As you know there are many different kinds of laughter. The type of laugh I want to talk about this morning is distinctive, it is the reaction to being told that you are about to do or be something you never imagined possible. All of us have been there, someone we know tells us to be prepared to assume a certain responsibility, an unexpected role, and we simply can’t believe our ears. And we laugh.
But the joke is on us. It turns out we lacked imagination, we lacked faith, or rather we placed too much faith in the status quo, common sense and what everyone says. And when what had been predicted does in fact come to pass the laugh is on us. We laugh again, but this time it is a laugh of thanksgiving and joy, how could we have been so foolish as to underestimate what God is doing in our lives?
Ten years ago I was serving a different church in the Halifax Presbytery and was asked to join a committee that was very short-staffed, the Pastoral Oversight Committee. This committee visits every church in HRM on a triannual basis, they do this for several reasons, to evaluate the good health of the congregation, to hear the joys of their ministry and to see what assistance the congregation needs to further improve its ministry. Often the Presbytery will set up meetings between churches doing well in one aspect of ministry with a church that is struggling in that same ministry. The Presbytery sends out teams of two, one clergy and one lay person. And guess what? Ten years ago I was the clergy person assigned to visit with Bethany.
I did all of the proper research to prepare for that meeting, I read all of the Annual Reports, the Newsletter, and the latest bulletins. We met with the clergy and the Ministry and Personnel Committee. And finally, we met with the large Executive Board. The questions were all standard, asking about how things were going, asking for a Bible story that would describe the current life of the church, what were the joys and what were the challenges of the congregation. At the end of the meeting I explained that there was one part of Bethany’s Ministry that really impressed me and I wondered whether this could be shared with other churches doing outreach. In particular I asked about the youth work and the work with seniors going on at Bethany. “Oh that’s what Ann does”, said one member of the Executive Board. “No”, I replied, it is the work of the whole church because “you support your staff in many ways so they can work with you to carry out your mission in the community.” The Board Member repeated, “You didn’t hear me. That is what Ann does.” I finished this topic with “I think Bethany is becoming a real outreach congregation.” The Board member laughed.
Fast forward five years and Bethany was looking for a new Minister and my friend Jamie Baillie, a member of this church, called me. He wanted me to know his church had just appointed a Search Committee and, “you would be an excellent Minister for us.” I was taken aback, I was/am quite liberal in theological matters and Bethany had a reputation for being quite traditional. I laughed. “There is no way Bethany would ever choose me to be their Minister.” Guess who is laughing now?
Isn’t it interesting that despite the fact that we worship a dynamic and life-giving God who sends the Holy Spirit to change our lives we expect no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world we have grown accustomed to living in. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once described humour as a “prelude to faith,” meaning that we need to be shaken free from our certainty to trust God’s new gift for us. The same human instinct that leads us to laugh at an arrogant person slipping on a banana peel is what can open us up to faith. That kind of humour can serve us very well in the everyday occurrences of our lives. It can help us avoid arrogance, pretense and sham. It can be a guard against taking ourselves too seriously. If you have ever had a day in which everything was going wrong, and you were able, finally, to laugh at it all—at what you want and what you are actually getting—then you know what I mean.
Why did Sarah laugh? Sarah and Abraham have long since left the safety and security of home, and have been traveling on nothing but the promise of God for some time. Many adventures have taken place, and it has not been an easy journey either. They had packed up and set out, leaving the familiarity of home, and land, and family behind, with little more than a vague promise of blessing. There was a famine in Canaan, for example, so Abraham went down into Egypt for food. Abraham bargained with his nephew, Lot, for land. He went to war with four eastern kings. While Abraham fought, Sarah schemed. As her biological time clock ticked forward with no child, Sarah gave her maid Hagar to her husband that he might father a child by her, and Ishmael was born to Hagar. Again and again, God gives the promise, but again and again Sarah and Abraham try to make the promise happen for themselves, because God’s blessing just dangles unfulfilled, opening upon an uncertain future. And when she finally Abraham and Sarah had a child together they named him Isaac so that generations to come would remember her laughter in response to God’s unbelievable promise.
Do you remember how Mother Teresa lived her faith among the poorest of the poor and the terminally ill? We now also know that she suffered long and terrible bouts of depression and doubt in the promises of God. Once she was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who was finishing up his interview when it occurred to him to ask her a most practical question. “Given your ministry,” the reporter inquired, “what do you think the rest of us can do to live out a good life?” Fully expecting her to say something impossibly hard like, “Sell what you have and give it all to the poor,” Mother Teresa surprised him saying simply, “Smile at the people you live with and laugh.” The reporter was taken aback and pressed the issue. “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t face family pressures, or spend your days in common work places like others.” “Oh,” said Mother Teresa, “I live with Jesus. Believe me, he’s a hard person to live with.” To live with God is to smile at the people around us, to laugh at God’s impossible promises, because ultimately the joke’s on us. God’s promises are coming true. The gift of new life in the midst of death.
I wonder how many of us hear sacred words of blessing from others, people we know and people we have never met, and we laugh. We simply can’t believe something new is possible, that the certainty of today could lead to the new and surprising life of tomorrow. The same holds true for churches. Can Bethany find new life here or there, if someone told us we were becoming an outreach church would we laugh or would we pray about how that could be possible? And as a Minister am I willing to take seriously a promise, a suggestion, of new beginnings and new gifts in the Spirit? Will I laugh that such a promise is foolish and impossible or laugh when I see that God knows more than I do?
This is Father’s Day. Allow me to indulge in a little bit of thanksgiving and ask you to do likewise. Who in your life offers promises and possibilities we might have never considered part of reality? As many of you know I love to talk about my mother’s good works, her generous heart, and her passion for mission. She was the one who told me, “Whenever you see someone who is alone go there first.” My mother was a saint. But my mom was not a dreamer and certainly not one to think outside the box. My brothers and I learned never to laugh at a strange idea from our father who took us to the ditches of Nova Scotia to find our garden flowers. Our father walked and bused to work when no working person in Halifax I knew would do either. When he was redesigning our home he thought it was be interesting for each of us to have at least one wall in our room made from authentic barn board. Our father never took the present as the future or the current certainty as Gospel. He taught us to keep open minds and expectant hearts, not to laugh at the odd but to embrace it as a possibility.
May the seeds God is planting in your imagination come to fruition, may some promise of new life come to you from an unexpected voice, and may our laughter over God’s work in our lives be such that we marvel at what God can do, not dismiss out of hand the blessing of our life-giving Creator. This laugh is truly on us. Amen.