“A Tale of Two Laughs”

“The Tale of Two Laughs”
Genesis 18:1-15 ; Romans 5:3-8
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
June 18, 2023

In December of 2020, during Advent, I arrived one Sunday morning to prepare for our livestream broadcast since all our worship was done virtually then.

And on my door is a an 8-1/2 x 11 print out photo of my staff photo. The one of the FPC Georgetown website. Except…my head has been replaced by a photo of Nicholas Cage, the actor.

It read: “Happy Birthday!” You’ve been “Caged.”

And this was not only on the door to my office.

There was one of these stuck to my office chair.

One stuck to the counter in the main office area.

There was one in the library.

One in the hallway.

One in the bathroom stall.

There was one of the front of this pulpit and also sitting right back here staring me in the face when I looked down.

A few of them were of a different ilk where the photo was not my staff photo but one that Michelle, Leo and I had taken on Easter of 2020. Only again, instead of my head in the family photo, it was a laughing Nicholas Cage.

And then in center of my desk there was this box with Nicholas Cage’s head on my body, and he is saying “Enjoy your birthday donuts. Love Nic.”

Inside, there were not donuts because the person behind this knew that I really don’t have much of a sweet tooth. There was, instead, a mix of fruits and vegetables – which I really do love.

But I confess – this was so strange. I did not get this. I still don’t get this joke. But it was also really funny.

Any guesses on who “Caged” me that 2020 birthday?

David Lee Hulsey. (NOTE: I learned after the sermon that really it was Stephanie and Jaime leading this endeavor! David Lee was part of it, too).

Laughter. Humor.

The notable 20th century Germany theologian Helmut Thielicke nationality and profession probably conjure a certain somberness… he once wrote, “A church is in a bad way when it banishes laughter from the sanctuary and leaves it to the cabaret, the nightclub and the toastmasters.”

Laughter… a gift from God, a gift which has deep roots in the Bible itself, and a gift that is at the heart of our passage today as that single word, laughter, gets repeated by the narrator four different times in a very short amount of space.

We hear of these three visitors to Abram and Sarah who are, in fact, the very presence of the Lord (though Abram and Sarah do not know this). And after the opening scene of hospitality, one of these visitors tells Abram “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

And the narrator makes a point of underscoring the ridiculousness of this promise by stating immediately

“Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”

We are also told that Sarah herself overhears these words from her place by the entrance of the tent.

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?”

Sarah laughed…but given the context, it makes me mindful that not all laughter is the same.

I think of our times… and how there is a kind of laughter that is fairly wide-spread.

The fuel for this kind of laughter is found in roasting the other side, usually the other political side. It’s a kind of humor that revels in pointing out absurd inconsistencies with the other side. The thick ironies. The outlandish decisions, declarations, demonstrations.

Talk shows, online videos and memes and even a good many conversations shared in the safe confines of like-minded family and friends – more and more in these spaces you can hear a kind of laughter that has a edge to it. A kind of laughing so you don’t start yelling. Or crying.

If I had to put it into one word it would be this: It’s cynical.

Mocking. Skeptical. Distrustful.

I hear a measure of that kind of laughter here in our passage: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?”

“Ha!” You can hear the cynicism. “Yeah. Right.”

And like most people whose laughter is tinged with cynicism, Sarah has good reason. She is way past child-bearing age.

Which is to say, Sarah is just looking at the very true, very stark, very painful facts.

George Carlin once observed, “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”

And yeah, Sarah desperately wanted a child of her own and undoubtedly wanted to believe that God would find a way to provide when God first came to Abram and said this would happen – now many years ago.

And yeah, you know somewhere deep down if we could be super vulnerable for a few moments…

…We would like to believe this country can change for good. The other side can grow and change and even restore some trust and friendships where those are gone.

We would like to believe the marriage, the endeavor, the plan, the hope could succeed, the addiction defeated, the cycle broken…

But the plain facts are so obviously contrary to that possibility. And the facts have been this way for a long time now.

So yeah, sorry not sorry if we’re cynical about this or that or them or…

I do believe a good many in our country this day do get in their daily laughs… and for a good many of us, it is the kind that comes with an edge, an ache, a bitterness.

The problem, of course, is that a steady diet of “cynicism may seem a mild transgression, but it is a patient predator that suffocates hope, slowly, over many years…” (Rachel Held Evans)

Perhaps it is possible to laugh ourselves to death…

Thank goodness ours is a God who is all about meeting us precisely in the calloused cynicism, the impossible valleys.

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’

In other words, God steps in and calls out the kind of laughter God has heard. And then God speaks the singular question that sits at the crux of the entire challenge:

“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Put another way: “Are there certain things, certain dreams, certain hopes that are simply too lofty, too far-gone, too amazing, too impossible even for God?”

We know the Sunday school answer – “Of course not. God can do anything.”

But like Sarah, our cynicism or jadedness or numbness makes clear we sometimes have a real hard time believing the deep good for which we ache has any real shot.

