Sermons

Laughing to Change the World; Guest Preacher: Rev. Maren C. Tirabassi, April 15, 2018

So the story goes like this – after dying simultaneously, three friends went to Heaven and the first thing they did was orientation and they were all asked the same question, “when you are in your casket and your family and friends are mourning you what would you like then to say about you?” The first man answered immediately, “When I‘m in my casket, I would like to hear people say – ‘he was a great doctor and a wonderful family man.’” The second woman said, “When I’m in my casket, I would like to hear people say, ‘she was a loving wife and school teacher and she made a difference for the children of tomorrow.’”

The last friend thought for a while and then said, “When I‘m lying there in my casket, I’d like to hear people say … ‘Look he’s moving!’”

The Easter season is about death – no question about it. The little story shows not a bad and a good human response to death, but a good and a better response. It’s wise for each of us at least once a year (and Eastertide, the forty days Jesus taught the disciples before the ascension is a good time) to consider how we will have lived our lives and the legacy we will leave.

My mother died. I feel her loss every day. She was the kind of person of whom I could say whole paragraphs of tribute standing by her ashes. She did this good thing and that one, she was so kind and friends and grandchildren and former neighbors live their lives differently because they came to know her. But honestly I would give away all that praise just to hear one startled voice say, “Look she’s moving.”

And that is what Eastertide says – there is something more, something beyond the good and kind – there is resurrection. Those we love are gathered into the loving arms of God and, yes, they are moving and we can live our own lives of courage because that promise is waiting for us, and that means we can keep moving.

But I also told you that story to make you laugh. Early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom) claim God played a practical joke on the devil or on death itself by raising Jesus. Easter is  “Risus Paschalis – the Easter laugh.” the early theologians called it. Paul wrote, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” Church is surely the place to share happiness if we have enough to give away and to borrow those times of joy when we’ve had a hard week.

The book to which Dee Ledger contributed and which brought me to Bethesda is called A Child Laughs – Prayers of Justice and Hope. The initial spark for book emerged because I elicited the very first laugh from my daughter and co-author Maria’s son Leo. Leo will be three in June. At the time, he was just shy of two months. Now all parents would like to see the baby’s first laugh and David and Maria were no different. However, I am the queen of blowing bubbles and there was a cascade of incandescent bubbles and suddenly Leo was laughing. Here’s the science. By 18 weeks all humans laugh, regardless of culture or native language. In two more months children understand and seek humor in their environment. By four or five months they “create” humor events and try make adults laugh.

So I asked in the reflection question before our service – why does a child laugh?

How do you answer? [wonderful answers – from being loved to being tickled]

Children laugh. So laughing and creating a cause for laughter, are human characteristics that precede both mobility and communication.

And laughter can last longer than mobility or communication. A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones, says Proverbs. As we age laughter reduces the need for heightened levels of pain medication, increases mobility for arthritic conditions, decreases stress levels and discomfort sensitivity, increases mental acuity and produces relaxation that assists chemotherapy and treatments for several chronic illnesses. Both humor, the mental experience, and laughter, the physical act, boost the immune system. They help in prevention of heart disease by actually enhancing the blood vessel’s ability to relax and dilate, improving blood pressure.

The delight of Leo’s laughter led to Maria and my question — What would it take to have a future where every child born would not only be sheltered, fed and safe from violence, but would also have a chance to laugh? A question that was answered by seventy-seven people from eleven countries in widely divergent ways [short list]

The delight of Leo’s laughter gave a completely new focus to today’s scripture from Mark – that moment in the midst of the disciples’ competitive conflict – who’s better? who’s number one? We often teach our children — win the Little League game, the poetry festival, the poster contest, the college entrance … as if we want children to listen to John and James – “Jesus, let us sit on your right and left hand” than Jesus who shifts our priorities by putting a small child in the midst of them and saying – this, this is God’s hope and the welcome we give a child defines our welcome of God.

Karl Barth said Laughter is the closest thing to God’s grace. Reinhold Niebuhr, Humor is a prelude to faith and laughter the beginning of prayer. So funny, huh? The path to prayer is heart-open vulnerable – genuine laughter leaves us as undefended as a child. The first thing that makes something funny is that we are expecting it – we are waiting for it – we have put ourselves in a place of humor. People who want the physical and spiritual benefits of humor blow bubbles at the baby, watch a humorous movie, listen to a comedian, read the funny pages, maybe take a look in the mirror?

