LAUGHING IN LENT?
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
April 2, 2017
John 11: 1-45
Does humor have any place in religion – especially in Lent? Did Jesus ever laugh? Was he raised in a family that joked around with each other? What does this have to do with today’s lessons? Quite a bit.
In my family, I was often the butt of my younger brother Gordy’s so-called humor. When I was in high school, he would come up to me and flash his hand in my face and say, “What is it What is it? It’s an ugly meter and it’s working!”
“Ha ha ha ha. Grow up, you ridiculous little creep.”
There are several references to laughter in the Bible. When God tells Abraham that he and his wife Sarah will have a child at age 99, Sarah is listening behind a door and laughs out loud pretty hard.
Jesus is never described as laughing but he seemed to enjoy people and parties and life, and he has a sense of irony and knew that you cannot escape your critics. In comparing himself and his cousin, John the Baptist he says, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard…”
Often your own history and experience determine what is funny. Today’s lesson from Ezekiel is about the Valley of the Dry Bones and God’s promise that he would knit the bones back together, bringing life out of death.
My problem is that I have seen one too many cartoons of this story with animated spooky bones dancing around…. often accompanied by this song by James Weldon Johnson: (feel free to join in):
“The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.”
It’s a joyful vision.… even with cartoon characters!
The Gospel also has a possible comic undertone as Lazarus – a true “dead man walking” – staggers out of the tomb and needs help getting unwrapped from his bindings. This had to be awkward, along with the stench from four days in the tomb. If you made an association with mummies from movies here, you are not a bad person!
We have to acknowledge some of the puzzling questions in today’s Gospel: for one, why did Jesus wait two days before coming to Bethany? It seems cruel, however some of the Jews believed that the soul only left the body after four days and Jesus had to be sure that everyone knew Lazarus was really dead before bringing him back to life. Yet how often it feels that God is tarrying in our lives, waiting around when we need God right this minute.
Barbara Brown Taylor sets the stage for Holy Week with this description: “Jesus has come to Bethany with the ‘temple posse’ hot on his trail. By raising Lazarus, Jesus graduates from ‘manageable nuisance’ to ‘serious threat’. So his days are numbered and he knows it. When he arrives at his friends’ house in Bethany, they can see it on his face. …So they take him in and care for him, shutting the world out for this one night. Lazarus is still clumsy from his four days in the tomb, trailing his shroud behind him like a used cocoon. He sits and stares while Martha makes a stew and Mary goes to her room”… to get a jar of perfume to anoint Jesus for burial.
But don’t you wonder if anyone leaned across the dinner table and said, “So Lazarus, what is it like to be dead!?” Wouldn’t that be the elephant in the room? We’ll get back to this question later.
Note that Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life… That means not only life after death, but renewed life in this existence as well. That’s what he grants to Lazarus … new life within this one. The poet Jan Richardson says, “When we suffer an agonizing loss, something of us goes into the grave. As we wrestle with our grief (and this may take a long time), we will find ourselves faced with a choice: will we gather the graveclothes more tightly around ourselves, or will we respond to the voice of Christ, who stands at the threshold and calls us to come out?”
So where do you need new life today? From what do you need to be unbound? What things are confining you, holding you back? A couple possibilities:
First, fear: fear of the future and the welfare of those we love, fear for the country, for the planet and for ourselves – will we be up to what we need to do? Hope to do? “Fear Not,” the Scripture tell us repeatedly but it’s not always that easy.
Taylor again: “There is one cure for me on frightening nights… if I can summon the energy to put on my bathrobe and go outside, the night sky will heal me, not by reassuring me that I will be just fine, but by reminding me of my place in the universe.” We are so small, yet the container for this one precious life. Some times all we can offer to God is our amazement.
Secondly, we might be bound by spiritual questions that keep us stuck. In my experience, there are three that occur again and again. I preach about these questions frequently, so I will just give an abridged response to how we might think about them:
- Is Jesus the only way to God? Of course not; how arrogant to assume that Jesus is the one way the Creator has revealed himself throughout eternity. But Jesus is the face of God, the face that is turned in our direction.
- Do you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven? I don’t know but I hope not because some days I “believe” more than others. How much belief tickets you into heaven? How much doubt keeps you out? Will God know if you’re faking? Instead of a forced belief, I think we are called, as much as we can, to trust.
Sometimes it is not God who calls us to new life but another person, helping them to unbind what restricts them and calling them out from destructive patterns.
I’d like to tie together some of the ideas in today’s lesson: death and resurrection, laughter, and friendship.
Friendship was very important to Jesus. The house in Bethany is where Jesus “hung out” with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He visits them when ever he can and their home is his last stop on the way to Jerusalem before Holy Week and again before his Ascension. Jesus says this about friendship: “Greater love hath no one than this, to lay down your life for your friends.”
Where there is friendship, there is often laughter. And what is better in life than laughing with a good friend? — especially at things that no one else finds funny. My friend Tony is from New York and I have a perverse sense of direction, so we use the GPS a lot in the car. We have named the GPS voice Velveeta – Velveeta Kraft. We have also created a family for her—her husband Ched (full name, Ched-dar) who is unemployed and lays around a lot in front of the TV; their son Montey (full name Monterey Jack), who is in jail for some nebulous crime, and daughter Brie, a sturdy girl who in heating and air conditioning school. Because Ched is such a cheapskate, Velveeta can’t get a computer so has to work from big maps on a card table set up in the living room where she is interrupted often by Ched: “Velveeta, get me a sandwich….no cheese…”
One day, we worry that Velveeta will snap and we won’t find our way home…. but that would be another story.
Tony and I find all of this laugh-until-you-cry hilarious, but most people wouldn’t. My kids just shake their heads. That’s the thing about friendship … and laughing.
Recall now the question that might have been asked of Lazarus after Jesus resurrected him: “What was it like to be dead?”
The American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote a play about this in 1925. Here, Lazarus declares that only that heaven is marked by laughter. The more Lazarus laughs, the younger and stronger he becomes.
This is not laugher as derision or ridicule but kind, appreciative laughter, like the gentle smile when someone you love is being most typically themselves… God is in the laughter as well as in the tears. Laughter can unbind our gravecloth4ed perhaps like nothing else. It is a great gift from the Creator who programmed us to laugh.
Has anyone ever died of laughter?
Zeuxis, a 5th-century BC Greek painter, is said to have died laughing at the humorous way he painted the goddess Aphrodite – after the mean, arrogant old woman who commissioned it insisted on modeling for the portrait.
At the end of the film Mary Poppins, Mr. Dawes, Sr. played by a heavily made-up Dick Van Dyke, is said to have literally died laughing after being told a joke: “I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.” “Really? What’s the name of his other leg?”
Life may not hand us as many opportunities to laugh as we would like but it seems to offer us plenty of opportunities to cry, to grieve, to hurt. There have been so many deaths in this community since January first. But it may be those who neither laugh nor cry who most need our prayers… the humorless ones, some times with great power, who move through the days with blinders on, seemingly unaware of the human cost of their actions.
Let me close with this from the writer Katherine Mansfield who talks about the means of resurrection: “Everything we really accept in life undergoes a change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery.”
And that is also the essence of our faith, it is our mandate, and our constant prayer. May it be so.