Texts: Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 28:16-20
Ma B. was my dorm mother my sophomore, junior, and senior years in college. She was a full-figured, attractive woman in her early 70’s. Her face showed deep lines of wisdom and the limp she walked with was an indication of the struggles she had been through in life. For the most part, Ma B. was a quiet and gentle woman. That is until there was a problem. In those moments when dorm life got a little out of control, Ma B. would draw upon her stern look and firm voice to bring things back to order. She didn’t use many words. She didn’t have to for us to know that she was serious.
For reasons I still can’t name, I was drawn to Ma B. My sophomore year I would regularly knock on her door to see how she was doing. Often, I would pretend I had a question or an issue that required her knowledge. Like how to use the washing machine without breaking it, as I had done on numerous occasions. She was always gracious and caring, no matter how silly or insignificant my issue was. Somewhere along the way, she started inviting me into her apartment and before long we began engaging in conversations about our days and lives.
By the time I entered my junior year, Ma B. was like one of my family members. Actually, as I look back, I probably felt closer to her than my family. She had become my confidant and counselor. Sometime about mid-way through my junior year, Ma B. started a Sunday night ritual for just the two of us that would last until I graduated. Every Sunday night, she would make a red velvet cake (a box cake) with white icing. At around 8:00 p.m., with the cake still warm, we would sit on her yellow velvet couch, eat our cake, go over our weekend, and plan for the week. Those Sunday nights were sacred and holy communion has never felt more real than we when partook of our red velvet cake and shared the joys and concerns and the doubts and laughter of our lives.
After graduation, I headed to Raleigh where I began my ministry at Greystone Baptist Church as the summer youth minister. By August, I had enrolled at Southeastern Seminary and found myself living in seminary housing. As I settled into my dorm on Southeastern’s campus I found myself longing for Ma B. and her holy communion. After a few Sunday nights of feeling sorry for myself, I decided I would make a red velvet cake in honor of Ma B. and the time we had shared.
I found a recipe that listed all the ingredients needed to make the cake. With the help of suite mates, I had all of the ingredients but two: baking powder and baking soda. As I recall, the recipe called for one teaspoon of each. One little teaspoon. Surely, the omission of such a small amount of an ingredient wouldn’t make that much difference in the outcome of my cake. So without baking powder or baking soda, I proceed to mix and fold and stir until my batter was ready to bake. Well, you know the ending to this story. The cake didn’t rise and the odd flavor it left in one’s mouth would be a generous way to describe its taste. If the recipe calls for baking powder and baking soda, you can’t make a cake with those two ingredients, even if its only one small teaspoon full.
So why am I telling you this story. For this reason. A life of faith without some measure of doubt and laughter doesn’t rise and it leaves us with an odd flavor. Even if it’s only a small amount, doubt and laughter are essential ingredients of faith. Sarah, the mother of our faith taught us this truth. While three men visited Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, two angels—doubt and laughter—visited Sarah in her tent. And Sarah welcomed them for she was neither afraid to doubt her faith in God nor laugh at God’s absurdity and audacity. And neither should we.
A measure of doubt…
Several years ago, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said that at times he questioned if God was really there. People all over the world responded. The International Business Times called it “the doubt of the century.” The article raised concerns as to whether or not “the leader of the Church of England would one day renounce Christianity or spirituality as a whole.” “Another journalist wrote excitedly, ‘Atheism is on the rise and it appears as though even those at the top of the church are beginning to have doubts.” (Julia Baird, Doubt as a Sign of Faith)
Writing about the archbishop’s statement, Julia Baird of The New York Times wrote: “Despite the alarm, the archbishop’s remarks were rather tame. He told an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there were moments when he wondered, ‘Is there a God? Where is God?’ Then, asked specifically if he harbored doubts, he responded, ‘It is a really good question…The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”
Baird goes on to write: “But Archbishop Welby’s candor only makes him human. He may lead 80 million Anglicans worldwide, but he is also a man who knows anguish, rage, incomprehension and the cold bareness of grief. He lost his firstborn child, Johanna, a 7-month-old baby girl, in a car accident in 1983, a period he has described as ‘utter agony.’ As a teenager he cared for an alcoholic father. When explaining his thoughts on doubt, he referred to the mournful Psalm 88, which describes the despair of a man who has lost all of his friends and cries out, ‘Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?’ The psalm reads bleakly: ‘Darkness is my closet friend.’ Faith cannot block out darkness, or doubt. When on the cross, Jesus did not cry out ‘Here I come!’ but ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Jesus, all of the disciples and especially Thomas, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Pope Francis, and many other spiritual leaders have been honest about their doubts.
I know from my own faith experience, doubt, not certainty, is the thing in life that deepens and clarifies and refines my faith. In my moments of deepest doubt I have had to let go of the superficial, the false belief, the “right” thing to say, the expected response, and wrestle with the angel of doubt until I found blessing. Doubt leads us to the essential questions of our faith. Doubt clears out and cleans out the unnecessary. Doubt allows us to be human and divine all at the same time. And without some measure of doubt, we miss Flannery O’Connor’s call to “go deeper” in our faith. And so we welcome the angel of doubt.
There was another angel in the tent with Sarah that day—the angel of laughter. If doubt is the baking powder of faith, then laughter is the baking soda of faith. Listen to what the poets have said about laughter.
“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
-Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”
“Laughter is wine for the soul—laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness—the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.”
“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”
“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.:
“If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.”
“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.”
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.”
-e. e. Cummings
I learned to laugh and I learned the value of laughter from both my grandmother and great-grandmother. If things got too serious, one of them would find a reason to laugh and their laughter was contagious. If something went wrong, they would laugh. My grandmother was not great at directions and almost every time we would go somewhere unfamiliar she would get us lost. And at that moment when we would realize that we were lost we would dissolve into hysterical laughter. And if I get still and listen, I can still hear their laughter. It soothes my aching soul.
Mahan Siler was another laughter teacher for me. In a profession where things can tend toward the serious nature, Mahan taught me how to hold things lightly and with humor. When things would start feeling too heavy, he would say, “Nancy, are we having fun?” and then he would tilt his head back just a bit and let out one of his reassuring laughs. His laughter diffused many tense ministry moments. When my heart was heavy, his laugh would soothe.
Studies have shown that laughter reduces stress, and that people who laugh seem to live happier lives. One researcher concluded that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak. Laughter, he writes, “bonds us to one another.”
Sarah, hiding in the tent listening to God’s conversation with Abraham, did the only thing that one could do at the news of becoming pregnant at age 90—she laughed to herself. And it must not have been a quiet little chuckle because those standing outside the tent heard her. “Why is Sarah laughing?” We often fear that laughing is disrespectful, but the text doesn’t shame Sarah for laughing. It’s included in the narrative, maybe to show us that social vocalizations aren’t confined to people, but also bind us closer to God.
In a world focused on certainty and news full of doom and despair, maybe we need to court the angels of doubt and laughter. Make space for them in our minds and in our hearts. Welcome them, not as distractions, but as essential companions on this path of faith—essential ingredients in the baking of our faith. For without doubt and laughter, faith doesn’t rise; and it leaves an odd taste in our mouths.
And by all means, if you want to make me a red velvet cake don’t forget the baking powder and baking soda!