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I didn’t think I’d ever be chums with John Cena, but then I suppose Covid-19 has led us all into some surprising situations.
Back in seminary, friends of mine collected life-size cardboard cutouts, like those you’d see in a movie theater. They’d sneak them into other friend’s apartments, leaving them as terrifying surprises when you turned on the light in the unfinished basement. Many of the cutouts were Star Wars characters. One was John Cena, of pro-wrestling fame.
When I first moved to the parsonage in Grand Haven and folks were joking about living in a fishbowl, I thought I would play this up by borrowing John Cena and sticking him in the windows from time to time. I never ended up doing this, and then neglected to return John, so he was relegated to the basement to sit folded up on a shelf for three years
And then quarantine hit. And I was grateful for people’s concern about how I was doing, living alone in a big house. But their concern made me realize – I wasn’t alone. I had John Cena.
Thus began the documentation of John keeping me company over the next weeks. Cooking together, doing research, watching a movie. He wasn’t much in the conversation department, but 10/10 for listening skills.
I hadn’t pulled Cena out for all of June and July, so I was delighted, while planning an outdoor baptism a few weeks ago, when the parents asked if John could attend. He was, of course, happy to oblige. This was arguably the best #quarantiningwithCena picture yet. Complete with John “holding” the baby. (And here I feel like I should state that Cena remained in the car for the actual baptism, brought out only after most people had left). We draped the baptismal towel over his shoulder. Hilarity ensued.
When one Facebook friend commented on the post, “Leave it to Laura to sprinkle some levity into a sacramental moment,” I quipped back, “What are the sacraments if not comedies of the most profound nature?” I didn’t really mean anything by that reply, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true.
I’ve been preaching through Genesis this summer, and a greater cast of duplicitous, treacherous, and conceited characters you’d be hard pressed to find. Yet for some inexplicable reason, God decides to keep going with them. Early on I found this quote from Frederick Buechner, and it’s provided much of the backbone for the series:
“A good joke is one that catches you by surprise – like God’s, for instance. Who would have guessed that Israel of all nations would be the one God picked or Sarah would have Isaac at the age of ninety or the Messiah would turn up in a manger? Who could possibly see the duck-billed platypus coming or Saint Simeon Stylites or the character currently occupying the pulpit at First Presbyterian? The laugh in each case results from astonished delight at the sheer unexpectedness of the thing.
Satan’s jokes, on the other hand, you can usually spot a mile off. As soon as the serpent came slithering up to Adam and Eve, almost anybody could tell that the laugh was going to be on them. That a person as blameless, upright, and well-heeled as Job was bound to have the rug pulled out from under him before he was through. That Faust, being Faust, was sure to be conned out of his soul. And so on.
In the last analysis, the only one who gets much of a kick out of Satan’s jokes is Satan himself. With God’s, however, even the most hardened cynics and bitterest pessimists have a hard time repressing an occasional smile. When God really gets going, even the morning stars burst into singing and all the sons of God shout for joy.”
What are the sacraments then, but regularly repeated punchlines of the greatest joke ever told? Who could imagine that God would claim a person into his family, make them an heir to the kingdom, for no reason other than his desire to do so? Who could have ever seen it coming, that morning when the Son of God who was dead stopped being dead? It was an about-face that must have left the demons spinning in their tracks while the angels hooted with laughter “from astonished delight at the sheer unexpectedness of the thing.”
Comedy – particularly stand-up comedy – is funniest when you can find yourself in the joke, when you know full-well the truth implicit in the absurdity. One of my favorite comedians is Michael McIntyre, who will have me in stitches by simply describing the agonizing ordeal of hanging a clock on the wall and constantly missing the nail. We’ve all been there. Safely on this side of that ordeal, we can laugh at it.
What makes the sacraments so astonishing, so surprising, so deep-down comical, is that we find ourselves in the joke, in the story. In the ordinariness of bowl and table, we are told a truth about ourselves that we can hardly believe – that Christ’s death and resurrection were for us, that God’s covenant grace is for us, that the invitation to the wedding feast of the lamb has our name on the envelope.
