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Sermon for Sunday 21 July 2019

First Reading                                   Genesis 18:1-14

1The Lord appeared to {Abraham} by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5while I bring a morsel of 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.” 6And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8Then 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. 9They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10aThe Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” [10bAnd Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

Psalm                                                                 Psalm 27:1-14

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? 2When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell. 3Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; 4And though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him. 5One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; 6To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. 7For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock. 8Even now he lifts up my head above my enemies round about me. 9Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; I will sing and make music to the Lord. 10Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me. 11You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek. 12Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. 13You have been my helper; cast me not away; do not forsake me, O God of my salvation. 14Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will sustain me.

Second Reading               Colossians 1:21-29

21You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. 24Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Gospel                                                              Luke 10:38-42

38Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”


I read a story the other day about a guy who went to the most famous and expensive doctor in his town.  From the beginning of the visit, the patient admitted that there was no way he could afford the physician’s $500 fee, but he happened to catch the Doc on a generous day and the fee was reduced to $400.  “But Doctor,” pleaded the man, “I have a wife and six kids to feed.”  So, the doctor feeling charitable, reduces the fee to $250.  “But Doc, the man pleads, that’s food for a week for my family.”  Eventually, the fellow’s begging and poor-mouthing got the fee down to $100 then $50 and finally to $25.

Once the fee was agreed upon, the doctor couldn’t help but ask: “Sir, you knew when you came to me that I was the top specialist in my field and admittedly the highest priced.  If you couldn’t afford to pay my bill, why did you choose to come to see me?”  “Listen, Doc,” the man said vehemently, “when it comes to my health, money is no object!”  I feel certain almost everyone here would agree with the man. 

Our negotiating skills might not be as sharp, but we all know that without our health, very little else in life is worth very much.  These days people go to great lengths to do all they can to preserve their health – they watch their weight, reduce their calories, cut down on things like refined sugar and red meat, and try to get regular exercise.  Within the last generation or so, many Americans have become hyper conscious about doing things that will improve their physical conditions.  However, there’s one thing we probably don’t do enough of…that is laugh, and I’m not sure why.  

Is it possible that we Americans somehow think that there’s something a bit demeaning about laughter?  For those who watch TV, Hollywood isn’t convinced.  We have comedies, Rom Coms and reality shows that are designed to make us laugh.  We want to be entertained, and maybe this is the excuse to let our guards down.  Perhaps our European roots run deeper than we’d like to admit, and we think that we won’t be taken seriously if we come across as silly or a clown.  The Puritans apparently felt that way – they even outlawed any celebration at Christmas.  Seriously? no celebration at Christmas?  That’s just nuts!

Robert Millikan was a world-renowned physicist and a Nobel Prize winner for his work in the 1920’s which included the first measurement of the charge on the electron.  One day Millikan’s wife was passing through the hall and overheard their maid on the telephone.  She was saying, “Yes, this is where Dr. Millikan lives, but he’s not the kind of doctor that does anybody any good.”  Some folks probably feel the same way about pastors with doctorates.  I heard one preacher on the radio who had been given an honorary doctorate recalling the question of his son after the award: “Gee, dad, does this mean you can write prescriptions now?”

Well I don’t have a doctorate and at the risk of malpractice, I do have a prescription for you this morning…it’s not original but it has been time tested for almost three-thousand years.  It comes from the writer of Proverbs. “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (17:22).  I’m convinced there’s something to this.  Good clean humor is good for us.  We need to laugh, even if it’s at ourselves.  I can remember when we used to take Readers Digest; the first thing I would turn to was the section titled, Laughter is the Best Medicine and later when I entered the military, I enjoyed the section titled, Humor in Uniform.  Abraham Lincoln was a man who knew the positive benefits of laughter.

President Lincoln, despite being caught up in the midst of a disastrous war that was dividing a nation, communities and families, and despite fighting his own private war with depression, was well-known for his belief in the beneficial effects of humor.  And thankfully, President Lincoln had a great sense of humor.  There was a story that circulated around Washington, during those years, concerning him and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Two pious Quaker ladies were discussing the relative merits and prospects of the two leaders.  One said, “I think Davis will succeed because he is a praying man.”  The other replied, “But so is Lincoln.”  The first responded, “Yes, but when Abraham prays, the Lord will think he’s joking.”

Once at a Cabinet meeting, the president read aloud from a humorous book.  The Cabinet members were amazed; not one of them even smiled.  “Gentlemen,” Lincoln asked with a sigh, “why don’t you laugh?  With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die.  You need this medicine as much as I do.”

