2020 GENESIS 18:1-15
From Eden to Egypt: 2
I was usually a good boy. It was drummed into me as a child –obey the rules, respect authority. It sounds good, and I guess it was, although the way I learned it was through threats and punishments, and there must be better ways of getting to the same destination than on the bus of fear.
So, while my friends at school were always getting into trouble and receiving detentions, I was not. In fact the only time I was punished at school was for laughing. There are, of course, many different types of laughter. There’s the uncontrollable kind that overwhelms you and leaves you powerless so that you can’t breathe and you fall over and beg God to intervene because you think you’re going to die. That, they say, is the most authentic type of laughter. There’s the giggling of children. And when you see it, you must join in, you can’t help it. Surely the most beautiful sight in the world is a baby laughing Then there’s the ‘polite society’ kind of laughing. It is performed (and I mean ‘performed’) by all of us when we are trying to communicate to others that we are kind and nice and in no way a threat. Then there’s the nervous laugh, the one you make when you don’t really know what you’re doing, and you’re feeling a bit foolish.
Well, it was that first one that got me into trouble. In an English class. The teacher was talking about something extremely dull, which no teenage boy wants to talk about – I think it was Jane Austen. That is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment – making adolescent males read Jane Austen. So this class in my all-boys school were sitting there bored out of our minds. Seriously, I can’t tell you how mind-numbingly awful it was. And then I heard, through my drowsy haze, the master utter my name. (In my school the teachers were called masters.) “Johnston, what happened next?” Well I didn’t know what happened next. It’s not like I’d read the book or anything. Now, rather than pretending to be listening and guessing at something vaguely related to the world of Jane Austin, like “Does Emma invite the vicar to have some tea and crumpets, sir?” I chose to be honest. And so I said, “I’m sorry, sir, I haven’t the foggiest.” And that was moment that the first kind of laughter – the tsunami kind – devastated the entire class. Every boy was now lying on his desk, in agony, trying to breathe. Because the master’s name was Mr. Fogg. And he thought I was making fun of him. So, there was a class of 20 boys unable to breathe, and me trying to explain to Mr. Fogg that this was an innocent mistake and I wasn’t making fun of his distinguished name. And this is the kind of school where you don’t argue with masters – you just obediently go and lick the playground clean or whatever twisted punishment they impose.
Getting into trouble for laughing. Sarah knows all about that. It’s Week 2 of our summer sermon series, From Eden to Egypt. Last week we read the first chapter of Genesis – the creation of humankind in the likeness of God. Well, time has hurried on. Mum and dad have disobeyed and been evicted from the Garden. Many generations have come and gone. But the collective memory of Eden lives on strongly in the minds of all people. The hunger for Eden still causes us despair and hope; it prompts in us obedience to God and rebellion against him, it lies behind all we think and do and say. We can’t shake from us the yearning for that Garden, for transcendence, for meaning, fulfilment, and union with God.
We are now sitting in a tent with some nomads. Abraham and Sarah are their names. They are both very senior citizens. One of the joys of this spring has been two drive-by birthday parties for members of St Paul’s who are nonagenarians. And Abraham and Sarah are up there with them.
