“Laughing with God”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For August 7, 2016 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Genesis 18:2-3; 9-15; 17:15a, 16-17; 19a
These are two very similar stories about Abraham and Sarah being told they will have a son. We read them out of order because they make more sense this way.
There’s quite a bit of humor in our scripture lesson. I considered wearing a red nose from clown camp, but I have decided to take a more dangerous route and try to point out the humorous parts. You probably know the comment from E. B. White: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I hope that by explaining it this morning I don’t ruin the joke.
Three strangers show up at Sarah & Abraham’s campsite. Abraham invites them to stay for a meal – there’s nothing strange here: the code of the desert is to make sure no one goes hungry, even strangers or your enemies. So while Sarah organizes the servants in preparing the meal, Abraham entertains them.
Sarah eavesdrops through the tent door. Again, that is not unusual for a Middle-Eastern culture: having a spouse or other trusted family member listen in helps makes sure the strangers do not do anything rude or violent. The guests tell Abraham, “When we join you again in a year, Sarah will have a child.” Here’s where things get interesting.
The Hebrew word here is tsawkah. It means what it sounds like: a laugh chortle, a snort. In a few places it is translated as “play”. It’s a sound of amusement or mild disbelief.
Sarah laughed. Abraham was 90; she was 89 (or she was 99 and he was 100 depending on which verses you read) and the way the King James Bible described her “the way of women was no longer with her.” These ancient cultures may not have had the scientific understanding we do, but they understood how babies were made – and they knew that after menopause women no longer got pregnant. Even though she denies it, Sarah laughed – tsawkah.
(I think Sarah laughs for another reason. In an attempt to be diplomatic, let me say that Abraham probably need Viagra – tsawkah – after all, it takes two to make a baby.)
Abraham had laughed this very same way in an earlier story. “I am God Almighty; walk with me. Your wife Sarah will have a child, a son.” Abraham laughed – tsawkah – and fell on his face. Now, that particular phrase – “fell on his face” – could men “to lie prostrate in respect, like one does before a conquering king. But here it is paired with the action of laughing.
This is like slapstick – like a clown slipping on a banana peel, or one clown hitting another with a ladder, only to have the ladder hit a pail of foam that makes both clowns fall down. Sarah giggling behind the tent door, Abraham falling on his face laughing: we’re intended to laugh with them.
Think of the times when you laughed so hard that you feel on your face – or maybe slipped from your chair to fall on your butt. You were most likely with people you liked, people you trusted, people with whom you were intimate. Laughter is a display of vulnerability; deep, consuming laughter like the kind that makes us fall on our face, our knees, or our butt is a demonstration of deep vulnerability.
My father did not laugh a lot. He chuckled, he smiled, but I remember him laughing deeply only a few times. The reason it is so memorable is that he could produce a deep belly laugh. And when he did, it was infectious. There was a story about him going to a movie and laughing so loudly that people were laughing with him more than with the movie.
Abraham and Sarah laughed that way in the presence of God. Are you that intimate with God? Are you vulnerable enough with God that you laugh so well that you fall?
“You will have a child” God says to Sarah and Abraham, “even though you are 89 and 90 years old, (or 99 and 100) you will have a child.” And they laugh. But God gets the last laugh. “OK, then. You think is so funny, then you shall name the child Giggles” or “Laughing boy.” You see, Isaac means “He laughs.”
We are invited to this table of grace for many reasons. I think one that we forget is to come to this place to delight in the presence of God. Communion is meant to make our hearts light, so let us pursue light-heartedness. We come here because God’s grace has forgiven, so let us receive the joy of forgiveness. We come here because God welcomes us as guests, offering hospitality to us as pilgrims, providing sustenance for our journey. May our bodies be fed, may our spirits delight, may we laugh deep from our bellies so that we may be more intimate with our God and with one another.