This morning I am thinking about laughter – about the different kinds of laughter, about what makes us laugh. To start with, we laugh when we hear something funny – a joke, a silly situation. Or we laugh at ourselves because we suddenly realize that we are in a ridiculous predicament and see the humor in it. There is other kind of laughter as well – a knowing laugh; a dismissive or sardonic laugh; a nervous laugh.
But then there is the laughter born of joy. I have some young friends whose first child was born two days ago. All throughout the pregnancy they shared pictures and updates on Facebook – including the last impatient and uncomfortable week of the baby being overdue. So there was a great deal of joy and laughter when they finally got to meet their daughter – especially just in time for Fathers’ Day.
And finally, there is the laughter that erupts spontaneously at astonishingly good news. Two examples come to mind. The first is a brief clip from the film “Chariots of Fire” about two runners for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics, each working against personal and social odds. One of the runners, Harold Abrahams, was Jewish – making it difficult enough for him to get the same support as the rest of his teammates. Added to that was his pioneering use of a personal professional coach – very much frowned upon by a culture that embraced the way of the amateur. When it came to Harold’s final event, the hundred-meter dash, the coach Sam was not even allowed in the stadium, so the only way he knew that his protégé had won was when he was able to see the Union Jack raised on the stadium’s center flag pole. When Sam saw that, he laughed, punched his fist through the crown of his straw hat, and then cried. The work of a lifetime – on so many levels – had come true at last, and some important social as well as personal boundaries had been broken through.
My own example of the laughter of astonishment at great good news came eleven years ago today, a Sunday afternoon. A seminary friend who was at the Episcopal Church General Convention called to tell me that Katharine Jefferts Shori had been elected the new Presiding Bishop. And I laughed with joy and astonishment. Katharine was the first woman to have been nominated to that office, and I never even thought there would be a chance of her election. After all, the first women were ordained in our Church in 1974, it took two more years to make it official, and another twelve years before there was a woman bishop. When that happened there was great consternation in the Anglican Communion about whether our international Anglican relationships would fall apart, because no other Anglican churches had women bishops. Eighteen years later to have Katharine elected as Presiding Bishop (also a world-wide first) was really a very short span of time in the history of the Church as a whole, even though it seemed right in step with secular American culture. Until I heard the news and laughed with astonishment and joy, I had no idea how deeply I felt about Bishop Katharine’s nomination and election. God had clearly done a new thing!
In Genesis, we heard a very important account about the Lord (or three angels, the passage says both) visiting Abraham and the hospitality he offers his guests. Earlier in the story God had promised Abraham and Sarah that if they would follow him – literally and figuratively – as their God, he would give them a great family, as many descendants as the stars in the sky. But there was one hitch – a pregnancy never took hold. So Sarah decided to give Abraham her maid Hagar as a surrogate, and the child from that union, Ishmael – would be Sarah’s child and Abraham’s heir.
But that was not God’s plan, and the holy visitors came to Abraham to deliver the news that Sarah would indeed become pregnant and deliver a baby, and that child would be Abraham and Sarah’s true heir. But Sarah was long past the age of having children, so as she overheard this news while hiding behind the tent flap, she laughed with astonishment, with joy, with no small measure of “You’ve got to be kidding!” God’s great and astonishing news brought laughter – a child named Isaac, which means “he laughs.”
And in the Gospel reading, Jesus recruits, commissions, and sends out the Twelve to do the work that Jesus was sent to do, to be his apprentices and advance team. Many of us are familiar with this story from its version in Luke 10, but this is Matthew’s version. And what are the disciples told to do? Proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near; cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; do so freely. I can well imagine that the recipients of this good news of God – announced both in speech and action – were overjoyed, amazed, astonished. They were being healed, cleansed, enlivened, set free – all signs of God’s power and presence with them and among them, what they had hoped and longed for as they prayed and waited and hoped for the coming of the Messiah. That day was dawning and it was right here in their doorstep. I am sure there was laughter.
Where are the places that God has brought laughter to you – this kind of astonished, joyful laughter? Where has hope displaced fear? Where have you caught even a glimpse of a new day, of God’s healing and sustaining presence, of constraining boundaries being broken open? It might be in your personal story, it might be your reaction to something that has happened in the world at large.
There always forces in the world which seek to trip us up, to pull us down, to separate, wound, and destroy. But God is greater than those forces; that’s what Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection are all about. As Jesus’ followers, we know there is hope in Christ, and that hope brings us joy. Where is that joy for you, even if you can’t live in it all the time?
That joy and hope are what God calls us to share with others, to join in with, to work to make a reality – when and where we can. It’s the hope that all that wounds us, imprisons us, demeans us, tells us that we are “less than”, will be wiped away by the grace and goodness of God. And in place of that ancient pain will be a sense of God’s wholeness, of love and belonging, of God’s desire and purpose coming to fruition and fulfillment…even if it has taken a very long time.
Hope, joy, and laughter – may these three abound.
Let us pray.
Lord God, your Psalmist taught us that “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning”; teach us to look for your joy in every new day, that we may carry it with us, and bring the new dawn of your healing and goodness to all we meet. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2017