God Who Laughs!
A friend told me a story. When his daughter was a teenager, she did something sort of irresponsible that caused damage to her father’s car. When he heard about it, he was ready to let her experience his righteous anger. “Boy, was I mad!” he said. But he was with a friend who said, “Tell me. How important is this? Is this the kind of thing that you’ll be mad about in a year or two? Or will you laugh and say, ‘Guess what my crazy daughter did!’?” “I realized,” he told me, “that it was the kind of thing that I would, eventually, laugh about. So, I was able to react to her more calmly.”
Perspective. That’s what his friend gave him. He saw her irresponsible behavior in a larger context – the context of teenagers learning by making mistakes.
Laughter is a hard image to use in connection with God. We know that sometimes laughter is used in ways that hurt and destroy. How many children are damaged by the derisive laughter of classmates? Who wants to be scorned? Who wants to be the inadvertent object of belittling laughter? No one! No one!
Lauren Winner notes that the Psalms tell us about God’s laughter. And, when we encounter God’s laughter, it can be disturbing. Winner describes God’s laugh as menacing. The psalms paint for us an uncomfortable image of God. God seems “harsh” and “hard.”
In Psalm 37, parts of which I used for the call to worship and the response after the sermon, speaks of God’s laughter. “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them: but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.”
Psalm 59 speaks of enemies. But God responds with laughter. “They return at evening, snarling like dogs, and prowl about the city. See what they spew from their mouths—the words from their lips are sharp as swords, and they think, ‘Who can hear us?’ But you laugh at them, Lord; you scoff at all those nations.”
The Christian Church has struggled with the idea of laughter. In Jesus’ sermon on the plain (in Luke’s gospel) he says that those who laugh now will weep later. Those who weep now will laugh later. Some theologians, through the centuries, said that this meant Christians should not laugh now. Benedict of Aniane said, “Since the Lord condemns those who laugh now, it is clear that there is never a time for laughter for the faithful soul.”
Is that what Jesus intended?
Years ago, I went to a study led by theologian and Biblical scholar Walter Wink. His scholarship had led him to a new interpretation of parts of the Sermon on the Mount. He said that parts of this sermon would have had Jesus’ listeners laughing – even rolling down the “mount.” He pointed, in particular, to the three vignettes that are our gospel lesson for today.
“You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
We hear the proverbial call to be the world’s doormat. But, Wink says, that interpretation doesn’t take the context into account. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Wink tells us to picture being struck on the right cheek. That would have been a backhanded slap (since only right hands were used for public acts.) In other words, it was a dismissive slap – that of a “superior” slapping and “inferior.” By turning the other cheek, one was silently asserting one’s equality. The slapper would have been made uncomfortable by this “nonviolent” assertion of equality.
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” It was law that a coat could be taken as payment – again, this would have been demanded by a wealthier person. But, it was illegal to take another person’s cloak. We miss the context that these two pieces of clothing would have been all the clothing that some individuals would have had. Jesus is suggesting that the person “strip naked.” And, in that culture, it was not illegal to be nude – but it was a sin to look on another’s nudity. His hearers may have been picturing the one who had demanded the cloak suddenly stepping back in horror. “No. No. I don’t want your cloak!”
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This may have been connected to the Roman occupation. Roman soldiers, by law, could force anyone they encountered to carry their packs for one mile. That was the limit – one mile. Offering to go the second mile changed the relationship. The soldier would have been forced to acknowledge the other person as a person.
Jesus used humor. That humor is evident in his parables that drew from everyday life. Somehow I think that a world without laughter would be a world without joy. And, I would guess that if Jesus had been a man who didn’t laugh, he wouldn’t have attracted followers.
Winner says, “…the laughter of God is inseparable from God’s justice.” In the here and now, the kind of laughter that friends of God pursue is laughter that is proleptic—laughter that hints at, or partakes of, the world to come. The best laughter now is laughter that bespeaks a heaven in which those who have been made to weep by earthly rulers will, in the fullness of time, heartily laugh. In other words, laughter is political. Laughter arranges power, and God provokes us to laugh as testimony – testimony to our belief in a God who is ruling over a calamitous or oppressive situation, despite all signs to the contrary.”
As I was thinking about God’s laughter, I pulled up some videos of Jon Stewart when he was doing “The Daily Show.” A comic, who started out just trying to be funny, moved into laughter that called attention to the injustices in our world. He invited people to laugh because he helped us to see the gap between what is and what could or should be the reality in our own nation and in the world. It wasn’t a humor whose goal was to hurt, to injure, or to destroy. It was a humor whose goal was transformation, justice and healing.
