LAUGHING AT EASTER

Ecclesiastes 3:4

 

         An atheist scientist came to God and said, “We’ve figured out how to make a human being without you.”

         God said, “OK, let me see you do it.”

         So the atheist bent down to the ground and scooped up a handful of dirt. But before he went any further, God stopped him and said, “Oh, no you don’t. Get your own dirt.” 

         The satirist H. L. Mencken once defined God our Creator as a comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh. This morning I want to dispel that fear from laughing at God’s jokes. The great sage who wrote that memorable poem in Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is a time for being serious and also a time for laughing. Today is a time for laughing. 

         A young boy told his Sunday School teacher: “When you die, God takes care of you like your parents did when you are alive, only God doesn’t yell at you all the time.”

         “Where is God?” the priest asked a class of preschoolers. One of the little girls became so upset they had to find her mother to calm her down. She explained to her mother, amid many tears, “They can’t find God and I know they’re going to blame me!”

         Laughing and telling jokes at Easter time is an old and wonderful tradition. In the early days of Protestantism, ministers traditionally began their Easter sermons with a joke. In some Greek Orthodox churches, members gather on the Monday after Easter for the purpose of trading jokes. In past centuries, in some Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries, Christians gathered for the week after Easter to celebrate at parties and picnics. The faithful played practical jokes on each other, chased each other around their sanctuaries, drenching each other with water, and then they sang, dined, and danced.       

         Christians joked, danced, and laughed to celebrate that Jesus had risen on Easter. The “Easter laugh,” as some ancient Christian teachers called it, was to celebrate Easter as God’s supreme joke played on that demonic enemy, death. The enemy thought he had the upper hand, thought he had done away with God’s Son once and for all, had locked him up in the tomb, and was free from God looking over his shoulder, when God pulled off the biggest “practical joke.” He sprang Jesus from the tomb. Early theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, called it the Risus pascalis, the Easter laugh: God laughing. 

         A woman goes to his doctor, worried about her husband’s temper. 

         The doctor asks, “What is the problem?”

         The woman answers: “Doctor, I don’t know what to do. 

Every day my husband seems to lose his temper for no reason. It’s starting to scare me.”

         The doctor says, “I have a cure for that. When it seems that your husband is getting angry, just take a glass of water and start swishing it in your mouth. Just swish and swish but don’t swallow it until he either leaves the room or calms down.”

         Two weeks later the wife comes back to the doctor looking refreshed and reborn.

         The woman says, “Thanks Doctor, that was a brilliant idea. Every time my husband started losing it, I swished with water. I swished and swished and he calmed down. How does a glass of water do that?”

         The doctor replied, “The water itself does nothing. It’s keeping one’s mouth closed that does the trick.” 

         The British essayist G. K. Chesterton wisely noted, with his own sense of dry humor tossed in, that “life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.” He could have added that mirth and laughter keep us from succumbing in madness to misery. For as the cartoon character Roger Rabbit once said, “Sometimes a laugh is the only weapon we have.” 

         Marital relationships can be a lot like algebra equations. Have you ever looked at your X and wondered Y?

         They say “money talks”…but all mine ever says is “good-bye.” 

         Laughter is as much a part of the gospel as anything we preach. For laughter makes life livable for it awakens a sense, even if only fleeting, that God’s goodness is greater than our problems. Our laughter at Eastertime is a muted echo of Christ’s uproarious laughter when he rose from the grave. Defying the grave then and defying our gravity now, Jesus enjoys a good laugh. 

Laughing came naturally to Jesus. For Jesus knew how to tell a good joke. Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, and Billy Crystal were not the first Jewish comedians. Jesus told jokes years before they did. Did you ever hear the joke Jesus told (Matt. 7:34) about a fellow who tried to take a speck out of his friend’s eye while peering through a 2x4 stuck in his own? Or did you hear the joke Jesus told (Matt. 7:6) about a woman tossing a pearl string necklace in the trash for pigs to trample on? 

Or (Matt. 19:24) a farce as outlandish as threading a herd of camels through the eye of a sewing needle? Or, if you think smoking in bed is inviting trouble, then what kind of fool (Mark 4:21) puts a lighted candle under a bed, then lies down to take a nap? What absent-minded waiter (Matt. 23:25) will carefully wash the outside of a used filthy coffee cup and then, without washing the inside, drink from the cup? Or, can you imagine the absurdity of (Matt. 15:14) a blind seeing-eye dog leading a blind person? 

         Jesus told these ridiculous jokes in part because he couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculous behavior of some people, and in part because he wanted people to laugh at themselves and come to their senses. At times, Jesus probably did not know whether to laugh or cry at the stupidity of people. They were so serious about God that they could not see their human comedy or laugh at themselves. 

The pastor’s family was invited to Easter dinner at the Almond’s house. Mrs. Almond was widely known for the delicious dishes she brought to church potluck dinners. Everyone was seated around the table as the food was being served. As usual, it was a feast for the eyes and the palate.

Then the pastor’s youngest son, Peter, received his plate and he started eating straight away.