The second thing that makes something funny is that we aren’t expecting it, discontinuity from the normal. In its original setting the good Samaritan is a joke – the wrong person stopped to help. A form of discontinuity is exaggeration. Sarah could not have that baby, but not because she was 52, no the text says she is 90. When her son’s birth was prophesied she was behind the door laughing hence the name Isaac, laughter. If we don’t think God has a sense of humor we should look at the anteater or the Venus flytrap, read the story of the tower of Babel, Samson’s haircut, the after-party at the Cana wedding or Zaccheaus scrambling out of the sycamore tree. Then there’s the history of the church!

In general, of course, not your church (so far as I know) Your church is celebrating sixty this years. You are a diverse and eclectic group of people on a spiritual journey, says your website. I know from Dee there are faithful charter members, people who are young enough to be starting out in life and everyone in between. You come from many back-grounds and go toward many hope-futures. You are like and unlike folks who wander into church doors everywhere. We all have hard times and our sad days the most important thing we probably do in these four walls is help one another bear just those times and we do so … by telling the joke on all our suffering is Jesus’ ultimate stand-up routine —  standing up, breathing blessing, and then asking for fish sticks!

This Lent I read James Martin’s book Between Heaven and Mirth. He’s a Jesuit professor encourages the Christian regular practice of humor. Humor attracts people; it evangelizes more people than fear or condemnation or gloom. Humor’s a tool for humility. You learn to laugh at yourself.

This story about two of Martin’s friends was told him by the older one. It seems that Kevin, a novice priest, was at a large Society of Jesus convention and met Father Juan an older man famous for his spiritual direction skills. Father Juan asked, “So Kevin where are you from?” “Boston,” Kevin said. Then Kevin decided to ask this revered spiritual leader a question. “Father, what would you say is the most important part of pastoral counseling?” “That’s easy, Kevin. It’s listening. Listening is the key to being a good counselor.” “Thank you, Father, that’s really helpful.” said Kevin.

And Father Juan said, “So Kevin, where are you from?”

Children laugh when others listen. Adolescents find peace and speak up for what they believe when others listen. Adults laugh when they listen to themselves. Elders laugh, like the children do, when others just listen to them, their wisdom, their hope.

So what makes something funny and holy? (I could go on a rant about unholy humor directed at race, gender, sexual orientation, cognitive ability or body size. Funny and holy is part of the natural balance of life – a time to laugh and a time to weep. There is a NH Conference pastor, who was “humor impaired.” She attended a motivational seminar with her continuing ed money. The speakers were well known dynamic speakers – somewhat more evangelical in their theology.. One boldly approached the pulpit and said, “The best years of my life were spent in the arms of a woman who wasn’t my wife!” The crowd was stunned! “And that woman was my mother!”  The crowd burst into laughter and he delivered the rest of his talk, which was well received just because comedy warmed them up. The following week, the pastor told her clergy group  she decided she’d give this humor thing a try. As she approached the pulpit, she rehearsed the joke in her head. Getting to the microphone she said boldly, “The best years of my life were spent in the arms of a man who wasn’t my husband!” The congregation inhaled half the air in the sanctuary. After 10 seconds of silence, desperate to remember what came next, she finally blurted out, “… and I can’t remember his name.”

If we are Christians, if we are Easter-people, if we are going to create a world of justice and peace we need to remember the punch-line! It’s what Jesus cuts through to in that last scene in the Luke gospel after the open tomb and the road to Emmaus. – it’s not about the ghosts, it’s not about Thomas’ doubts, it’s not about the holes in the feet, it’s not even about eating fish. The great and wonderful holy joke of God – the joke on all that is devil or death, on sexual predation and the opioid epidemic, on bullying in middle school and new American families torn apart by deportation — is that what was written in Moses, the prophets, and the psalms is fulfilled, the needs and the hopes of human beings for forgiveness and everlasting life and changing the world and bringing justice to all people are a fulfilled possibility in the resurrection. Christ is risen – and moving. In us.

Post script: So, about eleven months ago, a month before Leo turned two, Maria and David had a second child, named Casey. We live in New Hampshire and they live in California so I visit every two months. I rigorously kept away from the soap bubbles! There was not going to be any non-parentally witnessed first laughing! But the world had changed from 2015 to 2017 and God has a sense of humor … and I was, in fact, the first person to see Casey’s first  roll over – again something that parents want to see. Ah, well, perhaps the next book after A Child Laughs – or the next dream, the next hope, the next resistance, the next faith – will be “A child turns the world around.” Amen.