Dean Lloyd: “Holy Laughter”
Our Old Testament lesson for today is about something you don’t encounter very often in Scripture: laughter. So I thought we should start this morning with a story or two, although you might think these come from the bottom of the barrel. Here goes…
After a church service, a little boy told the minister, “When I grow up, I’m going to give you some money.” “Well, thank you,” the minister replied, “but why?” “Because my daddy says you’re one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had.”
Here’s another. John Coburn, one of the most admired leaders of the Episcopal Church a generation ago, served in his younger years as the rector of a small church in Amherst, Massachusetts. As he was standing in line after his last service, telling people good-bye, an elderly lady in the congregation who had been there forever came up to him in tears. Coburn leaned down to console her, saying “Don’t worry, Mrs. Jones. Rectors here just get better and better.” “No, that’s just the problem,” she said. “They get worse and worse.”
It feels good to laugh, maybe especially when it’s at the clergy’s expense. For some reason, there is very little actual laughter in the Bible. It has been called the world’s least amusing book. But today in our Old Testament lesson we have the most famous case of laughing in all the Scriptures. In the entire New Testament, laughter only turns up twice. One was in our gospel text last week when Jesus visits the home of a leader of the synagogue whose little daughter has died. And there in the midst of the gloom Jesus promises life in the midst of death. And everyone around him laughs. That’s the laugh of cynicism and disbelief.
Laughter turns up a second time when Jesus in his teaching says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” This is a promise that the laughter of joy and surprise are coming. It’s a promise of God’s unexpected goodness coming out of even the worst of times.
But the great biblical story of laughter is the story of ancient Sarah and her husband Abraham. Sarah is ninety years old, hunched over, no teeth, her face creased with the ruts of her years. She and Abraham had been living an ordinary life in Mesopotamia when God called 99-year-old Abraham to take his family to a new land. Now years later the Lord tells the old man that he and Sarah will have a son. Sarah, whose ear has been cocked at the tent entrance, bursts out laughing.
What would you do if you heard that a 90-year-old lady in the geriatric ward is going to give birth, and Medicare is going to pay for it? Abraham himself must have let out a toothless cackle, and the laughing must have gone on non-stop. How ludicrous can you get! They must have been laughing because part of themselves actually did believe it, but they also didn’t want to be taken for fools. It made no sense. It was absurd.
“Why did you laugh?” the Lord asks Sarah. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
“Who me, laugh?” You must be kidding. A 90-year-old-childless woman is told she’s going to have a baby. “I don’t see why I should laugh.”
“No, but you did laugh,” the Lord says, “and just for that I’m going to name your baby Isaac, which means ‘laughter,’ just to remind you that the joke is on you.” Before long Isaac is born, and Sarah laughs again.
This story of Abraham and Sarah begins in a world of weeping and sadness. They had known tears of disappointment and dashed hopes over those childless years. And when the good news and the laughter arrive, the darkness doesn’t disappear for good. They will have hard times ahead, when God will again seem far away and strange. But here in this moment the promise of a child breaks into the darkness, like a glimpse of a far country so strange and new that all they know to do is to laugh with amazement.
We all know weeping that comes with disappointment and tragedy. Our friends here today from Indiana have come with what must be heavy hearts over the flooding in their state and across the Midwest. We are aware of the toll that war, hunger, and heartbreak take every day. But the laughter of joy, of comedy, points to the conviction that God always has a new future yet to give.
In fact one of the earliest ways Christians talked about Easter was that it was the practical joke God played on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Theologians called it Risus paschalis or the Easter laugh. And so especially in Easter Orthodox traditions, the week after Easter would often be filled with parties, picnics, feasts, and joke-telling.
Christian faith is at its heart a comedy—it is about a joy and laughter that point to an ultimate “happy ending” that we see in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And for those who have caught a glimpse of the resurrection, everything looks different and charged with hope.
Methodist Bishop William Willimon declares that “among all of God’s creatures, human beings are the only animals who both laugh and weep—for we are the only animals who are struck with the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. In those priceless moments when we are struck with the incongruity of the world, humor results. A stern, smug gentleman slips on a banana peel and ends up sprawled on the sidewalk—we laugh; W.C. Fields throws a pie in the face of a pompous woman in an evening gown—we laugh.”
