June 18, 2017

2nd Week after Pentecost/Proper 6 Year A

It is the hottest part of the day. Work is an impossibility, and sleep, the only respite. So Abraham sits in the shade at the entrance to his tent, drowsily watching the heat waves rise from the horizon.

He is nodding off to sleep when out of the corner of his eye he sees three men standing nearby. They seem to have appeared out of nowhere, and something strange stirs deep inside Abraham when he sees them, something like fear, but not quite. It’s more like excitement and anticipation.

He rises immediately, his head suddenly clear, and rushes over to where they stand. Hospitality is a sacred duty for the Bedouin, so he bows low before them and speaks to the one who seems to be their leader:

If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.

When they agree to stay and to accept his hospitality, he hurries into the tent and says to his wife, Sarah, “Quick, get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.” He then runs out to his herd, picks out one of his best, most tender calves and orders a servant to slaughter it and cook it. He then brings some curds and milk for his guests to enjoy as they wait for the bread and meat to cook.

The three men eat silently for a while as Abraham stands watching them, trying to understand the feeling he has in their presence. Then they speak, asking him where his wife, Sarah, is. Abraham says, “There, in the tent.” Then the leader speaks, and Abraham knows the reason for his butterflies. This is no stranger; this is the One he had heard speak to him before, but had not seen. This is the One who promised him and Sarah a son. This is the Lord! “Then the LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”

As the men ate, Sarah, lay on the floor near the entrance of the tent eavesdropping on the conversation. She hears the man say, “Sarah your wife will have a son,” and she has to stifle her reaction. She has heard that story before; for the last twenty-four years, to be exact. But now she is in her nineties, and Abraham is nearly one hundred years old. She has long since given up on the hope. It hurt for a while to wait and not to receive. Then the hurt turned to anger, and the anger to cold resignation. She is surprised at what she feels now. When she hears the seemingly empty promise again, it strikes her as . . . well, funny! “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’”

She is still holding her hand over her mouth when the man talking to her husband speaks again. She might not have heard him had he not used her name again. He said, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ ” And before she can crawl away to the back of the tent and hide, he continues: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” He has heard her thoughts! This is no ordinary man!

Terrified at what is happening, she shouts from inside the tent, “I did not laugh.” Without even turning in her direction, the stranger says, “Yes, you did laugh.”

What is the meaning of Sarah’s laugh? Or, for that matter, what makes any of us laugh? What constitutes humor? Philosophers have debated this question since Aristotle. Throughout all of the theories, two elements seem always to be present in what makes something funny: incongruity and surprise.

Incongruity is the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory or unrelated ideas or situations. Surprise comes from the introduction of something that is totally unexpected and unanticipated. Incongruity and surprise are closely related, of course, and are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Both capitalize on the twist, the unforeseeable. Both jolt us out of one attitude into another, which may be completely and even violently opposed to the first. It’s incongruity and surprise that lie behind the humor of one-liners like Henny Youngman’s: “Take my wife. . .please.” Or Woody Allen’s: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m taking along an extra pair of underwear just in case.”

Incongruity and surprise go together in humor. But—and this is the crucial point for us in understanding Sarah’s laugh—it is possible to have humor that deals only in the incongruous and is completely without surprise. That is Sarah’s humor. She can laugh at the preposterousness, the incongruity of an old woman having a baby, of having one foot in the grave and the other in a maternity ward. But that is all she can laugh at: its incongruity. She expects no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world she has grown accustomed to living in and, as a result, her laugh can be only bitter and cynical.

She can hear the Lord say, “your wife will have a son;” and she can laugh in her bitterness. She cannot hear God say, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” If she could, incongruity and surprise would come together, and she would really throw her head back and laugh as she has never laughed before. She would be laughing and weeping with joy at the same time.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described humor as a “prelude to faith,” meaning that it is our sense of the incongruous that can lead us to trust God.

When Sarah laughs, she is laughing the laugh of despair that will not see anything but the ultimate incongruity of her life. Her long waiting has sapped her of her humor. Take surprise away from your sense of the incongruous, and all that remains is a bitter chuckle. That is why God’s response to Sarah has such force. When he says to her, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” he is inviting her to have a really good laugh and let surprise back into her life.

He invites us to do the same. It is only when our sense of the incongruity of our lives meets God’s great surprise of grace and promise that we are enabled to live our lives with the trust God intended. That doesn’t mean that all of our dreams will come true, but it does mean that God may show up in our lives in a surprising way, like hosting three weary travelers who appear without warning offering a blessing we could never have imagined.

Amen.