Faith, Hope and Charity – The Gospel as Comedy
It seems to have been a week that has tested all three-Faith, Hope and Charity. It is a week that has seemed endless in many ways, leaving some of us looking for, hoping for, praying for an end to it all – endless violence, endless scandal, endless finger-pointing, blaming and shaming.
Along come an old man and an old woman and Jesus to redirect our attention if only for this moment. Yet, this moment always promises to be just enough – just enough time to disengage from the seemingly endless frays that constantly demand our attention, our thoughts, our emotions – enough to allow ourselves to reboot, refocus and rejoice in the good faith, hope and charity that can form the very foundation “under everything that makes life worth living.”
And what is faith? As one has put it, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] Abraham, the old man, “and he as good as dead” [Heb 11:12!], has heard it all before – a place to call home, to be a blessing to all nations, and descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, stars in the sky, atoms of dust in the universe – most all of which, 95% of which we are told, remains not seen.
He and the old lady have been on the road to this home, these blessings and promises of children for nearly 25 years now and in their weariness have settled down beneath some terebinth trees – trees sometimes considered sacred in that region, if only because of the stories associated with them like this one. [Genesis 18]. The journey from Ur to Mamre and this oasis of trees has been anything but a blessing. Twice Abe has had to order Sarah to pretend to be his sister, rather than step-sister and wife, so as not to be killed by hostile war-lords along the way who would make off with this obviously still desirable woman who was already in her sixties when the journey began. There were problems with his nephew Lot and his family, and even more problems with Sarah’s hand-maid Hagar and the son Ishmael she bore from Abraham himself. All the things promised by Lord YWHW remained conspicuously ‘not seen.’ Like Woody, like Pete, like every one of us, the old man and the old woman have seen some hard travelin’ too.
Along comes the Lord, in the disguise of three men. A foreshadowing of father, son and holy ghost? We should note the character of hospitality to these otherwise strangers. Abe does not wait for them to knock on the tent door but races out to greet them, bows, offers water, arranges to wash their feet and invites them to rest. Then orders Sarah to get cooking, finds a good and tender calf to serve with curds and milk. Note also, this is no kosher meal! Abe stands by looking on as they eat, waiting to see, perhaps, how many Michelin Stars their little oasis might earn whence comes the comedy.
“This time next year I (we?) will surely return and Sarah will have a son.” Now you think they might both say something like, “Sure, sure, we’ve heard this all before,” which they had over and over again. But no. Sarah laughs. This is no chuckle. It is belly busting out loud fall on your face, tears streaming down your face, laughter! The narrator solemnly and somewhat piously notes, “…it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” As if even the narrator has given up all hope on all the promises made and re-made. The Lord hears her laugh and asks, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” Abe’s hope for even one or two stars begins to fade. Sarah denies laughing, which is hard to do – and hard to distinguish from all the tears shed these past 25 years just waiting for this very moment and having long ago given up even the very thought of becoming a mother. “Oh yes, you did laugh!” says the Lord. Having used up all their tears there is nothing for the old man and the old woman to do but laugh, thinking it’s too good to be true. It turns out that the truth of it is that it’s too good not to be true!
Indeed, the next year things do not improve for the family overall as the regrettable episode at Sodom and Gomorrah intervenes, and Abraham is ordered to circumcise not only himself but all males young and old, slave and free. Yet, along comes chapter 21, and lo and behold, Sarah is holding a bouncing little baby boy. Sarah is laughing again. Sarah is laughing still. “Everyone who hears will laugh,” she declares. We are meant to laugh at the very thought of it, rather than piously intone, “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God.” It’s all a cosmic joke! It is the foundation of our faith, of our very life, to be able to laugh with Sarah to this day! The significance of all this is captured in the boy’s name: Isaac, which means laughter, or he who laughs.
If that’s not enough, here’s another one. In the ninth chapter of Matthew we find Jesus sending his twelve disciples out to do the work he is doing, ‘and greater things than these.’ After noting that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few, he gathers them and us together and gives them and us authority. He gives them authority because he sees that the crowds that had gathered and followed him from place to place like so many camp followers during the War for Independence were, in the words of Matthew, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus gives them, and us by proxy, authority over “unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” He goes on to say, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” These are marching orders for divine Charity! One notes that the disciples forget to laugh! But, this is the Gospel as divine comedy. We are meant to laugh, if only at our disbelief that we can do any or all of this that Jesus himself authorizes us to do.
Where does the laughter of Sarah and Abraham come from, asks Frederick Beuchner in his little book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale? “It comes from as deep a place as tears come from, and in a way comes from the same place. As much as tears do, it comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness, but as its adversary, not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote.” [p.57] When we succumb to only the tragedy and darkness that confronts us almost daily, we often become paralyzed, or even worse, simply used to it.
When we go deep beyond the tears and laugh we free ourselves and are reminded of the often ridiculous promises of hope and redemption that have been given us by traditions that have been forged on the anvil of tragedy and darkness. We recall the faith of our mothers and fathers, our Sarahs and Abrahams. We remember that nearly all that lies ahead of us is in the realm of the not seen. And that for the promises to come true we need to respond to the call for laborers to go into the field for the harvest, authorized to perform extraordinary acts of divine charity!
The fields are ripe and the harvest waiting, and the laborers are few. Our gospel of divine comedy is meant to make us laugh beyond our tears so that we can be free to join with those individuals of yesterday, today and tomorrow who in the hour of deepest darkness respond to the call, “Here am I, O Lord send me.” https://youtu.be/dWJt3ZUKAWk