Laughing All the Way

                                                               December 21, 2014


Isaiah 61:1-4, 10-11

Psalm 126


Theresa of Avila was a nun who lived in the sixteenth century. Now, that doesn’t sound like the most promising opening line for a sermon, does it? I am the first to admit that nuns from the 1500’s don't have a lot to do with our lives in 2014—usually.

There is a story about this woman, however, that connects with us.

One day she and some fifty other nuns were traveling on foot to a neighboring convent during a terrible snowstorm. When they came to a dangerously unstable bridge that provided the only way across a swollen stream, they paused to pray.

Theresa asked that the bridge might hold up until they were all safely across.

But it didn't.

Just as the nuns got to the middle of the bridge, it collapsed, spilling them all into the icy water below. After they had struggled to shore, Theresa raised her eyes to heaven and said: "Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so many enemies!"[i]

I laugh when I hear that prayer. I laugh with recognition that I too have prayed like this. I laugh because if I didn't, I might cry.

Indeed, laughter is a bridge that carries us over many a troubled stream. And holy laughter, faithful laughter brings us rejoicing into the new life that God makes possible.

The scripture lessons that we heard this morning invite us into a life of laughter and hope.

With hope there is a future.

Hope is the deep-seated human sense that all will be well. Even in the face of so much that is wrong—including the horrible national and international news that we hear each day—hope rises in you and in me out of what has been called “an almost unconscious perception of the steadfast faithfulness of God.”

John Polkinghorne, the physicist and Anglican priest reminds us that hope, of course, is not the same as optimism or wishful thinking. Optimism, he says, “springs from a calculation of how things may be expected to turn out, with the belief that in the end it will all prove not to be too bad.” Wishful thinking, on the other hand, doesn’t weigh the possibilities and probabilities, but “simply sails off into the blue of ungrounded longings.”

In contrast, “Christian hope is open to the unexpected character of what lies ahead precisely because it is open to the faithfulness of a God who is always doing new things.”[ii]

Think about it—we don’t do anything significant without some kind of hope. If you start a business, you have plans to make it profitable. If you build a house, you imagine it standing for many years. If you get married, you do so with a vision of love that lasts and grows. Your hopes—for profit, for shelter, for love—pull you forward, help you to take necessary risks.

Hope plays a major part in our mental and spiritual well-being.

In that light, I think that our annual ritual of buying and wrapping presents is good for our sanity. Wrapping presents and putting them under the Christmas tree helps us look ahead. The colored paper and ribbons announce in almost biblical cadences: “The day is coming—and soon. Be prepared! Get ready!” If nothing else, a present with your name on it can stir up your hope.

The people of Israel prayed out of their hope: “Restore our fortunes, O God.” In difficult times they were able to hope for a life that was better than their current situation.

And so we remember in these final days of Advent that our preparations are for more than the celebration of the first coming of Christ in that manger in Bethlehem. We also prepare for what is confessed in the Apostles' Creed, that Christ “will come again.”

This is not a matter of timetables and grim predictions of disasters. To await in faith and hope the Christ who will come is to constantly pose critical questions to our society, to stay unsatisfied with what is and to look toward and work toward a new world, to turn in new directions that heal and restore the brokenness around us and within us. [iii]

When we find hope, new possibilities are open to us.

With hope, there is a future.

With a past, there is hope.

The hope that we find in faith is not wishful thinking. And God is not the cosmic Santa Claus that some people seem to think—ready to receive our wish list of prayers.

Hope finds its firm foundation in the past—in what God has done and in the promises of what God will do.

The Psalmist dares to hope and to pray for the future in which God will restore the fortunes of the people, because of the memory of “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” This is the memory of those times: “We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. . . .The Lord has done great things for us—and we rejoiced!”

Memory fuels authentic hope.

The Hebrew people could look forward with confidence because they could look backward in awe.

Most of us know some moment of triumph over adversity, some occasion of successfully meeting a challenge. These are moments of joy when new possibilities seem endless.

Or some will hold memories of better times: when the streets were safe, when your job was secure, when you were strong and able bodied, when you didn't seem to be carrying the weight of responsibilities that seem so heavy today.