Now, in this instance, if we keep reading the story we do find in Genesis 21 that the Lord kept the promise.

A child was born to Sarah and she named that child “Isaac” which means “one who laughs or rejoices.”

And she then declares, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

We hear the kind of laughter that has no trace of cynicism or edge. It’s the kind that laughs because of the how the surprising good of it all is so overwhelming.

Can you believe it? A baby.

Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian minister and author once wrote, “A good joke is one that catches you by surprise – like God’s, for instance. Who would have guessed that Israel of all nations would be the one God picked or Sarah would have Isaac at the age of ninety or the Messiah would turn up in a manger? The laugh in each case results from astonished delight at the sheer unexpectedness of the thing.”

And we can keep taking it further… who have guessed that billions of people would follow a God who was placed on instrument of shameful torture? Who would have thought that from the depths of death itself life would rise even stronger?

Time and again there is a wondrous unexpectedness about our God – and it brings out a kind of ‘can you believe it’ laughter. A joy amid sorrow laughter. A free amid chains laughter.

Children, especially get this intuitively.

I’ll hide my face behind a pillow and pop back out and Logan will be rolling for minutes on end.

The joy of this unexpected – you weren’t there. And now you are.

Once lost. Now found.

Once gone. Now home.

You want to hear what the gift of God’s surprise sounds like? …Get near the little ones.

To be sure… I don’t know when or how or even if God will bring about good news (in just the way we need it/envision it) related to some ache we carry this day.

But I do wonder how our bellies might know the depth of that kind of goodness once more?

Are there ways that the sheer unexpectedness of God’s work might once again boll us over a kind of astonished delight?

You know, many years later after visitors told Sarah she would have a child, a visitor showed up to another woman, a much younger woman, poorer woman. And this visitor made the same promise.

“Unto you a child will be born…and your child will be great. The Son of the Most High – he will be given the throne of King David and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

And then instead of asking the young woman, “Mary, is anything is too wonderful for God to do?” The visitor goes ahead and just answers the question this time: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Do remember how Mary then responded to this outlandish, inconceivable, world-altering promise?

She sings a song we know as the Magnificat:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on
the lowliness of his servant….

And eventually that song moves into a testimony about God:
for the Mighty One has done great things for me…
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he
made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants

Did you notice the verb tense Mary uses throughout her song? Past tense.

This is what God has done.

Mary is able to believe the laughable promise of God not because she has any reason for hope given her immediate situation or the realities of the Roman Empire of that time. But because she can see clearly what God has done.

Something about looking back, naming God’s faithful blessings made known time and again…something about that frees our souls not to close in and surround itself with cynical armor in protection from future hurt.

But instead, by looking back at all God has done… the soul expands…

“My soul magnifies the Lord with song.”

What do you see when you look back upon God’s faithfulness over the years? The generations? What is there that gives us confidence enough to expect the unexpected?

Back to David Lee and his humor once more. David Lee, as many of you know, is a person who has always had this way of believing – things are going work out. God is going to be so faithful.

And I think a large part of that is because, like Mary, David Lee was so aware of how faithful God had been – and not just in his life. David Lee was aware of how faithful God had been in his grandmother’s life – Poppy Hulsey, a longtime member and saint of this congregation.

And so David Lee was deeply aware of how faithful God had been in and through FPC not just during his time here but also his grandmother’s – which is to say, David Lee had a view of this church that stretched back further than his own generation.

And honestly, I think that ability to see God’s faithfulness stretching back for generations…I think that absolutely informed David Lee’s approach my birthday in December of 2020.

Because as you all probably recall… December of 2020 was a really hard time. We were not meeting in person, folks were tired, vaccines not yet available, hospitals full, political volatility… it just felt heavy.

And David Lee comes along with this gesture of humor so unexpected, confusing, and playful.

And yes these were hardly any sort of huge miraculous thing but each one was something of small sign almost, reminding me, reminding us a little about how God shows up actually.

Showing up in the darkest days, the cynical valley, the broken-beyond-repair spaces… with a kind of grace, vitality, music, joy, embrace…that almost makes no sense, catches us off-guard, has us laugh.

May Holy Spirit grant us fresh eyes to see God’s long faithfulness in our lives and the life of this 169 year-old congregation… and may that give us the confidence to believe and receive the astonishing delight that God has at hand.

I will begin the prayers of the people with a prayer by Walter Brueggemann that relate directly to this theme of our surprising God:

You are a God who awes us and astonishes us.
You are a God who selects a dysfunctional family to carry your future.
You are a God who dwells with barren women who become mothers in Israel.
You are a God who makes promises with no evidence at hand or in sight.
You are a God powerful in purpose, hidden in performance, faithful over time.
And we are among those drawn into the orbit of your life;
A life teeming with impossibilities so hard to trust, so impossible to explain, so precious to treasure.
And we are among those drawn into the orbit of your life;
Give us this day the freedom to be amazed and to trust your way among us,
Even when the world seems closed to all futures.

We praise you, future-creating God. Amen.


About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert