Transfiguration Sunday/Mardi Gras Sunday
Who could have possibly predicted the Sarah’s birth announcement? Who could possibly have grabbed an angel by the wing and pulled him down out of the sky and contrived for him to give such astonishing news? It all happened not of necessity, not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God. What could they do but laugh at the preposterousness of it, and they laughed until the tears ran down their face. The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforseeable.--Frederick Buechner
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale
SERMON TEXT: Genesis 18:1-15
1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ 13The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” 14Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
So, God and Jesus are playing a round of golf … no wait … if we are trinitarian, maybe it’s redundant and a bit problematic to say it that way … OK … Jesus and Moses are playing golf and … no wait … golf is a modern game and why would Jesus and Moses be playing it? OK … Moses walks into a bar … “Ouch!”
Preaching has often been described in shorthand as three points, a joke and a poem.
Now my sermons don’t always contain the requisite three points … in fact I’ve heard they’re sometimes pointless, so that means the poem and the joke better be pretty darned good. A zinger of a joke that rips the laughter from you and a poem to make you weep or make you knowingly nod at the great, wise truth of it all.
There is a line in the Koran which, I suppose, if you looked has a counterpart somewhere in the Hebrew scriptures … the line asks: "The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?" Annie Dillard quotes this line in her classic “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and she follows it up by saying: “It's a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction?”
But it seems to me that a slow walk or a quick ramble through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures reveals God as, among other things, a great cosmic comedian full of divine wit and a certain wise and loving folly, and one who takes a wily delight in surprising the world and all there is within it with unearned and unanticipated grace.
Sometimes God’s jesting is against us … or actually FOR us in the long run … but it is God who evokes laughter and mirth and cheerfulness from us … who startles our settledness with possibilities and outcomes beyond our wildest imagining (Sarah’s birth announcement … the Prodigal Son) … or seeks to puncture our anxious self-absorption with a bit of satire and levity (Jonah … Job … many of Jesus’ parables [the judge and the exhausting woman]) … or seeks, simply to delight us with wonder so that we laugh in joyful spontaneity along with the creator of all things (Psalms 8 or 19 or 139 or 150).
If you put on the right set of filters, the right set of lenses when reading scripture, you will find that comedy is all around … comedy and wicked satire and absurdist contradiction and wily middle-eastern eye-twinkling humor.
One of the ongoing difficulties of reading the Bible in English as citizens of the 21st century is that it is nearly impossible for us to “get the joke” … to get all of the comic, wry, double-jointed nuances that were plain as day to the original hearers of those words in the original languages of their telling.
Mark Biddle is a professor at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He says that there is a great deal of humor hidden in the pages of scripture, but he says that “many are subtle and you need to tease out the Hebrew or Greek a bit," A prime example he offers is the story in Genesis 24 that traditionally recounts that Rebekah "dismounted from her camel" after seeing Isaac "meditating in the field." But, Biddle says, a strong case can be made that Rebekah "fell off her camel" when she saw Isaac "relieving himself." Mark Biddle says: "Since we are created in the image of God and we have an innate sense of humor, could that mean God has a sense of humor too?”
How do we respond when we hear things like this? Someone has said: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Scowl and someone will ask, ‘Are you a Baptist?’”
Apparently the church over the ages has been pretty thoroughly Baptist … think of all the classic religious art you’ve ever seen (excluding the most modern depictions) … did you ever see a painting of Jesus or any of the great figures of the Bible smiling? Laughing? Leaning together and weeping because of the hilarious punch line of some wonderful story? No … there seems to have been a two thousand year long sense of “gravitas” … this great serious gravity that has pulled the long faces of the painted into scowls and dark, heavy brows full of the unshakeable burdens of living.
As early as the 11th century, the influential church leader John of Chrysostom insisted Jesus never laughed. The Second Council of Constance in 1418—I’m sure you all know it well—considered the question: “Can those who would be Christ-like laugh and still not sin?” That medieval Christian council assigned to hell any minister or monk who spoke "jocular words such as provoke laughter."
But this is at such odds with what we read and experience in scripture. Someone has said that survival in the ancient context out of which our scriptures and faith traditions have come was one where a certain wiliness and foxiness and guile were essential survival skills. And all of these things could evoke laughter and be sources of humor for people who understood what was going on.
