It was following the resurrection and disciples were still scattered about Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. John finds Peter and runs up to him. Excitedly he says, “Peter, Peter! I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Peter takes hold of John and calms him down. “Take it easy, John. What is it? What’s the good news?” John says, “The good news is Christ is risen.” Peter says, “That’s great! But, what’s the bad news?”
John, looking around, says, “He’s really steamed about last Friday.”
I don’t know about you, but I could use a good laugh. There are few things better than those times when something takes you by surprise and strikes you just as the funniest thing and it is hard to stop laughing. Last week I was in a cleaning and laundry-doing frenzy and kind of in a crummy mood. I was bustling around the house up and down the stairs and working hard. After many loads I had finally caught up on all of our laundry – including washing several throw rugs. I put the last rug that had just come out of the dryer onto the floor on Chad’s side of the bed and was folding some clothes when Chad came into the bedroom in his stocking feet and walked over and stood on that rug while he was talking to me. Suddenly he stopped talking and paused – “Did you just take this out of the dryer?” he asked hopefully…and I burst out laughing because I knew what he was worried about. The week before we had just had to get rid of a different rug we used to have in that spot that for one reason or another one of the cats decided to pee on repeatedly. Even as he stood there talking to me, Sam, the cat who was the likely suspect in the earlier peeing incidents was sitting on the floor next to the rug looking up at Chad. I knew Chad had felt the warm rug under his feet, looked down and saw Sammy sitting there and had a sinking feeling. I still laugh thinking about it…the tone of his voice, Sammy and her perfect timing, and just the humor in that moment. It’s true, isn’t it, that if we just open our eyes there are so many things around us that can make us laugh. People do silly things left and right – intentionally and unintentionally.
But what place does laughter have in church? Is it proper, is it appropriate to do something so frivolous, so fun, so whimsical as to spend time considering the importance of laughter as we gather here to consider our spiritual journey?
Actually, it used to be a tradition. Early orthodox churches used to gather on the Monday or sometimes the following Sunday after Easter to tell stories, jokes and anecdotes. This time right after Easter was set aside to celebrate the joke that God has pulled on Satan – that we can rejoice and be glad because God has had victory through Jesus. To this day in Slavic regions Christians gather the day after Easter for folk dancing and feasting in the church yard. It is known as Bright Monday or White Monday or Risus Paschalis, God’s Joke, the Easter Laugh.
This day is not listed on the list of approved feast days of the major liturgical denominations, and while there is no mention of it in the “Revised Common Lectionary”, I think it sounds like a wonderful tradition. To remember that we are Easter people – and that is something in which we can rejoice! To remember that laughter is a gift from God and that there is strength and great hope to be found in knowing how to keep looking for the humor in things.
Do you think that Jesus laughed? Well, we don’t have any verse that says “Jesus laughed,” but Jesus was a joyful person, continually urging his followers to be joyful. In John 15:11 he explains to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” In the book of Ecclesiastes it tells us that there is a time to weep AND a time to laugh! And we know Jesus loved a good party. He performed his first miracle so that a wedding party could continue. In Luke 15, every parable ends with a party. His famous story of the prodigal son ends with a party, and the older son who would not attend the party is portrayed as the one with the problem. In fact, the picky people around Jesus criticized him for being a glutton and having such a good time (Luke 7:34). His standard greeting to his disciples and others was often to say “Rejoice”! Does that sound like a somber savior to you? I feel sad when I realize how often people see the church as being such a serious place. Certainly, there are serious things we talk about – like sin and death…but aren’t we much more about joy than sorrow? It seems to me that even though we have our share of funerals here, I much more often hear the sounds of laughter echoing down the halls than the sounds of weeping. When we meet Thomas in the Gospel today, he’s not ready to rejoice as the other disciples rejoiced when they saw Jesus again face to face. He can’t believe the words that the others tell him – that they have seen the Lord. He can’t bear to celebrate quite yet. He can’t bring himself to believe such good news – yet. He needs to see Jesus face to face and touch his hands and his side before he is ready to join in their jubilation. He was so caught up in the sadness of what had happened that he couldn’t imagine that a time of rejoicing was now here! I wonder if we do the same sometimes in our own way? When something happens that is difficult, or horrible, or just hard, we can get so used to being in a place of sorrow that we begin to forget – or even want to ignore – all the reasons there still are to be happy. Certainly we don’t want to rush through our grief…but it is okay to be surprised by joy, too.
When my Grandma Hetland died, I remember the whole family gathered in the basement of our church while we waited for the pastor to come in and pray with us before we would be seated in the sanctuary. I was fourteen and in addition to me and my mom and my brother, there were tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles stuffed into that room – most of whom I had never met before. I had grown up living just down the road from Grandma – her house was as much home as my own house was and her death was the first time I experienced such a loss. At that age and with my lack of experience with grief, I seriously doubted I’d ever be happy again. Plus, I was angry that all these cousins and aunts and uncles were hanging around – they all lived far away and I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t consider them to be my family and I bristled at the idea that they were just as closely related to MY grandma as I was. So we all sat in that basement room on the light green vinyl chairs and scratchy orange sofas and waited. The room was completely silent. Every now and then there was a sniffle. I could hardly bear it – the silence, the sadness. I wanted to just leave and go sit at Grandma’s kitchen table and have her be there, too, and we’d eat spice cake just like we did a few days before. In the corner I heard a muffled sound that at first I thought was someone crying – but when I looked over I saw my cousin, Cookie, who was a few years older than me, was completely red in the face, her handkerchief pressed in a ball against her mouth, and she looked like she was about to explode. Her shoulders were shaking and as she wriggled uncomfortable it only took a few moments before I realized she wasn’t crying – she was desperately trying not to laugh. Her mother realized, too, what was happening and she was whispering at Cookie to behave and to ‘Shush”. But of course, trying to hold in a good laugh is about as easy as herding a group of cats – and within moments, Cookie burst into laughter. Even as she did it she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry…” but we knew she was a goner. The laugh had to get out. I looked at each of my cousins then, and bit by bit I could see each of them observing Cookie and trying not to smile themselves…but she really had become a funny spectacle, and one by one they started to giggle. Then it was Aunt Vivian, then Aunt Marilyn, my mom, and suddenly the whole room was enveloped in laughter…and that is how Pastor Vetter found us when he came in to pray for us in our sorrow. The thing I loved the most about that moment looking back, though, was as I looked at Cookie and her round face turning red and her robust laugh – I kept thinking about how she reminded me of someone when she laughed. In a moment I realized she looked just like our Grandma when she laughed. And I couldn’t help but think that if Grandma could see all of us in that moment she probably would have been pretty happy. To see the country cousins and the city cousins, the unfolding generations of her offspring just laughing together. It felt like such a blessing and a release to let go of the tears for a moment and see chuckles and smirks, chortles and smiles – a family, though we really weren’t much of one most of the time, brought together that day for a single sad reason, but truly united only in that one random burst of mirth. You can’t tell me that moment wasn’t holy.
The letter to the Philippians says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” Brothers and sisters, as we make our way through the challenges and changes of this life, may we be willing to be surprised by joy. Let’s not be like Thomas – so hesitant to believe in the good news, so hesitant to celebrate. God has the victory. This is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.