Sermon on 11th January 2015
‘Ooh!’ exclaimed my mother, ‘It’s pebble-dashed’, this for her a final touch of sophistication to the seaside bungalow where we were preparing to move from a terrace in a Yorkshire pit town. In the kitchen, now, were installed all the dreams of a 1950s housewife: an electric cooker (instead of the coal-fired range), a washing machine (our first), a fridge (our first), a formica-topped table. Outside, in the drive (the drive!), stood the most dramatic addition of all, a car which came with my father’s new job, working with his brother as a salesman. For this new life, my uncle had given my father some advice: ‘If you want to get ahead, Stanley, get a hat not a cap’ but, though my father now left for work each morning sporting a jaunty trilby, we all ate in the kitchen of an evening, the thought of using the dining room being a serving-hatch too far for my mother.
Actually, this bright new life was short-lived since, just before Christmas two years later, the business collapsed and my father was left without a job and all of us marooned in a place where we knew almost no-one, far from the familiar, with no money coming in. Settling down in front of a lean little fire that Christmas time, my parents solemnly drinking the remains of a years-old bottle of Bristol Cream, we tuned into some seasonal special on the television. And there, among all our cares, deeply worried about the future, deeply worried about tomorrow, we just had to give way to the laughter. ‘Well, they’re all right, I reckon’, one audience member had been heard to remark about Morecambe and Wise as they began their career on the boards, touring the clubs, many years before. ‘They’re all right, if you like laughing.’
In the beginning, as we heard in this morning’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 1,1-5), God created darkness and light and, in the separation which he made between them, we may suspect he hid laughter. For that’s what comedy is all about: jokes, stand-up, situation comedy, they show up the contrast between the dark and the light in our lives, our hopes and fears, springing out where the pompous meets the ordinary, delighting us with double meanings, squeezing the oh-so-sweetly funny from the ever-so-sour. How very appropriate that it was in ridiculous academic clothes that we gave Eric Morecambe an honorary degree at Lancaster University, where I used to work, revealing ourselves for a moment as figures of fun. In church, despite the exotic clerical outfits, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade congregations that being comic in a sermon is acceptable (not here, of course).
But it was not always so. In medieval times, those twelve days between Christmas night and Epiphany just past closed with the ‘Feast of Fools’ when clergy, choirs and congregations turned decorum on its head, wore ass’s ears and funny masks, burned incense made of old shoes, elected a chorister as boy-bishop and played ball across the chancel steps. It began, this crazy challenge to order – part Christian liturgy, part inherited Saturnalia, part cathedral playtime – at that point in Evensong when, in the words of the Magnificat, ‘God puts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek’ (Luke 1, 51). For there, in the gathered darkness of the year, there dawns upon us the most shocking reversal of all – that we should see God’s infinity dwindled to infancy, divinity shrunk to a span, coming to light in a cowshed. Drawing first in adoration the simple and ordinary shepherds, and only afterwards the wealthy and wise, the first warning reversal of order in the new world – if this event were not our salvation, you’d just have to laugh.
We do not keep the Feast of Fools but comedians still have a place with us, striding on to the stage of our lives and suggesting through slapstick, word-play and jokes, that what we take to be serious may not be the end of the story. They show us that, through laughter and ridicule, that the world might be ordered in a different way, the powerless gaining some purchase on events, those whose lives fall short being called out to the front and given a place of honour, the posturing of the proud revealed as empty imaginings, exactly what the Magnificat proclaims should come true. Returning again now to these Twelfth Night times of our own – the fairy lights packed away, the chocolates consumed, the Lord of Misrule leaving the stage – what this performance tells us is that a joyless, burdensome world, where men like my father are still unfairly dismissed from their work, where the mighty and well-fed are still in charge, where the loss and deprivations of the poor still await relief, this is not the only way things can be.
In our Gospel reading today, we are sped quickly onwards from the starlit drama of the Nativity and the coming of the Magi, to the beginning already of the ministry of the grown up Jesus (Mark 1, 4-11). There, by the river Jordan, we see Jesus baptised, the Spirit descending upon him. This is the same Spirit that swept across the waters at the beginning of time, separating dark from light, giving us the measure of God’s creative power. It is the same Spirit which came upon Mary and made flesh and blood of God’s desire for us. It is the same Spirit which now promises, in our own baptism, to make us his people, here and now in the Priory. It is the same Spirit which takes us past the Feast of Fools, out into a world where laughter doesn’t have to stop, but where the wrongs it mocks must be put right, where the inequalities it ridicules must be removed. This is our charge as Priory People, to laugh and put our world to rights; not simply to put ourselves on a sounder footing here (any sound enterprise may do that), rather to lay the foundations of the Kingdom.
There is an awesome power in humour. Laughter cuts the pompous and cruel down to size, whether on the world stage or hereabouts, creating an alternative sniggering world of people who are really in the know. It can undermine those formalities that stifle the freedom of democracies, or our own family life, stifle parish life. It can boost the morale of movements of protest and liberation, those who rightly want a share of knowledge and the action. But jokes, comic slogans, cartoons: we have seen only too clearly these past few days that these things can so offend sensibilities, be really so threatening to sincere beliefs, that they can result in slaughter – slaughter of those making the joke (‘Je suis Charlie’), slaughter of those defending their right to do so, like the Muslim policeman shot at point blank range (‘Je suis Ahmed’). ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’ said one of those journalists murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Clearly not everyone agrees.
To be brave and confident enough to speak your mind, to make a joke at other’s expense and raise a laugh, this can be costly. In so far as humour celebrates that promise of liberty which Jesus brings, that reversal of the earthly order that chooses darkness rather than the light, then laughter has to be on God’s side. But the work his Spirit has to do is a serious matter, prompting us to get to grips with just why it is that some Muslims want to wreak such vengeance upon us; why freedom of speech is so hard to accommodate with respect for all; why the gifts of God’s earth seem to be so unequally distributed; why we find it so difficult to reconcile welcome with sharing our own space. Liberté, egalité, fraternité: no-one could argue with those virtues of the Republic of France. But we have some way to go yet before our own world looks like the Kingdom of God, before we can claim to be the Body of Christ, before we can all together truly say ‘Je suis Jésu’.