Ecclesiastes 3:9-14 The Rev. Helen Havlik 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time November 10, 2019
The greatest commandments as presented by Jesus are easy to remember: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Which sounds nice when we say it, but what does it mean to love our actual neighbor? That’s the question Alexandra Kuykendall asks in her book, Loving My Actual Neighbor—where she describes how our love for the real people around us can be nurtured and lived. So far this fall we’ve talked about being humble, listening to others, staying in the awkward and accepting people for who they are. This morning, the author of Ecclesiastes offers us some more wisdom about human life. I’m reading from Ch. 3, beginning with vs. 9. Listen to God’s holy word.
When I was starting my first semester at Michigan State, my dad sat me down to talk about college and life in general. This was unusual itself—we never had heart to hearts but I assume he thought it was his fatherly duty. I expected some words to the effect, study hard, stay out of trouble, make your mother and me proud of you, you know, the usual parental admonitions to a kid leaving home for the first time. Imagine my surprise when he said, “Don’t keep your nose in a book all the time. College is also about meeting people and having fun. Don’t just sit in your room—or worse, the library—on Friday night.” Seriously. He’s probably the only father in the history of the universe to think he had to tell his daughter to have some fun. But how well he knew me! I loved school, I loved to study—I did have fun with my small group of friends, but being an introvert, my default was always a book. And I was uptight about so much. I took stuff way too seriously. Everything was life or death. Some of that is just me, even now. But mostly I took his advice—there were some Friday library nights, but more often than not I was hanging out with friends listening to music somewhere.
It always surprises me that some folks seem to think that people of faith are supposed to be stodgy and serious all the time. That the music in church should be solemn, that joy is a slippery slope, that Jesus never laughed. The writer of Ecclesiastes is pretty sober in general—somewhat pessimistic and not particularly hopeful when it comes to life’s meaning. “Vanity of vanities,” says the preacher, “all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” But then we read that God has made everything suitable for its time (for everything, there is a season, right? A time to weep and a time to laugh and all the rest), and “that there is nothing better for them to be happy as long as they shall live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” That sounds suspiciously like joy to me, not hiding out in your dorm room on a Friday night, sweating small stuff.
G.K. Chesterton has been described as the “greatest writer of the 20th Century,” very high praise for someone most of us probably have never heard of. Anyone watch the Father Brown mysteries? That’s G.K. Chesterton. Born in England, Gilbert Keith lived from 1874 to 1932—a short life by today’s standards. In addition to the Father Brown books, he wrote many essays and non-fiction books about faith and was known for his size (he was 6’4” and nearly 300 pounds) and his wit. His book, Orthodoxy, which one website (enotes.com) called “Paul’s epistles written by Oscar Wilde” (another humorist), spells out Chesterton’s faith journey, from Unitarian to Anglican to Roman Catholic. In one chapter (“The Eternal Revolution”) he makes the observation that “angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” Which was probably him poking fun at his own size, but also an encouragement to readers not to take everything in life so seriously—to laugh, enjoy, not worry all the time. To be like the angels, he says, is to have faith beyond all measure that lifts us from whatever drags us down.
In Loving My Actual Neighbor Alexandra Kuykendall says that lightening up is a way to build relationships with people. “Here’s the thing,” she says, “we can make other people feel welcome and comfortable if we have fun with them.” Laughing, smiling, treating people with courtesy and respect opens the door to “mutual affection.” (LMAN, p. 143) How many times has someone said, “I love my (husband, wife, friend) because they make me laugh.” It’s certainly at the top of my list of things I appreciate about people. Finding humor allows us to connect with people—and helps us to see hope in the midst of pain. Lightening up isn’t about laughing at people but laughing at ourselves. Sometimes we have to be serious and some things aren’t funny, of course. Stereotypes aren’t funny. Mocking people isn’t funny—and in fact, taking ourselves lightly is about being gentle and humble of heart. It’s thinking about the other person and not making everything about me. Letting go of things that have gotten too heavy to carry. Remembering I’m not the only one in the world with problems and that maybe someone else needs a shoulder to cry on. Trusting that God is in the process—as the little card in the narthex says, “Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.” It has a leaf on it, of course!
If you’re on our email list, Jessica sent you a sermon follow-up. One is the YouTube video of Chewbacca Mom—aka Candace Payne—who became an overnight sensation for her hilarious reaction to a gift she bought herself. The other part of that email is a picture called “The Laughing Christ.” We think of Jesus as always somber—but apparently he had a different reputation. “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” Jesus said to the crowds, “and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” The first miracle he performed in John’s gospel was changing water into wine at a wedding. His parables often were funny—too bad the Bible doesn’t come with emojis because then we might get the joke. We think he’s rebuking Martha when she complains about Mary not helping her—but maybe he’s gently telling her to lighten up? To think about what’s most important? To love her sister and to love him and to let the rest rest?
And I expect he laughed a lot in the presence of children. Kids have always said the darnedest things—and I imagine the Laughing Christ is throwing his head back in laughter because of some kid’s antic. My great nephew Marshall, for example, has started to tell what he calls jokes. What’s actually funny isn’t the joke itself but how he cracks himself up with the silly stuff he’s saying. Now I can’t tell a joke to save my life. At a recent soccer game, I tried to tell him a knock knock joke, but I bungled it. Someone overheard me and told it to his little boy the right way—loud enough for me to hear. Humiliating, right? College age Helen would have crawled under a rock, for sure. I just laughed and told Marshall I need to practice more—and he needs a joke book. Or maybe not. Maybe he already knows how to fly and can take me with him? So, knock knock—who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Knock knock—who’s there. Banana. Banana who? Knock knock—who’s there? Banana—Banana who? Knock knock—who’s there? Orange. Orange who? Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?