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When Do We Get to Laugh Again?
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
June 21, 2020
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He 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. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let 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.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then 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.
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. 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.”
About twenty years ago, the comedian Chris Rock recorded a stand-up special for HBO called “Bigger and Blacker.” Rock was a young brash comic, full of confidence, and he’s certainly never been one to shy away from big issues. I think I first saw this set sometime in college, and I still think about his bit on gun violence, where he says he doesn’t really put much faith in gun control. He said what we needed was bullet control. “If every bullet cost five thousand dollars,” Rock says, “There’d be no more innocent bystanders.” But in the last few weeks I’ve also been remembering some of his take on being black in America. “The white man thinks he’s losing the country,” Rock says. “‘Affirmative Action, illegal aliens, we’re losing the country.’ Losing? If y’alls losing, who’s winning? There ain’t a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you would change places with me. And I’m rich! There’s a white, one-legged busboy in here right now that won’t change places with me. He’s going, ‘No, man, I don’t wanna switch. I wanna ride this white thing out. See where it takes me.’”
You can go watch the clips on YouTube. I sort of encourage it, only if you can stomach the language I’ve edited out. And if you go watch the clips, you can see that Chris Rock’s audience is losing their minds. They’ve never heard anything this funny in their whole lives. They are falling out of their chairs. But I’m not entirely sure what the joke is. I mean, that’s the thing. He’s not lying. He’s not making anything up. He’s not telling knock-knocks. It’s not even entirely clear that he’s trying to be funny. He’s just telling the truth. The black folks in the audience are laughing because he’s telling the truth. The white folks in the audience are laughing because he’s telling the truth. He’s got the room in the palm of his hands because he’s telling a truth that didn’t have anywhere else to be told. It didn’t have anywhere else to go. And so you can see it poking holes in the imaginations of his audience, you can see them having this staggering epiphany about who they are and the color of their skin and who he is and the color of his skin and what the country is and the color of its skin and something about having holes poked in their imaginations is just hilarious.
We don’t talk a lot in church about laughter. Not a lot of systematic theologies with sections carved out for comedy. And to be honest there aren’t a lot of Biblical stories that hinge on comedy either — it’s not, on the whole, a funny book. It’s not going for laughs. Except, of course, for this morning, when Sarah laughs. You might know this story. This summer we are preaching through some of these familiar lectionary Genesis stories and sometimes it feels like binging on an old Netflix favorite and yes, this is that classic episode where Sarah laughs. God wants Abraham and Sarah to be parents — God’s got a whole plan for their family — but they’re getting pretty old, and when God shares this particular plan with Abraham and Sarah, she thinks it’s hilarious. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She laughs, of course, because she thinks it’s a joke. She doesn’t know how to trust this God. She doesn’t put much stock in this promise. She knows how the world goes and her time for having children has come and gone and she knows exactly where the boundaries of possibility are and this is obviously a joke.
Except that the joke is, somewhat, on her. It turns out that this is one of those times where it’s funny because it’s true. Sarah and Abraham do in fact conceive, and the text says that Abraham was a hundred years old at this point in time, which I take less as a statement about Biblical biology and more as a theological claim about the unlikelihood of this thing that God does. There was no room in Abraham’s imagination for such a thing. There was no room in Sarah’s imagination for such a thing. But now God has poked a hole in their imagination, which, apparently, is hilarious. Apparently, the sensation of hearing some truth so far beyond what you think would ever be possible just feels hilarious. Of course, a few chapters later, once the child is born, they name him Isaac — it’s a bit of a Hebrew pun on the word for laughter in the first place. And Sarah makes this beautiful statement both of prophetic evangelism and stand-up comedy. “God has brought Isaac for me. God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” They won’t believe it either. But it’s funny, because it’s true.
I find myself needing some of that prophetic laughter. Actually, any kind of laughter would do pretty well. I know we all miss different pieces of getting to worship in the sanctuary — we miss passing the peace with a handshake and saying hello with a hug, and we miss hearing the choir sing together and joining our voices in song together. But I’ve realized that I also miss the laughter. There’s no laughter in our worship services as long as you’re all on mute. And even if we unmuted everybody, it’s not quite the same, laughter doesn’t quite work across a virtual connection. It’s one of those embodied things and you sort of have to be there. And of course, now it feels like one of those dangerous things. Like we have learned so much about how singing helps project COVID particles through the air so that if your top priority is limiting the spread of the virus, then singing together is in an enclosed environment is one of the most dangerous things you can do. But laughter couldn’t be much better. So, I can just picture it, all of us in the sanctuary, everybody sitting six feet apart, everybody wearing their tightest facemask, nobody singing, nobody shaking hugs, nobody hugging, and for sure, nobody laughing. You wouldn’t dare laugh.
