The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE LAST LAUGH

Delivered 1/21/01
Text: Genesis 18:1-15
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

An old, old story has a fellow coming to the most famous and expensive doctor in town. From the very beginning 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." The fee was reduced to $250. "But Doc, that's a month's rent." Eventually, the fellow's begging and poor-mouthing got the fee down to $100 then $50 and finally to $25.

The doctor could not help but asking: "Sir, you knew when you came in here that I was the top specialist in my field and admittedly the highest priced. If you could not afford to pay my bill, why did you choose me?"

"Listen, Doc," the man said vehemently, "when it comes to my health, money is no object!"

I suspect we all could go along with that. Our skills at negotiating might not be as sharp, but we all know that without our health, nothing else in life is worth very much. These days we go to great lengths to do all we can to preserve health - we watch our weight, reduce our calories, cut down on red meat, get regular exercise. Within the last generation, Americans have become very conscious about doing things that will improve our physical conditions.

But there is one thing we do NOT do enough of...laugh. I am not sure why. Perhaps we think that there is something a bit demeaning about laughter. Perhaps we think that we will not 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. That ought not to be.

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."(1)

Some folks probably feel the same way about ministers 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 have a prescription for you this morning...not original, but 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."(2)

Abraham Lincoln, despite being caught up in the midst of the most disastrous war this nation has ever experienced, and despite fighting his own private war with depression, was well-known for his belief in that prescription. He 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."(3)

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." 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. People do not die laughing, but we know all too well 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."(4)

Have you ever heard of the Wellness Community?(5) If you or someone close has been touched by cancer, you may very well have. 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, just 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 I saw them 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. We think how in the world could they make stupid jokes in their situation, but they are 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 could not find adequate psychological support services for the family. Benjamin's theory was that there is a greater relationship than we have ever known between our outlook and our ability to heal ourselves.

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.(6)

It is obvious that mind and body "talk" to each other over neural and chemical pathways. What the doctors today want to know is if a way 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(7) 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 did not want to accept that. You know what he did? 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 faces. When Will Rogers was about to be introduced to him, a friend bet the humorist that he could not 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." No big laugh, but at least Coolidge grinned.(8)

Do you laugh enough? Do you try to cultivate a cheerful heart? Does anyone, especially Presbyterians? Not many, apparently. In a way, that might be understandable. Life is not a bowl of cherries. It is tough to laugh when you have been looking for a job for months and cannot find one. It is tough to feel any joy when your body is wracked with pain. It is tough to come up with a smile at the grave of your child. No, the reasons NOT to laugh, to give in to the bone-drying crushed spirit, are often overwhelming.

The story we read in our Old Testament lesson this morning, even though there was laughter involved, was not funny, at least not to the one doing the laughing. Poor Sarah had endured the worst humiliation that an ancient woman could have borne - she was childless. In her culture, it was just short of a crime for a wife not to give her husband children. The bones were dry. Finally, Sarah's biological clock had wound down. She was too old now, so she encouraged Abraham to have a child with the maid, Hagar. Not uncommon practice back then (even though we might have a moral dilemma with it these days), so Abraham and Hagar went to work 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 as we all know, things did NOT remain the same. One day, when Ishmael was thirteen, God said to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son together. Abraham did not just chuckle at that. Scripture says "Then Abraham FELL ON HIS FACE and laughed..."(9) A little later, three men (heavenly visitors) dropped by the tent, had a little rest, a bite to eat, and gave that same message that Abraham had heard before. Like the dutiful Middle Eastern wife, Sarah was inside, out of sight, but not out of earshot; tent flaps are not soundproof. Actually, she was eavesdropping. She heard about the promise of a son, and she had the same reaction as her husband, only, demure little 90-year-old that she was, she did not fall down in the process.

One wonders whether or not Abraham had told Sarah about the first promise. Perhaps he had simply kept quiet about it, not wanting to open old wounds. But with this reaffirmation of what he had previously heard, he probably began to believe, even though it made no sense. Sometimes, folks need to hear God speak more than once.

The rest of the story we know. Sarah did indeed have a son. They named him Isaac, which in Hebrew means...he laughed. It would be nice to say that Abraham and his wife 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 laughing to hold back the tears, laughing at the thought of a woman with one foot in the grave and the other in the maternity ward, laughing to get beyond the bitter disappointment of having no children. It was the same medicine we have all occasionally had to take when our hearts are not very cheerful, when our bones have felt dry, when it has been all we could manage to simply SURVIVE the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." That 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 has 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 three great religions. But they were just like you and me - with a faith that is regularly shaky, and needing the reminder that came with the visitor's question there at the tent: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Abraham and Sarah thought so; 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 is wrong, the laughter can begin again.

Yes, it is 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. 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."(10) 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 did NOT want to hear. But finally, he 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. Listen to the word: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart...or as we learned it in the King James Bible, BE OF GOOD CHEER...[I have the last laugh]...I have overcome the world."(11) And that last laugh is the best laugh of all.

Amen!


1. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1985), p. 401

2. Proverbs 17:22

3. Little, Brown...Anecdotes, p. 358

4. Quoted in The Joyful Noiseletter from Lorin Whittaker, MD, Laugh Away Your Tensions

5. http://www.wellness-community.org/our_story.html

6. ibid., p. 228

7. Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient : reflections on healing and regeneration, New York : Norton, 1979

8. Little, Brown, p. 141

9. Genesis 17:17a (NRSV)

10. Genesis 21:6

11. John 16:33

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