Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Anatomy of a Joke

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Blue Collar Comedy Tour comedian Bill Engvall tells stories about going to church as a family when he was a child. He and his siblings were less than attentive to the preacher, he admits, sometimes, just sometimes, causing a bit of a ruckus in the pews. When things would start to get out of hand, he remembers how his dad used to stretch his arms out over the back of the pew, turning to smile knowingly at the kids, and looking like he was just hugging and loving on the whole family. But Bill says he knew that wasn't what the stretch was for because just as his dad would work with stealth to lay a little "plunk" on the side of his head, he would also lean in to whisper, "God don't think stuff's funny!"

That's the unfortunate reputation that God has, isn't it? At the very least it's the reputation God's followers often have. I can remember in seminary the LENGTHS my classmates and I would go to in order to avoid telling strangers what school we attended and what we studies. Upon meeting someone at a coffee shop, or (gasp) a local beverage establishment, the grocery store, or EVEN a CHURCH the conversation would go something like this - - -

"So, do you work?"   "
Well, not fulltime right now." 

"Oh. Well, what do you do?"  "I...uh... work with youth."

"So, you're a teacher?"  "No."

"You're a tutor?"  "No."

"You're a nanny?"  "No."

"Well, what do you do?"  "I work for an organization that tries to instill values in young people."

"OK.... So what do you do when you're not working."  "I read."

"For school."  "Yep."

"What school do you go to?"  "One over in Decatur."

"Is that one of the universities?"  "Nope."

"Well, what do you study?"  "Religion."

"What do you want to do when you graduate?"  "Find a job."

"Doing what?"  "Well, teaching, and helping people, and ...."

Talking to us was like PULLING TEETH, because we figured out pretty quickly that the conversation would be even shorter than that annoying exchange if we told a stranger what we studied and what we felt called to do after graduation. Sitting next to a future pastor at a beverage drinking establishment (or even CHURCH) was apparently a buzzkill, because as we all know, "God don't think stuff's funny" and so follows, neither do God's people. Or at least that's the unfortunate reputation.

I talked to a friend of mine this week, Dorie Griggs, who last year did her part to try to change this reputation. Dorie was a seminary classmate of mine, and she still lives in the Atlanta area where she is a member of a Presbyterian congregation, not serving as an ordained pastor. A year ago in March Dorie graduated from the Jeff Justice Comedy Class at The Punchline Comedy Club in Atlanta. She's the most qualified person I could think of, having studied both theology and comedy, to help me confirm my hunch. Books upon books, as we can see and imagine, have been written about how to write a good joke, so there must be something that can be taught, something that is common to many, if not all, jokes. I asked Dorie about the structure of a good joke. She said it all boils down to the idea that "1+1 doesn't equal 2. Leading people down a road with a story and reversing expectations is the core of joke writing."

Reversing expectations. That's what it's all about. That's where the joy is, the laughter. Telling the story of the duel between the priest and the rabbi, thinking it's all about biblical interpretation, only to have the train of thought reversed, one of them thinking something completely different, something utterly human and earthly not lofty and divine. Sarah believing she is well beyond her child-bearing years only to find out she carries laughter in her womb. Hearing the old favorite worship songs and hymns with just one key piece pointedly reversed. It's funny, and it points out something maybe painfully true. "How Great I Am" Ouch. We resemble that remark sometimes don't we? But hearing it that way, with the humor of the reversal, it makes its point while bringing us laughter and joy at the same time. Laughter at our own foolishness.

...Which brings us right to the gospel of Jesus. The good news of Jesus our Christ. The joy of the resurrection. The laughter at the greatest reversal of all times. It seems completely ridiculous this story we have heard and told. It makes absolutely no sense at all. We've been led down one road in this story of a Savior, one who will change the world, one who will show the religious establishment just where they are going road. We've been led down this road that shows him going up against every possible enemy and we start to see that it's not going to end well, that he's upsetting as many powerful people as he's healing ones who are powerless. 1+1 even equals 2 as it all comes to it's logical conclusion, and he's put to death for stirring up trouble, killed for preaching that there is another way.

The story of God on a's absolute foolishness. While it's exactly where the gospels are leading, it flies in the face of what every good person of faith knows about his or her god. It's not what any of us want to think will happen to the one in whom we are putting all our trust, our God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer, our God, powerful, compassionate, healer, teacher, peacemaker, forgiving, all-loving, all-welcoming, all-accepting. He's put to death on a cross; it's ridiculous Paul tells the Corinthians knowing how hard it is for them to hold onto this embarrassing faith in front of others.

And then the reversal. The joy-bringing, laughter-birthing reversal. The tomb is empty. He is not there. All that's left behind is a pile of rags like the cloths left behind in a delivery room, and Jesus has been birthed out of the tomb and into new life again. He has risen, and in the greatest reversal of all time, the greatest joke, the joke pulled over on death itself is told by our God who apparently DOES think stuff is funny, who apparently DOES think life is worth living, who apparently DOES think that our messed up human condition is worth saving, worth redeeming, worth rejoining enough to come back and join it one more time, shattering all expectations, living beyond all hope, laughing through all the tears.

He's not here. He is risen. It's the greatest punchline, the reversal, the "1+1 does NOT equal 2." It's the the resurrection. He predicted it, but we still never expected it. It's the source of our joy, the reason we can laugh again, the greatest joke ever told and somehow we have found a way to dull it down, wrap it up in so much thinking and theologizing and rule-making and judging, that everyone who sees us thinks we believe in the MOST. BORING. GOD. EVER.

Well, hopefully not after today. Sure the whole world isn't watching what's happening in this sanctuary right now, and I'm not so bold as to say in this hour we have fixed ages upon ages of joyless faith, but hopefully after today we all have a little more courage to laugh at ourselves, a little more interest in sharing joy with one another, a little more impulse to enjoy and rejoice in the new life we have because God played the biggest joke on us all. He isn't here. He is risen! Rejoice and be glad!

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