Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 17, 2023
Sermon Texts: Genesis 18:1-15
As I was preparing for today’s sermon, it occurred to me that writing a sermon about laughter
is a lot like trying to explain a joke.
Most of the time, if you have to explain a joke,
it’s never going to be as funny as it was for those who got it immediately.
If someone still doesn’t laugh or smile after that first explanation, then the second and third explanations are almost certainly doomed to failure.
I know many preachers who always begin their sermons with a joke. The congregation waits expectantly for the punch line, and when it comes they either groan or laugh.
I don’t begin every sermon with a joke, partly because I’m afraid I’ll get the groan and not the laugh.
My approach to humor in sermons is that I try to say something in a creative way that might be funny, and if people laugh, great, but if not, then hopefully what I said is still a little bit creative.
Whereas, a punchline that bombs is simply a punchline that bombed. There’s no redeeming it.
A greater danger is that the attempt at humor might be at someone else’s expense, and then the damage done by the hurtfulness of the joke is very difficult to undo.
But the main reason I’m wary of beginning every single sermon with a joke is that I know that most people listening to a sermon are longing to hear good news.
Many people come with hurts, with grief, with deep anxiety about the state of the world.
They don’t come hoping to hear a stand-up comic.
As difficult as it is for preachers to negotiate the appropriate use of humor in a sermon, I think it’s even more challenging to talk about humor in the Bible.
In today’s story, Abraham and Sarah learn that they are going to have a baby. Sarah is about 91 years old, and Abraham is already over a 100.
When I was in high school, I can remember a speaker at a huge youth rally retelling the story, he said, imagine that grandma and grandpa called you up on the phone, and said, guess what?, we’re going to have a baby!
The speaker had all of us in stitches.
There’s certainly intended humor in the original Hebrew narrative.
We’re told that Sarah laughs inwardly, and she ends up naming her baby, Isaac, Yitzak, which is the Hebrew word for laughter.
But the story may or may not strike us as funny.
What are we to make of such a story? For a couple who has gone through infertility,
gone through multiple in vitro fertilizations only to have them fail,
you simply cannot say, well, don’t lose hope, after all, Abraham and Sarah had a baby in their nineties.
There’s still hope for you!
That’s not helpful. That’s hurtful! It’s absurd!
Is there a way to redeem this story? Or is it an example of the Bible’s attempt at a joke that failed?
More than forty years ago, novelist and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner wrote a series of lectures that were eventually published in a little book entitled, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.
In that book, Buechner wrote,
The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.
How can Charlie Chaplin in his baggy pants and derby hat foresee that though he is stood up by the girl and clobbered over the head by the policeman and hit in the kisser with a custarpie,
he will emerge dapper and gallant to the end,
twirling his invincible cane and twitching his invincible moustache?
The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.
[In the Hebrew narrative itself], how could Abraham and Sarah have foreseen that after being promised that they would become the ancestors of a great nation only to face years of infertility instead, that one day three strangers would appear with incredulous news that at long last they would have a baby?
Who could have possibly predicted it?
Who could have possibly made it happen, grabbed an angel by the wing and pulled it down out of the sky and contrived for that angel to give such astonishing news?
It all happened not of necessity, not inevitability, 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 cheeks.
And here ends the quotation and paraphrase from Buechner.
When the laughter comes, it is not the laughter at a well-told joke with perfect timing. It is a laughter that comes from a deep well of disappointment.
It is the laughter of someone, who, in all honesty,
has completely given up on God, who has come to the realization that God is simply not relevant to real life in any shape or form, and then the unforeseeable happens.
Many churches have a tradition of having a Holy Humor Sunday on the Second Sunday of Easter.
And from my perusal of past bulletins,
I see that Covenant has had Holy Humor Sundays on that Second Sunday of Easter. Holy Humor Sunday is based on the idea that in raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God played the ultimate joke on the devil.
When Holy Humor Sunday is done well, when it’s not simply a preacher or worship leader telling multiple jokes,
it evokes this sense of a holy laughter that emerges from our own deep wells of disappointment at that time when God does the thing that was utterly unexpected.
In Buechner’s words . . .
Holy laughter is the laughter that emerges when the Prodigal son, hungry and broke, decides to go home, believing that the best that he can hope for is to be hired as a worker on his father’s estate, and instead, the moment that his father sees him approaching, his father gathers up his robes with his hands and runs toward his son, embracing him in joy and tears, and insists that everyone celebrate with a great feast.
Holy laughter emerges when Job, who is bored to death by his comforters and scratching his boils and facing the undertaker’s unpaid bill for the multiple funerals of his children and entire household staff, suddenly beholds with his bloodshot eyes the one who laid the foundations of the earth and at whose work the morning stars sing for joy.
The tragic is the inevitable.
The comic is the unforeseeable.
And here ends my final quotation from Buechner.
Holy laughter emerges when we have our lives all planned out but it turns out that God has other plans instead.
God must have a real sense of humor, we say.
For many people, holy laughter does indeed come from a deeper place,
it comes when we fear, for one reason or another, that life as we have known it is over, only to find that we’ve been given an entirely new life instead.
I’m thinking of a man that I knew in Colorado. For years he struggled with alcohol.
He tried AA several times before he was able to have a long streak of sobriety.
When he had been sober for about a year, he lost his job, he spent weeks and weeks looking for a new job, and with that loss of income he was forced to give up his housing, and he and his wife moved across state to live with his elderly mother.
He said that for years people kept telling him that his life would turn around for the better once he gave up drinking, and here, after a year of sobriety, his life utterly fell apart.
But after having moved back to his original roots in Western Colorado, he took part in a 72-hour spiritual retreat called “The Walk to Emmaus,” which recalls that passage in Luke 24 where two people are walking along the road, utterly despondent because Jesus of Nazareth has been crucified, and a stranger begins walking with them, and unbeknownst to the two walkers at first the stranger is actually Jesus, and they finally recognize Jesus the moment that he breaks the bread.
Our friend became one of the leaders of the Walk to Emmaus, leading multiple retreats.
And for him, that moment when Jesus breaks the bread--that moment of surprise preceded by the loss of job and livelihood--is a moment of deep and joyous laughter.
Holy laughter is also the laughter that emerges when the people of God do something that is utterly unexpected.
Holy laughter is the laughter that breaks out when a new elder on the session of the Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, makes the out-of-the-box suggestion that the next time that the church hosts a dinner for the unhoused that instead of using the paper plates and napkins they bring out the fine china instead, and then that’s exactly what they did.
Holy laughter is the laughter that breaks out when Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who is heavily tattoed and curses like a sailor, hopes to establish a church in downtown Denver that will attract those who are not usually attracted to churches, people living on the street, drug addicts and former addicts, and many of them do come, but among the people who come are also wealthy suburbanites in their preppy clothes who are longing to hear good news, and Nadia thinks to herself, well, if I’m talking about the need for the church to be fully inclusive, then I need to listen to my own sermons.
What is something that Covenant Presbyterian Church might do that would prompt you to laugh out loud?
--Let me qualify that!!--
. . . that would prompt you to laugh out loud with joy?
What wild, wonderful, utterly unexpected thing do you think God is calling us to do?
One way or another, holy laughter awaits.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often preach from an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.