Something I enjoy about getting older: it gives me the chance to look back on my life and see how the world has changed. Back in my day, we did not go around carrying the internet with us on rectangles that fit in our pockets. That is amazing! Back in my day, there was a club at school dedicated to teaching people how to take part in this new, strange thing called recycling. Now everybody just recycles! This is progress.
It is also true that in my day, if you were, say, approached by a clown, you could safely expect to be handed a balloon giraffe. These days if a clown comes toward you, chances are, you’ll wonder whether the clown is planning to murder you in the woods.
Times have changed. Clowns have changed.
Throughout history, something clowns have been responsible for is identifying the prevailing power dynamics, then flipping the power upside down. (Think of the Keystone Cops.) Clowns poke fun at who is really in charge here. They bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. In this way, clowns have a tradition of being the anti-bully. Instead of laughing at someone vulnerable, clowns volunteer to be laughed at so they can turn the laughing at into laughing with.
Clowns flip power dynamics upside down. So it makes some sad sense, that our popular imagination has flipped upside down our opinion of clowns. Stephen King understands that there is nothing scarier than turning the safest and silliest one into the villain. This reversal of expectations adds to the horror.
Back in my day, clowns were hokey but friendly. People decorated nurseries with clowns! You met clowns at birthday parties, and circuses, and for some of us —at church.
Of all the sacred and strange accoutrements of church, and there are many, one of the strangest appeared in this country in the late seventies and eighties. Churches like this one had clown troupes. Think about that.
Churches like ours were getting into all the buzz around church growth, and there were thoughtful, creative people meeting when somebody must have said something like: “I know there are people here who would give their lives to the work of sharing the Gospel, but the old ways aren’t working. We need a new approach. Hey… Why don’t we scare up a group of clowns and see what they can do with the promise of Christ?” And they did! And for a whole minute in the history of Christianity, it was fantastic. Hallelujah for the clowns!
Now as you know from being human, one of the worst experiences we can ever have is getting laughed at when that’s not what you want. Mocking and taunting go right to the center of our shame and exploit it. Here’s something I learned from growing up as a church clown: while getting laughed at —when you don’t want it— is one of the worst experiences, getting a laugh —when you do want it— is absolutely one of the best! It is implicitly affirming. There is no solidarity like the sharing of genuine laughter.
At their best, clowns are masters of turning laughing at into laughing with. When they do this, they flip power dynamics upside down. And if the first thing the clowns taught me is that power can flip, the second thing they taught me is God is funnier than we realize.
Our clown troupe would bring Bible-story routines to places like nursing homes, church events, association meetings —places where people were used to worshiping God with respectful seriousness. There’s nothing wrong with being serious in worshiping God, but there is something wrong with being only serious, all the time. When our worship is exclusively serious, we start to believe God is exclusively serious. You know God, you know she’s really not.
Finding our own humor allows us to find our own humility, humor and humility go together. Finding our humility helps us grow closer to God.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus issuing a series of instructions to the disciples. It’s a collection of analogies and one-liners, and when you hear them altogether the way we just did, you begin to hear a theme. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to access their own humility.
Now if humility is a word that raises your hackles, I don’t blame you. We often treat this word as though it means feeling bad about yourself. We know humility is connected to our deepest shame. It is also connected to our deep humor, to that exquisite place where we can laugh at ourselves.
Alongside accessing our shame and our humor, finding our humility helps us get right-sized in our relationship with God. It is saying God is God; we are not God. We are human and we know it.
Consider the examples Jesus offers. Don’t criticize the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you’re walking around with a log protruding from your own eye. Take the log out of your own eye first… Know what is holy, Jesus tells them, and don’t give it to the dogs; don’t throw pearls before swine. Know your own power, he tells them.
Be humble; let your light shine. Ask for what you need and be prepared to receive it; seek and you will find. When someone asks you for something, give it to them. Choose the narrow gate and the harder path even when that’s less popular.
Even though this world is dripping with the values of the Roman empire, values of domination and competition, you could do this, Jesus tells them. You could do unto others as you would have them do unto you.1http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3863 Find your own humility then you will see yourself in right relationship with others. You’ll grow closer to God not by becoming magnificent —that’s an empire value— but by enjoying your own humility —that’s a kingdom value. This is your power.
Recently when I read this scripture, I was not entirely surprised by the content of Jesus’s teaching. He’s presenting the ethics of the kingdom of heaven which challenge the prevailing power dynamics for Matthew’s world and for ours. These values do not surprise me. What did surprise me was Jesus’s tone.
He seems downright mean to his disciples! He calls them hypocrites. He says, off-handedly “you who are evil” like he calls them that all the time. He makes fun of a man who builds his house on the sand. What’s with the punching down, Jesus? Why is he being a jerk to his disciples? And more importantly, why does that engender their trust in his authority? It says, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…” (Matthew 7:29).
That’s when it occurred to me! I’m reading Jesus’s tone too seriously. What if he’s not being mean to them? What if he’s chiding them and joking with them the way you can with your friends… There is no solidarity like the sharing of genuine laughter.
Jesus is not cursing them, he’s blessing them, but to hear this, we’ve got to be in on the joke. The difference between cursing and blessing is where Jesus is standing. See he’s not standing up above the crowd talking down to them; they’re on the mountain together. He’s not saying, “Hey you vulnerable people. I see you. I know you are living under Roman oppression, but when the bullies come at you, just lighten up, just laugh it off.” That would be cruel. That’s not what this is.
Jesus is in the crowd with the people which means he’s not saying, “Here’s what to do when the bullies come at you. He’s saying, Here’s something we could try when the bullies come at us.” We could remember our own humility. We’re all walking around with these logs coming out of our eyes, and we don’t even notice; we keep bumping into trees, trying to tell other people about the tiny specks of dust! This parable is slapstick at its finest. Please don’t miss the humor, Jesus would say.
We could notice where we keep our own shame and our own humor, so when the bullies come trying to exploit this, they will be out of luck. How is it satisfying to laugh at a group that’s already laughing? When we can laugh at ourselves, then we’re the ones setting the terms. We’re the ones moving the line from outsider to insider, from laughing at to laughing with. Once when we can move this line, we can join God in turning power upside down. This is the work of Jesus. On their best days, this used to be the work of clowns.
In our world, the clowns can’t do this anymore. Our popular imagination has banished them to horror films and haunted houses. They can’t help us now; it’s going to have to be up to us. So do not be afraid. The work does not require advanced balloon sculpture, or cramming yourself into the crevice of a car, or juggling fire —although if you ever get the chance to juggle fire, please do not pass that up.
All it is is recognizing that we are people, and God is God, and God comes into this world to go with us. We don’t need to be the best. We are free to be downright foolish for Christ, and he is laughing with us, I promise. And we can use our laughter to share solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
May our laughter flip the power upside down. May our laughter give glory to God.
May every silly song, every loving sarcastic quip, every well-timed punch line, every piece of clever satire, every Dad joke, every Oh snap!, every slide whistle —give glory to the Holy Spirit who keeps loving and laughing us into being. Amen.