We ourselves are part of God’s great upside-down, set-to-rights project of kingdom restoration, and that’s true even when all the evidence suggests such a truth to be absurd. When all the evidence suggests the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and evil has won the day, and death is creeping out from every corner.
Many of us, in the face of that evidence, have turned to comedy over the last few months – satires and stand up, sit-com reboots and late night anchors streaming from their kitchens. Cardboard cutouts who can’t get past mountain pose. But our whole lives are wrapped up in the story with the best punchline of all – that this is not the end of this. Death has been swallowed up in victory, and God is on the throne. The morning stars sing indeed.
Quote taken from Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words. https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2020/5/30/humor
I love it. Jesus had a great sense of humor too, with his log-in-your-eye critics, for example, or his extravagantly foolish characters in Luke 15–searching shepherd, woman throwing a party that cost her found coin, prodigal father–to crack open our minds and realize that yes, incredibly, God loves us at least that much. And Buechner is masterful at showing us our foibles in his descriptions of Abraham and Peter in Peculiar Treasures.
I’ve been waiting for John to somehow show up here – he must be so pleased to have made the Reformed big time! Leave it to you and said friend to uncover the absurdity of the story. In reading through the Bible this summer and being reacquainted with the details of each OT story, one is struck by how God plays out his purpose through situations that are both tragic and comedic, using people as flawed as each of us. What a joy to be reminded that we are part of this story “with the best punchline of all”!
Great stuff, Laura! And Buechner has been so good on this stuff, including the scene where Sarah laughs at the angel’s promise of–finally after 24 years since the first promise–a child in one year. Look closely, Buechner said, and the angel’s shoulders were shaking in mirth a too. And just to show God can both give and take a joke, the angel says “And when the little guy is born, name him Giggles so we will never forget this moment!” Now THAT’S funny!
Marvelous, thank you.
Satan laughs at us. God laughs with us.
Loved this post! Thanks Laura.
Thanks, Laura, for another interesting and smile inciting article. I like what you say about a good joke being one that catches you by surprise and then relating such surprise to God and his interactions with people, especially his chosen people. Isn’t that the nature of miracles, always attributed to God (or the supernatural) whether directly or indirectly. They catch us by surprise. You say, – “Comedy – particularly stand-up comedy – is funniest when you can find yourself in the joke, when you know full-well the truth implicit in the absurdity…” – Miracles are that way. They are absurdities because they defy common sense. You also say, – “We ourselves are part of God’s great upside-down, set-to-rights project of kingdom restoration, and that’s true even when all the evidence suggests such a truth to be absurd.”
That’s the nature of religion(s). All religion depends on the supernatural to get people’s attention. Religion without God, the supernatural, or the gods is no religion at all. Without miracles, religion would simply be psychology or story that is flat. All religions, and there are thousands, depend on the supernatural acts empowered by God or the anti-heros, Satan and demons. And because all religion depends on the absurdity of the supernatural, most people easily dismiss all religions but their own. Our miracles (although absurd) are reliable, and the miracles of other religions are false because their miracles are absurd. Believe me, Christian miracles are just as bazar or more so than those of other religions. So, who is the joke on? Thanks again, Laura.
My late father, a very serious Reformed theologian, had a book on his shelf entitled De humor en de Bijbel, or maybe Komedie en de Bijbel, and he used to take delight in translating excerpts. They never struck me as very funny, sad to say — there wasn’t much relating to the classic themes of comedy from a ten-year-old’s perspective, such as poop and farts. But when we find a way to read both OT and NT stories with fresh eyes there is lots of comedy of the absurd. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that there are echoes of Biblical diction and imagery in Beckett and Camus. But the Bible is lots more fun.
But as to John, the pastor’s companion I have not yet met in the, so to speak, flesh: I think you are letting him off too easy, Pastor Laura. In addition to mountain pose I’ll bet he would be terrific at savasana, and what about inverted poses? Way better than me, for sure.
Outstanding. What a different perspective from what I am used to hearing. Many thanks.
A couple of widows came by as I was reading this. They asked who the guy was. So I explained. They loved it. They were happy that this young preacher gal had a friend she could talk to. I asked if they would like a cardboard cutout of a young man. “No!” they said. “We’ve had enough of men in our lives. We’re better without them now.” They’re 94 and 92 years of age.