September 17 | Holy Laughter: Giving Birth to Joy

Scripture and Sermon

Holy Laughter: Giving Birth to Joy

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 and Luke 1:46-55

Sarah Werner

I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. I’ve searched for orchids in dense forests, sampled mud in a remote Canadian lake, taught kids about marine life in sandals on the beach. I’ve written poems and stories and tens of thousands of journal entries. If someone had told me when I was 20 that at the age of 40 I would be leading a wild church, working as a professional writer, and celebrating my ordination in the Mennonite church, I would have laughed out loud, just like our ancestor Sarah did. I’m sure you too have similar stories. None of us ever really know where we’re headed. All we can do is point our feet towards God, or sacredness, or truth, and start moving. And Sarah provides a roadmap for us through her laughter and trust in the Holy One.

This is quite a foundational story for all three of the Abrahamic faith traditions. All the major players are there—God in the form of three people (something the Trinitarians surely love), Abraham, Sarah, even the holy oaks of Mamre. But, I’m bothered by the clear patriarchal nature of this exchange. Only Abraham talks to the otherworldly visitors/God. Sarah is left in the tent to listen in to their conversation. God in the guise of the visitors, speaks to Sarah, but only to confront her about laughing. So, I’ve decided to share with you a different version. Here goes:

Sarah and Abraham are sitting under an ancient sacred oak tree, the defining feature of their homestead, the place where many holy encounters took place. Abraham goes into the tent to take a nap in the heat of the day, but Sarah remains, gazing out on the open rocky land before her. Suddenly she sees an old woman walking slowly towards her in the distance. She gets up to alert her husband to the presence of this visitor, but something stops her. The woman seems to have an otherworldly energy radiating from her, and she realizes she is an emissary of the Holy One. She knows instinctively that this woman is here to talk to her, so she sits and quietly watches her approach, vibrating with both fear and anticipation. When the woman is near, Sarah stands and bows low. The woman sits herself down under the oak tree. Sarah then offers her a drink of water from a large ceramic jug, and a piece of bread left over from their midday meal. After the old woman has eaten and drunk her fill, she fixes Sarah with a piercing gaze.

            “My child,” she begins, even though she and Sarah look about the same age. “Next year, when the time is right, you will bear a son.”

Though Sarah has been sitting transfixed by the fierce energy of this woman, she can’t help but burst out laughing.

“I am far too old to be a mother,” she protests.

            The woman replies, “You laugh, but nothing is impossible for the Holy One.” Before Sarah can say another word though, the old woman turns and sets off back the way she had come. Sarah is too confused to call out to her, for she knows in her heart that what the woman has said is true, and that she has been in the presence of God.

            And when the appointed time comes, Sarah becomes pregnant and bears a son, and names him Isaac, which means laughter in Hebrew. She says, “The Holy One has brought laughter to me. And everyone who hears will share in my joy.”

This is a story of unexpected joy. Sarah has reached such an age that she knows what the rest of her life holds for her, seasons spent with Abraham tending their land and their animals, watching the stars fly through the sky at night and taking shelter under the sacred oak in the heat of the day. And here comes this holy emissary to upend plans and all that she knows about her life. There is immediate recognition that this message is true, and that the messenger is embodying the word of the Holy One. But even so, she can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the message. She thought her time of creating new things was over, that the ability to bring new life into the world was something left to younger women. But when what is predicted comes to pass, she invites everyone to celebrate with her, sharing joy and laughter with those around her.

The movement of the Holy is always mysterious and irrational, bringing to life seemingly impossible things and causing us to laugh with the unexpectedness of joy after a long period of barrenness.

I am someone who loves to make plans. Plans for the day, long term plans, plans within other plans. But life is characterized by constant change. There is very little stable ground to stand on, and plans often don’t work out as envisioned in the beginning. Which is a good thing, because life is so much messier and more sacred than my well-intentioned plans. When God promises to make it possible for us to give birth to something new and unexpected in our lives, we laugh. And this joy is infectious, spreading to all of those around us.

