What's Funny About That?

Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
Holy Humour Sunday, April 8, 2018
Trinity on Church UC, Kitchener  

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,
And no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,
But everything they owned was held in common…

There was not a needy person among them,
For as many as owned lands or houses sold them
And brought the proceeds of what was sold. 

You first, eh?  What did you think of the early Christian commune? ‘From each according to his means, to each according to her needs’, eh? If our culture presumes what’s mine is mine, and only reluctantly surrenders some of our stuff to become ‘ours’, part of the commonwealth, this was the opposite.

Can you imagine a community of pooled resources, not in a monastic remote retreat, but in an open urban community? How long would that last? Read on in Acts, and you will find out: Barnabas, ‘son of encouragement’, sells his land to contribute the proceeds to the common kitty, but next Ananias, consulting with his wife Sapphira, sells but holds back a bit from the common purse. They each get caught, and struck dead by God for it, on the spot.

All they were doing was over-promising and under-performing, in a prudent cautious way. Peter doesn’t deny that the land was theirs, the money was theirs – but to purport to commit it all, and only commit part, was lying to the community. ‘You’re known by the company you keep’ Really known.

On this ‘Holy Humour Sunday’, I proposed that this, like most scripture, was written for reading aloud, in the good company of a faith community, not alone and silently.  Since the beginning, with this first possible exception, the church has included mixed company – like Lydia the importer/exporter of luxury cloth, patroness of another church in Acts.   We recognize the irony, the gap between this ideal and our actual reality.  We know who has the most ‘stuff’.

We are not Acts communitarians in our congregation. We don’t tithe, some of us have been known to miss worship some Sundays.  But dozens of our folks live in a pretty ‘thick’ form of faith.  They participate a lot, over a long time, and people notice when they are missing. Their voice is heard, even in silence.  Who talks big, and does less?  We know them, and love them anyhow.

We are less gracious and merciful to our ‘broad shallow pool of affiliates’.  Those listed for ‘burial purposes only’, or attending ‘Christmas and Easter’, draw a bit of resistance from the more active.  Those in a season of life with less availability or contributions of time and money may be overlooked. Yet God has not struck any of us down.  She is more gracious, giving more than any of us deserve for virtue, and repaying us less than any of us deserve for our vices.

Have you filed your tax return yet? Did you get your refund already? April 30 is the tax-filing deadline.  It’s not too hard for me to file a T4, or for 2017, a T4 from Calgary and one from Trinity.  I add a few charitable and political receipts, then the CRA runs me through compliance checks: too much spent on housing, too much donated to politics and charity (for a United Church minister).

I know too much about taxes, and even wrote a little book about taxes for the United Church 20 years ago.  The basic operating presumption of taxation is that my stuff is mine, and the government has to prove that any tax levied is justified: mine, not ours.  The money to pay for health, education, social services, infrastructure, and or general commonwealth is assumed to be grudgingly paid by resistant people who prefer to keep it all for themselves.

There is a modest tax incentive, to encourage people to give to charity. When I volunteer to pay some of my money to charities to share benefit and control as if that money were ours, I get a tax receipt, and a tax credit. Canadian tax-filers report donations. Nearly $10 billion dollars to charities, and get tax relief for doing so. Most of the dollars, increasingly, come from the super-rich putting their names on big buildings and projects. 

Canadians are good generous people, and not just selfish folks who can’t think beyond what’s mine, to what’s ours.  Right? We’re not Acts 4 people, but we’re not all Ananias and Sapphira. Are we?  About 1 in 5 tax-filers report charitable donations. That means 4 out of 5 do not claim any charitable deductions.

The median donation (where as many give more as give less) among the few, the 20%, the middling classes (not the super-rich whose few big gift skew the average) is $250. That’s Canada Revenue Agency stats.  In surveys, 85% of Canadians say we give to charity. We buy chocolates from children for school trips, sponsor friends in walkathons or fun runs for charity. Don’t we all?

But most of these transactions, with or without the tax break, are not just gifts. They are exchanges, non-profit, but not disinterested generosity.  We often expect a quid pro quo, a benefit for our modest investment of cash. 

In the UK and Australia, only church help for others gets the break, and churches’ non-profit club operations are just non-profits. We Canadians convince ourselves that we are a generous people, and repeat that perception of ourselves as truth.  Which is right: our opinions of ourselves, or our tax returns? Should we laugh, or cry, or rage? Today, we celebrate grace: we get more than we deserve, and we celebrate mercy: we get less than we deserve!

There is a gap between what God made, promised, and what the world is like right now. There is a gap between our gifts and vocations, and what we have made of them so far. It’s the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous. Who could deny that, except maybe us? We are a pragmatic church, in a practical culture – busy dealing in the here and now, and uncomfortable with the ultimate things.  We prefer problems we think we can fix, over mysteries.