And on this day, when we meet them for the first time they are entertaining three guests. Strangers and travelers who drop in and, as is the custom of ancient nomadic peoples, are treated to the most lavish and costly hospitality. Animals are killed, fires are lit, drink is poured, and Abraham sits with their gusts outside the tent in respectful conversation. But there’s something not normal about these three visitors. They are kind of other-worldly, supernatural. One of them in particular starts saying some wild, impossible things. “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Now, Sarah is listening inside the tent. She laugh to herself and says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Oh yes, Sarah, laughter can get you into trouble. Stand with her in the tent and listen to her chuckles. These are not the out-of-control belly laughs of my English class, nor the embarrassed self-conscious snickers when you don’t know how to act. This is an altogether more painful kind of laugh. It’s the cynical laugh, the skeptical laugh, the laugh when there’s nothing to laugh about. This is the laugh of someone who has been disappointed in life. Brutally disappointed, and she is still feeling it. Sarah has never been able to have children, and it hurts. And now here is some stranger telling her husband that she is going to have a baby. “Yeah, right. Likely story. Ha.” You know that laugh, don’t you? Of all the different kinds it is the meanest. This laugh is borne of deep hurt and it causes deep hurt. It is the laugh of broken dreams, shattered promises, destroyed faith and hope. It’s the laugh of a person who has survived a devastating betrayal and is invited to trust again. It’s the laugh of the person who has come through a humiliating divorce and someone asks them on a date. This is the laugh of the worker who was let go for the umpteenth time, the lover jilted one more time, the person who has ever looked to someone for love and been rejected one more time. Sarah laughed. I have laughed this laugh, and maybe you have too. You want to believe, but your trust has been destroyed. You want to risk again, but the pain is too great. You have been told that God has a plan for you, that fulfilment, love, and contentment are the features of his plan, but all you can see is the failure of the past, all you can feel is the scars on your soul. Sarah laughed, and so have we.
I have to admit I’m a bit of a sucker for those articles on the Internet that promise to give you simple answers to complex problems. You know the kind – ‘5 Habits that will turn you into a winner.’ ‘Seven things to say at work if you want to succeed.’ ‘The 78 golden rules to being happy’. ‘The one sure-fire way to mess up your life.’ I made those up. ‘Clickbait’, they call it. And actually, when the author is an expert and the site is reliable then those articles can indeed be useful. So, when I was preparing this sermon it crossed my mind to go to the Internet and google ‘how to trust again’, and ‘what to do with your disappointments’, and ‘how to let go of your failures so you can embrace the life that God has promised you?’ And then, I got back to the passage from Genesis. Because usually in scripture, there are no lists of things you must do if you are going to experience God in your life. There are no spiritual laws that we can apply if we want to have a great life.
The Bible is not a psychology textbook. What it is a revelation of God’s never-ending, all-consuming, overwhelming love. God’s eternal, incomprehensible, undeserved grace and acceptance of you and me. What the Bible gives us is not pop-psychology, but a God who takes the initiative – who gives and loves and blesses despite all the reasons why he shouldn’t. Sarah laughed her cynical laugh, and so do we. Yeah right, God’s going to bless me. Hear the Word of the Lord. Sarah did nothing. Nothing that made the promise come true. God had a plan. The plan was to create a people from Abraham and Sarah – a people that would grow and become a blessing to the world. Sarah doubted, Sarah laughed, but that didn’t matter. The divine stranger did return, Sarah did become pregnant, and she did give birth. To a boy. She named him Laughter. That’s what Isaac means. And now every time she called his name she would remember – not her disappointment, not the pains, not the ways in which God or other people had let her down, but the radical and beautiful opposite. Every time she uttered the name Isaac she’d remember the grace and the gift of God, that despite her cynicism, he still showed up. Despite her skepticism, God still kept his promise. Her laugh was turned from a cynical one to a belly one.
Gelind and I went down the shore on Friday. It was blissful. The weather was perfect, the mood was carefree. The promise of summer was etched in every grain of sand and on every giggling child. This spring, there is hope in the air. Can you feel it? 400 years is a long time. It’s an eternity to be carrying sin. 400 years contains an unbearable weight of guilt, of unspeakable suffering, and of crushing disappointment. I am still a new citizen – less than two years. I’ve been in the country just 17. I have massive holes in my understanding of the American story. But, this spring, I think I can see God at work. I think I see his likeness in the earnest faces of peaceful, young protestors. I think I’ve caught a glimpse of his heart in the gracious words of African-American spokespeople who have helped me understand their painful story. And I think I can sense the irresistible force of the Holy Spirit touching white people both left and right, conservative and liberal, and Congressional leaders in both parties who are saying thank you for helping us understand your story. We’re starting to get it and we want to help.
And so, for we Christians, and for all people of goodwill, we pray and work. We have heard God’s promise to us – life in all its fulness. And we know it is true. And so we want to make the promise true for others. We are bearers of promise and the bringers of good news. And if that doesn’t make you laugh, nothing will.