“Peter, wait until we say grace,” insisted his father who was quite embarrassed.”

“I don’t have to,” the five year old replied.

“Of course you do, Peter,” his mother insisted rather forcefully. “We always say a prayer before eating at our house.

“That’s at our house,” Peter explained, “but this is Mrs. Almond’s house and she knows how to cook.” 

Taking ourselves, our image, and especially our faults too seriously is the work of the devil, not the work of God. The Sioux Indians have a very wise saying. According to their tradition, the first thing people say after dying is “Why was I so serious?”

People need levity lest we take ourselves too seriously. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. The devil, however, fell by force of gravity.” The devil took himself so seriously that the gravity of his self-importance brought him down from heaven into the confines of earth. Defying the grave on Easter and defying our gravity now, Jesus enjoys a good laugh.

         The young couple invited their elderly pastor for Sunday dinner. While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their son what they were having. “Goat,” the little boy replied.

         “Goat?” replied the startled pastor. “Are you sure about that?”

         “Yes,” said the boy. ‘On the drive home back from church I heard Mommy say to Dad, ‘Remember, dear, we’re having the old goat for dinner tonight.”  

In our effort to uphold the serious side of religion, we have shortchanged our Christian faith, God, and the Bible. We are wrong to exclude from Christianity strains of humor, laughter, and mirth. These are traces of God’s presence. The American novelist Frederick Buechner traces his initial commitment to Christ to a sermon in which George Buttrick, a famous preacher proclaimed that Christ is crowned in the hearts of believers “among confession and tears and great laughter.” It was that final phrase “great laughter” that caught Buechner’s attention and stirred him to pursue Christ.

Religion that is void of laughter is hardly worth pursuing. Genuine religion is intended to lift you up, not drag you down. To help you take yourself more lightly, not more seriously. The devil is the expert at dragging people down. The devil is great at making you feel miserable, about yourself, about life, about your past. The devil is great at making everything deadly serious. 

On the other hand, God wants to lift us up. Laughing lifts us up now and in more ways yet to come. For laughter is an echo of heaven. No levity can last in hell, but there will be endless laughter in heaven.

The Italian poet Alighieri Dante described in The Divine Comedya journey in the afterlife, from the depths of hell up to the gates of heaven. Dante, a brilliant poet, majestically described the ascent, but as he approached the presence of God in heaven, words failed him. As he came closer and closer, he heard a sound he had not heard before during his journey. Pausing, he listened. “Me sembiana un riso del universo,” he writes. It sounds “like the laughter of the universe.” God’s ever-laughing life. That may account for an old church tradition that claims Lazarus laughed heartily for years after Jesus raised him from the dead. That is why Lazarus’ home in Bethany in the Holy Land is called “The House of Laughter.”

An inexperienced pastor was to hold a graveside burial service at the pauper’s cemetery for an indigent man who had no friends or family. Not knowing where the cemetery was, the minister made several wrong turns and got lost. When he eventually arrived an hour late, the hearse was nowhere in sight, the backhoe was next to the open hole, and the workmen were sitting under a tree eating lunch.

The diligent pastor went to the open grave and found the vault lid already in place. Feeling guilty because of his tardiness, he preached an impassioned and lengthy service, sending the deceased to the great beyond in style.

As he returned to his car, he overheard one of the workman say to the other, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years and I ain’t never seen anything like that.”  

         “The children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large tray of apples. A nun lettered a sign and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE. God is watching.”

         Moving along the lunch line, at the other end was a large tray of chocolate chip cookies. A girl wrote a note, which she put next to the tray of cookies: “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”  

         As I mentioned earlier, the satirist H. L. Mencken once defined God our Creator as a comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh. I hope that today you are less afraid to laugh at life and at ourselves.

         The new pastor stood at the church door greeting the members as they left his initial Sunday morning worship service. Most of the people were very generous with their praise telling the new minister how much they liked his sermon, except for one man who said, “The sermon was very dull and boring.”

         A few minutes later the man appeared again, this time muttering, “You really blew it. You didn’t have anything worthwhile to say.”

         A third time the same man appeared in line and said, “I don’t think you did much preparation for that message.”

         Finally the pastor could stand it no longer. He went to one of the deacons and asked about the man who repeatedly criticized his sermon.

         “Oh, don’t let that guy bother you,” said the deacon. “He is a little slow thinking. All he does is go around repeating whatever he hears other people saying.” 

Let us pray: 

“Jesus, I believe you laughed as Mary bathed you and Joseph tickled your toes. I believe you giggled as you and other children played your childhood games and when you went to the Temple and astounded the teachers. I believe you chuckled as all children chuckle when they stump adults. And surely there were moments of merriment as you and your disciples deepened your relationship. And as you and Mary and Martha greeted Lazarus from his tomb, laughter must have been mirrored on your faces. Jesus, I know you wept and anguished. But I believe you laughed, too. Create in us the life of laughter and joy, which can only come from the one true God.” (Based on a prayer by Lois Morgan, printed in Cal and Rose Samra, Holy Humor (Guideposts, 1996) p. 238-239)