XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

The Laughter of the Universe

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Mar 27

Texts: John 20: 1-18

Let’s start with some fun. In his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, the humorist David Sedaris describes sitting in a beginning French class, in France, with a group of international students. They were learning about the holidays. A Morroccan student piped up: “Excuse me. But what’s an Easter?” Sedaris tells the story this way. “The teacher called on the rest of us to explain [in broken French]. The Poles led the charge. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus…”[Her statement ended with an expletive -- it was all she could muster]. Her fellow country-man came to her aid. “He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two morsels of lumber?” The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm. [From one corner} “He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.” [From another] “After he die, the first day he come back here to say hello to the peoples.” “Part of the problem,” Sedaris continues, “had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone [complex theological ideas]. Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead. “Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One too may eat of the chocolate.” "And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked.” Sedaris knew the word, and so he proudly raised his hand. "The Rabbit of Easter.” he said. “He bring of the chocolate."
Believe it or not, there is a long-standing theological tradition that Easter is all about humor and laughter, a surprising and joyful “holy hilarity,” the very laughter of God. Church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom mused that God had played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. The Risus Paschalis, the “Easter Laugh,” was God’s laughter at the divine triumph over the powers of death and violence! Much as I hate to admit it, I’ve never found this theology all that compelling. Maybe I’ve seen one too many of those cheesy line drawings with God of Jesus seemingly cracking up. Besides, at least in the Gospel According to John, Easter is no laughing matter. On the contrary, in John’s gospel, Easter begins in tears.
Here’s pro-tip from that distant planet of biblical studies: Whenever a scripture uses a word or phrase more than once, it usually means pay attention. In our artful account from John, after the male disciples are done running to and from the tomb, the story settles down. Mary of Magdala is alone, again. Verse 11: “And Mary was standing at the empty tomb weeping.” The next line: “As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb.” And then the question comes to her not once, but twice. “Woman, why are you weeping?” asks angels. “Woman, why are you weeping?” asks the Risen Christ, his first words.
Before we go further, a poem, by the Polish writer Anna Kamienska. It’s titled “Funny.”
What's it like to be a human
the bird asked

I myself don't know
it's being held prisoner by your skin
while reaching infinity
being a captive of your scrap of time
while touching eternity
being hopelessly uncertain
and helplessly hopeful
being a needle of frost
and a handful of heat
breathing in the air
and choking wordlessly
it's being on fire
with a nest made of ashes
eating bread
while filling up on hunger
it's dying without love
it's loving through death

That's funny said the bird
and flew effortlessly up into the air.