Not when the world has gotten so deadly serious. Not now. Not three months into lockdown, with daily case numbers spiking here in Texas and the very real possibility that we in Austin are in fact entering the worst season yet of what this COVID really means. Nothing about this death is funny. Nor, of course, as we approach the second month since the death of George Floyd and our renewed national conversation about racial equity and white supremacy. We still have protests in the streets. We still have racist policies on the books. We still have so much work to do, and it all feels deadly serious, and deadly urgent, and deadly crucial, and just plain deadly. It’s all deadly. We have come to that part of this lamentable year when all we can imagine is this deadliness creeping in on all sides, as if new life might never come again. But of course, Abraham and Sarah have been there before. In one of those seasons when everything felt like death. In one of those years when everything ended with death. But then God brought laughter. God poked a hole in their imaginations of what could possibly be. God brought laughter. “God has brought laughter for me,” Sarah says. “Everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Friends, we’re going to need some of that prophetic laughter. Charlie and I have been reading through the Harry Potter series, and I have been reminded of my favorite creature from that magical universe, called the Boggart. The Boggart is a foul and lonely beast. It likes to hide away, in old cupboards, in old closets, under old pieces of discarded furniture. In fact, nobody knows exactly what a Boggart looks like, because as soon as you expose one, a Boggart will transform into its understanding of your worst fear. If you are Ron Weasley, you might see a giant spider. If you are Neville Longbottom, you might see the terrifying Professor Snape. Many people in the Harry Potter universe will, of course, see the dark wizard Lord Voldermort himself. The Boggart knows what makes you afraid. The Boggart wants you to be afraid. The Boggart wants fear to be the only thing you can imagine.
But the Boggart has a weakness. There is one spell that can bring a Boggart to its knees. It is called the Riddikulus spell. And, properly deployed, the Riddikulus spell does one thing. It transforms the Boggart into something, well, ridiculous. If you are Ron Weasley, fighting a boggart turned into a giant spider, the Riddikulus spell will make the spider lose its legs, and look a little, well, ridiculous. If you are Neville Longbottom, fighting a boggart turned into Severus Snape, the Riddikulus spell will make the terrifying Professor all of a sudden to be wearing your grandmother’s clothes, and, thus, he will look a bit ridiculous. Ideally, the goal of the Riddikulus spell is that you should now find the boggart to be so, well, ridiculous, that not only does the fear evaporate, but you start laughing. And your laughter makes a boggart disappear completely. Laughter is the boggart’s worst enemy. There’s no potion. There’s no jinx. There’s no magical beast that rides in to save the day. You just have to find laughter. And if you can find laughter, then this terrible, fearful, fearmongering, death-dealing beast. Just. Disappears.
Of course, the real world isn’t quite that easy, and laughter alone won’t get us there. The work of peace and justice can’t just be in the hands of stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts. Nor, of course, is all laughter the same. But alongside the hard work. Alongside the difficult work. Alongside the mission work and the organizing work, the advocacy work. Alongside the confessing work and the atoning work and the reconciling work. Alongside all the hard work. For sure we’re going to need some prophetic laughter. Sarah’s laughter. God’s laughter. This laughter that keeps reminding us of the infinite boundaries of what could be. A laughter that keeps overturning for us all the powers and principalities of the age that is. A laughter that keeps poking holes in our imagination, over and over and over, such that might see the world as God sees the world, full of possibility, and open to re-creation, and overflowing hope. Friends, this is the Gospel: that God is trying to tear down the boundaries of our imaginations, and it’s funny, because it’s true. So you can laugh.
Laugh in communion with the long history of prophets who have spoken the most absurd things into the face of death.
Laugh with Sarah, to whom God says “You shall have a son, even in your advanced age,” because you know that just sounds hilarious.
Laugh with Isaiah, to whom God says, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” because you know that just sounds preposterous.
Laugh with Jesus, through whom God says that the son of man must undergo great suffering and be killed. And yet, after three days he will rise again. Because, you know, that just sounds…
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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