Actually, It Is a Laughing Matter

We have a very serious set of scriptures today, and I assure you I am going to take them very seriously.

Really. I promise.

But first I just have to share with you the verses from our Hebrews text that make me laugh.

The author is talking about the sacrifices our forebears in faith made for the sake of God, and he says, “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I mean, that sounds pretty bad.

But look at that first sentence: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…”

Being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword—I get why those three are grouped together as terrible fates.

But that last one—“they went about in skins of sheep and goats.”

I understand he’s probably alluding to poverty.

But it makes me think that the people of God counted fashion faux pas right up there with swords and saws and stones as a fate worse than death.

I mean, with everything else we have to deal with, now God is forcing us to wear sheep and goatskins? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!

And the thing is, I identify! Completely!

Fashion is half the driving force of my ministry. Why be adequate when you can be fabulous?

That’s one of my core ministry mottoes.

And I mean, I can endure a lot in the service of my God.

But being forced to wear ugly clothes would really push me to my limit of sacrifice. I’m just not sure I could take it.

Goatskin-wearing martyrs—I feel you. I’m with you.

God be praised that most of the time we can serve God’s people and look cute doing it.

So that’s the first part that makes me laugh.

Then comes the second part: “They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I 100% understand how you could wander in a desert or in a cave, and even how you could be lost and wandering on a mountain.

But how, exactly, does one “wander” in a “hole in the ground”?

The thing that makes me laugh is that I am precisely the kind of person who could find a way to wander in a hole in the ground.

Some days in ministry I feel like I’m doing just that.

It suggests to me a combination of klutziness and confusion that I identify with deeply.

It reminds me of the time I kicked over a piano bench at a dance workshop, and the time I broke the arm off a crucifix at my first church.

It takes skill to wander in a hole in the ground, and I feel like I’m up to the challenge. It may be an important part of my call here at Emmanuel.

Jesus says in our gospel today, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

Jesus, I hear you. We are all under an ungodly amount of stress, and that’s exactly why I bring up the humor in our Hebrews text.

Sometimes in church there is a deadly amount of seriousness, and I understand why. We live in very serious times.

“Three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son, and son against father,” Jesus says.

That’s certainly the case in our nation, and sometimes in our church.

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus asks.

How would we interpret the present time, if he were to ask us now?

We might say that we are in the midst of profound social conflict in which the American sins of racism and misogyny are being exposed for the world to see in even greater clarity.

And most of us in positions of dominance in society squirm to hear or contemplate what it might take to root out those sins.

It makes Jesus’ words take on an even greater resonance. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

We need to undergo a new baptism of justice in this country, and it’s likely to be a baptism by fire.

The plight of the folks in our Hebrews text, the ones who were getting sawn in two, might start to seem even more relatable.

But it is to a purpose. The baptism of justice is in aid of a baptism of peace.

The struggle to uproot and redress the maltreatment of entire groups of people for hundreds of years is so that we might all know how to live as a body politic healed of infirmity, and deeper than that, the Body of Christ flourishing in love.

We’ve started to spend some good time together in our sermon time on Sunday mornings talking about injustice and our call to correct it, and I’m so grateful any time I can learn more about that call.

But I want to go in a different direction this morning, because I’ve realized something.

When we are called up on to do serious, important work—which we, as the people of Emmanuel Episcopal Church clearly are—we run the risk of burnout.

And the higher stakes the work, the deeper the conflict, the faster the burnout.

Do you ever feel like that?

Do you ever look at the pain in the world, in this country, in this church, in your family, and feel your heart break for it?

But then feel like you’re overwhelmed and exhausted and don’t know where to begin to address it?

That’s what burnout feels like.

That’s what happens when the pain overcomes you rather than you overcoming the pain.

So I’m going to suggest something that I’ve never suggested before from the pulpit, and I get it directly from our Hebrews text.

For your spiritual health and growth, for the good of your call to ministry, this week I want you to have more fun.

Yes, you heard me. I am fully convinced you understand the seriousness of what’s going on in the world.

I am not convinced you are having enough fun for you to make a dent in the problems that lie before us.

