Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
All Saints Sunday
Late in October, Leo Cullum, a wonderful and very funny cartoonist, died. He was a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine, which consistently and joyfully runs the very best cartoons ever. Twice in the history of the New Yorker, issues have been published with no cartoons in their pages. The first time was in 1946 in the issue that contained John Hersey’s spellbinding article describing the aftereffects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (New Yorker, August 31, 1946). The second time was immediately following 9/11. That September, when the cartoons returned, Leo Cullum led the way. A woman is sitting at a bar with a man in a checked sports coat and says to him, “I thought I’d never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket.”
I imagine you can bring to mind a funny moment that made you laugh for the first time following a really terrible thing. When my father died at the age of 55, none of my immediate family thought we would be able to laugh again. But then friends began telling stories about my father, things he had said or done, and we laughed. I love it when in a memorial service, ripples of laughter roll across the congregation when someone tells a good story or a funny moment in the life of the one we are there to remember. This isn’t quite the same, but it was incredibly memorable to Warren and me – when we adopted our daughter Matrika, she was just 2 1/2 months old. We went to India to get her and we could tell immediately that she wasn’t well. Once we were home in Minnesota, all her medical problems were easily remedied, but for the first weeks of her life with us, she was unresponsive. She rarely made eye contact or focused on our faces. She didn’t smile. We both, but Warren especially talked to her, played with her, made all the baby noises and belly button tickles we could manage, until, and I swear this is true, three weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, she laughed.
What is it about those break-through moments of laughter that are so memorable? I live with Warren so I laugh a lot, but I’m talking about those moments when your heart is broken and you wonder, will we ever laugh again? And then there’s something, and laughter just bubbles up through the grief, through the sorrow, through the worry and despair, and illness – laughter.
Jesus was speaking of the kingdom of God when he spoke the words recorded in Luke I read a moment ago. Many of the parables of the Gospels begin with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is like...” For Jesus, clearly, God’s life, God’s place and realm and time and reality – God’s world was an essential concept he wanted his disciples to understand. And because we know that Jesus’ disciples and followers were largely people who were victims of violence, injustice, discrimination and the harsh cruelties of a remnant people struggling to survive in a dominant culture that looked upon them with disdain or indifference, we can conclude that Jesus’ description of the perfect time to come, a time that is within God’s control and dominion, a time that would completely alter the balance of their lives, offered hope to people who had felt hopeless for a very long time.
It must have seemed unreal to his first listeners. You are impoverished, but the kingdom of God is yours. You are hungry, but you will be filled. People hate you, they exclude you, they defame you – still, you are blessed. You are weeping now, but you will laugh.
Don’t you imagine at least some of them asked, if only in their own minds, when? When will there be food enough to feed my hungry family? When will justice come? When will there be no more crying or mourning or violence or sorrow? When exactly will that day be? And what am I supposed to do in the mean time?
When I was in seminary, I read several books by Letty Russell, about the kingdom of God. She described it as it appears in the gospels, but she also described ways for us to integrate both the hope and reality of such a glorious time and place into our contemporary worldview. Using Jesus’ words, she wrote that the reign of God is already within us and within our grasp. When will we know it? Now, she claimed. You can know it right now and live with its blessings right now. But it is not now. We are still at war. We still believe people who are successful and comfortable and adequately insured have earned those privileges. We think some people are, well, inferior and that is why they can’t marry, why they can’t keep a job, why they lost their houses, why they’re lazy. No matter how hard we work to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, no matter how hard we work for peace, no matter how we strive for economic justice, human understanding, acceptance and love, no matter how Christ-like we try to be, we just can’t seem to get there!
The reign of God, the realm of God, the day of God, is something ahead of us. It is always still coming, but it is also already here. Do you know how to live according to the will of God? Yes, you do. So live that way and you will be part of bringing in the kingdom of God to a world starving for it, crying for it, dying for it. Live that way, and laughter will bubble up and heal your broken hearts.
Today is All Saints Sunday, celebrated on the first Sunday following Hallowe’en, when the ancient myths imagined that the veil between physical life and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. All of us, because we are human beings living through our own seasons of life and death, hope and despair, know that the line between the two is thin indeed. We can all identify with moments of grief, days of sadness, times when we feel very alone and hopeless. We are all keenly aware that the reign of God is not yet here. It is, after all, a dying time of year. The landscape is a study in brown, rust, gray, and black. Days are noticeably shorter. The air is colder. The smell of decomposing leaves fills our senses. It is a somber time, a melancholy time. It is a time of conceding losses and endings and the limited nature of life. It is a time when we know in our bones that the kingdom of God has not yet come.
Soon, however, these weeks of the dying earth will pass, and the liturgy of the Church, the passages of Scripture, the rituals of increasing light will all remind us to prepare for a new beginning, of God’s word of hope, of the advent of God’s reign, made known to us in a most prosaic way – the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. Soon, hastening back to another ancient myth, we will celebrate the return of light to the earth. Soon, not now, but soon, we will remember the incredible way God entered human life in Jesus Christ. Soon, the days of dying and sorrow and anguish will give way to days of remembering to whom we belong and we will laugh again. Amen.