Laughter allows us not to take ourselves too seriously. Since we can rest in the confidence that everything ultimately rests in God’s hands, we are able to see ourselves as the foolish, self-important people we often are, and to be reminded of the gap between our estimation of ourselves and the reality.
Maybe that’s why there are so many church jokes. Most church is carried on in the mode of high seriousness, and it becomes easy to think God is depending on our own earnest perfection. But then you come across a few bloopers from some church bulletins that put things back in perspective.
Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don’t forget your husbands.
The sermon this morning: “Jesus walks on water.” The sermon tonight: “Searching for Jesus.”
Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our community.
Don’t let worry kill you—let the church help.
At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be, “What is Hell?” Come early and listen to our choir practice.
For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
Potluck supper Sunday at 5 pm. Prayer and medication to follow.
To laugh at the foolishness we get ourselves into is to be able to let go of taking ourselves too seriously. It’s to lighten up, to recognize that there is more going on in God’s world than our own earnestness, even to sense that there is a grace and mercy bigger than us that we can depend on.
Abraham Lincoln loved to tell stories. Once at a cabinet meeting he read from a humorous book. The cabinet members were amazed, and no one 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.”
In fact, the whole Christian story has been seen from its earliest days as something like a grand comedy. St. Paul talked about the foolishness of God. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to the gentiles.” By any normal standards, Jesus’ own life was a holy joke. He was the king who looked like a tramp, the prince of peace who seemed to be the prince of fools. Dostoyevsky wrote a novel imagining Christ as a Russian prince and called it The Idiot. Some of you of a certain vintage will remember the musical Godspell that presents Jesus as the leader of a three-ring circus traveling around in acrobat tights.
And of course Jesus’ teachings and stories have a comic feel to them. Frederick Buechner translates one of his famous lines this way: “It is harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for a Mercedes to get through a revolving door.” Jesus told about strange hosts who invite everyone off the streets to their party, of a father who throws the biggest party for the bad son who has squandered everything. He tells about an idiotic shepherd who strolls off to find one lost sheep and ignores the 99 with the good sense not to wander away. Scholar Elton Trueblood decided to write a book called The Humor of Christ when he found his son laughing out loud when he heard the story about a man being so concerned about the speck in another person’s eye that he failed to see the beam stuck in his own.
But the deepest comedy, and the greatest reason for laughter, is really the Christian story itself. Most people I know expect just about anything in life except the possibility that beyond the darkness they see around them there could be brightness and light. They are prepared to do their best and cope with what comes. What they aren’t prepared for is the sheer wild joke of a God who promises a joyful end.
For five days last fall Archbishop Desmond Tutu was with us at this Cathedral for our centennial celebration, and one of his most striking qualities was how much he laughed. It was sometimes like a giggle. At other times he was slapping his knees and clapping his hands he was laughing so hard. And apparently he’s always been that way—even in the dark days of apartheid and the draining years of building the new South Africa. It’s the holy laughter of someone who knows that God is at work in this immense divine comedy, and no matter how dark things can become, God intends to draw us into the light.
By all accounts the city of Washington is more polarized than it once was. But people here remember the old days when a Lyndon Johnson or a Ronald Reagan would sit down with leaders of the opposition party after a hard day of politics and laugh and tell stories. People tell you that for all the troubles of those times, Washington was a better place. Laughter puts things in perspective and can soothe hard feelings.
A final story. An Amish boy and his mother visited a large shopping mall and were dumbfounded by everything they saw, especially two shiny silver walls that moved apart and then back together.
“What is this, Mother?” the boy asked.
Never having seen an elevator she said, “Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life. I don’t know what it is.”
The two watched as an elderly man hobbling on a cane made his way over and pressed a button. The walls opened and he went in. Then they closed. The boy and his mother saw small numbers lit up above the doors, going up and then down. Then the walls opened again and out walked a handsome 24-year-old man.
The mother, with her eyes never leaving the man, said quietly to his son, “Go get your father.”
Don’t we all long for youth and beauty and joy? The joke of the story is that we will never find that in a magical elevator. And the real joke is that there’s another kind of joyful surprise waiting for those, whatever their circumstance, who follow this seemingly foolish, jokester Lord.
“Go spread the good news,” Jesus says to his disciples in our gospel lesson. “Tell everyone there is a new kingdom of healing and hope breaking in for everyone.” Jesus is sending us, too. And at the heart of that kingdom we are to spread are joy, delight, and, especially, laughter.