I preached yesterday in chapel. special share for the blogosphere. wish i'd read beth maynard's facinating reflections on how the song 'the first time' is evolving in the context of u2's current vertigo tour. ah, well. makes my point better this way.
"They Laughed At Him"
Sermon for Thursday Morning Prayer
Yale Divinity School
October 6, 2004
Texts: Matthew 9:18-26 (pr. Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56)
This past summer, I finished a book on the rock band “U2”. I was fascinated by the band’s substantial exploration of doubt and apostasy. Now if you didn’t know any better, you’d say to yourself, what’s surprising about a rock band and apostasy—sort of goes with the territory, doesn’t it?
Well, yes and no. U2, while not a “Christian band,” has nonetheless always had a strong Christian ethos and has never engaged in the kind of self-destructive behavior of the typical sort you’d expect from a proper rock ‘n’ roll band. Yet they’ve written songs exploring doubt and hopelessness like 1987’s “Running to Stand Still,” that evokes heroin addiction as a God-substitute that kills, rather than giving life, or1994’s “The First Time,” a description of someone who receives the love of Jesus and the keys to the Kingdom, but leaves by the back door and throws away the key.
In an interview with the New York Times a few years ago, Bono, the lead singer and songwriter, described his motivation for writing such songs:
“If you are true, then you describe what’s in your life, or in the room, or what you pick up. I feel like a lot of our songs are overheard conversations, sometimes they’re not my stories but I feel them very deeply. To be true is really important, and that [sort of “overhearing” in our songwriting] seems to get you truth. God is interested in truth, and only in truth. And that’s why God is more interested in Rock & Roll music than Gospel—because those gospel folks, a lot of the time, they’re not being true because they can’t be and that’s really sad and tragic. [They can’t be true] because they’re not describing their doubt. You have to have the truth thing and if you can’t write about what's really going on in the world and your life, because it’s all happy-clappy, you know, Is God interested in that?”
Learning to see faith through the eyes of an Irish rock band heightened my attention to doubters, to the stories of those on the margins. And so you can better understand why, in the gospel text for today, I was drawn to the ones who laughed at Jesus. What song would I write about them? Who were they and what was behind their laugher?
I think my own temptation, as an overeducated late-modern intellectual, is to anachronistically read into the story the laughter of derision, the laughter of the intellectual skeptic who denies the power and presence of God. But when I looked at some parallel moments of laughter in Scripture, I found some compelling alternatives.
Psalm 80 starts out mildly—“Shepherd of Israel, hear us.” But by verse five you know this is a deeply painful psalm of lament: “you have given us tears as our food. You have made us drink tears by the bowlful.” And the psalmist feels the sharp pain of abandonment: “you have let our neighbors fight against us. Our enemies laugh at us.” Here, the laugher is not funded by intellectual scorn but political and religious scorn. It is the cruel laughter of the victor. This might have been the right tone in our Gospel lesson had those laughing been the Pharisees who a few verses later claim Jesus heals by the “power of the prince of demons.” It is not such a good fit for those mourning the death of the little girl.
Genesis 18 offers another vision of laughter. Picking up here in the story of Abraham and Sarah requires us to remember that they have lived together for decades, painfully caught between the promise of descendents as plentiful as the stars and the reality of barrenness. In 15: 1, God says to Abram in vision, “I am your very great reward.” And Abram responds, “God, what can you give me? I still don’t have any children.” Sarah lived with the truth. We can only imagine what that experience was like for her. And if we do, then her laughter at the prediction of a son in a year’s time is heartbreaking. It is the laughter of desperation, of hope nearly crushed. It is laughter as a nervous defense mechanism against hope being crushed once again.
It is a plausible reading to say the laughter in our Gospel lesson is the sort of laughter we find in Genesis 18. If the laugher is a protection of hopes nearly exhausted, it is not so much a desperate hope for this one girl that died, but her dying as symbolic of desperation under Roman occupation and the palpable yearning for the Messiah’s appearance. It is laughter covering their nearly crushed hope that this one, Jesus, could be the One to raise not just the girl but each of them, as well, and with them a renewed Israel. Their laughter could be an echo of Sarah’s laughter, a veneer of doubtful laughter protecting the fragile faith and hope residing just underneath the surface.
Some gathered here today likely find themselves in this place of doubt. Like those mourning the death of the little girl, or Sarah in old age, you might be so crushed by life circumstance that doubt has overwhelmed your hope for God’s transforming power to act in your life.
And for certain, some we will work with—in refuge settlements or homeless shelters, in hospital beds, in the quiet of a pastor’s study or in the workplace over lunch, in the family living room or in a late night phone call—some we will work with will hide doubt and desperation under laughter.
We need not fear doubt, or even outright apostasy because Jesus has come into the house that is our bodies and he is at work raising the dead in us. He is even now in this moment reaching out his hand, saying to us, “arise.” And we can trust that Jesus is already there in the world, present to those who live in doubt and desperation. We can turn to those who protect their vulnerability with laughter. We can offer them the blessing of his promise and presence because his promise and presence are already in us and already reaching out to them. Our hands reach where his are already extended, our weakness made strong in joining to his power to heal and make whole.