At our best, our culture and our church recognizes humour in the gaps between the ideal and the real, the sublime and the ridiculous. Remember George Burns in O God? God appears to a grocery clerk, and appears in the form of George Burns with thick glasses and a cigar – and admits that the avocado was a mistake – the pit’s too big.

At our worst, we reduce religion to a glee club without glee, service club without service, or the ‘NDP party at prayer’.  We deny the gap exists. Worse, we claim you can be on one side or the other, saved or sinner, good or bad, denying that the line between good and evil, heaven and hell, runs through each heart, and through each moment.

Sometimes we fill that gap with grief: hopeless at our losses of the past, of people, or of the future, of purposes we once had hoped. Often, we fill that gap with guilt: sorry for the choices we had, and the ones we made, and eager to blame others for their choices. We blame more than we confess, we humans.

We accuse more than we admit, in our culture.

It’s better to describe the gap with grace and mercy, with irony, paradox, not judgment.  I invited you to look around, and imagine the burdens of your neighbour. It’s up to you.  Cut her slack, or don’t.  Expect reciprocity. However none of us is as gracious as God, nor as merciful as God. The letter to John says

‘if anyone says he is without sin, they lie and the truth is not in them’.

We are not yet put right with God or with one another. That’s what ‘atonement’ is about, being ‘at one’ with one another and with God.  God is light, life, love – we’re not. Yet.  What a thing it would be, to know ourselves known, and know ourselves loved, forgiven our lives of not-yet, no-longer, not-enough, too-much.

In the end, repetitiously, I said the gap between what is and what ought to be, between what the Creator intended, and what is, is undeniable.  We can get mad, or sad – or we can be glad that we are invited to make choices that matter, and change the gap.  Even where the gap is bigger than a problem to be fixed, it matters to share the burden, to be known by the company we keep.

Children teach that best.  They can find delight and humour in what does not fit the pattern they have learned, or in how they can change what is around them.  We might be reminded in our real world to be not only mad or sad – but glad.   The ‘problem’ is not out there, but in here, how we respond between the ears – and how we share the load among and around ourselves.  So we prayed, again:

Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord,  send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying, 
Send us love, send us power, 
send us grace!

God who created delights of all kinds –
Which bring smiles and chuckles to infants and elders
Surprising, startling, unexpected things
Which interrupt our rigid narrow versions of normal
Give us a glimpse of an incongruity today
And make us laugh – or at least smile a moment
And we will give thanks

God who created with a Word –
Which spoken, brings order out of chaos
And reassurance to panic
That behold it is good, and humans, very good
Give us a rhythm in the cacophony
And give us ears to hear it,
And tap our feet – or even dance a bit
And we will give thanks

God whose spirit moves like wind and water
Visible by what is moved, if not in itself
Trees moved in the same direction
Flowing rivers floating many along
Visible effects of invisible forces
Give us imagination to recognize spirit
And smile at the connections we’ve made
And we will give thanks

God who embodied spirit and humanity in Jesus
Who with his words and actions and very being
Reverent irreverence, obedient rebellion,
Made some so angry, and others so joyful
Litmus test of truth and justice and faithfulness
Give us good company to keep
And discernment of bad company to avoid
What side of each fence we are on,
And who is there with us
And we will give thanks

God, what makes you weep, what makes you laugh?
A stumble in the march of the dominant forces
A hiccup in the speeches of the powerful ones
An interruption in the drone of norms and niceness
A moment of relief in the midst of chronic suffering
A shared laugh at a funeral
We pray for such moments of holy humour

When the bared teeth of smiles hide deceit or fury
When puns and old saws avoid deeper issues
When jokes have butts, victims and targets
When we are invited to laugh at, not with others
God forbid we join the bullies’ taunting
Even if we are accused of being humourless
Remind us of a wider frame, your promise
We pray for such moments of holy humour

God, you know who makes us smile
After they’ve left, and as we finally get the punchline

God, you know what makes us chuckle
In the victories of what is good, true, beautiful

God, you know what lifts up our spirits
From the suffocating suppressions of our existence

Remind us of a wider frame, your promise
We pray for such moments of holy humour

God, what makes us weep is what makes us laugh
The delights that you created, all good
All that is moved and makes visible your presence
The choice of good company or bad
The struggles for justice and healing
The human habits of sinning and saving

You know our specific thanks and askings today
We pray for moments of holy humour today
As we join in general words we were taught....

Lord’s Prayer…

Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord,  send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying, 
Send us love, send us power, 
send us grace.