In this passage I deeply identify with the incredulous laughter of Sarah. When the Holy One comes to announce a fundamental change in her life, a complete shift in worldview, her first reaction is to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it. And this is exactly what a lot of people do when presented with something preposterous, even if they want to believe it might be true. We get so caught up in our news-cycle of despair that when someone comes along with a vision, it’s all too easy to scoff at what we might see as simply starry-eyed optimism.

What might Sarah’s conversation with Abraham have been like after the departure of the Holy One, sitting in their oak grove, perhaps looking out on their flock of sheep, and wondering about how much their lives were about to change? Perhaps they felt caught up in a current that they couldn’t break out of. I’ve always imagined change to be like a river that we’re always caught up in. We can either lean into it and learn to float with the current, and avoid the boulders as we flow downstream, or we can resist it, trying to swim back upstream or chart a different path, which only exhausts us in the end. Perhaps sitting there that hot afternoon, they began to recognize that the slow unfolding of God’s original promise to them so many years ago was about to come to fruition.

Though we’re still in the Old Testament part of the narrative lectionary, I want to stretch us a bit and bring up the story of another mother-to-be who also receives a message from God. Mary, when told in the Gospel of Luke that she will be the mother of Jesus, the embodiment of God, bursts into a prophetic song along with her soul-friend Elizabeth. She announces a new world order—the downfall of the powerful and the lifting up of the marginalized.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says.

“and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

  for you have looked with favor on the lowliness of your servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

   for the Mighty One has done great things for me.

God has shown strength, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts

  and brought down the powerful from their thrones,

  and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,

  and sent the rich away empty.”

And so it goes.

You can practically hear the two women planning to smash the extractive capitalist system of the Empire to tiny bits. Never underestimate the earth-shaking power of mothers.

And, I wonder if Mary’s first reaction was also a surprised chuckle of disbelief.

If it was, she moves relatively quickly into a different mindset, orienting herself toward what great change is to come. Instead of trying to push against the flow of the river, or kick her way upstream, she relaxes into this most epic of lifechanging news in the company of Elizabeth, who is about to give birth to John the Baptist. The First Nations Version translates verses 46-48 as the following: “From deep in my heart I dance with joy to honor the Great Spirit. Even though I am small and weak, he noticed me. Now I will be looked up to by all.” Mary and Elizabeth are all too aware of their precarious place in the world as women, but they announce their joy and wild hope anyway.

Sarah comes around too, announcing at the birth of her son that the joy of laughter is for everyone. “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me,” she says. This joy of bringing new life into the world is meant to be shared by all, and to encourage further creative outpouring among God’s people.

Though I am not a mother, I occasionally have dreams about protecting a newborn infant. Sometimes the baby is dying or suffering in some way, and I am trying to care for it. Other times I am protecting it from an unseen foe, or simply cradling its soft body in my arms. Usually these dreams come to me when I’m in the middle of a big creative project, trying to birth new ideas into the world. And this experience of giving birth to creativity is something we all experience, no matter our gender or whether or not we are a parent.

Writing a book is, I imagine, a little like working to grow a child inside of you that will, when the time is right, burst into the world, bloody and new and full of life. To me it has felt like sharing part of my soul, making myself vulnerable in order to bring joy into the world. And I can imagine a lot of other creative examples—art installations, mentoring, teaching, producing a film, tending a garden. Creativity percolates in each of us, bubbling up in small and large ways.

What is the Holy One announcing to you in your own life that is unexpected? What is it that brings you joy? Maybe it’s the dismantling of the extractive system of capitalism, but maybe it’s something more manageable. Laughter is the birth-knell of creativity.

What can you create in your own life?

What are you giving birth to?

Where might you share the joy of laughter and wild hope in the world?

You’re never too old or weary or wounded to begin.



Sarah Werner’s Ordination