Remember the Punch Line

Today’s sermon was preached by The Rev. Louise Conant

…Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

—Lk 24: 27

Easter was only two weeks ago, but that can seem like a long time. We’ve eaten the last scraps of ham, and the Easter lilies have turned brown, and it can be hard to remember what all that glory was about. The good news of Easter is so enormous that we just can’t take it all in. Like Jesus’ first followers, we have a story to tell, but we may struggle to make sense of it. What was that? And what can it possibly mean?

And so our readings give us several weeks after Easter to live with that good news, to come at it in different ways and try to figure out what it has to do with us. This week we have the story of the road to Emmaus, as one piece of the post-Easter puzzle. And of all the congregations I know, this is the one that least needs the sermon I’m about to offer you. Last week was our annual “Holy Humor Sunday.” Maybe the best one yet. So in a sense, you already know what I’m about to tell you. But this year, of all years, it needs to be said again and again. So: Holy Humor, chapter 2.

Beginning with my mother-in-law.

She was in many respects a bright and competent woman. And she loved to laugh, and loved to tell jokes. But she could never remember the punch line.

She’d give us the setting, and the characters, and part of the story. But then her eyes would glaze over, and she’d say, “I can’t remember what comes next.”

I think that’s often our problem too. We forget the punch line. And that’s easy to do these days, in this season. The events before that first Easter had no humor in them at all. They were full of terror, betrayal, terrible pain and loss, the sky going dark. And sometimes it seems that we’re now living in a time like that. Much of what we’d hoped and prayed for, much of what has been built over time, is at risk. Justice and mercy and the freedoms we’ve cherished are in question, all over the world. There’s nothing funny about any of that.

But here is a wild idea: that when Jesus meets two grieving followers on the road, what he does is to draw them into a great, glorious joke.

In general, f you try reading his words assuming that he has a twinkle in his eye much of the time, especially when he’s talking to the terribly serious Pharisees, you might discover a whole new side of him.

This notion is troubling to some people. After all, what could be more serious than the matter of our salvation? Why would you ever consider taking it lightly? Wouldn’t that be an insult to God?

Many years ago, I was a field education student in a very proper suburban parish. It was large enough to have half a dozen home Bible study groups. They met once a month, and the practice was to collect all the designated leaders-for-the-month and brief them on the passages to be covered. That was the job of my supervisor, Elsa, and once she invited me to sit in.

The particular passage that day was the one about the sower who went out to sow, and tossed his precious seed all over the place: on the path, where it was stepped on and eaten by birds; or on the rocks, where it dried up; or among thorns, which choked it. Only a little fell on good ground, but even so, it flourished. (Lk 8: 4-8)

Some editor had stuck on some stiff morals after that, but Elsa insisted that Jesus had no such purpose. Jesus was talking to a bunch of farmers, and they would have been horrified by this reckless fellow. In that dry land, every seed was precious, and had to be tended and guarded. This sower must be crazy!

That’s exactly the joke, said Elsa. The sower—who stands in for God—is so extravagantly loony that he scatters grace and love and mercy all over the place, without thinking about who deserves it or will respond to it. And yet the crop is abundant. What a fine theological joke! And she and I chuckled.

Our audience of six women sat stone-faced. Not even a smile.

We were baffled. Elsa and I went on to talk about some other biblical stories that made us laugh. Sarah cracks up behind her door at the news that she’ll have a baby at 99, and when he’s born, she names him Isaac: “the laughing one.” A bunch of scruffy slaves is set free from Pharaoh and called God’s chosen people. Jonah throws a temper tantrum when his fierce preaching actually makes Nineveh repent, so he doesn’t get to watch God blow them apart. Even Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus contains four scandalous women.

And just when the Pharisees think their challenges have Jesus cornered, he tells them—surely with a grin—“You’re asking the wrong question.” All of these surprising. And then, as we think about them, we said to the women, maybe evidence of God’s great sense of humor.

