Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot! [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline] Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
Caitlin Trussell with New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on February 27, 2015
[sermons begins after the two Bible readings]
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a aman who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Mark 8:31-38 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
What kinds of things make you laugh? Really, truly laugh. The whole breathless, belly, can’t breathe, let go kind of laughter. For me it’s often the general silliness that comes along with being a human on the planet. Think Kim Wayans, Jimmy Fallon, Lucille Ball, Cheech and Chong bust-a-gut silly. A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) was recently in a grocery store the day before the big snow of a few weeks ago. Some were calling it Snowmageddon, some were rolling their eyes, some hunkered down to wait and see. Many were in the grocery store. It was packed with slow-moving carts, people pondering produce, precipitation, panic, and Lord only knows what else.
My friend left her cart over by the bakery so that she would take up less room in the busy bacon section. When she came back to her cart, someone else’s cart was in its place. She stood there, likely looking confused. The woman in the bakery came out and asked her if something was wrong and if she needed help. My friend explained the cart-napping. The bakery woman then made a store-wide announcement sounding something like this, “With so many people in the store today, please take a minute to look down and make sure you have your cart and not someone else’s.”
In the meantime, a man came up to my friend, and told her that he thought she had his cart. In those split seconds between the overhead announcement and the man’s cart-confusion, it dawned on my friend that she was the one who had stolen someone else’s cart. After many apologies, she looped back and found her abandoned cart waiting peacefully among the fruits and veggies. She called to tell me the story and we both laughed ourselves breathless. For me, the overhead announcement was the punchline. Even as I write this I can feel the laughter start to bubble up in my chest. For her, laughing at herself was the punchline.
And then there’s Abraham in the Bible story from Genesis. His big moment with the Lord. During which God makes a promise, a promise so huge that it’s given the name of covenant. When God makes a covenant with people it is an ‘unbreakable vow’ of sorts. A promise of epic proportions that affects generations of people. Such is the case with Abraham. Abraham knows this and his response is to fall on his face.
In the Hebrew Bible, falling on your face is no slap-stick move. Rather it is a position of obedience. Abraham is aligning himself with the covenant. Just a few sentences later in the story, Abraham falls on his face again, this time while laughing. The Lord has just told him that he and his very old wife are going to have a baby. Abraham makes the obedient move with his body, by falling on his face, but his mind hasn’t caught up, he laughs at the silliness of the plan, God’s plan. For Abraham, laughing at God is the punchline. That’s Abraham, mind you, a paragon of faith who can’t keep his amused confusion bottled up.
As Abraham busts a gut, his obedience is still in play. What plays out of it? Well, Sarah and Abraham deny themselves a life that is safe, autonomous, secure, a life that is only about the two of them. They deny themselves that life, and are drawn into a life of big relationship with God, each other, their children, their children’s children…you get the picture. A life uncontained is a life that necessarily gets messy – that messes with your self-ness, maybe even your alone-ness.
Might this be some of what Jesus means in his rant to the crowd about denying self. Self-denial is a common catch-phrase for the pre-Easter season of Lent. For Abraham and Sarah, self-denial carried with it a new relationship with God and a bunch of other people. For the crowd and disciples listening to Jesus, self-denial means taking up crosses and following Jesus, getting drawn into God’s ludicrous plan with a bunch of other people who are following Jesus too.
Self-denial and taking up crosses looks a lot like what Karoline Lewis describes as “God choosing human relationships.” This shapes out first as God choosing human relationship with us through the humanity of Jesus. Then it shapes out as we’re thrown against each other as people in the world, compelled to reconsider what the priorities are in those relationships.
In the Bible Story from Mark’s book, Peter gets protective. Call it worry, care, concern. Call it whatever you want. But Peter gets protective of Jesus. Jesus is talking foolishness about his upcoming death and Peter can’t take it. So, he does what any good friend would do. He tells Jesus he’s wrong. No belly laughs here as Jesus then calls Peter “Satan”, tells him to step aside, and then tells everyone there to get on board the self-denial train and depart toward the cross.
This moment for Peter and Jesus is like so many of our moments. Things are going along pretty well, and then? They’re not. Peter’s is driven by protectiveness likely complicated by a dash of worry and a pinch of disagreement about the plan. After all, what might it mean for Peter if Jesus’ suffering and execution actually happen. Peter seems to want to save Jesus from his inevitable end. But how much of Peter’s drive comes from wanting to save himself by saving his own ideas, his own timing, his own way.
How often do we do these kinds of things in our own relationships? Resenting another person’s infringement on our ideas, our timing, our way by throwing a wrench into them with their own. Suddenly this other person intrudes and requires negotiation, time, and an adjustment to our own plan.
You’ll hear me talk about the cross from time-to-time as something that pushes against our own ideas of the world and shatters them, as something that pushes against us and puts things to death in us so that other things have room to live. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not something that I can do all by myself. Being pushed comes from being in relationships with other people. Some of those we get to choose – like partners, best friends, counselors. Others, we don’t get to choose – children, co-workers, church people, total strangers. All of these people infringe on the notion that we get to do things our way. There are moments when these people unravel us in utter frustration, not a punchline in sight.
Then there are other moments, those rare moments, those cross moments, when something in us simply crumbles, something dies. Any investment we had in a particular outcome at the expense of a relationship is pushed into oblivion. The recognition dawns that, more often than not, we’re with someone who is simply trying to be human just like we’re simply trying to be human. The laughter coming a little more easily.
Jesus’ teaching in our story today teases us with the resurrection of Easter but also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.” As Jesus instructs the disciples to take up their cross, he’s saying in part that the way to new life is through the cross. I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.” And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.”
The cross is the way through to the new thing, the new life. The cross invites honesty about what is dying and curiosity about what new life will look like. So much so that it then becomes possible to stay in relationship with God and with other people. Staying in relationship with the people closest to us rather than lashing out in fear or frustration and destroying those relationships. With maybe even the freedom to laugh at ourselves as the punchline.
As we try to make some sense of the cross this Lenten season…
May grace run wild through Jesus’ life-death-life and through other people to shine light in your own dark places making space for new life.
And may Abraham’s laughter through obedience mirror your own as your mind is blown by the foolishness of the cross. Amen.
 This adds verse 17 to the Revised Common Lectionary verses for this week…because Abraham laughs, of course.
 A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling. An Unbreakable Vow is a binding spell sealing an oath so that they both parties die if the oath is broken.
 Cameron B.R. Howard. Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2384
 Karoline Lewis. Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary texts for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542
 Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#
 Referencing 1 Corinthians 1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom…”