Our sense of history is weak. Without anchors in our early promises and aspirations we are in danger of drifting and losing direction—as individuals, as a nation, as a church.

And so we do well to recall what God has done in Jesus—remembering the Christmas proclamation that the creator entered the creation as a child in Bethlehem, God with us—Emmanuel.

Because of this, we mark of these days of Advent as a time to deepen our memory of God's great deeds. In doing so we are set free to look forward with courage to the fulfillment of time by the One who came and is still to come.[iv]

Hope for the future grows from memory of the past.

Laughter is the link between past and future.

The Psalmist remembers what it was like: "Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!" These words have always come to my grim heart as surprising and exceedingly good news.

The fitting response to what God has done is laughter! Not pious, folded-hand prayer, not earnest social action, not serious study. Maybe we'll get around to all of that and more at some point, maybe not. But the first and fitting response is laughter.

No wonder Santa Claus laughs—along with all the saints. Recalling God's generous, open handed giving, who wouldn’t? The divine becomes human—as a gift. The sublime does the ridiculous. And we laugh.

This is the divine comedy, a reversal of fortunes for all creation. We celebrate the restoration of the communion between God and all people. And laughing, we hope for more—praying with the Psalmist: ‘Restore our fortunes, Lord.”

Strange how things happen.

Last Thursday afternoon I was in the study here at the church, going over this sermon. I was just at this point and this guy comes up the stairs to my door. I’d seen him several times in recent years—usually because he was looking for money to cover some medical expenses, to pay for some food, or something else. Because of the giving of you, the members of this congregation, I was able to help at times—usually with that feeling that I was just keeping his head above the rising waters. And here he was, looking better than he had, telling me about the job he was holding down, looking toward the future instead of dreading it. Restore our fortunes, Lord.

Earlier that same day two homeless people whom members of the choir got to know came by just to tell me they had found an apartment down the street. Restore our fortunes, Lord.

Because this congregation is here, because we care for this place, because we are committed to ministry on this corner, because we give, fortunes are restored. Lives are changed. People who were nearly in tears in my study before returned, sat down, leaned back and laughed.

Faith lives laughing. And the Bible often seems to be one long joke book, a book of laughter and remembrance, a book filled with people howling because of what God has done, or is doing, or is about to do.

So Abraham and Sarah laugh when God promises descendants. They laugh because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because God expected them to believe it.

So when Jesus tells the grieving people around him that a child is not dead but sleeping, they laugh. They laugh because they’re sure they know better about life and death than the Author of Life who stands before them.

And we laugh when we hear the ridiculous good news that God has not abandoned us, that death isn’t the end, that new life is breaking in—even into our lives, even now.

The prophet Isaiah announced that God would give a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and that the people would repair the ruined cities. Did the people laugh?

Would we laugh today were someone to announce that we could put an end to the poverty in Iowa City? Would we laugh at the news that we could bring peace to Ferguson and New York City? Would we laugh when told that torture could cease in the dark cells that our nation oversees and that broken bodies and lives could be made whole?

When we catch those glimpses of God is at work among us, laughter will link our past and our future.

So we will move from joy to joy, laughing all the way.

O.K.—maybe not all the way. Sometimes we do go out sowing in tears. Grief is hard and weighs heavily upon us. Sometimes we'll feel like Theresa of Avila, wondering why, with a friend like God we would need any other enemies at all. At such times, however, a Jewish proverb encourages us: “When you are hungry sing; when you are hurt, laugh.” We can laugh because of the outrageous things that God has done and will do among us and through us.

Laughing all the way, hope will run to catch up with us. To our surprise, we will be ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who promises: “Blessed are you who weep, for you shall laugh.”

[i] Evan D. Howard, Rekindling the Hope of the Manger, Judson Press, 1992, pg. 39.

[ii] John Polkinghorne, Living with Hope, pg. 4.

[iii] Henri Nouwen, in The Lord Is Near, 1993, Creative Communications for the Parish, Second Sunday in Advent.

[iv] ibid., First Wednesday in Advent.