Their faces stayed grim.

“What’s the matter?” said Elsa. “Is it so hard to imagine Jesus with a sense of humor? But Jesus was human, and human beings have a sense of humor!”

Said one woman: “Not all of them.”

So I realize that there may be some resistance to my idea: Jesus as a holy comedian, a divine jester. But imagine this: The two men on the road to Emmaus tell the stranger a story of tragedy and horror, and some sort of weird tale told by women, whom nobody believes anyway. But they have no idea what’s going on. They forget the punch line.

So Jesus, tongue in cheek, gives them clues. He tells some stories of his own, and we’re told that they’re all ultimately about himself. What stories would those be? Could they be the one about God being with Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden? Or the one about Moses calling on a raging God to forgive the Israelites for the golden calf, so as to save God’s reputation? Or the one in which Isaiah insists
that beyond great suffering, Israel will be redeemed from Babylon by a heathen king, of all people? Or the ones about Sarah, and about Jonah, and about all those unclean women in his ancestry? Never naming himself, but showing them again and again how God acts in love for our sakes. Has been doing so all along. Especially now.

Every one of these stories has a punch line, that shows an irrationally, unconditionally loving God. But they’ve forgotten it, or not added them all up. So he teases them. Are you guys EVER going to get the message? What will it take?

What it takes is bread and wine. The familiar ceremony of taking the bread, breaking it, giving it. Jesus himself, given for us. And now risen. Love always wins. That’s the punch line.

And can you imagine everybody, especially Jesus, bursting out laughing? In that rare, full-hearted laughter of surprise, relief and release, fear gone, guilt and despair and grief swept away, only joy left. And laughter.

Roget’s Thesaurus has many words for “laugh.” Titter, chortle, snicker, snigger, guffaw, cackle, sneer, jeer, ridicule, deride. And we need to do all that sometimes, to release the tension. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Think instead of some of our most gentle and gracious women members, delighted with themselves because they’ve made bright pink pussy hats. Think of what they and others reported, that in a vast crowd of women in pussy hats, there was no bitterness, no contempt, but only light, lovely, surprising laughter.

An old friend of mine sends me many jokes about the state of the country and the world, and for all the pain in them, once in awhile I can really laugh. It can be hard, because so much is at stake. But sometimes the laughter breaks through. Beyond the caustic or sardonic or scornful laughter that infects us sometimes. But a freer sort of laughter, a healing laughter, that comes from a long familiarity with God’s
mischievous and even playful ways, and all those unimaginable endings to God’s
stories.

My friend wants to create a whole explosion of festivals, all over the country, where the best comedy of our time will be collected, where people can just come together and maybe wear their pussy hats, and see it and hear it and maybe start to get the joke, and be set free by it.

Here’s what a website called “Christian Inspiration” has to say about the origins of Holy Humor:

Hundreds of years ago…a monk whose name has been lost to history was pondering the meaning of the events of Holy Week, with its solemn observances of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the astonishing, earth-shaking events of Easter. “What a surprising ending, “ he thought. Then suddenly… he had a new insight. His hearty laugh startled his fellow monks…. “Don’t you see,” he cried, “it was a joke: A great joke! The best joke in all history! On Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, the devil thought he had won. But God had the last laugh on Easter when He raised Jesus from the dead.”

And from that insight came the tradition of telling jokes, and laughter, in homes and churches, and especially in monasteries, right after Easter. I’m told that in some places it includes dousing everybody with buckets of water. Something about baptism, but mostly about goofy joy. We could try that next year.

The poet Anne Sexton’s last book is called, “The Awful Rowing Toward God.” And in the very last poem, “The Rowing Endeth,” the speaker arrives at last on an island where God challenges her to a poker game. She has a royal straight flush, and she’s sure she’s won. But God has five aces! The joke’s on her. And both of them burst into rich, gorgeous laughter.

God wins. God always does. That’s the punch line.

May we never forget it. Amen.

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