Hello! I am Jim Jelinek, and I am one of the clergy serving Trinity Church, Newport, with my colleague Alan Neale+ This is another in our series of meditations and reflections, and today I want to talk about and share some humor. I find I am getting funny things, cartoons, videos, jokes, stories from many friends, and I pass on the ones that have me laughing out loud.
Personally, I think laughter is one of the best medicines I know. Years ago, as a graduate student in comparative literature, I subscribed to a very popular magazine named The Saturday Review of Periodical Literature. The editor was a brilliant man, Norman Cousins, who was very well thought of by many in the fields of literature and art and performance art. When it was learned that he had a very serious cancer and that he was not likely to live for very long, he and family and/or friends got him a hotel room in midtown NYC, and they invited any comedian who was visiting or working in the City to come to his hospital room and tell jokes and funny stories. I do not know the details, but his plan worked. He laughed himself well, perhaps just into remission, but he lived a good life for quite a while after that.
Several years ago, just after my first retirement, when everything in my life was changing all at once, I went into a pretty deep depression, at least for me. It went on for some months and my family were so concerned they delayed their usual Florida trip. One Saturday, after debating all week with myself over making the 200 mile RT to Madison to see an HD performance of an opera from the Met, I finally decided to go. It was a spoof, a pastiche, the knitting together of two of Shakespeare’s comedies into an 18th century style opera called “The Enchanted Island.” It was charming and a bit silly, and the singers were marvelous. When Placido Domingo came onstage as Neptune, he of course got great applause, and then he sang an aria with a text that was absolute drivel. It was clear that he was playing it straight, with such earnestness, that I started to laugh, really laugh, like I almost fell out of my seat. It was the first belly-laugh I had had in many months, and I think at that moment the worst of the depression snapped and did not grip me again. And then in late May, I got a puppy, my second poodle, and all my attention went to him as I watched him develop motor and social skills. He was hilarious as he took two elegant poodle steps and then stepped on himself and fell down. He drew me the rest of the way out of myself.
Now, of course, you know I am going to get Jesus in here somehow, but the difficulty is that we are never expressly told that Jesus laughed. He wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. He wept, or at least became very emotional, as he looked down on Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, with sorrow for the people he saw suffering ills and mistreatment and poverties of many kinds, and he said one of the most poignant lines in all of scripture: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, I would have taken you under my wings as a hen takes her chicks, but you would not let me.” We know that Jesus very well, and are comforted by his compassion, knowing he has that same compassion for each of us.
As you know, Jesus had a seminary of the streets, in which he trained many disciples to be missionaries and to do ministry, including preaching and healing and exorcism. I want to read a few verses from the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel from Peterson’s The Message:
“Later the Master selected seventy and sent them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he intended to go. He gave them this charge:
‘What a huge harvest! And how few the harvest hands. So on your knees: ask the God of the Harvest to send in harvest hands.
‘Travel light. Comb and toothbrush and no extra luggage.
‘Don’t loiter and make small talk with everyone you meet along the way.
‘When you enter a home, greet the family, “Peace.” If your greeting is received, then it’s a good place to stay. But if it is not received, take it back and get out. Don’t impose yourself.’” [He gives more instructions and concludes his charge with this:]
“‘The one who listens to you, listens to me. The one who rejects you, rejects me. And rejecting me is the same as rejecting God, who sent me.’” [Luke continues:]
‘“The seventy came back triumphant. ‘Master, even the demons danced to your tune!’
Jesus said, ‘I know. I saw Satan fall, a bolt of lightning out of the sky. See what I’ve given you? Safe passage as you walk on snakes and scorpions, and protection from every assault of the Enemy. No one can put a hand on you. All the same, the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and presence with you. Not what you do for God but what God does for you—that’s the agenda for rejoicing.’
AT THAT, JESUS REJOICED, EXUBERANT IN THE HOLY SPIRIT.”
If there is any place in the gospels where Jesus has a good belly-laugh with the boys, this is it; I think that’s what Peterson means by describing him as “exuberant in the Holy Spirit.”
I think I would nominate another story that begins the second chapter of John’s gospel, the wedding at the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother Mary is meddling and trying to get him to be responsible for the wine when it runs out. We don’t exactly know what she thought he should do about it, but he does not think it time to reveal himself, and he tells her not to push him. Mary pays no attention and tells the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.” So of course they go to Jesus and wait for him to say something, and he tells them to fill six jars with water and then to take a pitcher from each one to the steward of the banquet. You know the story and the famous line, “Everybody I know begins with their finest wines and after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff. But you’ve saved the best till now!” What makes this funny is that the stone jars each held 20-30 gallons, or perhaps 180 gallons in all. For years I have carried a particular line in a classmate’s sermon on this: “That was enough wine to lay out the whole town!” I have to imagine that Jesus and the friends sitting near him had a good laugh over what he had done.
One of my favorite church stories comes from a spring Sunday afternoon in my Cincinnati parish which was in an all Black community, although the parish was a good mixture of people. A young pastor who had a secular job but served PT at one of the three big Baptist churches in the community came to me wanting to know if his wife could begin a youth gospel choir and use our church to rehearse. The reason, of course, was the senior pastors would not cooperate and let their kids join if it was hosted by one of the so-called “rival” churches, and we Episcopalians were in no way “rivals.” They could not pay rent, but they promised they would do a spring concert and take an offering and we could keep the offering. We agreed. The day of the concert, I think our parishioners outnumbered the parents who were there, so you know who was paying the lion’s share of the so-called rent! We did not mind.
The young preacher started off with a prayer, then the kids sang, pretty well, as I remember, and then the preacher started to preach—not too long, just a few minutes between each of the gospel songs. There was a woman in the pew ahead of me who was a talker, the kind who encourages the preacher, and during his mini-sermon we certainly heard a few Alleluias from her in her big voice. Then they did some more songs with the preacher speaking in between, and the woman in front of me kept up her part of the sermon, with an Alleluia! here and there, an occasional MM-HMMM, a few “You tell it now, brother,” and “Preach it, man!” And the whole church could hear her!
They had an early teen boy who sounded a lot like Michael Jackson, and he was the soloist on a song that was mostly, “Be grateful!” It rose and built and really filled the church, and when the preacher started in this time, he hit the ground running and he was on fire with that theme of gratitude, getting faster and faster, building the pitch, and my neighbor was really urging him on until all of a sudden she yelled out, “Don’t hurt yourself now, Hon!” I completely lost it, doubled over with laughter, and my son said to me later, “Dad, I thought you were going to fall off of the pew.”
I wasn’t the only one! Have a good laugh every day! Amen.