On Humor, Mustard “Trees” and a Fly at a Funeral

June 17, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4: 26-34

1993 was a really hard year for my family. First off, I was 14 and going through puberty, which was absolutely miserable for everybody. But then actual tragedy struck, and my cousin, who was my age and like a sister, died in a car accident. In fact, she died 15 years ago last night. And then right after that, my great-grandmother died. And for my family it felt like what perhaps the past year or two have felt like for so many in our country. Bad news just kept piling up, leaving us feeling more and more beaten down. And so, by the time we got to my great grandmother’s funeral, we had nothing left. I remember how we all sat in silence, staring at the floor. We had nothing to say because it felt like death was winning and we were losing. And we were just so tired from all the grief. But then, God sent a fly. Yes, I said a fly. And it wasn’t just any old fly. It was one of those fat, buzzy, aggressive flies and kept flying up towards the ceiling of the funeral home and then it would dramatically dive bomb swooping closer and closer to my deceased great grandmothers face, may she rest in peace. My little cousin and I both saw it at the exact same moment. Our heads started to bob up and down synchronized with movements of the fly, and then everyone else in the room started to follow the fly as well. We looked like we were at a tennis match (mimic movement), but then someone let out a gasp as the thing we all feared, the worst thing that could possibly happen actually happened.  That fly landed on my great grandmother’s face and then disappeared right up her nose! Stunned we all stood still for just a half second, but then the whole room burst out into laughter. Like deep belly laughs. We laughed so hard, tears were streaming down our faces in a baptism of joy that we didn’t think was possible. Because we had been so worn down by bad news that we didn’t think there was any room left for good news, but that moment of laughter and raw humor was a gift from God. It miraculously cracked open our hearts and showed us that, while our sadness was real and warranted, God’s mercy and love are stronger than death and that God will break all the rules in the book to share that love with us, even sending a blessed fly to a funeral.


So, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about humor, but specifically humor in the midst of grief and sadness. And abbot how I believe that laughter is God’s natural sacrament, and by that, I mean that laughter is a sacrament in the same way that communion and baptism are sacraments. That God in her infinite wisdom and creativity takes everyday physical experiences like eating and bathing and laughing and transforms them into instruments of grace, through which God breaks down the wall between the human and the divine so that God can give us a direct injection of divine love. That’s what a sacrament is–it’s when God breaks the rules and says, no, this is no longer just eating, just bathing or even just laughing, because through these fragile earthly things I am giving you another piece of the divine spark so that you can keep going. So that you will know that you are not just the sum of all the bad things that have happened to you. Yes, those bad things are real and they do actually happen to us, but God has given us laughter so that we can put those awful things in their rightful place. So that we can laugh at the powers and principalities of this world until the day when they are forever consigned to the ash heap of history.


Now, for some of us, it might feel insensitive or just too soon to even talk about laughter when we’re in the midst of mounting moral and diplomatic crises, when our international alliances that we have relied on for so long are crumbling, and when the holy words of our sacred scripture are used to justify tearing children from their families only to satisfy an idolatrous attachment to so-called “law and order”. In times like these, it can feel like any sort of encouragement to laugh is a call towards distraction and self-indulgence, as if I’m saying everything will be fine if we just smile and put “Don’t worry, be happy” on repeat. And yet, this week, I’ve also not been able to get out of my head that line we so often say at communion, that part where we say how “Jesus turns the old world upside down. He forsakes the temple, laughs at the powerful, kisses sinners and heals the unclean.” Our Lord, the one who fell headlong into the pain of this world, this same one laughs, he laughs at the powerful because he knew their days are numbered. He laughs because he knows where all of this is headed and that all those who feel like nobodies today will be part of God’s everything tomorrow.


Which is what Christ does in the parable of the Mustard Seed from today’s gospel: he laughs at the powerful, and in doing so, he lifts up the lowly, giving hope to those who feel that the rules of the world are always against us. Now I don’t know how much you know about mustard plants, but the more you know about it, the easier it is to hear that his comparison of the Kingdom of God to a mustard plant comes across as a huge cosmic joke, but a joke where once and for all the poor and the marginalized are no longer the punchline. And since those who first heard Jesus tell this parable lived close to the land,  I have to imagine that they laughed out loud when Jesus said that after the tiny mustard seed is planted, “it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Because what Jesus is describing here just isn’t a horticultural reality. When I was a kid, I had my own vegetable garden and I would grow mustard, and the thing you quickly learn is that mustard is really just a weed. It’s not pretty and it’s not grand. It’s weak looking, short and spindly and unless it’s planted really close to other things, it flops over. Unlike the majestic cedar from today’s reading from Ezekiel, a tree that actually is strong enough and big enough to provide a comfortable home for birds, the mustard plant is a total wimp. Therefore, Jesus is joking about the way things work in the world as we see it, in order to teach us about a God who plays by totally different rules. Because while we cannot make a mustard plant grow into a tree, God can and does and will. Therefore, in the Kingdom of God, the joke is ultimately on the powerful, on the powers and principalities of this world who trust in their own strength.


And so, I have to believe that those farmers and fishermen, backwoods hookers and snake oil salesmen, all the desperate folks who knew what it felt like to have children snatched from their arms, and their wages garnished and their dignity trampled on, I have to believe that they got the joke. I have to believe that they laughed and that through their laughter their hearts cracked open and hope flooded into places they never felt hope could reach. Because, up to that point, they knew they were weeds, but what they didn’t know was that God has ultimately rigged the universe in favor of weeds.


Because up to this point they thought God played by the rules of the Empire, the rules of this world, they thought weeds always stayed weeds. They didn’t know that weeds could become trees. They didn’t know that God plays by different rules.


But God took the form of a human and walked among us in order to break all the rules and to play the ultimate trick of them all. Because when Jesus died on the cross, the rulers of this world thought they had won, but then God laughed. And the divine laughter echoed from the highest heavens to the deepest pit of Hell and out from that laughter came the only rule that governs eternity and that rule is Love. Amen.


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