I was reminded of this poem when considering that question: “Why are you weeping?” I thought of Jesus asking Mary the bird’s question as well: “what’s it like... to be a human?” I imagined Jesus, perched by her side, taking in those tears, hearing it all with compassion, taking it on yet not once getting hooked by it -- just grace, confidence, and a genuine “lightness of being,’ because he knows. He knows the freedom of God’s love. He know the lighthearted effortlessness of being held in God’s spirit. He knows freedom from fear and vengeance. He probably couldn’t wait to share it with her -- it would be the foundation of a new way, a new community of love and forgiveness made possible because of what’s just happened. Instead he chooses to meet Mary where she is. Does he ever do otherwise?
What’s more, he already knows why she’s weeping! In one of the shortest, most pointed sentences in all of scripture, John tells us: “He wept.” Jesus wept, just days before at the grave of his friend Lazarus! He knows why she’s weeping. She’s traumatized, grief-stricken, undone, unable to move. So why ask the question twice? Maybe its because the question is as much for us as it is for Mary. Maybe its because John, Jesus and God know we need to hear that question first, before we can hear anything else. We need to be reminded and awakened first to what it’s like to be a human. For then and only then, can we be awakened to what it’s like to be a human held in God’s ‘all surrounding grace.’ The Risen Christ meets Mary and meets us right there.
So let’s go there. My guess is it’s not so hard. For who among us has not been weeping lately, at least on the inside? There are existential and personal crises we face, I know. For some of you, right now, these are profound and all-consuming. The Risen Christ meets you there. And yet collectively, who among us has not been weeping, at least on the inside, when we look at our cities, our country, our world? Who hasn’t been weeping as we’ve begun to awaken to the brutal and lasting legacy of white supremacy in our country, to rising inequality, to the reality of terror here and abroad, to the incendiary, violence-inducing rhetoric of fear and divisiveness now commonplace in our public discourse? And who among us doesn’t weep, somewhere inside, when we realize the daily walls that we build out of our own self righteousness, our false senses of scarcity, our complacency, our denial?
The other night I was at a meeting in Boston. We started with a quick personal check-in. We came to a woman who is usually strong and poised. This time, you could see a heavy weight on her heart and mind. When it was her turn, she just shook her head in silence and then she lost it. A young mother, widowed three years ago, working long hours with troubled youth, raising three young children of her own and living in her ailing father’s house. In tears, she told us she couldn't afford to pay her electricity bill. As we tried to hold her – no business on our agenda was more important – she just kept shaking her head and saying ‘you have no idea!’ She was right. And while she never intended to ask for help, she got it, an almost instant pass-the-plate offering of $1000 that she was gracious enough to accept. I think of Jesus reaching to her, asking her, asking anyone of us in such a moment when we are so broken down by life, when we want to say a room full of people ‘you have no idea,” no idea what this heart is carrying – the sadness, the rage, the guilt, the grief, the burden. Weeping in fear for our planet, weeping for our nation, our children, our elders, our lost loves, weeping because there is someone, there are many someone’s, who have no idea how they will keep their lights on.
Friends, don’t let all the pretty clothes and fancy brunches fool ya! Easter begins in weeping! And the Risen Christ in tender mercy comes to meet us right where we are, assuring us that God’s love can absorb and transform our weeping and our worst fears into wondrous love and amazing grace.
Think back to that proverbially perched bird. Consider the wider perspective, the longer view, those dimensions of hope and humor the bird’s closing comment brings to the conversation. To even hear that question: “Why are you weeping?” “What’s it like for you, really?” can sometimes be just the shift in perspective we need, just the reminder that there is a bigger picture, a larger story, a deeper compassion that surrounds and enfolds us. The Risen Christ comes to Mary with that question, as if to say, tell me, what’s it like to be human? Because from where I stand, having been to hell and back, I know about that. I have a pretty good idea, in fact. And, I know about something else too. I know about a freedom that is yours for the taking, despite the reality of death, despite the prisons of your skin, despite that nest of ashes humanity is making of its cities, and of its planet.
My former professor Cornel West calls it “tragicomic hope.” He defines the tragicomic as “the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy – to preserve hope even while staring into the face of hatred, hypocrisy, nihilism and paralyzing despair.” In his book Democracy Matters, he adds: “Rooted in a love of freedom, tragicomic hope is a sad yet sweet indictment of abusive power and blind greed run amok. It's a melancholic yet melioristic stance towards America’s denial of its terrors and horrors heaped on others. It yields a courage to hope for betterment against the odds without a sense of revenge or resentment.”
For West, an avowed Christian, this love of freedom isn’t rooted in the unpaid promises of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is grounded in his love of God and in the freedom of the new age and new community that Easter inaugurates, beginning with Mary’s tears. From his personal Facebook page, two years ago: “The significance of the resurrection claim …is that, despite how tragic and hopeless present situations and circumstances appear to be, there is a God who sits high and looks low, a God who came into this filthy, fallen world in the form of a common peasant in order to commence a new epoch, an epoch in which Easter focuses our attention on the victory of Christ and hence the possibility of our victory over our creature hood, the old creation and this old world, with its history of oppression and exploitation.”
Thanks to Cornel West, we may have found a divine comedy, even a divine laughter, that we can work with! Think about it! Laughter right up in the face of death. Laughter in the face of fear. Laughter right up in the face of violence and empire! Do you remember what Dante eventually hears, as he makes his way from that Good Friday hell, through purgatory, through the celestial spheres, approaching the highest reaches of paradise? He listens intently and hears something he’s never heard before. He hears what sounds to him “like the laughter of the universe.” Harvey Cox writes of Dante’s ending, “It was a masterpiece. The whole universe laughing…the hundreds billion galaxies all bent over in convulsions of delight…A laughter that somehow catches up an entire history of sobs and cries and pains. The last laugh of the God of life after so many deaths and defeats.”
It is perhaps a distant sound, from where we sit, in our oft weeping world. It may require a descent into hell and then some ascent of compassion and love just to put us within earshot. But can’t we hear it piercing through the veil even now? As Cox writes, “Is it really too much to hope for?”
“Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?” Maybe it is a funny thing, after all. Despite our tears, and because of them, maybe it’s a joke unlike anything we’ve heard before. And maybe each Easter, with all its blaring pomp, gives us the boost of confidence we need to stand up and keep on telling it, year after year, Sunday after Sunday, as if our lives and our hope and our humanity depend on it.
I wonder. Can we see this resurrection hope and rising humor here in this Body of Christ? Can we see it in our Friday Café, a community established, as an experiment, to meet people where they are, to offer warmth and hospitality to neighbors on the street. 155 guests and volunteers that came through on Good Friday! An experiment! That's funny! Can we see it in our audacious advocacy, whether working at the Massachusetts statehouse against global climate change, or in our Do Not Stand Idly By Initiative to develop technology for safer guns and gun locks. That’s hilarious, especially according to the NRA! They may have the last laugh for now, but seatbelts had to start somewhere too. Can we see it in the boldness of our capital campaign, in our putting money into this building and ministry? For Such a Time as This? Good one! And, yes, especially for such a time as this! Can we see it on a Sunday afternoon when thirty mostly white folks gather at a racial justice workshop and listen in tears to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a song about lynching in the south, a song that rings far too true today? West writes powerfully about that tragicomic sensibility that is so clearly manifest in the tradition of the African American jazz and blues. He regularly cites Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and others as key, or better ‘off-key’ examples of how to maintain “hope on a tight rope,” as he puts it. It’s all in the balance.
A new age, born out of tears as old as life. Everlasting joy, from a crucible of sorrow. An eternal victory for history’s downtrodden. A new freedom to love, that calls out the limits of locking people in and nailing people up. So, West writes, “to be a Christian is to have a joyful attitude toward the resurrection claim, to stake one’s life on it and to rest one’s hope upon its promise.” We don’t have to explain it, or translate it, thank God! But we must find the courage to live its message. The Risen one is encouraging us even now to empower, absorb and transform that weeping, to create a community of resistance, to be a community of mutual reliance that dares invoke that laughter of the universe in the face of empire and death. We can hear that voice of truth, once crushed to the ground, now rising up even now: Resist the false prophets of fear! Rise up and rise above them with God’s ever ascending power and love! Come and taste of that resurrection hope! Abandon yourself to that Hallelujah Chorus! Belt it out with everything you got. Belt it out the audacious, comical and cosmic joy of Easter! For Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed! Amen.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...