The comedian Mel Brooks once famously – or, depending on your point of view, infamously – said: “Tragedy is when I get a cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Granted that comedy is highly subjective – afterall, one person’s comedy is another person’s insult – and I experienced this subjectivity as a child: my parents, siblings, and I loved the Irish comedian Dave Allen; but my mother’s father thought he was an apostate who should be excommunicated, or worse.
So these things can be a matter of personal taste. However, it seems to me there’s a reason why people like Mel Brooks and Groucho Marx existed: through their common Jewish cultural inheritance, they were in fact the inheritors of a long lineage of comedy and satire that stretches all the way back to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Now, humour and comedy and satire are not often things we associate with the Bible; but there is in fact a broad vein of humour that runs through Scripture. Often it’s quite dark, or satirical, or dry or sardonic; but it exists, and it runs through the Hebrew Scriptures like a vein waiting to be mined for its richness and insight. Look, for example, at the cycle of stories around Jacob: the guy lies, and steals, and cheats, and misappropriates; in short, he gets up to more mischief, and into more strife, than your average villain in a daytime TV melodrama. And yet it is upon this disreputable figure that God vests the new name of Israel, through whom God’s promise to Abraham is made good.
What’s more, the humour that is found in the Hebrew Scriptures often contains a subversive element that not only subverts but inverts normal expectations, overturning the normative standards of righteousness and propriety. Again, look at someone like Jonah: you’d be hard pressed to find a less satisfactory individual to be the bearer of God’s message of repentance and forgiveness. And yet it is precisely through him – a person who, by most normative standards would be judged unfit and unworthy – that God’s word is conveyed to the people of Nineveh. So just as Jesus would later overthrow and overturn all the expectations about who was in and who was out, and what constituted righteousness and worthiness before God, so the Hebrew Scriptures in which Jesus himself was thoroughly grounded held a rich tradition that time and again conveyed the message things are not the way you think they are; there is a divine sense of humour operating here that will overturn all your expectations.
But why does this tradition of humour exist? In part, it forms a kind of incredulous response to the overwhelming – and almost unacceptable – reality that lies at the heart of Scripture: the reality that God loves us and seeks relationship with us. That is a reality which is impossible for the human mind to grasp, especially when we consider that God not only loves us, but does so unconditionally. As Paul would later declare, God first loved us so that we might love one another. But we have a terrible time coming to terms with this reality precisely because, in all times and places, human beings have been conditioned to be suspicious of what we nowadays call “the free lunch”. We tell ourselves that there is no such thing as “something for nothing”, and so when we encounter the proclamation of God’s unconditional love, we immediately wonder: “Where’s the catch? Where’s the fine print that sets out all the conditions, limitations, and exceptions to God’s supposedly ‘unconditional’ love?”
And yet that is precisely the heart of Scripture, the narrative arc that, for all the Bible’s diversity and internal difference, which carries through from Genesis to Revelation. You’ll recall my address to the children last week when we were discussing the creation story in Genesis that God looked upon us in our moment of creation and say that we were “good”, that we were worthy of love. And yet part of the human dilemma is our belief that love has to be earned, that we have to somehow merit or buy or bargain our way into love. And we have an example of this tendency in Scripture, when Jacob prays to God as he is camped by the ford of Jabbok. He hears that his brother Esau is approaching with all his men, and he’s terrified; and so he prays to God. But his prayer takes the form of trying to buy his way into God taking action on his behalf: he says, effectively, “Listen God – you made me a promise and said you would do such-and-such for me; now it’s time to deliver on the promise.” But how does God respond? God turns up as a stranger, wrestles with Jacob, and dislocates his hip – along with which come a new name and a blessing.
There’s the divine sense of humour in action. God’s love is unconditional, and we find that reality impossible to assimilate into our consciousness. But we also make the mistake of not realising that, while God’s love may be unconditional, that does not mean that it is without consequences, or that it does not make demands of us. We cannot buy or bargain or merit our way into God’s love; all we can do is respond to it. And that’s the demand that God’s love makes of us: the demand that we respond in love to love in and through our relationships with God and with one another. The price of the life of faith is to live lives that are an expression of God’s love for the world. A 19th century Hassidic rabbi once declared that people are God’s response to human suffering. And that idea expresses precisely what it is that God’s love demands of us; not that we meet certain conditions in order to earn God’s love, but that we engage all the realities of human life with the same love that God extends toward us.
