Joy: A Sermon on Holy Hilarity
- Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Text: Philippians 4:4-20
Tucked away in my memory bank is a "Peanuts" cartoon in which Lucy asks Charlie Brown, "Did you ever know anyone who was really happy..." Before she can finish the question, Snoopy comes dancing into the next frame. As only Snoopy can, he dances his merry way across the frames while Lucy and Charlie watch in amazement. In the last frame Lucy finishes her question, "Did you ever know anyone who was really happy... and was still in their right mind?"
You might want to ask that question of Paul. By the world's standards of happiness, anyone who was in his position and in his right mind should have been miserable. He was in prison when he wrote this epistle.
He had lost everything he valued or that gave him happiness. He is isolated from his closest co-workers and most intimate friends, and perhaps most difficult of all, he has no idea what the future might hold. He waits for the Emperor to decide if he will live or die.
By the world's standards, he should be miserable, but when you read this letter, from first to the last, it vibrates with joy. And just in case you missed the point, he comes to the closing verses and says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice!
One of Paul's favorite words is the Greek word hilarotes, from which we get the word hilarity. It literally means "laughter from the heart."
When Paul talks about joy, he doesn't mean the trivial, shallow, obscene or mean-spirited stuff we call humor today. He means bone-deep, blood-rich, exuberant laughter which comes up out of the depths of a person's soul, joy which flows from the center of our being, happiness coming from the depth of our hearts.
Did you hear about the little boy who, when asked to put his hand on his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, patted his little bottom. When his teacher asked why, he said, "Because Grandma picks me up and pats me right there and says, 'Bless your little heart.'" Wherever you think it comes from, it's laughter from the heart; holy hilarity comes from the depth of the human soul.
I'm not sure where we got the idea that Christianity is for serious, somber, artificially-pious, self-righteous folks, but it's been around for awhile. Before the Church Lady appeared on Saturday Night Live, John Steinbeck described Liza Hamilton in East of Eden as:
"...a tight hard little woman humorless as a chicken ... [with] a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do."
I'm not sure where we got that stuff, but it didn't come from the New Testament. This book vibrates with great joy.
When I began preparing this sermon I expected it to focus on the hilarious end of this passage, but as I lived with the text, I discovered to my surprise that the place I identified most closely with Paul was at that point of his not knowing what the future would hold; the realization of his being in a transitional period during which he didn't quite know what might lie ahead. I love Paul's words in the third chapter of this letter. I memorized them as a kid. Paul says,
This one thing I do, forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching out to what lies ahead I go straight for the goal ...
It sounds great when Paul says it, but you know, it's tough to let go of the past, particularly when it is a happy past, and it's hard to let go of a comfortable, secure present to reach for some unknown future. That's tougher than it sounds.
I've been here 16 months now. I would have thought that the transition period in my life would have been over by now, but I'm aware that I'm not nearly through it. We're still working on the transition -- letting go of a happy past to claim an unknown future.
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