Someone very wise has said, “He who laughs lasts, laughs longest and best.”  I read once that Abbott and Costello took out a $100,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London in case anyone ever died laughing during one of their performances.  No one ever collected.  I think history will affirm the fact that no one has ever died from laughter, however, we do know, all too well I’m afraid, that people do die of despair.

A prominent doctor has discovered that cheerful people resist disease better than chronic grumblers.  His conclusion – “the surly bird gets the germ.”  Have you ever heard of the Wellness Community?  The Wellness Community was founded in 1982 in Santa Monica, California, and has psychologically and emotionally supported over 30,000 participants since opening, many of whom were referred by their physicians.  The Wellness Community is not a clinic; it’s a support facility for those trying to deal with their life-threatening conditions.  The thrust of the community’s work is that a positive mental attitude can make a difference in the progress of the disease.  They sit, they talk, they cry, but most of all they laugh on the theory that a joyful life actually strengthens the immune system.  Years ago, they were profiled on “60 Minutes.”  

One patient asked the group, “What do you call someone with an uncontrollable urge to contract lymphoma over and over again?”  And someone else shot back, “a lymphomaniac,” and everybody had a great laugh.  Some might think, how in the world could they make stupid jokes in their situation, but they’re convinced this is one way of fighting back.  

A lawyer named Harold Benjamin founded the community after his wife, Harriet, was diagnosed with breast cancer and they couldn’t find adequate psychological support services for the family.  Benjamin’s theory was that there’s a greater relationship than we have ever known between our outlook and our body’s ability to heal.  The fact that physical health is extremely dependent upon mental health has been established for centuries.

 More than 2,000 years ago, the famous Greek physician Galen was called in to tend the wife of a Roman aristocrat.  Her own doctor had treated her but had been unable to help.  While taking her pulse, Galen mentioned the name of an actor with whom her name had been linked in Roman gossip.  Her pulse immediately quickened.  Then Galen leaned down and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh.  That laugh began her cure and is one of the earliest instances of psychiatric treatment for psychosomatic illness.

For me, there’s an obvious link between the mind and body, they “talk” to each other over neural and chemical pathways.  What doctors today want to know is, is there a way that can be devised for people to control the conversations that take place over those specialized circuits.  They already know that “a cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries the bones.”  Can laughter, a cheerful heart, actually affect a cure?  Norman Cousins would say absolutely.

For over a quarter century Cousins was the editor of Saturday Review.  He wrote a book called Anatomy of an Illness, which chronicled his own experience with a massive heart attack.  The doctors told him that he would be an invalid after all the damage his heart sustained, but he didn’t want to accept that.  So, he spent hour upon hour watching Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy movies, and literally laughed his way back to life.  Who woulda thunk it?  With all that, you would figure that folks would take every opportunity possible to get a good knee-slapper going.  But we know better.

Calvin Coolidge had a reputation as one of those old stone-faced people.  When Will Rogers was about to be introduced to him, a friend bet the humorist that he couldn’t get the president to laugh within two minutes, but Rogers said, “No problem, I’ll get a laugh out of him in twenty seconds.”  The introduction was performed: “Mr. President, this is Mr. Will Rogers; Mr. Rogers, President Coolidge.”  Rogers held out his hand, then a look of embarrassment and confusion stole over Will’s face.  “Er, excuse me, sir.  I didn’t quite get the name.”  He didn’t get the big laugh he expected, but at least Coolidge grinned.  Do any of us laugh enough?

Do we consciously try to cultivate a cheerful heart?  In some ways, that might be understandable.  Life isn’t a bowl of cherries.  We live in tense times; people seem to be angry about so many things.  I would forward that some are actively looking for reasons to express their anger.  For decades now, we’ve lived in a highly divided society.  Struggles with politics, moral values and religion seem to keep us separated.  It’s tough to laugh when the finances of the home are stretched thin.  It’s tough to feel any joy when your body is wracked with pain.  It’s tough to come up with a smile at the passing of a loved one.  No, the reasons not to laugh are many.  There are plenty of excuses for giving in to the bone-drying crushed spirit.  The story we read in our Old Testament lesson this morning, even though laughter was involved, in one way wasn’t funny at all, at least not to the one doing the laughing.

Sarah had endured the worst humiliation that a woman in Old Testament times could have borne – she was childless.  In her ancient culture, it was just short of a crime for a wife not to give her husband children.  As was described by the culture, her bones were dry.  Add to this humiliation the fact that Sarah’s biological clock had wound down.  She was now too old.  At the time this part of the story was recorded, Sarah would have been 89 years of age.  So, you can imagine her skepticism.  Remember when all this started, when God first came to Abraham and declared His promise to him, Abram was 75 years old (Gen. 12:4), and Sarai was 65.  Then after 10 years of waiting, Sarai took things into her own hands. She took the drastic step of encouraging Abram to have a child with the maid, Hagar. 

