Sermon 6/8/08

June 10, 2008 at 3:46 am Leave a comment

Proper 5A

June 8, 2008


The subject of today’s sermon is laughter.

Who was it that said “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints?”

Some of you know.

That was a line from Billy Joel’s song “Only The Good Die Young”

where he sings about how Virginia should be out having a good time with him

rather than shut away, living the cloistered life her elders want for her.

According to the story line of this song,

hilarity and holiness don’t mix.

One either goes around with a long face, a disapproving look,

hanging out with the right people and doing “the right” things,

or one whoops it up, has a good time, shows a little rebellion, has some fun.

No wonder faith has been falling on hard times of late,

as this story line has been sold well and long.

It’s still making a lot of money for Billy Joel,

every time someone snaps it up on I-tunes

or buys his “Greatest-Hits” album in a record store.  Cha-ching.

Would it be too Pharisee-like, too much of a kill-joy,

too much of that grim disapproving look,

to ask how many lives this very profitable story-line has impacted in a negative way?

How many people have innocently fallen for the story

that a little fun won’t hurt no one?

If we are honest, if we are truthful,

if we are aware of the pain in our lives and the pain in our neighbor’s lives,

we cannot be so cavalier about the choices we make.

A little laughter, a little fun, a little bit of relinquishing responsibility

and letting the chips fall where they may,

can lead some to ruin and desolation

and others to laughing about it later.


And yet, here we have Jesus sitting with the sinners and tax collectors,

eating with them.

Now when we say, eating with them, we need to clarify something.

It’s not that he was there giving them a lecture on moral responsibility,

he was not warning them of the dangers of their way of life.

When you ate with someone at that time and place,

you were saying, “This person is part of my family.”

Some cultural traditions still have that saying, “When you’re here, you’re family.”

And so for the tax collectors and sinners to be eating in the house with Jesus as host,

he was saying “you’re family.”

No doubt they were laughing together.

No wonder the Pharisees couldn’t make head or tail of it.

The famous rabbi was laughing with the sinners rather than crying with the saints.

Whooping it up with Billy and Virginia and all of those folk.

What are we to do then with laughter?

Is it good or is it bad?

Actually, the only explicit mention of laughter in today’s readings is this one line

toward the end of the Gospel lesson:

“And they laughed at him.”

This is the crowd of mourners outside the house of the girl who has died.

One can imagine their laughter –

bitter, contemptuous, perhaps pitying,

at the man of God who was giving false hope of a miracle,

the one who didn’t know when it was time to give up.

You may have heard people say, “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.”

This kind of laughter has no mirth behind it.

It is neither the chuckling Jesus enjoyed in the house at table-fellowship,

nor is it the guffaws of the sinners full of themselves.

It is the laughter of despair, of resignation, of unfaith.

Notice what Jesus does with such people.

He puts them outside and they do not witness what he does,

because they cannot believe.

Isn’t that odd.

Most of the time we would say that if people only witnessed a miracle,

they would believe.

In this case, it is those who do not believe who cannot, indeed are not permitted,

to witness a miracle.


This laughter is connected to lack of faith.

In our second lesson, Paul extols Abraham’s faith in God’s promises.

But remember what his wife Sarah did in Genesis 18 when the visitors announced

that she was going to have a son?

She laughed.

Actually, if you go back just a little farther in Genesis,

to Genesis 17, you see that Abraham laughed as well,

the first time that God mentioned it to him.

This laughter is still the laughter of unbelief,

or perhaps it is not outright unbelief but not-quite-yet belief

that God does what God promises.

You know how sometimes you can believe something with most of your brain,

and yet in your gut you’ve got this nagging doubt,

or your actions in a time of stress reveal what you really believe

is opposite from what you want to believe?

That’s Abraham’s laughter when God tells him that Sarah will have a son,

that’s Sarah’s laughter when the mysterious visitors proclaim that she will bear a child.

The laughter of wanting to believe, but not being able to.


But Paul proclaims that Abraham did have faith.

Despite his laughter, or perhaps because of it,

he did not despair of God’s promise,

but instead began to live as if it were just so.

And when Abraham and Sarah’s son was born,

when Abraham took him from Sarah’s arms

and held the fulfillment of God’s promise to him,

he and Sarah gave him the name that God had revealed to them:

Isaac – laughter.

Not the laughter of despair,

not the laughter of not-yet-faith,

not a cruel or vicious laughter,

but a laughter born out of joy that God indeed is faithful,

that God indeed keeps his promises.

This indeed is hilarious holiness –

hilarion, after all, is a Greek word for joy.


It is the same hilarious holiness of faith and trust in God

that the sinners and tax collectors knew

in the house with Jesus, the family all together again.

Just like later in the Gospel,

the people who were stuck outside

were the people who didn’t believe in miracles,

who thought that laughter was always laughter at God

rather than laughter with God,

who thought that God couldn’t work with sinners,

that they were beyond his reach.

A more powerful God,

a more merciful God,

they could not comprehend.

And so while the Pharisees – the saints of their day –

cried and whined outside,

Jesus was laughing with the sinners –

or was it that the sinners were laughing with Jesus?

Let’s be clear on this last point –

that it is not the laughter of rebellion or despair that Jesus was adopting,

but rather Jesus’ own laughter, God’s own laughter,

that sinners could join in –

the holy hilarity that though we have been faithless,

God is faithful,

and can make us sinners into saints.



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