Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd (Rev. Dr.)
June 18, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
One of my nervous reactions is laughter. When I’m uncomfortable or put on the spot, I usually find a nervous laugh working its way out. It’s not a good habit, because it has led to many misunderstandings—people think I’m laughing at them or not taking the topic seriously.
We laugh for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s a laugh of scepticism when we hear something outlandish. Sarah’s laughter in our scripture lesson was probably a combination of nervousness and scepticism.
Three strangers had just awakened her husband from his afternoon siesta in the blazing midday heat. At first he wasn’t sure if the heat was getting to him as he peered out at the wavy mirage, but as his eyes cleared, he was startled awake by his well-ingrained duties of hospitality. He stood up as quickly as his old bones could lift him and hobbled out to greet them. “Please, stop and rest awhile under my tree while I fetch a snack to strengthen you on your journey. I am your servant.” The snack turned out to be a feast of the finest food available. The guests, in turn, gave a gift of blessing, promising that his 90 year-old wife Sarah would bear him (a 99 year old) a son. It was at this incredulous blessing that Sarah laughed. She had been listening from inside the tent and tried to stifle this nervous laugh of scepticism. There was something uncanny about these visitors. They knew more than they should. They spoke with authority and insight. Perhaps they were prophets—God’s own voice! Hence Sarah’s nervousness. She should not have been listening. Even more, she would dishonour the humble hospitality of her husband if the guests heard her laughing at them.
But it was too late. “Why is Sarah laughing?” they asked Abraham. “Why is she questioning her ability to bear children in her old age? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” At this moment, Abraham joined Sarah in realizing that these were no ordinary guests. They must be prophets or angels or even God personified. Sarah was terrified. She had laughed at God! And so, she did the only thing her frantic heart allowed—she denied it. “I didn’t laugh!” The God-guest replied, with a twinkling eye, “Oh yes you did.” And she realized in that moment that God both understood and forgave her scepticism.
Nine months later, Sarah laughed again, but this time it was a very different laugh. She gave birth to a healthy boy and she was overcome with joy. “God has brought laughter for me,” she declared, “everyone who hears will laugh with me.” This was a laugh of awe and gratitude. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was swimming in a northern lake when he heard a noise behind him. Not far off, he saw a moose swimming along with him. He rolled onto his back with the laughter of delight spilling forth. He describes it as a mystical moment of union with the holy.
Sarah wasn’t the only one who was subsumed in laughter. Nine months prior, just days before the guests had arrived that fateful day, Abraham had had a vision of God speaking to him, telling him that he and Sarah would have a child together. Abraham had actually fallen on his face, he was laughing so hard. “How could two wizened old geezers have a child?” And so, when Sarah finally did conceive and birthed a son, Abraham named the boy Isaac, which means playful laughter.
Terry Thomas Primer, a nursing home chaplain once read this scripture reading to the residents, whose average age was about 90. She asked the women, “Would you like to be come pregnant?” They began to giggle and look at each other, which made them laugh even harder. Memories of pregnancy, babies crying, sleepless nights and two year olds running wild flooded forth. Their laughter of incredulity turned to laughter of relief. The chaplain noted that not a single one of them volunteered to become a mother again.
But what this reading did for the nursing home residents was to open up possibilities of the impossible. It was a story about the elderly who found new hope, new meaning, new ways to serve God. Our society doesn’t value the elderly. It is more convenient to shut them away in a safe place and then forget about them. When I visit in homes, I am overwhelmed with the number of elderly who have no visitors and they cry out to me as I pass, hoping even for one word of kindness that will recognize them as people, let alone as wise elders.
Fortunately, my parents are still able to live in their own home. Because of this, they still have a purpose to get up each day. They keep each other going and they still try to visit and help others. It is difficult watching your parents become dependent, forgetful and frail shadows of their former confident, strong selves. I’m trying to learn patience and understanding as my brother and I do everything we can from a distance to help them stay in their own home. On this Father’s Day, I am particularly grateful for how I’ve seen my father become much more patient and understanding with my mother as they both struggle with memory and ability. There may come a time, though, when staying in their own home may no longer be an option. I wonder how they might still be able to find a purpose in their lives if they have to move.
There was a nursing home in Berlin that experimented with theme rooms for those who had dementia. They set up a room filled with memorabilia, furniture and kitchenware from the 1940s of East Berlin—even down to the type of salt and pepper shakers that everyone had. When the residents entered, they were transformed. Stories that family had never heard before began to pour forth as items triggered specific events. But they weren’t just spectators in the room. They were invited to make the very food they would have made in the 1940s. They began to sing as they chopped vegetables. Residents who had become despondent and wheel chair bound began to walk. Even those who were bed-ridden began to walk again and move around the room. Soon line-ups formed as residents waited their turn to return to the 40s. They had a new reason to live and laughter once again became part of their lives.
Old age is seen as a curse with its many challenges, instead of an opportunity. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Age is opportunity, no less than youth.” Age certainly brings wisdom and stories with countless lessons to be learned. There are many biblical stories about the elderly playing important leadership roles: Noah, Joseph, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, Anna the prophetess were all elderly. We need to value and hear the stories and wisdom of our elders. As Chaplain Primer wrote, “Perhaps only those accustomed to watching the mysterious ways of God can recognize the Almighty’s fingerprints on the pages of time.”
The elderly can teach us how to recognize God in the most unlikely of places. Like Abraham and Sarah, may we be open to divine messengers visiting us unexpectedly, bringing surprising blessings and new hope. As Chaplain Primer writes, “no one is ever too old to receive fresh promises from God. Trust, then, in the Almighty, the Faithful One, and continue to hope. For hope ignites life, laughter, and generosity, even in the twilight of one’s life.”
 Terry Thomas Primer, chaplain for Presbyterian Homes & Services at Monroe Village in Monroe, New Jersey. http://www.baylor.edu/ifl/christianreflection/AgingarticlePrimer.pdf