Back then, this wasn’t an uncommon practice, so Abram and Hagar got busy, as it were, and the result was a boy named Ishmael.  Had things remained the same after that, Ishmael would have been the heir to Abraham’s fortune.  But that wasn’t God’s intension and as we all know, things didn’t remain the same.  God again spoke to Abram when Ishmael was thirteen and reaffirmed that he and Sarai would have a son together.  This time it was Abram’s turn to laugh.  But it was more than just a chuckle; Scripture says, “Then Abram fell on his face and laughed…” (Gen. 17:17).  Thanks goodness God is patient with us, even in our doubts.

 In our first lesson we read about the third time God comes to Abram, now Abraham.  This time we read that the Lord, in Hebrew YHVH or God, drops by along with two others.  After they have rested and eaten a fabulous feast, God again gives Abraham the same message he’s heard before, but this time, a timetable is given.  The Lord said, in about one year I’ll visit again and this time you and Sarah will be celebrating the birth of your son.  One would think at this point Sarah would be elated; obviously she wasn’t.

Like the dutiful Middle Eastern wife, Sarah was inside the tent, out of sight, but not out of earshot; tent flaps aren’t soundproof.  Obviously, she was eavesdropping.  She heard about the promise of a son, and this time it was her turn to laugh.  But at 89 years old, she didn’t fall down laughing.  Even after God had given this promise on two previous occasions, Sarah wasn’t convinced.  Thank goodness one of them believed.  Abraham this time didn’t laugh, and God fulfilled His promise.  I guess we sometimes need to hear God repeat His promises more than once before we let those promises change our lives.

Of course, we know the rest of the story.  Sarah did have a son, and as appropriate for this story and for their actions in the past, they named him Isaac, which in Hebrew means…he laughed.  It would be nice to say that Abraham and Sarah thought that this promise of a son in their old age was simply a funny story, and that was the reason for their initial reactions.  But the truth is, they were probably laughing to hold back the tears; tears of joy, laughing to cover the tears of embarrassment perhaps, at not trusting as they should.  They laughed after the birth of Isaac realizing that Sarah by all rights was a woman with one foot in the grave and the other in the maternity ward.  They laughed at the reality that Sarah no longer had to live with the bitter disappointment of having no children.  They laughed at the joy that a child brings to a family and in this case the child of the promise, that Isaac would be the fulfillment of the promise that all nations would be blessed through them and that their lineage would be so numerous that no one could count them.  It was the laughter of joy, a joy that healed the wounds of the past.

And this is the same medicine we all occasionally need to take when our hearts aren’t very cheerful, when our bones feel dry, when those times come when we feel it’s all we can do to simply survive the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  The Reader’s Digest feature that has appeared for years has been right on the money: laughter has not only been the best medicine; sometimes it’s been the only medicine.

The story of Abraham and Sarah and the miracle that God worked in their lives has been told over and over again and has made them heroes to the faithful of the three largest religions; Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  And in another small bit of good news, Abraham and Sarah were very much like you and me.  Like you and me, they had a faith that was shaky at times and they needed the reminder that came with God’s question there at the tent: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  

Abraham and Sarah thought so and you and I often think so, whether we want to admit it or not.  But when grace breaks through, when we open our eyes to God’s work in the world and see miracle after miracle after miracle, even in the midst of all that’s wrong today, we too can laugh with joy.  Yes, it’s a tough world out there, tough even to stay healthy whether money is no object or not, and certainly tough to find a reason to laugh, despite the reminder about the cheerful heart being good medicine.  But you have heard, of course, that the one who laughs last, laughs best and the longest.

Abraham and Sarah no doubt laughed their fool heads off the first time they cuddled their new baby boy.  As Sarah came to say, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me”(Gen. 21:6).  She had the last laugh on a culture that for years had given her grief.  Through the centuries that have intervened, it has been the same for all of God’s people.

One night, Jesus was talking with His disciples after supper.  He had been telling them about all that would occur with Him and with them in the coming days.  He would be leaving them, and there would be some tough times, words they didn’t want to hear.  But finally, Jesus gave them a word that comforted them, a word that continues to echo down through the corridors of time, a word that allows us to maintain a bit of our mental and spiritual health, to keep that cheerful heart, to keep on laughing in the face of the worst that life can offer.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart…or as we learned it in the King James Bible, be of good cheer…[One could say that Jesus is saying, I will have the last laugh because]…I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  And this last laugh is the best laugh of all.


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