04/22/18 “The Joyful Christian: Laughter”

John 11:32-35

You might be wondering why I would choose a story about Jesus suffering and weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus as the basis for a sermon on the role laughter plays in our faith.  I chose it because of what I’ve observed over the years as I’ve worked with grieving families and friends. I’ve learned, through those experiences and my own losses, that laughter and grief often go hand-in-hand.

In order to prepare for a funeral (what is appropriately called a “service of death and resurrection” in our United Methodist Book of Worship), I spend about an hour and a half to two hours with the family, listening to their stories and their memories of their loved one.  And I can tell you that, in those conversations, laughter is as common as tears are.

There is appreciative laughter about the wonderful qualities of the remembered one, and also laughter at their endearing quirks and foibles—things that made them unique and special.  There are “insider” jokes that only take a “code word” or gesture or facial expression to make a family howl with laughter.

I remember experiencing this when my own father died very suddenly when I was thirty.  We gathered together in the living room of our family home in New Philadelphia.  Pastor Harold (who had only been at the church for two weeks) invited us to share our stories about Dad.  We talked about how respected he was in the community, and how he recognized the dignity of every person he met, whether it was the president of the biggest company in town or the unemployed guy who spent his days sitting at the end of the bar at Tony’s Tavern.  We talked about the many ways Dad had served in the community, of how caring he was for my mother’s mother, and of how he taught us by example about living with integrity.

But we also laughed a lot as we remembered funny things Dad had said or done.  One incident arose out of his absolute love and respect for our mother.  Mom had made a pot of what we call “macaroni soup” for dinner.  She and I were alone in the kitchen as she tasted the soup and decided it needed a little pepper.  She intended to add just a sprinkle, but the top of the shaker fell off and the whole container of pepper ended up in the soup.  She tried to scoop it out, but of course it was impossible to get it all.  We both tasted it, and it was pretty peppery.  But that’s what she had made for dinner, so she decided to see if it would pass.

At the table, one of my brothers was the first one to try a big spoonful.  He nearly spit it out and then said, “Ugh!  This is awful!”  My Dad, who never tolerated any disrespect of my mother, scolded him.  “Your mother works hard to put good meals on the table, so you will sit there and eat that soup and appreciate it!”  Dad then took a big spoonful for himself.  He worked hard to swallow it. He choked back tears as he said in a whispery voice, “It is a little spicier than usual, honey.”  Then he ate the whole bowlful. As my family remembered that story, we laughed—and we cried.

Laughter and tears do go together when it comes to dealing with grief.  That’s why I chose this story of Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus.  We don’t have any reports in the Gospels of Jesus laughing.  But I think that if we can find Jesus weeping, we can also assume that we could find him laughing.  And we can reasonably assume this because of how he lived his life.  We talked last week about how humor was such a big part of Jesus’ teaching.  But today we’ll focus on how he lived—his relationships, the activities he participated in, and his ministry itself.

First of all, think about the activities we know he engaged in and his relationships with the people who were with him.  It seems that Jesus enjoyed a party. John tells us about the wedding in Cana that Jesus attended with his family and friends.  We know what joyous events weddings are, and how much laughter there is at the reception afterwards.  Surely, Jesus didn’t sit in a corner, stone-faced, watching everyone else have a good time.  Surely, he enjoyed the party, especially after the best wine, which he himself had provided, began to flow. Later on, Mary and Martha gave a dinner party for Jesus in their home, along with their brother Lazarus—that same Lazarus we just read about, whom Jesus raised from the dead.  Surely joy and laughter were plentiful at that table.

In addition to his disciples and other friends like Mary and Martha and Lazarus, we find Jesus at dinner tables with all kinds of people.  He dined with Pharisees, and it’s likely there was laughter as the smart and witty Jesus engaged in rapid-fire wordplay with the well-educated Pharisees.  Jesus also ate with those the Pharisees called “sinners.”  Jesus invited himself over to the tax collector Zacchaeus’ home for lunch. According to Luke, another tax collector named Levi “gave a great banquet for Jesus in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.” Given the unpopularity of tax collectors in that society, it’s a pretty sure bet that the “others” weren’t exactly socially acceptable types either.

But think about what it’s like to be with someone who understands the struggles that make you feel like an outsider.  Think about the relief and freedom that come from being with someone who loves you, not just in spite of your problems but because of your potential to live differently.  In that accepting atmosphere, laughter can bubble up freely.  A member of my family who regularly attends 12-step meetings tells me that this is one of the great blessings of the meetings:  that it is easier to laugh with someone who understands your story. I’m certain that Jesus both made laughter possible at those tables, and that he joined in when it broke out.

