The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE WISDOM OF BR'ER RABBIT

Delivered 3/30/08
Text: I Peter 1:3-9
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

One day God was looking down to earth and saw all the evil going on. The decision was made to send an angel down to check it out. So, Gabriel was sent to earth for a time. When he returned he told God that, indeed, things were rather bad on earth - 95% bad, 5% good.

That bad? Hmm. God decided that it would be best to get a second opinion. The archangel Michael was summoned to descend for his own reconnoiter assignment. After a time, Michael returned with a report that confirmed Gabriel's - 95% bad, 5% good.

God was most distressed. The decision was made to send a letter to good 5% as a word of encouragement, something to help them keep going. Do you know what that letter said? Do you?

Oh, you didn't get one either? Hmm.

Holy Humor Sunday. If you are not familiar with the concept, it is only because you have not been here on the Sunday after Easter for the past several years, or your experience has not been in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It is based on the understanding that the resurrection of Jesus is God's ultimate cosmic joke on all the forces of evil and death. The resurrection is comedy of the best sort, the unexpected reversal of fortune. The women come to the tomb on Easter morning expecting to find a dead body. Their train of thought keeps barreling along one track, and they almost literally stumble over the risen Lord. Resurrection reverses the expectation of gloom and doom in the face of death and instead brings celebration. Humor of the highest order.

Early theologians called it "Risus paschalis," or "the Easter laugh." The week following Easter day was filled with parties, picnics, feasts, joke-telling, and even good-natured pranks. Sadly, when Pope Clement X came to power he all but banned such practices. The Reformers, John Calvin, John Knox, were equally serious about everything. Thus, the laughter soon went out of Easter. Too bad.

Fortunately, about twenty years ago, a group called the Fellowship of Merry Christians (which included a few of us Presbyterians) called attention to the fact that these joyous observances of Jesus' resurrection had been sorely neglected by the modern church. So they began encouraging us to resuscitate the old customs. And today, more and more churches are doing just that. They are having Holy Humor Sundays just like we are having today. I cannot think of a better way to focus on God's wonderful cosmic "joke" as it comes rolling out of an empty tomb.

I know very well that the idea that laughter, joy and good fun have a place in worship still shocks some people, who believe that what we do in church is serious, sober business. In an on-line meeting for preachers who discuss upcoming lectionary texts, the concept of Holy Humor Sunday has recently been criticized. One pastor wrote:
I would be very disappointed and actually put off if I came to church on the Second Sunday of Easter and not only did not get to hear the John's Gospel story about the risen Lord's giving his peace to the frightened disciples and his encounter with our brother Thomas, but found that the worship service was built around humor...I know that this Sunday is considered a "low Sunday," and I'm not stuffy, honest I'm not. It's just that this feels gimmicky to me, for lack of a better word at the moment -- like we need to do something to kind of make a "low Sunday" snappy and interesting. Are people more likely to attend church if there is a "holy humor Sunday?" I've never heard of it before, so I don't know. (1)
Never heard of it? She needs to get out more. A number of contributors responded with their own experiences of Holy Humor Sunday, most all of which were positive. One wrote, "When we lived in Norway, I was introduced to Påskelatter (Easter laughter). It was an ancient tradition, I was told by a Norwegian clergy friend, to climb to the top of a hill on Easter and laugh at the devil. God is victorious. As I understood it, in some areas the hills would echo with loud laughter on Easter mornings." (2)

Any problems with the observance? A couple. One pastor reflected some pain about allowing congregation members an "open-mike" time for jokes, a couple of which turned out to be somewhat less than appropriate. The biggest problem we have ever had here was with noisemakers that we had passed out being used at inopportune times during the worship. We don't do that anymore. Ah, well. Live and learn.

Will Willimon, in his book, And the Laugh Shall Be First, (3) says that "among all of God's creatures, human beings are the only animals who both laugh and weep - for we are the only animals who are struck with the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. In those priceless moments when we are struck with the incongruity of this world, humor results. A stern, smug gentleman slips on a banana peel and ends us sprawled on the sidewalk - we laugh; W. C. Fields throws a pie in the face of a haughty woman in an evening gown - we laugh."

