Easter Sunday sermon, transcript

Happy Easter.

Thanks for coming out. There is a tradition. It’s really alive in the Roman Catholic church and in the Orthodox church, and a little bit in the Episcopal Church. I’m going to bring it out today. There is a tradition of telling a joke on Easter Sunday. I think it’s to reveal the nature of reality as a comedy, because of the Resurrection. There are, of course, famous preachers on television, who will open up their sermons with a joke to the audience. It is an audience isn’t it, not a congregation? I’ll do it today. I’ll tell a joke, and we can see where it goes. It’s a really good joke. It’s one that my dad taught me, and used to always tell me when I was a kid. It’ll work really well with this congregation. It is a knock-knock joke. You ready? All right. You start the joke. Go ahead.

[The congregation says, “Knock-knock.”]

Who’s there? Thank you. That’s the joke. Okay. Not bad, huh? These jokes … Why the jokes? I think it’s because of what God has done with Jesus Christ in this resurrection. It shows that the world, the created order in partnership with God is a comedy and not a tragedy. You know what, Mel Brooks, the great philosopher. Do you know him? He says, “Comedy is when I …” Wait. Let me get it straight. “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy, is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

There are all these different atonement theories, these understandings of how, of what God is doing in Jesus Christ, in the resurrection. One of them, one of the most ancient ones is called, the Christus Victor. Christ victorious over the powers of sin and death, and one of the sub streams of this particular theology, was quite active in the first 600 years or so, of the church, was that God had played a trick on the devil.

The devil on Good Friday, thought he had won. The powers of sin, evil and death had won. Instead, God did a bait and switch and said, “Nope. Here he is.” It kind of fell out of favor of course, throughout the middle ages. God playing a trick and being deceitful is not exactly a popular notion. For a while there, it was quite popular. This is where the joke idea comes from. Let’s remind everybody that reality, that life is a comedy. It has a happy ending.

The way that we can think about jokes is … First of all, E.B. White, you know E.B. White. He said that, trying to analyze comedy is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog doesn’t survive. We talk about how comedy work, how joke work. There’s always a setup, right? There’s a punchline. The setup is where you sort of establish the context. Everybody gets some buy-in, kind of like with a knock-knock joke. The punchline is this subversion, kind of, of the expectation, right?

If you know a joke … How many dads in the house? I just want to know. Yeah. Dads have a few jokes that we recycle over and over and over and over again, right? After the 50th time you’ve heard it, you probably don’t laugh. You know what’s going to happen. Your dad brings it out to all these newbies that you meet. They laugh, maybe. The punchline is the subversion of the expectation. It doesn’t totally destroy it. It would be ridiculous if it just went off into some totally different direction, kind of like my joke this morning. It’s sort of, an absurd joke, because it plays on the form, right?

Knock-knock. Who’s there? We have this setup and this punchline. We have this establishing of the context and the subversion of the expectations. There’s this theorist of comedy named, Peter McGraw. He talks about how comedy has two things. It has a violation of an expectation, and that violation must be benign. They have to match up perfectly, okay? Violation of expectation of how things ought to be, but it has to be benign, it has to be good. It can’t be malign. Can’t be malignant or bad. Got it?

If we take the life of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, a benign … Well, let’s start with the malignant. A malign expectation being met is that, on Good Friday Jesus died and was put in the tomb period, end of story. That would be a fulfillment of the expectation, but the malignant kind. The end. This death, just like any other death. I mean, it’s like every other death. It’s like Socrates, right? He’s an innocent man. He dies. Boom, done. That is not a joke. That is just a death. A purely benign thing where all the expectations were met might be: Jesus was a teacher. He was accepted. He started this new religion. And then, at the age of 80 years old, he just kicked over and died, the end.

These aren’t jokes. These are just benign expectations being met, and expectations being met in a malignant way. A benign violation of how things ought to be is: he was dead and is now risen. It is a joke. It is a comedy. This is what’s going on today. I think what’s so funny about it, is that there is a joke in the gospel reading, where the angel says, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

It’s just like this … Hey guys, can you imagine what that would have been like, to hear it like, “Huh?” It’s a joke. It’s comedy. The cool thing is, is that the punchline of a joke, always recontextualizes the entire setup, does it. There’s that flash of insight that happens. That is what’s funny. That flash of insight, where your expectations are played with. They’re subverted, they’re maneuvered. These punchline, they always reorient everything that was setup.

One of my favorite jokes is one I read about 30 years ago. It’s from a comic book called, The Killing Joke. Is there anybody whose read The Killing Joke in the house? You got to work on y’all’s literacy. It’s an old Batman story. Batman and the Joker. Toward the end of the story, Batman and the Joker are out. The Joker is telling a joke to Batman. He tells this joke.

He says, “There was these two men escaping from prison. They’re up on top of the prison. They’ve got to jump from one building to the next. They’re like four stories up. There’s this alleyway downstairs, or down there. They’re afraid. They’re like, ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s like, ‘Well, how about this? Let’s take our flashlight, shine the beam across and then we’ll walk across the light to make it across.’ The other guys says, ‘You must think I’m crazy. You’re going to turn that light off when I get halfway across.'”

The punchline recontextualizes the setup.

“The resurrection,” as St. Paul says, “is foolishness to the world. It’s a joke.” We’re in on the joke. We get to recontextualize the entire setup. I want you to think about history, all of it. Everything that’s ever happened, being recontextualized in this joke. You see, this death has happened. This resurrection has happened. It’s the first of a great many resurrections.

We are in on this joke. We are living this joke. What does that look like? Well, it looks like being a resurrection people and doing things that other people don’t do, like seeking reconciliation where there really shouldn’t be, forgiving sin, forgiving sins against us, seeking our own forgiveness, confessing. Imagine this. A group of people that make it a priority to talk about how they’re not that great. Hilarious.

I have some sin I need to confess to you. See, the church can be a confessing place, a place of honesty and truth. This is what it means to live out this resurrection comedy that we are involved in. I want you to join this joke, be reminded of this joke on Easter. Enter into this benign violation of how things ought to be, so that we can spread out this joke, and enter into the joy of Easter. Amen.

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