You may remember the story of Jacob and Laban. Laban was a dessert sheik who had two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob finds Rachel beguiling and asks Laban for her hand in marriage. But the story has a bit of a cruel twist—because Laban felt it was necessary to insure the survival of his elder daughter Leah who may have run out of prospects. So he deliberately plants the wrong daughter in the dark marriage tent, giving Jacob a wife he had not sought. Jacob confronts Laban who shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘here in our land, we do not give our younger daughters before our older daughters … whaaat, did I forget to mention this seven years ago? Silly me. Ah well, ‘tis a trivial thing … if you agree to work seven more years, I will also give you Rachel.
It is said that by the time of the Greek and Roman era, stories like these, in their crude desert guile, had become embarrassing to the Rabbis.
But if we remember the kind of wily character Jacob was, cheating his brother Esau out of his birthright … and if we knew what Jacob’s father’s name meant in Hebrew, none of the comic and absurd twists and turns of his life should take us completely by surprise.
Jacob’s father is, of course, Isaac and the name “Isaac” you might be interested to know means “laughter” … and indeed, Isaac is the “son of laughter”.
If you’re really up on your Old Testament characters and their stories, you’ll remember that laughter and how it came to be. There was a man named Abram and a woman named Sarai. They were happily settled in the land of their ancestors, the land of Ur, until God called them to hitch their wagon to God’s star … God made some outlandish promises (may be spoken in a bad imitation of the comedian, Jackie Mason, here) “your offspring shall be as numerous as … the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” … and so they followed. And those offspring … hmmm … well … “numerous” is not quite how you’d describe them. Non-existent was a bit more fitting.
One day, God appears to Abram, now Abraham, in the form of three men, but certainly not three ordinary men. Abraham senses the importance of these visitors and rushes about to see that they are offered the finest hospitality that he can muster.
In Genesis 18, beginning with verse 9, “They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Anyone who had heard me snore while sleeping alone in my tent will know that tents block no sound whatsoever. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘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 indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
I am always amazed at how much “real life” humanity can shine through these ancient tales that were first told thousands of years ago around a dying campfire in the deserts of the ancient middle east. “I didn’t laugh!” “Oh yes you did laugh.”
Well … God gets the last laugh, for Sarah does conceive a child, the child’s name is Isaac and Isaac’s name in Hebrew means “laughter”.
The other promise of God to Abram, that has become a sad joke—is made in the same breath as the promise of numerous offspring: “for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever.” I can see God as Homer Simpson realizing that these were fateful words that should never have been spoken and upon immediately realizing the implications of such a promise, God slaps his forehead and says “Doh!” (Alex keeps telling me that I’d better never quite my day job to play Homer Simpson).
And of course, as we can so easily observe ourselves, the forces of Divine Comedy and the draining realities of tragedy are always in contention … both beyond us and within us. Every day of our existence is full of opportunities for hearty guffaws and for gales of tears. It is into that kind of world … that kind of existence that GRACE is always seeking to insinuate itself, seeking to find rootage, seeking to grow that more grace may be propagated still.
Today is Mardi Gras Sunday … and if you’ve been around a while, you’ll know that we’ve never done a Mardi Gras Sunday before … though we have celebrated Mardi Gras in our own sober Baptist way before But this is a first. And now I’ve just learned that there is an old tradition that is now experiencing a bit of a revival …
Apparently for centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant countries, the week following Easter Sunday, including "Bright Sunday" (the Sunday after Easter), was observed by the faithful as "days of joy and laughter" with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Churchgoers and priests and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. Those were some crazy times. And now a number of American churches are resurrecting this old Easter custom … they’re calling it: "Holy Humor Sunday" celebrations of Jesus' resurrection on the Sunday after Easter.
The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. "Risus paschalis - the Easter laugh," the early theologians called it.
In 1988 the Fellowship of Merry Christians began encouraging churches and prayer groups to resurrect Bright Sunday celebrations and call it "Holy Humor Sunday," with the theme: "Jesus is the LIFE of the party."