And we see this demonstrated in today’s reading from Genesis. We are given an insight into the back-and-forth nature of love. Abraham is camped at the oasis of Mamre, sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. And we can imagine that as he sat there his thoughts weighed heavily upon him, casting back over all the years he may have been wandering in response to God’s command. He and Sarah had been old then, when that word came to him; and they were both much older now. So his thoughts may well have been along the lines of When will God’s promise be fulfilled? When will I see the outcome of this covenant I have entered into?
The wonderful American Benedictine monk, Killian McDonnell, is a skilled poet who frequently takes episodes from the Bible as the subject matter for his verse. One of his collections is entitled Swift, Lord, You Are Not, and it contains a poem entitled “The Call of Abraham”. The latter stages of the poem read:
Let me get this straight.
I will be brief.
In ten generations since the Flood
you have spoken to no one.
Now, like thunder on a clear day
You give commands:
pull up my tent,
desert my home,
the graves of my ancestors,
for a country you do not name,
there to be a stranger.
God of the wilderness,
from two desiccated lumps,
from two parched prunes
you promise all peoples of the earth
will be blessed in me.
And I think this poem quite possibly captures the tenor of Abraham’s thoughts as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day: When will this promise be fulfilled?
And then these three strangers turn up – and in the ancient Hebrew in which this account is written, there is a back and forth between the plural representation of the three strangers and the singular designation of Lord. Abraham approaches the three/one and tells them to make themselves at home and rest in the shade and he will bring food and water to them. Such hospitality was, of course, part of the cultural expectation of the times; nomadic societies were noted them – and are noted today – for their strict laws that demand hospitality for the stranger. But note how Abraham instructs Sarah to draw “three measures” of flour to make food for their guests. It should be noted that three measures was enough for one hundred people; so Abraham is not responding just with the customary hospitality which his culture required of him, but with an abundance of giving that will also enable these strangers to have food for their onward journey. And note also that it’s the “finest flour”; not just any ordinary stock that Abraham had on hand, but that which would have been reserved for religious celebrations and special events.
In other words, Abraham responds with an abundance, with an overflowing which, regardless of whatever thoughts may have been chasing themselves around his own mind, reflects the abundant love of God for Abraham. But where’s the laughter? The Hebrew word for “to laugh” is tsakaq; and if that sounds familiar, it’s because it is the root that forms the foundation of the proper name Isaac. The three strangers – God in disguise, if you like – respond to Abraham’s generosity and grace with their own promise of abundance: a blessing that, in due season – meaning there’s more waiting to come, there’s more patience required – Sarah will have a child by Abraham. And Sarah, eavesdropping on the conversation, laughs.
But it is not laughter of joy; rather, it is the incredulous laughter of despair. How – like the promise of God’s unconditional love – can this promise of a child be true? Sarah’s laughter is the bitter laughter of regret for what might have been and what never was. And yet – in due season, the child is born. And with Isaac’s birth, Sarah realises that, in her moment of despair, at the very point when all her bitterness and anguish overwhelmed her, God was there with her – God’s promise held good. God did not judge her for her incredulousness and withdraw blessing; rather, God made that blessing real. God’s faithfulness to Sarah and Abraham become the source of an abundance of joy and laughter.
And we all know the improbable story that is echoed in this story from Genesis: the story of Mary and Joseph, the absurd narrative of Mary – the young girl married to a much older man – conceiving by the Holy Spirit and becoming the theotokos, the Mother of God. And in that almost comedic absurdity is the joyful, abundant, and subversive hospitality of God.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church, many of our thoughts may be sombre as we reflect upon the “state” of the church – of what many of us might regard as the “decline” or the “irrelevance” of the church today. And many of us might be tempted to succumb to despair. But today’s reading from Genesis – this ancient text – reminds us today, here and now, that even in the midst of our despair, God’s promise holds good. The future for the Uniting Church – or for any particular congregation within the Uniting Church – might be finite. But then we know the Revelation According to John was a letter of hope written to seven persecuted churches who no longer exist, who were long ago swept away by the tides of history. And yet the Church – the whole community of faith – and the faith itself, remain. And that’s because the horizon of hope to which we are summoned goes beyond any one tradition, beyond any one congregation, beyond any one set of circumstances.
The Christian Church is 2,000 years old; the Uniting Church has existed for a mere 40 years, a blip by comparison. And yet the church goes on. Not by our efforts, nor by our works, but by the faithful, abundant love of God. That is the hope to which today’s reading summons us, and which we are commissioned and commanded to proclaim to the whole world.
 McDonnell, Kilian “The Call of Abraham”, in Swift, Lord, You Are Not. Collegeville: St John’s University Press, 2003, p.11
 Wallace, Howard “Year A: Season After Pentecost – Genesis 18: 1-15”, located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryA/PentecostAGen18.html, accessed 16.6.17