A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 14 June 2020, the First Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: Genesis 18: 1-15, 21: 1-7.
I have a friend in America who for the last few years has known he has a life-threatening condition. About six weeks ago he sent me a message to say he was now at the hospice stage and it wasn’t going to be long. ‘No one he said, has ever made it more than 30 days from here.’ I wasn’t sure what to do so I wrote him a letter. The letter recounted to him the jokes he’d told me that I’d never stopped finding funny, even though he first told them to me 30 years ago.
Most of the jokes aren’t suitable for a sermon, but here’s one, updated to 2020 circumstances. President Trump has a lot on his mind, so he starts wandering around Washington DC, going up to the landmarks of his distinguished predecessors. He goes to the Washington Monument, and asks, ‘What am I going to do about the virus?’ After a long silence, a voice says, ‘Go to the people.’ He continues to the Jefferson Memorial, and asks, ‘What am I going to do about Black Lives Matter?’ After an even longer silence, a voice says, ‘Go to the country.’ Finally President Trump goes to the Lincoln Memorial, and asks, ‘What am I going to do about people saying I’m unfit for office?’ Straightaway Abraham Lincoln responds, ‘Go to the theatre.’
That joke’s an example of what we could call the humour of resistance; or, to give it a grander name, the laughter of the oppressed. It’s a kind of humour that galvanises a community to realise that in the face of the powerful person in their lives, they have options beyond responding with physical force. They have every kind of subversion, of which ridicule is one. In the old Soviet Union people used to say a train stopped in a snow storm. Lenin went to the cabin to re-educate the driver. The train remained unmoved. Stalin went to the front and shot the driver. Again, no change. Finally Brezhnev went through the train pulling down the curtains and telling everyone the train was moving.
There’s broadly three kinds of jokes, of which the humour of resistance is one. The second kind is the laughter of endurance. The year’s 2032. Son says, ‘Why’s my sister called Paris?’ Dad replies, ‘Because your mom and I conceived her in Paris.’ Son says, ‘Thanks for being so honest, Dad.’ Dad responds, ‘No problem, Lockdown.’ Like the Lincoln joke, this one’s funny because you have to do some of the work to complete the story yourself. But it’s a different kind of humour. It’s sometimes called gallows humour, because it finds solidarity in the camaraderie of adversity. The bleakest cartoon I’ve seen in the last few weeks depicts four skeletons merrily dancing together. The caption reads, ‘What a great time to be alive! It’s like the Great Plague but with wifi.’
That’s resistance and endurance. But there’s a third kind of joke that’s less common, and yet far more glorious. It’s the kind of humour that doesn’t need a fall guy. It hardly needs a punchline, because it comes out of a place of pure joy. It’s simply about the reframing of events that seemed grim in the light of a greater story. ‘Blessed are you who weep and mourn,’ says the Beatitudes, ‘for one day you will laugh.’ When actors gather for a last-night party, or footballers celebrate a cup-final win, they look back on what seemed like setbacks or failures and see them transformed into steps toward eventual glory. When two friends look back on a 40-year relationship, they laugh about the time they missed each other on a station platform and got so cross they didn’t talk for a week. When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you, and you see the hilarity of two birds courting or two porcupines trying to mate.
Today’s first reading contains two moments of laughter. It puts together two stories, one of the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, and another of the birth of their son Isaac in Genesis 21. The key to the combination of the stories is that the name Isaac means laughter. The power of the story is that when the visitors arrive with their news of the coming of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are in their old age. They’re not expecting a child; they’re shielding.
The story is one in which one kind of laughter changes into another. In the first part of the story, the visitors tell Abraham his wife will bear a son. And Sarah laughs. It’s a bitter laugh – a laugh of endurance, of self-protection, a laugh that isn’t about something being funny, a chuckle that says, with painful irony, ‘Don’t make me laugh.’ But then Sarah denies she laughed. The story explains, ‘for she was afraid.’ What an insight into the life of a woman in her culture: her body, her fertility, discussed by men while she prepares food, and when she thinks they’ve said something ridiculous, she has to lie to hide her reaction. But some while later, she’s transformed from the bitter, ironic laughter of endurance to the effervescent, gregarious laughter of joy. ‘Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”’ She’s like the two lifelong friends smiling at their early misunderstanding at the station – she’s laughing at her own earlier laughter, for now the story’s swept up all her sadness and failure and made everything into a pathway to joy.
