“Laughing With God” Genesis 18:1-15
Rev. Sean Weston 1 Corinthians 3:18-23
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
May 19, 2019
Each year around Easter Sunday, a video by the comedian John Crist circulates on my social media. The video is called “Pastors on Easter Be Like….”
The video gets attention because it’s funny. It gets at some truths about ministry and church. I’m sure our staff will tell you that I was fixated on making sure every little thing was perfectly planned for Easter. I was sure that everything had been planned perfectly: we would worship for between 60-65 minutes, Mike Molloy and I had developed step by step choreography for the choir and I to get the offertory going, I’d practiced the sermon over and over again, Jean Hegner was planning to prepare enough Communion cups for everyone to have two – just in case – the bulletin and powerpoint had been proofread over and over, and it was all going to go perfectly, lest some mistake take place and Jesus not be resurrected after all.
I arrived on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, for Austin Boosted’s memorial service. I set up the powerpoint and walked around doing my thing, when I looked up and saw that the screens had a white background on the left and a green background on the right. There was a problem with the projector. An hour before a memorial service, and the day before Easter. And I was stunned. It had been just fine before! How could it have broken just then? How could we worship if one of the projectors couldn’t project the color white? Surely one of the prophets said something about that, right? Woe to you who worship with projectors that faileth to project in white! How could God do this to me??
Cindy Schurig, Doug Adams and Judy Birmingham, bless them, were in the building distributing Easter Hams to our food pantry folks. And so I asked Doug for help. We listed the many possible issues, most of which would require getting out a really tall ladder, or calling the service tech, or resetting power to the projector. I was pretty keyed up. I didn’t care what it took – we were going to fix the projector that day. No matter if I had to forgo an afternoon of rest and time with my partner, no matter the cost, because God was going to be worshipped in God’s holy splendor and we were going to bring our very best to God.
We decided all we could do before the memorial service was reset power to the projector to see if that helped, and see if a service tech could be called. Of course as it turns out the breaker box that power the projector is somewhere up there [point to back of attic] and I was wearing a suit. No worries, I thought, when you’re on a mission from God who cares if you get a little dust on you? So Judy started calling to see if we could get a service tech out, and I pulled myself into the attic and reset the power.
It didn’t work, and nobody Judy called could send someone before Sunday. God had abandoned me to the horror of a malfunctioning projector. Easter was ruined and my life’s work was in vain. I changed the Powerpoint to green so it would be green on both side, hoping to trick the people into thinking I was not a total failure. The service went fine, in fact I’m told it was quite good, but I figured they were just being polite, after all I was forsaken by God.
And then, sitting alone in my office, I started to laugh. I laughed at a projector system malfunctioning right before Easter, I laughed at the image of the pastor up in the attic in a suit, I laughed at my dramatic despair, I laughed because it seems like God had looked at all my intense effort to make Easter perfect and laughed back at me, I laughed that I was willing to throw away precious time of rest and family, and I laughed at just how far I was willing to go to maintain the idea that it was possible to do something perfectly. And I just kept on laughing.
As it turns out, the tomb was still empty, Easter happened anyways, and was quite lovely. It was okay to have a presentation in green even though Easter’s liturgical colors are white and gold. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t depend on anything that you or I or we do. And it turns out that for several weeks in a row while the problem was diagnosed and the repair quote added to the council’s agenda, we have still been able to gather for worship.
Moving to Genesis: Sarah was 90 years old. She had been told over two decades earlier that she would bear a child and it was silly at the time. So by the time we get to today’s story, when God shows up and visits and says “this time next year she’ll be pregnant” it’s no wonder she laughed. She had been waiting on God to fulfill God’s promise for decades and had maybe finally gotten through the pain and grief and then God showed up and opened it right back up again.
Why is she laughing? God asked. Is anything too difficult for the Lord?
Sarah didn’t know they could hear her so she got scared. Would God be mad? It’s not generally a good thing to have an all-knowing, all-powerful being angry with you. So she lied, which is itself kind of funny, because we humans have this fascinating tendency still to lie to God as if God doesn’t know. But God didn’t get mad, God just spoke the truth: “No, you laughed.” Then a few chapters later she is giving birth and she laughed again. Laughter of joy, no doubt. But also a laughter that says: “life is so far from anything we could ever expect, and everything is going to change for me again.”
There are two basic ingredients to humor. One is incongruity, which is when things don’t really seem to fit. When I act as if the projector pooping out is a global emergency. The pastor in the video being so obsessed about preparing for Easter that he is willing to berate, belittle, and use people. God telling a 90 year old woman to expect a pregnancy. The incongruous can be funny, but under the laugh is often pain.
“We are like the cartoon character Charlie Brown,” says Rev. Ben Patterson. “Each year he tries to kick the football offered by Lucy. Each year she pulls it away just as he is about to kick it. Each year he swears he’ll not try again, and each year he is duped into just one more attempt…. There is humor,” he says, “in the incongruity of Charlie Brown’s trust and Lucy’s deceit, humor in the disparity between what he desires and what he actually gets. But the humor becomes bitter when the football is a life with meaning, when it is eternal life, when it is significance in a universe that dwarfs not only each one of us, but even the planet on which we life….When Sarah laughs, she is laughing the laugh of a cynic who will not try to kick the football one more time.”
That laughter can bring us to faith, because it helps us see the absurdity of our lives, our inability to make everything fit, the many attempts we make to kick footballs that are always removed at the last minute. Humor can bring us to faith because it shows us we need something beyond what we can see and understand.
That’s where the other element of humor comes in: surprise. When God says “is anything too hard for the Lord?” God is inviting Sarah once more to let surprise back into her life, to imagine that she doesn’t know everything she thinks she knows. And in the same way it is in those moments when things just don’t seem to fit no matter how hard we try that God invites us to allow surprise back in again, that maybe we don’t know everything we think we know, that maybe God has something in store that we wouldn’t and couldn’t expect. I actually believe the broken projector was a gift; a surprising reminder that I need not try to make everything perfect, but instead that I might help us each gather to face the brokenness inside us and around us. I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but it’s OK. Is anything too hard for God?
If the answer is yes, then God isn’t much of a God. But if the answer is no, that means that we can yet be surprised, that our lives are each and every day at risk of change, that you might find yourself with child at 90, that God might show up and mess everything up and take you somewhere you didn’t know about and weren’t ready to go, God might tell you to leave something behind that you like very much, God might even offer the biggest of surprises by taking the dead body of an executed man named Jesus and bringing him back to life again, showing us that nothing indeed is too hard for a God that never starts laughing at what passes for human wisdom. Life is anything but predictable; the strangest things can and do happen. And so we, with God, must keep our sense of humor. For it is laughter that opens us to the possibility of faith. And it is faith that keeps us laughing, fools for Christ, trusting in a God full of surprises.