Genesis 18: The Lord said to Abraham ‘Why did Sarah laugh when I promised she would bear a child? Is anything too wonderful for me to achieve – in due season, Sarah will have a son. But Sarah denied it saying ‘I did not laugh’ for she was afraid. The Lord said ‘ Yes, you did laugh.’
Here’s a joke I like:- A priest, an imam and a rabbit walk into a café. ‘What would you like to drink?’, asks the waiter. ‘I don’t know’, says the rabbit, ‘I think I’m only here because of autocorrect.’
It’s slightly nervewracking choosing jokes – we’re all different. My daughter Ella, from a small child and to this day, hates Mr Bean because she can’t bear the idea of someone making such a fool of themselves and being laughed at by other people. My dear departed father-in-law, on the other hand, absolutely loved Mr Bean We’re all different, especially when it comes to humour.
When I was studying pastoral care for my Masters, I got a bit sick of all the study around grief and trauma and suffering – pastoral care is for the good times as well as the bad, so I decided to write an essay on humour. Then, and I suspect now, it was much harder to find texts on humour than on grief and trauma but I ended up reading quite a lot about how jokes work, and the basic ideas are best written about by Sigmund Freud in his 1905 book ‘Jokes and their relation to the subconscious’.
If memory serves, and I confess I haven’t reread the book, Freud thinks jokes work on the principle that you hear something you don’t expect, which is a shock, but when your mind works out that the unexpected thing makes sense in a different way, and is not threatening to you, you laugh in relief and delight because your confusion is resolved. Nobody expects a rioter to throw flowers. No one expects an imam and a priest to go drinking with a rabbit. And, I’m pretty sure at this point the Monty Python fans are thinking ‘ No-one expects the Spanish inquisition.’ Humour is about familiarity and unfamiliarity, about trying to make sense of things which don’t make sense the way we expect them to. It kills a joke to analyse it but we all know that laughter is a very fine medicine , and that time spent laughing with friends is the very best way to live.
I love today’s reading from the first testament – the story of three mysterious strangers appearing at the desert camp of Abraham and Sarah , an old couple with no children , accepting their spontaneous hospitality – fresh bread, fresh lamb, fresh yoghurt to drink – and then promising that Sarah, a woman who had ‘ceased to be after the manner of women’ (that is a woman post menopause) would have a first precious child, a son. No wonder Sarah laughs at this unthinkable, preposterous announcement. It’s a joke to her, a dream she’s put to bed, maybe it’s a thing that can’t threaten her anymore because she’s come to terms with her situation.
I love today’s reading because I love this icon of Rublev – the angels at the oaks of Mamre. It’s usually recognised as a representation of the Trinity: the Creator God, Jesus – the incarnation of God, and the Holy Spirit, the sustaining comforter. I love this icon because of what it hints about our God – our God is too large to be a single entity, our God is three and everyone knows that three’s a crowd, our God is all about conversation, and hospitality, and sharing, and company.
Over the next three chapters of Genesis, we learn a lot about the importance of hospitality, and welcoming strangers, who might turn out to be angels. Whoever wrote these stories was keen to draw us a picture of who God might be. Today’s reading begins ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.’ Three men appeared – there’s no attempt to identify which of the three is the Lord, or if it’s all three but Abraham immediately springs into action to create a feast for these strangers who must be hot and tired, travelling in the heat, and glad to sit in the shade of the oaks. It takes a while to bake bread and butcher a calf and cook it – this feast takes time to prepare so I’m assuming Abraham and Sarah and the three strangers get to know each other pretty well during these hours, working together and exchanging news and likely some jokes and laughter, because hospitality is not just setting up a canteen to serve food.
A couple of chapters later, we hear the horror of a very similar situation turning out horribly differently – this time two strangers, this time Sodom and Gomorrah, this time Lot the host, unable to protect his visitors from systematic gang rape by the locals. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used as stick to beat gay people with for centuries, but the horror of the story is not about sexual orientation – the sin of Sodom is inhospitality, failure to show manaakitanga to unexpected guests, and worse than that, brutalising the visitors, sexually assaulting them. It’s a horrible story and sits in a challenging counterpoint to today’s story.