For what it is worth, modern medicine says that is a very good thing. According to the Mayo Clinic, (4)
When it comes to relieving stress, more giggles and guffaws are just what the doctor ordered. Here's why. Whether you peal with giggles while re-enacting the most hysterical moments of a Monty Python movie or twitter away at the highbrow humor of a New Yorker cartoon, studies have shown that your laugh will do you good. Laughter helps you deal with a variety of maladies, including the stresses of daily life. Laughter's benefits on your health are no joke. A sense of humor can't cure all ailments, but data are mounting about the things that laughter can do.
The article goes on to say that a good laugh "enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain...A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling...Laughter can also ease digestion and stimulate circulation, which helps reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress...Research increasingly shows that laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.

The humor of Abraham Lincoln is legendary. When he first came to Washington as a Congressman, he and wife Mary along with their two small boys, took up residence at Mrs. Spriggs Boarding House, on the site of the present Library of Congress. Soon a favorite among his fellow boarders, Lincoln was always ready with a story or anecdote to entertain, persuade, or defuse argument. Samuel Busey, a young doctor who took his meals at the boarding house, recalled that whenever Lincoln was about to tell a story, "he would lay down his knife and fork, place his elbows upon the table, rest his face between his hands, and begin with the words 'that reminds me,' and proceed. Everybody prepared for the explosions sure to follow."

For recreation, Lincoln took up bowling with his fellow boarders. Though a clumsy bowler, according to Dr. Busey, Lincoln "played the game with great zest and spirit" and "accepted success and defeat with like good nature and humor." When word spread "that he was in the alley there would assemble numbers of people to witness the fun which was anticipated by those who knew of his fund of anecdotes and jokes." As ever, his quick wit and droll geniality provided a source of "merriment" for everyone around him. (5)

In a well known incident, once at a Cabinet meeting, the president read aloud from a humorous book. The Cabinet members were amazed; not one of them even smiled. "Gentlemen," Lincoln asked with a sigh, "why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die. You need this medicine as much as I do." We know.

Our scripture lesson knows it too. Listen again:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you GREATLY REJOICE, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
Yes, there are trials. We know that. The news is grim. The war rages on - more than five years now, longer than World War II, with no end in sight and one presidential candidate saying we will stay there for 100 years if need be. The 4,000th American combat death is now on the books, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and injured. The American economy has been ruined by the massive debt the administration has run up. Or the trials might be personal and private as jobs disappear, mortgages are foreclosed, children disappoint, or families fail. But the word of God says those trials are not the last word. Salvation is.

Do you know what that means? Salvation? Lots of people do not. It is a "churchy" word that is often misunderstood as pie-in-the-sky, bye-and-bye - salvation equals fire insurance. Not really. Salvation is so much more. The word comes to us from a Latin root, salus, which has nothing to do with life after death; it means HEALTH or WHOLENESS. It is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word shalom which folks over-simplify in translation as PEACE because it too carries the idea of WHOLENESS. And it begins here and now. As we have already noted, a positive mental outlook, an optimistic view of the future is crucial to health and wholeness...salvation. That means, for you and me, salvation has already begun. We can have all the confidence, all the optimism anyone would ever need because, you see, we know how the story finally ends - not with the whine of missiles or the whimper of war-ravaged children, but with the 'tidings of great joy,' first heard over Bethlehem and the Hallelujah Chorus sung by the hosts of heaven. Rejoice! We have all the reason in this world...and the next one too!

I like the way the lesson closes: "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving (present tense) the goal of your faith (and what is that?) the salvation of your souls." (6)

Some of us who are old enough remember Joel Chandler Harris's wonderful Uncle Remus stories that Walt Disney made famous in the animated movie, "Song of the South." Just as Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo are no longer politically correct, neither is Uncle Remus, but the stories remain delightful.