Jesus also enjoyed the company of children.  Do your children enjoy being with someone who’s grumpy and gloomy?  Do you want your children to be in that kind of company?  I think that the parents who brought their children to Jesus didn’t do so just because they wanted the blessing of a miracle worker or some ancient version of a photo opp.  They brought them because of Jesus’ obvious love for their children.  I really like the picture of Jesus that’s on the cover of our bulletin today.  It reminds of me a little girl I once knew. As a toddler, Lydia would talk a mile a minute, and I rarely could understand a word she said.  But I can imagine Lydia sitting on that bench next to Jesus, as Jesus listens intently.  And I can hear Jesus laughing with delight at her delight in whatever story she was telling him.  Oh yes.  I’ll bet children made Jesus laugh, and I’ll bet he made them laugh, too.

Jesus would have known that laughter is a good thing, because he knew the Scriptures, and Scripture puts its stamp of approval on laughter.  Surely he knew that laughter was Sarah’s joyful response to the birth of her son in her old age, causing her to name her son Isaac, which means “he will laugh.”  As the elderly Sarah exclaimed, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

Jesus would have known the proverbs and the psalms of Scripture.  “A cheerful heart is a good medicine,” says Proverbs, and what cheerful heart doesn’t overflow in laughter?  There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh,” counsels the teacher of Ecclesiastes.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion . . . our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy,” exults the psalmist.  It’s no wonder that Jesus could promise his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

We know that Jesus’ ministry here on earth, which continues even now through the power of the Holy Spirit, was largely one of healing.  So, we can assume that Jesus as the Great Physician knew the power of laughter to aid in the healing of bodies, minds, and relationships.  Laughter truly does seem to be good medicine.  In fact, it’s such good medicine that many hospitals and cancer treatment centers now employ “humor therapy”: they set up special rooms with supplies for making people laugh, and they recruit volunteers whose job is to tickle the funny bones of the patients. While science don’t suggest that disease can be cured with laughter alone, there is pretty good evidence that laughter has positive effects on our bodies and our minds.

Laughter is actually a kind of mild physical exercise, with some of the same benefits.  It encourages deep breathing and stimulates oxygen flow to our muscles, which relaxes them.  It produces natural pain relievers called endorphins, and it helps the heart by reducing the levels of damaging stress-related hormones.  It seems to boost immunity by triggering the cells to have a better antibody response.  It also seems to help with the thinking process.  Creativity and problem-solving are enhanced by laughter.

Laughter can help us emotionally as well.  Of course, emotional and mental illness, including depression and anxiety disorders, require the care of a doctor as any serious illness does.  But laughter does seem to lead to an increased ability to cope with stress.  It can elevate our mood and feelings of well-being.  Our levels of self-esteem and resilience go up, and we may experience increased hope, optimism, and energy.  Socially, laughter can help bond people together; it increases friendliness and the desire to be helpful to others.  It can even make us more attractive to others, and lead to happier marriages and closer relationships.

The healing benefits of laughter touch on all the different aspects of Jesus’ healing ministry.  He healed bodies of physical ailments.  He cast out the demons of mental, emotional, and spiritual disease.  And he healed relationships, bringing those on the outside in and mending the broken ties between people and God, and between people and each other.  Surely the Great Physician would not have ignored the power of laughter in his healing ministry.

I think we can make a pretty good case that laughter was part of Jesus’ life and ministry.  But so what?  Why I sit so important to find Jesus’ laughter when the Gospels don’t mention it?  Why shouldn’t we just stick with the solemn, serious Jesus we are familiar with?

It is important for two reasons.  First of all, we claim a Savior who is both fully divine and fully human.   The ability to laugh is such an important part of our human nature, that to deny that Jesus laughed is to deny his full humanity.  The whole point of the incarnation was that God came to us in human form, not just to reveal what God is like, but to reveal to us all that it means to be human, to experience life in all its fullness and variety.  A Savior who knows only the somber, serious side of life—who cannot appreciate laughter and joy—is not a Savior who knows what it is to be human.  So, if we are to affirm what we claim to believe—that Jesus was fully human—it is important that we seek out those places where Jesus laughed as earnestly as we seek the places where Jesus wept.

Secondly, Jesus’ laughter sanctifies our own.  As we continue in this process of being perfected in love, we look to Jesus as our example.  We strive to live in more Christ-like ways.  When we see Jesus laugh, and we notice when and where, why, and with whom he laughed, we have a good guide to how we should incorporate laughter into our own lives.  We can follow his prescription for laughter that embodies our love for others, that heals bodies, minds, and relationships, and that stems from the joy of being loved.  Having Jesus as a model for including laughter in our lives turns laughing into a spiritual discipline, a discipline that is good for our bodies and our souls.

Jesus wept.  But I am convinced that Jesus also laughed.  Tears and laughter are both part of the joy-filled life we can live when we follow Jesus, loving him and being loved by him.  Jesus, in his full humanity, embraced both tears and laughter.  As we look to him, we can, too.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young