If you’re a stranger, travelling through a strange lands, you are entirely dependent of the hospitality of those you encounter. The stranger is vulnerable to the whims of those they encounter – they may find welcome and generosity, they may be ignored, or at worst, they may be brutalised and humiliated. How interesting that this ancient text – probably pulled together around 3400 years ago – should choose to show God as the stranger who we can welcome or ignore, feast or wound.
Knock knock –
Knock knock –
Sarah laughed at God, and God called her on it, and she guiltily denied it but God knew. It’s embarrassing when you laugh at something because you think you’re being teased, but it turns out the other person is completely serious.
Abraham and Sarah are really interesting characters – human in their longings, not always kind to those around them, struggling to survive in harsh circumstances , where kinship and land was essential to survival. Abraham and Sarah did what they needed to survive – sometimes graciously as when they created a feast for the angel visitors, and sometimes less so, in their treatment of Hagar and her son Ishmael, and even in their treatment of Isaac, Sarah’s longed-for son, whom Abraham very nearly kills (but these are all stories for another time.) Infertility is a horrible thing for anyone who longs for a child – it can eat away at people – it’s so unfair when one body doesn’t do what other bodies seem to do so easily. Maybe God knew how much both Abraham and Sarah longed for children. But I don’t believe in a God who rewards faithfulness with physical fertility – there’s plenty of evidence that’s not how God works. Sometimes, despite the Freudians, a story is just a story. Maybe this is just a story about the importance of hospitality and welcoming the stranger, and it’s less about physical fertility and more about being open to new possibilities, to unexpected delights appearing through grace like mirages in the desert.
A couple of Chapters on, Sarah delivers baby Isaac and the punchline – Gen 21:6 Sarah, by now very old, and Abraham over 100, says ’God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, yet I have borne him a son in his old age?’ They didn’t all live happily ever after – there’s the driving out of Hagar, and the near sacrifice of the child Isaac, and Isaac’s later challenges with his own warring sons. These tales of human struggle and cruelties and pettiness, triumphs and joys go on from time immemorial. But in today’s reading, unusually and helpfully, there is laughter and hospitality and sharing, reminding us that it’s the small kindnesses and joys and friendships which breathe life into our days.
We’re not so different from those ancient desert people, and I think that’s one reason why church communities keep gathering around these old stories – we break and consume them together as food for our life’s journey. Our second story for today is from Matthew’s gospel, and the eagle-eared of us will note that it was also the gospel appointed for Wesley Sunday a few weeks back. It’s Jesus commissioning the twelve apostles to help him do the work he had previously been doing by himself. Jesus has reached that point where he has shared much with his special mates, and now he brings them into the action because the crowds around him are now really large. The gospel writer notes that Jesus has compassion for the crowds because he sees that they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It’s the moment where the disciples – the students, the learners – graduate to apostles – messengers, ones who are sent, commissioned to ‘bring in the harvest because the harvest is great but the labourers are few.’ The commission is to go and proclaim the good news that ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’. As someone who works in health promotion, I notice how health promoting the instructions are – cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin disease, cast out demons – the same physical and mental challenges which afflict so many of us today. And how Jesus emphasises how the economy of God works – you received without payment, give without payment. It’s in stark contrast to the experience, then and today, where so many are enslaved by poverty and debt.
The apostles are commanded to go and be like the three strangers at Mamre oaks – arrive, hope for but never demand hospitality, share in the feast and offer good news to the hosts – there is a future you may not yet be able to imagine, have courage, feast on this love which we have generated together as we share the simple necessities of life, as we offer companionship and honesty.
The God of Abraham and Simon Peter is the God we can meet today. Our God recognises when we feel harassed and helpless, when we have lost our sense of wonder and delight, when the laughter is drying up. Our God arrives in the desert and expects us to invite them to the feast, expects us to share what we have and eat with them as an equal – share the kai and the korero. Our God can bring us preposterous news – that there’s new life round the corner, that we can expect the unexpected, that our God is inviting us to heal ourselves, and those around us, to free each other from the demons of fear and hopelessness, play an active part in what happens next. Our God is about laughter, and company, and bringing joy and new life to a desert place. May this God’s infectious laughter bring us back to life in the coming days.