Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

“Why Did You Laugh”

Genesis 18: 1-15, & 21:1-7, July 17th, 2016

 

Have you ever wondered what the real difference between church denominations is?  Listen to this short story, it gives us some youthful insights into this perplexing question.

A kindergarten teacher gave her class a “show and tell” assignment, asking them to bring something to represent their religion.

The first young student got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is the Star of David.”  The second student got in front of the class and said, “My name is Mary.  I’m a Catholic and this is the Crucifix.”

The third got in front of the class and said, ” My name is Mark and I am a Protestant and this is a casserole.” /Author Unknown/

One of the other wildly questioned subjects is the discussion, argument really, as to why folks choose different churches to attend on Sunday mornings.  Here is an interesting perspective to consider.

One balmy day in the South Pacific, a navy ship sighted smoke coming from one of three huts on an uncharted island.

Upon arriving at the shore they were met by a shipwreck survivor.  He said, “I’m so glad you’re here!  I’ve been alone on this island for more than five years!”

The captain replied, “If you’re all alone on the island why do I see three huts.”

The survivor said, “Oh.  Well, I live in one, and go to church in another.”

“What about the third hut?” asked the captain.

“That’s where I ‘used’ to go to church.” /Author unknown/

Vacations are a wonderful thing, Lois and I certainly enjoyed ours.  With a little distance from the day to day issues of church life, one can get a different perspective about why some churches thrive and others do not.  I found this write up which offers us an interesting perspective – about one Pastor’s efforts to ‘boost up’ attendance on Sunday mornings at his declining and shrinking congregation.

“A new Pastor in a small Florida town spent the first four days making personal visits to each of the members, inviting them to come to his first services.

The following Sunday the church was all but empty.  Accordingly, the Pastor placed a notice in the local newspapers, stating that, because the church was dead, it was everyone’s duty to give it a decent Christian burial.  The funeral would be held the following Sunday afternoon, the notice said.

Morbidly curious, a large crowd turned out for the “funeral.”  In front of the pulpit, they saw a closed coffin, smothered in flowers.  After the Pastor delivered the eulogy, he opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward and pay their final respects to their dead church.

Filled with curiosity as to what would represent the corpse of a “dead church,” all the people eagerly lined up to look in the coffin.  Each “mourner” peeped into the coffin then quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look.

In the coffin, tilted at the correct angle, was a large mirror.” /Author unknown/

Why Did You Laugh?  And why did some of you not laugh?  These were intended to just loosen us up a bit.  If you did laugh you probably knew they were simply meant to be humorous.  And if you didn’t laugh – I must assume, either you didn’t get the humorous point, or it hit too close to home.  Sometimes, humor is confused with sarcasm and or cynicism.  To this point, if I have offended your senses I do apologize.  Let me reassure you, my attempt at some light humor this morning was merely meant to cause us to view several different forms of laughter, while at the same time – causing us to consider some new perspectives – to age old issues which churches such as ours… face all the time.

Just for the record, let me say: it is my belief that churches die – from the inside – long before the doors are finally shut.  The death of a church is caused by its members and former members whom have stopped being part of its life blood.  Seldom is a church’s demise the result of poor finances, just poor or negative input from its members, former and current.  The financial collapse which ultimately occurs – is just the result of such behavior.  The same can be said for much of what we are reading, seeing and hearing about in recent weeks.  The bigotry, intolerance, racial bias, violence and hatred are coming from within our own borders, tearing at the very fiber of all that we have come to cherish; the very grit and character which binds us together in community.  We don’t need to look outside of our own country, nor outside our own churches to see how human nature can wreak havoc upon the foundations of our faith, displacing the fundamentals of God’s unconditional love, and the core of Christianity: the practice of offering forgiveness and tolerance to others as God has offered to ourselves.  God forgive us – one and all!

These past two weeks were meant to be a vacation for me and my family and it was a great vacation!  However, it was also a time of reflection and spiritual renewal.  For me personally, I felt God’s urging for me to be bolder about speaking out in support of the United Church of Christ; a church which has stood up for social justice issues throughout its history.  Based on the sad, sad commentaries in the media these last weeks – we seem to have reached yet another of those axioms in our society where the privilege to keep quite has passed.  As a community of faith, we must hold firm in our commitment to stand in support of those whom have been marginalized in our society, just as Jesus did during his ministry here on Earth.   Now is the time to lift up our voices – even as the debates rage on within our own borders, within our own communities and yes, even within our own local institutions.  Change is knocking at our doors and we must either answer the call or watch others do it for us.  Do we want to be part of the discussion or do we want to let others make choices for us?

