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Friday, December 12, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126:1-6 OR Luke 1:46b-55, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28


I’ve been reading Not Without Laughter, a novel by Langston Hughes.  I have known him as a poet, but didn’t know he had written a novel.  A “Note” at the beginning of this edition says that it is “a portrait of black life in small-town Kansas in the early 1900s” and that it “holds up a mirror to the writer’s own youthful experiences through the character of Sandy Rogers.”  As a young man Sandy discovers the pool hall with all its story-telling, and noisy, sometimes argumentative, camaraderie.  The title of the book comes out of his thoughts as he reflects on that experience.  “But underneath, all was good-natured and friendly---and through and above everything was laughter.  No matter how belligerent or lewd their talk was, or how sordid the tales they told---of dangerous pleasures and stranger perversities---these black men laughed.  That must be the reason, thought Sandy, why poverty-stricken old Negroes like Uncle Dan Givens lived so long---because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.”


I want to sing in praise of laughter today, deep laughter from inside one’s being, and the kind of roaring ringing sound of joy that laughs in the face of hardship and evil.  It’s the kind of laugh depicted in The Laughing Jesus, a painting that appeared in Playboy Magazine, of all places, some years back.  In a search of the internet I discovered that there are a multitude of such portrayals.  Do a search for yourself and check some of them out.  There are even apocryphal stories of Jesus and his laughter.  There may be no more profound portrayal of the incarnation, a laughing God.  (I‘d place it right alongside a weeping Jesus.)  God must truly have a sense of humor in his/her gracious love of human beings.


While the line to this week’s lectionary readings does not flow directly to laughter, I believe that laughter flows from the deepest kind of joy.  Joy is in some of this week’s readings and joy is an attitude often lifted up in the Advent season, in our seasonal singing, and in related scriptures.


The other theme I see in the readings is that of dreaming big dreams, of hoping for visions to be fulfilled.  At this week’s breakfast discussion I asked, “What are your dreams and hopes for the world?  What ideals and values would prevail?”  Hopes and dreams and visions have drawn the human imagination and its outworking’s for centuries.  Jesus became a lightning rod in which many of those dreams and visions came to focus in a new way.  Along with joy, each Advent season calls us to celebrate and renew hope.


Rather than offer an overall interpretation of the texts for the coming Sunday, let me highlight a few verses in each to lift up dreams and visions and joy that may enable us to burst forth in gut-busting laughter.


Isaiah 61 may be the central vision of the entire Bible.  It is the one picked up by Jesus in his inaugural sermon as recorded in Luke 4:16-21.  I acknowledge the rich and varied history of the ideal of a Messiah, the various threads and interpretations in that tradition.  We’re talking here about Messiah (earthly king and hoped for savior), but today let’s take it as an expression of hope for society in which peace and justice reign.  As it reads in Isaiah 61:1-3:  The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion---to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”  Notice the “oil of gladness instead of mourning.”  Do I hear a hint of laughter?


Psalm 126 expresses a similar hope---a hope of restoration in which “we were like those who dream.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy . . . May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves."


The reading from Luke gives us Mary’s song upon her visit with her cousin Elizabeth.  Both are with child---Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John, the baptizer.  Elizabeth has just said, “ . . . as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy,” when Mary bursts into song.  Her vision is that her son will fulfill the ancient dream.  Her joyous singing is rooted in “the Mighty One.”  “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”


The joke is on those who think they have power and proceed to use it oppressively.  Cue:  Laughter.


In I Thessalonians 5:16 we are told, “Rejoice always.”  It’s a favorite theme of Paul’s.  As severe as some of our images of Paul are, I can imagine a laughing Paul alongside a laughing Jesus.  In Philippians 4:4, he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  The rest of the reading from I Thessalonians lists some attitudes which might prevail in an ideal world, another way of expressing, and perhaps achieving, a vision.  “Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances . . . test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:17-18, 21-22)  Doesn’t exactly seem like a life full of laughter, yet there again are the opening words, “Rejoice, always.”  Always.


The other Gospel reading brings us back to rough old John, the baptizer.  Pastor Rick did a great job, last Sunday, of giving us a flavor of this character who would have made most of us uncomfortable.  Mostly it’s a story of one who is pointing ahead to someone greater.  There’s stuff about identity and baptism (John 1:19-22, 25-27), but John is simply “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  (vs. 23)  With these words, John ties in again to the vision of Isaiah.


John is a voice of hope in the wilderness, a glimmer of light coming over the horizon.  Just on the edge of our hearing do we hear an echo of laughter from somewhere in the skies?  Is it too sacrilegious to call it a giggle, maybe even the cooing chuckle of a baby?  I hope not---and therefore I hope!


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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