- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost – Genesis 18:1-5; 21:1-7
The Rev. Patricia Matthews
Sermon outline: Begin with a joke.
Okay, here’s one you may have heard before. A Rabbi, a Priest, and a Minister walk into a bar, and the bartender exclaims, “What is this, a joke?”
Or if I say…
Knock, knock?, then you know what comes next.
We know this – because we know how our culture tells jokes. Humor is a product of a certain time and place. Take the joke out of that context, and it may not even be recognized as a joke. Learning to see the humor – especially in literature not written in our own time and culture – can be difficult.
For example, I remember reading Shakespeare’s Henry 4, when Falstaff makes a joke about obtaining suits, “whereof the hangman hath no lean wardrobe”. I did not recognize that as a joke. In order for me to get his rather dark joke, my college professor had to point out that a-hangman-would-have-a-lot-of-extra-suits-lying-around.
There were at least three reasons that I didn’t get the joke at first.
1. The archaic language was a barrier. I was used to my jokes having “knock, knock” in them – not “whereof and hath”.
2. I wasn’t expecting a joke. This was Shakespeare. And supposed to be serious.
3. The context was wrong. I heard it in a classroom, not the Globe Theatre, where people would have been expecting to laugh.
So, I missed it. But thankfully, someone pointed it out to me.
Now, guess what? The Bible contains humor, too, but it shares the same translational problems as Shakespeare. While there are plenty of rabbis in the Bible, none of them walk into bars. But the humor is there. We just have to hone our skills in detecting it so we don’t miss a good joke.
More importantly, if we don’t notice the joke, we may miss a key element of how our tradition thinks about a spiritual life – as containing a lightness. It is not all serious.
Take our reading from Genesis today. Abraham is 100 years old, and Sarah is close to that age, when three holy creatures show up at their doorstep and tell Abraham and Sarah that they are finally going to have their “promised” child. I found some humor in having a child on my 44th birthday. But in your 90s? That’s a good one.
And Sarah, we know she gets the joke because she laughs out loud. Then, get this – the Bible gets almost racy. From inside the tent, Sarah is talking under her breath, apparently about her and Abraham’s – um – intimate life. She says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
But the yuks don’t stop there. The Lord calls Sarah out for laughing, to which Sarah responds, “I did not laugh.” The Lord says, “Oh yes, you did!” And suddenly we’re in a Monty Python skit. “Yes, you did. No, I didn’t. Yes, you did. No, I didn’t.”
And just to drive the humor of it all home, the Lord tells Sarah and Abraham to name the child Isaac – which in Hebrew is Yitzhak, meaning “he laughs”. Nothing like a good pun when naming your child.
And chapters later, when the three men return soon after Isaac is born, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” She is retelling the joke, and anticipating that she will be an evangelist for a sense of humor. Instead of being embarrassed or shy about having a baby in her 90’s, she says, “Everyone who hears will laugh with me!” Her sense of humor is intact, and she wants everyone to laugh with her at this unexpected twist in her story with God.
And even later, in the book of Hebrews, we are still telling jokes about Abraham and Sarah. The author says, “And so from one person [Abraham], and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, as many as the stars…” (11:12)
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t often associate Christian life with humor – but maybe we should. Sure, the Bible is serious, this spiritual path is serious. But taking things seriously does not exclude humor.
Sometimes that is hard to remember – especially when the plot of our lives changes. Our habit when things are shifting may be to become heavy with fear, to cling to what we know or to fall into despair. And in so doing, we sometimes lose sight of humor.
But our stories don’t want us to forget that there is this choice in the face of change. There is the possibility of laughing as Sarah laughed, of entertaining the idea that there is lightness in the changes swirling around us. Author Aldous Huxley writes, “It is dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.” Sarah and Abraham remind us of this.
And theologian and Old Testament scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker agrees. She says that we can see the comedy in the Old Testament as something extraordinarily good, “something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down – but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.”
This humor is at the root of our ancestry. A Father’s Day story to end all Father’s Day stories – the story of Abraham becoming a father to Isaac at 100 years old. A story full of laughter at the unexpected ways God shows up in our lives. And dads, if you’ve ever caught yourself saying, “Please, don’t throw cheese at your brother” or “Don’t put french fries in your shoes” – then you understand the unexpected ways laughter can show up. You understand that each day we choose either to despair or to laugh. Either to try too hard or to live more lightly.
To do things lightly. Like preaching for the last time from this pulpit before I go to St. Mark’s. Change, especially saying goodbye, is a challenge, and taking those changes with lightness is an ongoing spiritual practice.
Some friends of ours just moved away from Little Rock last week. As I hugged one of them goodbye, I said, “I sure am going to miss you”. “No, no, no,” he said. He had learned, when in Mozambique, that no matter whether a person was leaving for a day, or a week, or forever, the farewell bidding is always, “See you tomorrow.”
Next week, we will celebrate, together with Scott. There may be some tears – including my own, as I leave you good, good people – but there may also be some laughter. Perhaps a certain lightness can be with us as we wonder what it is that the Holy Spirit is up to around here. Because I have no doubt that there is goodness already here and also more on the way.
“See you tomorrow.”