A kindergarten teacher gave her class a show and tell assignment of bringing in something that represented their religion.
The first student got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin. I’m Jewish and this is the Star of David.”
The second student got in front of the class and said, “My name is Mary. I’m Catholic and this is the Crucifix.”
The third student got in front of the class and said, “My name is Tommy and I am a Congregationalist. This is a casserole.”
At the end of this morning’s scripture reading, as elderly Sarah cares for her newborn child she declares “God has graced me with the gift of laughter.” When she first heard the visiting strangers declare that she would get pregnant at her advanced age, Sarah laughed out loud at God’s plan for her. Have you ever laughed at God?
As I sat down to write this meditation, I realized that there are many different directions we can go when discussing this story. We could talk about laughter. We could come tell lots of jokes about church and just laugh all morning. “God has graced us with the gift of laughter,” so we might as well use it. It would be totally appropriate, remembering that it’s okay to laugh in church, and we could even talk about the mental and physical benefits of laughter.
That what I wanted to do but something kept telling me that was the easy way out. There are so many other things to talk about in this story.
Let me back up a moment. Last year, we started using something called the Narrative Lectionary. I like this new way of choosing the weekly scripture reading because it uses the church year to give an overview of the entire Bible in the order in which we’re used to having it arranged. So last week, as our year began, we started with the creation story in Genesis. From now through Advent, we’ll work our way through the Hebrew Bible (often called the Old Testament by Christians).
We’ll go through the first five books which tell the story of the beginnings of the Jewish faith before we turn to the writings of the Prophets who told about the coming Kingdom of God and imagined a messiah who would lead people to a peaceful world. The Jesus story begins, appropriately, at Christmas.
I like that the Narrative Lectionary reminds us of the stories of our faith. You may also notice that the weekly readings tend to be much longer than we’re used to. This allows us to spend more time with the focus story and gives us the opportunity to delve deeper into each week’s reading.
So we get to hear more of the story; about the three strangers that come and visit elderly Abraham and Sarah and about the prophecy that they will conceive a child in their very advanced age. We get to see Sarah get called out by God for laughing and we get to be with her as she celebrates the birth of her child. The reading is a little bit longer but we get a more complete picture of the story.
That gives us a lot to reflect on. As I said, we could certainly spend time thinking about the sometimes ridiculous ways that we are called to follow God and how we might laugh to ourselves and say “There’s no way.” Can you think of a time in your life when you felt God calling you to do something that seemed ridiculous? Was there a time when it seemed God’s call made no sense but you eventually realized it was the right path to follow?
That’s one way to go. Or we could talk about the gender inequality that pervades this story. Did you notice that Abraham gets all the credit for being nice to these strangers? Sure, it’s his idea to take them in and feed them but the author never points out that it’s Sarah who made the meal. Abraham says “please, let me take care of you” then goes and orders Sarah to do all of the work. Then he gets to sit and talk to these important guests while she is forced to hide behind a curtain eavesdropping on their conversation.
We could also talk about our tendencies to treat God as a genie in a lamp, wishing that God would give us what we want. Sometimes our prayers are selfish, hoping for prosperity or property, inwardly hoping for good things for ourselves instead of praying for a way we can make the world a better place.
And we could talk about the times that prayer doesn’t work; the times that the happy endings in stories can be hurtful to people who are suffering. Sure, this elderly couple gets their child, a birth that God promised 25 years earlier when he told Abraham that he will father a great nation, a promise that comes from God’s love of Abraham. But what about the millions of women in the world who are struggling with infertility? What about the couples and individuals who have no way to grow their family? Can we use this story to reflect God’s love for them and to learn how to walk with them on their journey?
In this story that begins by describing Abraham’s hospitality to complete strangers, do we hear our own call to care for others? At a time when more than 19 million refugees in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are being forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution, and oppression, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out how we can help? It’s a noble example that Abraham takes in and feeds these three strangers (well, has Sarah feed these three strangers). But it’s only three people. When I hear God remind me of this enormous refugee crisis halfway around the world, it’s so much easier for me to laugh to myself and say “there’s no way” for me to make a difference.
So, I just want to talk about the laughter. I just want to tell jokes and try to avoid talking about the difficult topics.
Of course, as Shakespeare said, “in jest, there is truth.”
I started with a joke about a casserole dish being a symbol for our church. There’s some truth in that. Because we know how to feed each other. There has never been a potluck or a luncheon at this church where we’ve run out of food. And that’s a good thing. It’s great that we can mirror the feast that Sarah puts on the table and it’s even better that so many people chip in to help. We don’t expect all of the work to fall on the shoulders of one person, one “Sarah.” We come together as a community and we take care of each other because that’s how we reflect God’s love.
We take care of each other. And we take care of visitors that come into our midst looking for a community of faith. I see God’s love reflected in the ways that you welcome in strangers and make them friends, with as little hesitation as Abraham. That’s how we start to change the world, by making friends of strangers, one visitor at a time.
Sarah laughed at God and said “there’s no way.” I’ve always assumed that she was laughing because she didn’t believe God would do as promised, laughing at the impossibility of getting pregnant at such an advanced age.
But then I realized that God had the easy work. Once Sarah has the child, she’s the one who has to raise a baby with her one hundred year old husband. Even though God had faith that she could do it, maybe Sarah was laughing because she realized that she had a lot of hard work ahead of her.
As a church, we’re called to do the hard work. We’re called to have the tough conversations and to get uncomfortable sometimes, even when we would rather just tell jokes.
I invite you to take a minute to reflect on the a difficult call that you are hearing from God. What are the situations in your life where God has more faith in you than you do in yourself? Think about times when God has caused you to laugh and say “there’s no way.” There are also some questions for reflection in your bulletin, if you’re interested.
Ok, one more joke.
There was a little old cleaning woman that went to the local church. When the invitation was given at the end of the service, she went forward wanting to become a member. The pastor listened as she told him how she had accepted Jesus and wanted to be baptized and become a member of the church.
The pastor thought to himself, “oh my, she is so unkempt, even smells a little, and her fingernails are not clean. She picks up garbage, cleans toilets – what would the members think of her.” He told her that she needed to go home and pray about it and then decide.
The following week, she came again. She told the pastor that she had prayed about it and still wanted to be baptized. “I have passed this church for so long. It is so beautiful, and I truly want to become a member.”
Again the pastor told her to go home and pray some more. A few weeks later while out eating at the restaurant, the pastor saw the little old lady. He didn’t want her to think that he was ignoring her so he approached her and said, “I haven’t seen you for a while. Is everything all right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I talked with Jesus, and he told me not to worry about becoming a member of your church.”
“He did?” said the pastor.
“Oh, yes” she replied. “He said even He hasn’t been able to get into your church yet, and He’s been trying for years.”
Let us pray. Dear God, help us to keep laughing. Give us time to admit that life is often ridiculous and then allow our laughter and your love to lift us up and give us the courage to follow your call. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.