This reflection was given at East Barnard Church in Vermont, June 22, 2014. Readings: Psalm 126; Matthew 7.3-5.
Instead of having a traditional classroom set-up, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Cheyfetz, placed the desks into small groups facing each other. In this way a larger table was made out of five or six desks, and this set-up was supposed to foster a sense of community and solidarity among the students. Likewise, Mrs. Cheyfetz had a chart on the wall for students to earn gold points, but this was also by group. Each group would earn gold stars by behaving well, whereas rowdy or disruptive behavior meant no stars. I’m guessing this was a trick to get students to realize that their own, private actions always had repercussions for others. If someone in your group misbehaved, the whole group lost out.
My parents were astonished when Mrs. Cheyfetz sent home a note one day saying that I was a trouble-maker, and that my group suffered as a result. They knew me to be a studious, mostly well-behaved little girl. I was outraged, though—the teacher’s problem with me was that I laughed a lot. As I saw it, it was hardly my fault that I laughed at funny things, and the boy who sat across from me was hilarious, always making faces or saying funny things under his breath. I asked my parents and the teacher: How was that my fault? How was I supposed to not laugh at something funny? To their credit, my parents were pretty understanding, though they did try to teach me self-control in the face of funniness, a lesson I never mastered. My teacher, though, never got it. I loved Mrs. Cheyfetz in every other way, so I just couldn’t understand her obtuseness about laughter. And, frankly, being told not to laugh always made it even harder to practice that elusive self-control.
For various reasons, the church has historically had a hard time with laughter. There’s not a lot about laughter in the Bible itself, and on top of that, laughing was seen often as a sign of flightiness, of not being spiritually serious, or of being mean-spirited. But mean-spirited, mocking laughter aside, laughter is an involuntary, physical response to one’s situation or surroundings. There’s the laughter of absurdity, as when Abraham and Sarah are told they will have a child . . . when they’re in their nineties. Then there’s the laughter of delight and surprise, as when Abraham and Sarah do have a child in their nineties, and name him Isaac, Yitzhaq, “he laughs.” There’s the self-deprecating chuckle of realizing you’re been acting or thinking something a little bit foolish. There’s the infectious giggle of the overtired or slightly tipsy, or the loving laughter of friends delighted to meet after a long absence. There’s the laughter that blesses us in times of sadness, especially the laughter of funerals and memorial services, when we most clearly recall the joy brought to us by our departed friends. And then there’s the liberating, subversive laughter of satire, the response to bullies we are finally able to see through. Religious authorities, kings, and tyrants have all tried to control humorous forms of art, especially satire, possibly more than any other art form. Why? Because once the people begin to laugh at you, you are revealed as fallible, human just like everybody else. Humor and laughter are agents of democratization; they are equalizing forces.
Here’s the thing about laughter: The more we impose rules on it, the more it breaks free. Remember when you were a kid, laughing in school, or in a pew in church? Laughter cannot be contained; by its very nature it has a habit of busting out of us when least appropriate. It’s an inherently subversive force, capable of undermining authority figures and liberating us when we feel stifled.
Laughter can also be a force for self-awareness. In comedy we come face-to-face with our human limitations. In our ability to laugh at ourselves we become humble; the very reason tyrants fear laughter is because it is opposed to a false, puffed-up kind of dignity. To believe we should never be laughed at is to believe we are better than other mere mortals. And, conversely, to laugh at ourselves is to be relieved of the fearsome burden of perfection.
The Gospels never mention whether Jesus laughed, and it’s been a controversial topic for centuries. Yet many of his parables and illustrations feature comic exaggeration or absurdity. Perhaps we don’t see the humor because we’re used to the idea that religion—and religious texts—must be serious and solemn; we are also so familiar with them that we don’t pay attention to them the way we do to stories that are new and fresh. Consider today’s Gospel reading. Scratch that—picture today’s Gospel reading. Imagine someone acting out his words. “Oh, hello there, did you know you have something in your eye? Let me help you get that out.” Meanwhile this helpful person is staggering around, cheek almost touching his shoulder with the weight of a great log—a beam!—in his own eye. We tend to focus on the word “hypocrite” and thus hear only the sharpness of what Jesus is saying, when in fact there’s a great deal of humor, too. It’s pointed and gentle at the same time, because it’s meant to startle us with its imagery, to surprise us with a ridiculous image and make us laugh. And when we laugh at the image we open ourselves to awareness of our own hypocrisy. Self-abasement is not at the root of humility; that kind of negative view of oneself and one’s sinfulness can often be a very prideful state of mind, since it denies God’s redemptive power, not to mention the goodness of all God created. Self-abasement and self-judgment also tend to be paired with a harsh judgment of others; who hasn’t heard someone say, “Oh, maybe I am hard on other people, but it’s only because I’m hard on myself”? As if that’s an excuse. Laughing at oneself is the truer humility. It is a humility that does not condemn or obsess or lead to judgment, but that opens the eyes, affirms one’s basic goodness, and has the capacity to recognize goodness in others. It’s a humility that allows us to save face by being in on the joke—we messed up.
The Muslim religious scholar Homayra Ziad writes that, “laughter is an act of great mercy and wisdom. When I laugh at myself, I hold a mirror to my imperfections. With that one small act, I can see myself as others see me—well-intentioned and ever so slightly ridiculous. Laughter lets me off the hook, just enough to learn, recoup and get back in the game. If I can’t laugh at myself, can I really show mercy to others?” Showing ourselves mercy helps us learn to show others mercy, to allow them the freedom to be imperfect humans, too.
So there are many kinds of laughter, but we haven’t even talked about the laughter of pure joy. Laughter that bubbles up like grace, laughter that expresses love and delight, laughter that springs from trust and thankfulness to God. The Psalm today portrays that kind of laughter. Probably written in the midst of drought, it conjures up the image of a wadi in full flood. Many of the watercourses of ancient Israel and Judah were dry most of the year, empty channels sculpted by flash floods. There were and are two main seasons in that part of the world: the dry season and the rainy season. Farmers used cisterns to collect water, and practiced terrace farming, shaping the land in order to use every last drop that fell from the sky. Imagine the scenario: You’ve gone months without rain. You plant the seeds and hope the rain will come in time. The rainy season is approaching after months of dryness, and then the rainy season is here, only . . . no rain. What should be a time of rejoicing is now a time of fear. Will the rain ever come? Will there be enough food for the coming year? Will there be enough grain to pay the taxes and tithes? Will the seeds you planted turn to dust in the dusty soil?
And then, in a moment, the way it happens in a desert, the sky darkens and the thunder rolls and fat drops of rain pour down in torrents. The dry wadis rumble with the coming flood. And then, there it comes, bursting from a narrow channel: the water of life, the water of blessing. It is perhaps impossible not to laugh with joy. Maybe impossible not to laugh and cry at the same time. This laughter is glory and gratitude. This laughter is love and hope and celebration. This laughter is the Spirit of life in us recognizing the Spirit of life in the world.
Let us pray.
O God, bless us with laughter, in all its surprising forms. Help us to hear your joy in the laughter of children, and your love in the laughter of friends. In our times of darkness, bless us with moments of gladness to lighten our hearts. When we stumble, as we are bound to do, bless us with the laughter of self-realization. When all seems lost, bless us with surprising joy. And most of all, fill our hearts with your love, that we may bring the blessing of laughter to others. Amen.