I bring this up because I’ve recently learned this lesson for myself.

I went through a pretty dark time at the end of 2018 and into 2019.

Late last year I had a cancer scare that ended up with a pretty significant surgery, which then had a much longer recovery time than I anticipated.

Going straight from that into a job transition was stressful, and leaving the people I loved in Indiana plunged me into grief.

I was really down.

And you know what brought me back to my usual sunny self?

Having fun.

Somehow God in God’s infinite sense of humor got through to me, saying in the subtlest possible way, “Whitney, you are no fun anymore. You are not having fun, and that means no one around you is having fun. What are you going to do to laugh today? What are you going to do to move your body joyfully? What are you going to do to rejoice in the absurdity and beauty of the people around you?”

So I’ll ask you to reflect on the same questions.

What are the simple pleasures in your life that you could pay sustained, reverent, peaceful attention to?

From making a cup of tea to pruning a plant to brushing your child’s hair, the small wells of joy that God places in our desert of life are myriad if we are looking for them. And as Nehemiah says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

And laughter—have you laughed today?

When you get serious about having fun, don’t just rely on laughter coming to you. Go out and find it. Watch your favorite funny movie, or watch cat videos on YouTube, I don’t care—find some way to laugh.

One of my favorite ways to laugh is ask any group of people I’m with to go around the circle and start telling embarrassing stories about ourselves.

I did this the other night with a group of dance friends, and we closed down a diner at 2 a.m. still crying laughing about one friend who told about the time in high school he didn’t want to get caught running away from the police when he and his friends were out at a park after curfew, so he started skipping away instead.

I’m convinced God wants you to have more fun this week for two reasons. First, our Hebrews text.

The more I read it, the more I think the insertion of the goatskin fashion faux pas in the list of persecutions actually is a deliberate joke, not to mention the supremely incompetent fate worse than death of wandering in a hole in the ground.

The author says the heroes of the faith “won strength out of weakness.”

Part of that is prayer and endurance and all the serious, hardworking virtues, but part of it is finding what is funny in what is happening. I think the author of Hebrews is doing exactly that.

The people he’s talking about could not have been as brave as they were if they had not known how to laugh.

And fun is part of the virtuous life.

I don’t mean mind-numbing consumeristic pleasure, or frantic gaiety based in denial.

I also don’t mean making a false god out of fellowship at church and failing to pursue real spiritual intimacy and life-changing ministry.

Laughter and fun that are truly healing and strengthening are actually rooted in something much deeper.

Think of it like a body of water.

On the surface are the waves, with people boating and surfing—that’s laughter and goofiness and all the fun things that help us take ourselves and this life less seriously.

But under that surface layer is the next layer of current, which is happiness, and true happiness gives us energy and hope and drive.

Under the current of happiness lie the deep still waters of joy, which can only come from sustained relationship with God over time.

And under the deeper waters of joy is the Rock, and that is Love itself, our God.

God’s love, our bedrock, supports joy, which brings happiness, which bubbles up into laughter and fun on the surface.

This is how having fun makes you a better disciple, because it is rooted all the way down to the fundamental reality of the universe, the love of God.

You want to know how else I know God wants you to have more fun in your life?

Jesus himself relied on that spectrum of love to joy to happiness to fun in the great trial that ended his life and saved the world.

In one of the great summaries of the faith in our scriptures, our author of Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

For the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.

Jesus knew that the only way to do the hard work of love was to nurture the spark of joy at the center of himself, to see it echoed in the great joy of God that lay at the end of his road.

Like I said, I’m not at all worried that any of us will lose sight of the seriousness of the problems that lie before us.

What I’m asking you to do in your prayer life this week is inquire whether God is saying to you what God said to me, “Dearest, you’re no fun anymore. Where is your joy? I miss you!”

There is a great deal of fun to be had in this church and in this world, up to and including goatskin fashion emergencies and wandering in holes in the ground.

Let’s try on a new saying. Instead of “laughter is the best medicine,” let’s try “laughter is the best ministry.”

It might make a huge difference.


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