God’s laughter proclaims that the injustice in the world is not ultimate, that those who cause harm and destroy will not have the last word. Winner tells of reading Psalm 37 as she sat in her car in front of a house where a friend barely escaped death at the hands of her husband. She says that she couldn’t imagine laughing at the horror – but began to picture God weeping with her friend and laughing at the man who abused her. The psalm began to feel more like a prayer.
Maybe our discomfort with the words in the Sermon on the Mount have led us to a Christianity that embraces an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth.” Militant Christianity is all around us. We don’t see value in being the doormats of the world. But, Walter Wink’s interpretation suggests there is a different way. Winner points out that laughter has been used by political activists to “ridicule their enemies and sustain their own spirits.” She tells of English suffragette Annie Kenny who said, “[We] were taught never to lose our tempers; always to get the best of a joke, and to join in the laughter with the audience even if the joke was against us…[The] speakers that an audience took a delight in listening to, even though they did not agree with them, were those able to make them laugh.” A man threw a cabbage at suffragette Mary Gawthorpe who remarked, “She had been afraid that the gentleman would lose his head at some point.”
Winner, who lives in North Carolina, reflected on the humor in more recent political demonstrations in her state. People came to a KKK gathering dressed as clowns. While Klan members chanted, “White power,” the clowns chanted, “White flour” and “Wife power.” One of the clowns remarked, “You look silly. We’re dressed like clowns and you’re the ones who look silly.” The Clown Army states, “Nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule.”
Winner says, “Clowns are not just funny – they try to jolt observers out of their unreflected assumptions and habits. Because clowns mock the order of things, they can prompt the rest of us to consider whether a reordering might be possible…[Laughter] is also a sign of defiance, a sign that the ruler who rules unjustly is not ultimately in control…If those who laugh now will weep later, and those who weep now will laugh later, then saying that God laughs and provokes laughter is synonymous with saying that God overturns the hierarchies of the world. That overturning will make you laugh or cry, depending on where you sit.”
In my early years of ministry, Christian clowning was quite the thing. I still have the books on “clowning ministry.” That ministry draws on a long tradition of seeing Jesus as a clown. When we learned about putting on our “clown faces,” we were taught that the white was the sign of death. The new face was the sign of resurrection. Some look back to Paul’s words that speak of being “fools” for Christ. French artist Georges Rouault painted clowns – and his paintings of clowns resembled his paintings of Jesus. He had seen a clown, an old clown, mending his gaudy costume. He also noted the clown’s marginal place in society. “I saw quite clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us, nearly all of us. This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself, we are all more or less clowns, we all wear a glittering costume,” he wrote.
“Jesus is the marginal wayfarer,” Winner reflects. “And Jesus specializes, as clowns do, in interruptions, in behavior that violates etiquette and social norms, in impropriety, surprises, and mockery of convention.”
The story from Genesis is one of my favorite – the story of Abraham and Sarah laughing when told that they would have a child. Abraham’s laughter comes in the 17th chapter. After being told that Sarah would have a child, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’”
Winner notes that Abraham and Sarah laugh in different ways. Abraham laughs out loud. Sarah laughs inwardly – and then is embarrassed by her laughter. Sarah, a Biblical interpreter said, was “laughing to herself, but she was also laughing at herself, at her dried up inner parts.” This scholar, Rashi, suggests that Abraham’s laughter was joyful and Sarah’s scornful. Another scholar says, “Abraham’s laughter invited God into that laughter. Sarah kept her laughter to herself.” For these reasons, God had problems with Sarah’s laughter. But, later, after Isaac was born (Isaac whose name means Let-Him-Laugh), Sarah declared, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me…Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age.” Sarah’s initial laugher lacked the perspective that God could act in ways that would create new life where human reason said there could be no life.
Perspective. God’s humor is born of God’s perspective on what is just, what is merciful, on what God’s vision is for the creation and its inhabitants. God’s laughter calls attention to the divide between what is and what God intends.
I’d like to close with prayers from the book Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. “Lord, to laugh in the midst of trial and to rejoice in the darkest valley is another way of saying, ‘Our hope is in you.’ Fill us with laughter and joy while we work for peace and strive for justice…Help us to live so foolishly for you that we draw onlookers and those who would deride us. And while they watch and mock, change all our hearts that we might learn to laugh at the foolishness this world calls normal and run away with the circus that is real life. Amen.”