The question that sums up the whole story is the one the visitors ask Abraham, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ I want to suggest to you that this question not only sums up the whole of the Abraham story; it also sums up the whole Bible, and the whole experience of faith. Let me explain.
I want to trace for you a line that connects a series of moments that together constitute the biblical story. Originally there was nothing. God speaks, and creation comes into being. Without God speaking, there would be nothing: no universe, no earth, no people, no you and me. Hold that thought. God comes to Abraham, the three figures of the Trinity coming to the tired and barren Sarah and her husband. God speaks, and life comes into her womb. Without God, there would be nothing. A millennium later, Israel’s in exile in Babylon: the situation’s hopeless. God says, ‘Comfort ye my people, I’m preparing in the desert a highway for you to go home.’ Without God, Israel would still be in Babylon. There would be nothing. Five hundred years later, Mary’s a virgin. Yet Gabriel tells her she will bear the Lord. Without God, there would be nothing. Yet Jesus is here. Thirty-three years later Jesus lies in the tomb. It looks like the end of the story. Yet the Holy Spirit calls him out and there is resurrection. Without God, there would be nothing.
D’you get the idea? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? The Bible’s a series of stories in which things seem to be utterly hopeless, but right at the very utmost point of despair God gives birth to joy. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Over and over, God turns the bitter laughter of defence and endurance into the overflowing laughter of convivial joy. Every single time it comes as a surprise. But see what the Bible is: it’s not a concatenation of judgements designed to make us all failures and catch us out as miserable sinners; it’s a whisper, a rumour, a meme, a subversive word of resistance that gathers into a crescendo saying, ‘There’s a story bigger than the story you think you’re in. It will embrace you and lift you up when you are at your moment of despondent despair. It will surprise you even if you’ve immersed yourself in its patterns and mysteries. However much you weep and mourn, one day you will laugh. Nothing’s too wonderful for the Lord. Not back then with Abraham. Not in the story of Jesus. Not now, in the midst of the pandemic. Not ever.’
Christianity isn’t a bleak form of endurance, an extended form of mordant humour designed to keep our spirits distracted in the face of grief too devastating to face. Christianity is, instead, faith in God’s promises, which time and again have brought wonder out of nothing, birth out of barrenness, homecoming out of exile, hope out of despair, resurrection out of death. Sometimes when all seems lost, we laugh subversively in the face of our persecutor, resisting the circumstance that oppresses and depresses us. But that laughter’s just the foretaste of a laughter that transcends it, a laughter that creates a community, as Sarah discovers when she says, ‘Everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ It’s not merely a laughter of endurance, and it’s not limited to a laugh of resistance. It seems most often to come at the end of a long period of barrenness, exile, isolation, misery, failure or abandonment. But in the end it’s a laughter of never-ending joy.
At some point in our lives we each have to face a choice about which story we’re living in. Well may we say, like Abraham and Sarah at the start of this story, this story’s about us: life’s too hard, some things will never happen, faith is a bitter, sarcastic form of endurance that finds humour in irony and spots absurdity in pomposity. But we each have the choice to see things like Abraham and Sarah at the end of this story: it’s not a story about us; we’re given the grace to play a role in a story that’s fundamentally about God – a God who becomes most visible at our times of greatest despair, when we can’t imagine a good outcome, but discover nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. Then the joke’s a very different one. Christians are those about whom Sarah spoke when she said, ‘God has made laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.’
Every morning for the last six weeks I’ve expected to wake up to news my friend in America was dead. But it hasn’t come. So last week I called him. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t seem to be dead.’ And we laughed together as if he’d told one of his old jokes of yesteryear. Then he said, ‘You know, there’s nothing like dying to make you feel alive like never before.’ It was the humour of resistance, and the humour of endurance. But it embraced me in something more than that. He was telling me he’s made his choice. He’s seen this isn’t a story about him. It’s a story about God. And he and I are lucky to be in it. He’s Sarah, caught up in such wonder and mystery that his resistance and endurance has been transformed into joy.
What Sarah discovered is what my friend has taught me: in the end, we shall all be embraced by the laughter of God.