Here’s how I sort of imagine the beginnings of Mardi Gras: having barely survived yet another brutal winter, the average citizen of the European dark ages was just beginning to enjoy the promise of spring when around came a dour priest announcing that the next forty days were to be spent in a time of sober repentance and fasting and renouncement of earthy and fleshly pleasures. It’s a wonder any priests survived Lent. Mardi Gras was the natural outgrowth of it’s placement between winter and Lent. it came into being between winter hardships and the beginning of the Lenten season of austerity and served as a means of providing a brief respite … providing relief.
The old country comedian, Jerry Clower, tells a story about his best friend, a fellow named Marcel Ledbetter, who was out “coon hunting”* one night with his friends. I am quite a bit sorry to say that hunting raccoons was probably a beloved and even sacred activity among my mountain-dwelling, moonshine-making Tennessee Ledbetter ancestors. [* I use this phrase reluctantly as the term “coon” has a had long, shameful racist associations in our nation’s history.]
Anyhow, one night they were out raccoon hunting and they thought they had treed a raccoon. They shook the vines in the tree but they couldn’t get the raccoon to come down. So Marcel, he’s not a terribly wise fellow, he decides he would climb the tree and shake the raccoon out. He gets to the top and he discovers when he got up there that it was not a raccoon … it was a bobcat. And the bobcat caused him untold harm and he started yelling down from the tree to the fellows below him on the ground, “Shoot him! Shoot him!” The fellows on the ground started yelling back up, “We can’t shoot up there, Marcel, because if we shoot, we’ll hit you!” This goes on for some time with the most awful sounds of yowling and spitting and scratching and fighting going on up in the darkness of that tree. Marcel keeps calling down for them to shoot and they keep begging off and so he finally says, “Just shoot up here amongst us. One of us has got to have relief!”
And you see, that’s just it. From time to time and perhaps much or even most of the time … we are in need of relief. ‘Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulders of a weary world.’”
It is God who evokes laughter from us … and the laughter God evokes serves a number of purposes for us:
The laughter of JUDGMENT … seeks to puncture our anxious self-absorption with a bit of satire and levity (Jonah … Job … many of Jesus’ parables)
The laughter of GRACE … who startles our settledness with possibilities and outcomes beyond our wildest imagining (Sarah & Abraham … the Prodigal Son … hidden treasures in the field)
The laughter of DELIGHT … seeks, simply to delight us with wonder so that we laugh in joyful spontaneity (Psalms 8 or 19 etc. … Paul: “rejoice in the Lord always”).
One night, over a dozen years ago, made the dubious decision to take our boys to the evening worship service at the Pacific School of Religion’s evening worship service. Alex was 3 and Jordan was not quite 8. The service ended with communion and Jordan determined he would partake of the elements and WOULD NOT BE DISUADED. In our inestimable parental “wisdom”, we determined that he would NOT partake of the elements and we WOULD NOT BE DISUADED. The joie de vivre of the evening suddenly came to a screeching halt and we ended the evening stomping out into the dark, none of us blessed by the gifts of table, and Jan, Jordan and I each silent and FURIOUS. We unlocked the car, settled into the car that immediately filled with a thick, angry silence. Into that silence, from his spot in the car seat, Alex suddenly sneezed. No one said anything. Then from the darkness, a tiny voice: “Bless me!”
And we laughed … we laughed the laughter of judgment … and the laughter of grace … and the laughter of delight. It was the sneeze and the blessing that saved our lives … and gave us the relief we needed.
This is serious work we are about … the serious work of sacred silliness and holy hilarity. We do well to laugh … to laugh often and to laugh hard. We are wisest when we laugh with others and at ourselves. We are encouraged to laugh the laughter of judgment … allowing God to puncture our self-absorbed seriousness. We are encouraged to laugh the laughter of grace … allowing the God of glad surprise to shower us with blessings and goodness and grace. And we are encouraged to laugh the laughter of delight … to allow the child within to never die, and to allow our sense of wonder at God and God’s creation and God’s goodness to remain fresh and alive. Hey, whaddya know … three points!
And as we laugh alone and as we laugh together, let it be that we know our laughter to be the hand of God on our shoulders and the shoulders of our weary world.