June 18, 2017

When I was growing up, my sister had a friend who, whenever she got in trouble, would giggle. As her teacher or parent was lecturing her, instead of showing any fear or remorse, she would just snigger. It had the predictable result of getting her into even more trouble, because it was not the response for which the offended person was looking.

We laugh for many reasons; sometimes simply because something strikes us as funny. Some people laugh to cover fear; some convert their anger or uncertainty into humor and try to laugh it away. Many comedians, I suspect got their start this way.

In this case, laughter can be a defense against all that is threatening, hurtful or uncertain about life. As a chaplain keeping company with families in crisis, I cannot tell you how often they would start making jokes about the situation and quickly point out: If we couldn’t laugh about it, we would have to cry.

In our first reading, Sarah had spent most of her adult life in a very difficult situation. Married to a man who uprooted their whole household to pursue nebulous dreams of becoming the father, not just of a family, or a clan, or even a tribe, but of a great nation, she had been unable to provide him with any children at all! Finally, in desperation, she had given him her handmaid to be mother to his children.

Today’s story happened after the maid, Hagar, had already borne Abraham’s first son.

Though Sarah had intended for it to happen, it still felt to her, apparently, like having salt rubbed in the wound of her barrenness. Furthermore, Sarah was beyond the age of child-bearing; she had no remaining hope of getting pregnant.

 One day three strangers showed up at their tent uninvited. Abraham hastened to welcome them and offer food and drink as Middle Eastern hospitality demanded. As they were eating, one of the men predicted that he would pass this way again in the future and find that Sarah has a son.

The women had remained in the tent while the men ate together, as was customary, but Sarah was apparently listening to their conversation. She reacted to this comment as though it were a joke rather than a prophecy; she was understandably skeptical after many years of heartbreak. If it had turned out to be a joke, it would have been a cruel one, given her situation. She could have cried, rather than laughed, at such heartless humor.

Sarah laughed. When the speaker confronted her, she denied laughing, out of fear.  When her son was born, some time later, she laughed again, not from fear, but for joy. Abraham named the boy Isaac and Sarah said: God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age. She who laughs last laughs best!

Thousands of years later, the earliest Christians had little enough to laugh about.

Life was still as short and brutal for most people as it had ever been and, especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 69-70 CE, the Jesus movement became a target of the declining Roman Empire.

The apostle Paul tried to encourage those early believers with some famous words: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  

Living a life of ease does not prepare us to handle the problems of life. It turns out that we grow through responding to life’s challenges. For most of human history, there has been lots of misery to teach people the art of adaptability. The easier our lives become, the less need we feel to stretch ourselves and eventually we lose the ability to adapt.

The apostles were equipped by Jesus to dispense God’s word and healing power to the people around them, but just to keep them on their toes, they were to leave their physical needs in the hands of God. They were to rely on their hearers for food and shelter and not confront their opponents, but take their message to others who might be more receptive. They had the good news, or gospel, about God’s love for and desire to help people.

Wherever they traveled, the Kingdom of God came near. But Jesus warned them they would pay a high price for being the bearers of such good news.

One of the paradoxes of our faith is that usually the bearers of bad news are punished, but in this case they would be persecuted for spreading good news.

The leaders of Jerusalem threw the worst punishment they could manage at Jesus because they found him so threatening in his power and goodness. He had the last laugh on them, however, more than once. Not only did he come back from the dead, but he started a movement that spread throughout the known world in a few centuries and was adopted as the official religion of the remnants of the Roman Empire.

Still, his apostles all suffered for their advocacy of the faith; many died for it and still it continued to grow.  Christianity, to this day, thrives more in the face of opposition than it does as a cultural norm.

Christians in countries like the US wail and moan as our society becomes more open to the influence of a variety of religions, but surely the need for outreach has not gone away. Outreach is the whole point of today’s gospel; it is the reason the church began!

We continue to live in a world where the rich get richer and the poor struggle or even die in their attempts to secure the safety and well-being of their families. The fact that we are so much richer than the rest of the world doesn’t give us the right to ignore or ostracize them, from God’s point of view. Rather God calls us to share what we have with them and to help them find the safety they need to live decent lives.

In Canada, as a response to the horrific loss of life among Syrians fleeing the civil war, people have been forming groups to sponsor Syrian families as immigrants. They are not doing it in the name of religion, but of human decency. It is nonetheless a modern example of the gospel imperative. These groups do not seek to change the religion of their beneficiaries, simply to give them a chance to live in safety. The process is not without its problems, but they have the right idea.

The fact that this is even happening, for my money, is a sign that Christianity is fulfilling its purpose in that country. The church may be in decline, but the Holy Spirit is alive and well and moving among the people. They are choosing to do the things that Jesus asks of us whether they profess faith in him or not.  It is hard to wail and moan about Christianity being left behind in a country where large numbers of people are acting on its basic precepts right now. I can imagine God chuckling as he sees his work being done by such a diverse group of people.

And, as we all know, he or he who laughs last laughs best.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.