Together, as a united fellowship of faithful people, we are now seeking guidance and direction from a commonly understood God, a God of our mutual understanding.  Therefore, let us now begin to look more closely at this morning’s scripture lesson.  Together, let us open ourselves to seeing how laughter is used in this passage.  Without question the over-riding ‘opening theme’ of this morning’s lesson is centered around laughter.  This fact alone, was the only reason I opened our conversation today with what I hoped would be insightful humor, perhaps even causing us to laugh a little together.  To fully understand, we must first recognize that there are two types of laughter being lifted up for us today.  There is the cynical laughter from the heart of Sarah when she hears the promise: God’s promise, saying she shall have a child in her old age.   One theologian asks a question: “What are the things we find ourselves laughing at?  What promises of God do we find ourselves “being skeptical” about possibly being true?” /Geoff McElroy./  Dr. Keith Wagner, shared this while he preached on this very passage: “Early last week I told my wife that I was preaching on the story in Genesis where Sarah laughed when God told her she was going to give birth at the age of 90.  My wife replied, “No woman would laugh, she would be hysterical.”

The second laughter is that of joy and delight.  At the end of our morning’s reading we hear how Sarah’s cynical laughter was turned to joyous gladness upon receiving the impossible from God!  Mark Hillmer, a Professor of Old Testament studies, states the obvious, “In a year Sarah conceived and bore a son.  Her cynical laughter turned to the laughter of faith.”  Sara’s faith had been restored!  Faith is what we, you and I, must cling to if we are to continue the forward movement and momentum – building upon the good strides which are once again advancing us ever forward – as a strong Christian witness in this community!

Laughter caught our attention this morning, yet this scripture has a much deeper meaning intended!  Abraham receives an impossible promise, “yet” these three men who come to visit, (seeming to represent the three persons of the Trinity perhaps, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,) they, speaking as one, instruct Abraham to trust that God is capable and shall do the impossible.  We are very much like Abraham, in that we do not always know where we are going.  We make choices and decisions but they often do not take us where we thought they would, or they lead us into blind alleys where we must trust in God to see us through!  Such is the way of faith!

 

Last week Angie spoke to you about being lost.  A subject which –  many have personal knowledge.  She spoke of being afraid and we all know what that feels like.  Angie had an awakening that changed how she sees the world.  She shared at a core and deep level.  I read her sermon before I went on vacation.  I am deeply humbled at her ability to share with you at such a personal level.  She has experienced a deep awakening, realizing that God could do for her what she could not do for herself!  We are like Angie and Abraham and yes – we often respond as did Sarah!  Just before the miracle happens, we lose our way and get cynical and laugh in disbelief.  I urge you, don’t give up before the miracle arrives!  When the laughter comes let it be joyful and filled with gratitude!

Rabbi David Ackerman speaks out to us: “We, like Abraham, don’t always know where we’re headed.  And like Abraham, we walk in order to learn.”  It can also be said that like Sarah, sometimes the things which we ask of God, can be considered comical.  To think that God would do such and such for us as individuals or as a church, at times can be comical.  What we need to guard against is allowing ourselves to become hardened or cynical in our laughter.

There is a lot of work yet to be done within the borders of these United States and it needs to start from the bottom up.  The need for action is within communities, local institutions and individuals like you and me.  We, must first police ourselves and be sure that we, representing a “United Church”, do not lose our way in the midst of our –  our own human failings.  We are too good a faith community to allow this type of cynicism to tear us apart.

Together, growing stronger each day… as we walk the journey of faith, together, we will find new hope and new direction.  Our disbelief will turn into joy and we shall laugh the laughter of triumph; praising God’s wisdom, justice, love and forgiving grace as we go ever forward!

Amen.

 

“Hear now these ancient words as written in the Genesis, chapter 18, verses 1-15 and Chapter 21, verses 1-7.”

 

Genesis 18:1-15

1 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.”  So they said, “Do as you have said.”  6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”  7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.  8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.  9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”  10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”  And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.  11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”  13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”  15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid.  He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Genesis 21:1-7

1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.  2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.  5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.  6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?  Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

 

“Allow these words, spoken so long ago, to open your heart and your mind to new faith and new teachings.”

 

 

 

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