I reminded you of one of the best a couple of years ago. You might remember. Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear have got Br'er Rabbit tied up and are preparing to roast him for their supper. Just as they place Br'er Rabbit over the fire, he begins to laugh. This just does not seem right nor proper to Br'er Fox, so he takes it upon himself to impress upon the rabbit the seriousness of his situation. But Br'er Rabbit continues to laugh; he cannot help it, he explains - he is thinking about his laughing place. Say what? Br'er Bear's curiosity begins to get the best of him. He blurts out that he has got to see this "laughing place." He is so insistent that he convinces even Br'er Fox to go along with it. The two of them cut Br'er Rabbit loose, and order him to lead them to this "laughing place."

Br'er Rabbit takes them on a winding path through the forest. He really does not have a "laughing place," of course, but he has to figure out some way of escaping. Finally, he spots a hornet's nest in some dense brush. He points to the brush and says, "There it is. There's my laughing place!" The impetuous Br'er Bear rushes in. In no time at all, he has the hornet's nest on his head. The angry hornets rush out, attacking both him and Br'er Fox. As Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are busy evading the hornets, Br'er Rabbit runs free.

Later on, Br'er Bear catches Br'er Rabbit again. He says, "If this is the laughing place, I ain't laughin'!"

Br'er Rabbit replies, "I didn't say it was your laughing place. I said it was my laughing place!"

At this point, the cloud of angry hornets catches up once again to Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox, who have no choice but to let Br'er Rabbit go again as the hornets chase them off into the sunset.

Everyone needs a laughing place, a place of escape from the Bears and Foxes that are always lying in wait. For Christians, the last Bear, the last Fox, the last enemy (in the words of St. Paul) is death, and the empty tomb of Jesus is our laughing place.

One final story. A guy arrives at the pearly gates, waiting to be admitted. St. Peter is reading through the Big Book to see if the guy's name is written in it. After several minutes, he closes the book, furrows his brow, and says, "I'm sorry, I don't see your name here."

"How current is your copy?" the fellow asks.

"I get a download every ten minutes," St. Peter replies, "why do you ask?"

"I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I was always the stubborn type. It was not until my death was immanent that I cried out to God, so my name probably hasn't arrived to your copy yet."

"I'm glad to hear that," Pete says, "but while we're waiting for the update to come through, can tell me about a really good deed that you did in your life?"

The guy thinks for a moment and says, "Well, there was this one time when I was driving down a road and I saw a giant group of biker gang members harassing this poor girl. I slowed down, and sure enough, there they were, about 20 of them torturing this poor woman. Infuriated, I got out my car, grabbed a tire iron out of my trunk, and walked up to the leader of the gang. He was a huge guy; 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, with a studded leather jacket and a chain running from his nose to his ears. As I walked up to the leader, the bikers formed a circle around me and told me to get lost or I'd be next. So I ripped the leader's chain out of his face and smashed him over the head with the tire iron. Then I turned around and yelled to the rest of them, "Leave this poor innocent girl alone! You're all a bunch of sick, deranged animals! Go home before I really teach you a lesson in PAIN!"

St. Peter, duly impressed, says "Wow! When did this happen?"

"About three minutes ago." (7)

The wisdom of Br'er Rabbit - the laughing place. It is where we gather on the Sunday after Easter - Holy Humor Sunday. Not simply to be silly, but to celebrate...and laugh, and to share the laughter with a world that so desperately needs to join in.

Amen.

1. Jdexheimer via Ecunet, GOSPEL NOTES FOR NEXT SUNDAY, #14426, 3/26/08

2. David Roschke via Ecunet, GOSPEL NOTES FOR NEXT SUNDAY, #14442, 3/27/08

3. Nashville : Abingdon Press, 1986, p. 9

4. "Laugh your way to stress relief," http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00034

5. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2005), pp. 119-120

6. An abbreviated treatment of this text can be found in my book, Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit, Series VI, Cycle A, (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2007), pp. 80ff.

7. First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, WI, http://www.fccoshkosh.org/humor2007.html

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