john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Jesus plays the fool

    Joint Benefice Service at Bridestowe,

    1 Corinthians 1.18-31, John 2.1-11

    As you know, some preachers always like to start their sermons with a joke. It's their way of connecting with the congregation and maybe introducing their theme. It can be a risky strategy, though: sometimes the joke is the only bit of the sermon which anyone remembers afterwards; or worse than that, if the preacher isn't a natural comedian and the joke goes flat, then it's embarrassment all round.

    Coming from Liverpool you'd expect me to be a natural comedian because that's the reputation we all have, from Liverpool. And to start my sermons with a joke. But it doesn't often come off for me; so I'm not going to try now. But, settle down, folks, because this is a sermon about comedy - about the divine comedian Jesus the Fool, and about us being fools for Christ.

    That great comic Ken Dodd, from Knotty Ash - which does actually exist, it's a suburb of Liverpool, where Doddy regularly turns up for services at St John's Church - Ken Dodd is well known also as a student of comedy. He endlessly researches his subject, his home, next to the Jam Butty Mines, has a massive and ever-growing collection of books on the subject: 50,000-plus. He reads all the philosophers and theorists of comedy, even though their books aren't particularly funny. An interview published in The Guardian said that
    Ken Dodd can quote Bergson's theory that comedy is the perception of incongruity, or Leacock's that it is based on aggression and superiority, or Freud's that a laugh is a conservation of psychic humour; though, as he usually adds, none of them had to play the Glasgow Empire. [1]
    After his famous run-in with the Inland Revenue, Doddy usually now introduces himself onstage as a 'failed accountant' and says: 'Self -assessment forms ? I invented self-assessment!' He does this to connect with the concerns of his audience, saying that 'Comedy is very psychological, so you've got to dance around that a little bit.' [2] He also says that 'A sense of humour is seeing the funny side of a topic: how would it look if it was upside down?' [3]. Ken Dodd sees that comedians still have something which most adults have lost - playfulness: 'Everyone is born with a 'play' gear,' he says, 'a part that is playful. But sadly, lots of people lose that due to stress. Comedians don't. They still want to play.'[3]

    And so let us consider together today Jesus, the divine comedian. The playful one who took on with a smile the impossible task which his mother asked him to do at Cana in Galilee, who amused and astonished everyone at that party when he played with the water jars and transformed their contents into wine - Jesus the holy Fool, whose whole life on earth was about turning things inside out and upside down so that everyone could see things differently (especially people's expectations of God, of themselves and of the world.)

    Take a sideways look at the gospels and you'll see they are full of humour. The foolishness of Christ.

    What makes you laugh? Slapstick? Well, picture Peter following Jesus onto the water, thinking he'd be able to walk on top of the waves like his master had - and sinking splashily under. Or look at the craziness on the boat full of disciples being thrown around in a storm, the wonderful daftness of Jesus telling them, and the elements, to calm down, calm down.

    Maybe you're amused by those who can turn a phrase on its head and transform it into something very different. Groucho Marx and Woody Allen are in a long line of Jewish comedians who have done this so well, a continuum which includes Jesus telling his detractors to give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what belongs to God.

    If you like the idea of comedy turning things upside down then remember Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount - telling the crowds that the meek would inherit the earth. And all those jokes he told - sometimes we call them parables - about the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed or a woman searching for a lost coin.

    If you are inclined to think that the best sort of comedians are those who push boundaries, who talk about things which embarrass us, who break taboos, shock us into fresh understandings of ourselves and our world, then consider again the impact Jesus must have had on his audience when he held the hands of lepers, spat into the eyes of blind men.

    The surrealists amongst us must love what Jesus did with his resurrected body, playing around with his disciples by appearing out of nowhere into upstairs rooms, or even better cooking fish for them on the sea shore one breakfast time, and disappearing the instant he broke bread with the two men in Emmaus: crazy, funny, surreal, divine behaviour.

    And those who like our humour dark, and connected deeply with the seriousness and frailty of human life, will reflect on the foolishness of the cross, the ultimate turning upside-down of expectations, when the Son of God allowed himself to die, so that life could come out of it: 'Comedy is very psychological,' says Ken Dodd, 'so you've got to dance around that a little bit':
    'I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
    It's hard to dance with the devil on your back.
    They buried my body and they thought I'd gone;
    But I am the dance and I still go on.' [4]
    The comedy of the cross is a serious thing; a long way from the comedy which portrays priests and vicars as bumbling inadequates wearing silly clothing - even though those stereotypes are based on some reality. It's when Christian leaders get unfairly slandered, or become the object of inappropriate intrusion or attention, that their situation starts to approach that of the Jesus of The Passion.

    The Jesus of the Cross became like a fall guy, a straight man, a scapegoat, a stooge.
    He was our April Fool
    Hanging on a tree in spring,
    A king to mock and sniff at

    He was a straight man
    To the puffed-up priests
    Who twisted every word he taught
    To trip him up and bring him down

    If he'd been a woman
    He'd have been their Aunt Sally

    Stooge Jesus
    Taking the knocks from us
    the divine comedian. [5]
    Now if this talk is making you uncomfortable, if I'm taking a few risks by talking about Jesus in this way, if I'm pushing boundaries or turning your expectations upside-down, well: that really is the point. I call on another great philosopher of comedy to support my case: Saint Paul, who wrote that 'The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.'

    Who is really the fool, Paul seems to be asking, the person who believes the message of the cross and lives in the power of God, or the person who believes that God helps those who helps themselves, and lives in their own power, doing their own thing?

    It's very like one of those jokes Jesus told about the man who built bigger and bigger barns to stockpile his wealth for himself - and then, just when the job was done - suddenly died. Who was the fool - that man making himself rich, or the person who is rich towards God?
    'Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?' Paul asks, 'For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.'
    Our believing in Christ crucified makes us fools; but it is the foolishness of God, which brings us alongside Christ, who is 'the power of God and the wisdom of God'. It's a foolishness which in God's world really makes good sense.

    So we are called to be fools for Christ, and with Christ. If we try to save our lives we lose it - that's another one of his comic lines which will transform our lives if we embrace it. Because if we lose our lives, if we give ourselves away, if we take risks, push boundaries, for his sake, then we are really living.

    The great spiritual writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
    [Car] stickers used to have printed on [them] 'Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own.' That is worldly wisdom in a nutshell. What God says, on the other hand, is 'The life you save is the life you lose.' In other words, the life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself; and only a life given away for love's sake is a life worth living. [6]
    Buechner says that
    [...] There are two kinds of fools in the world: damned fools, and what Saint Paul calls 'fools for Christ's sake' (1 Corinthians 4.10). [6]
    I like that. It makes me think that the damned fool will keep himself to himself; the fool for Christ will keep an eye on others, especially those who are suffering or vulnerable.

    The damned fool will keep her money and possessions to herself; the fool for Christ will keep giving it all away, might even end up with nothing.

    If you are a damned fool then you will depend for your sense of worth on winning over the devotion of others, by any means possible; if you are a fool for Christ you will find your sense of worth enfolded in your devotion to God, and in realising just how much God is devoted to you.

    It might be very scary, the thought of giving yourself away to be a fool for Christ, but holy fools can deal with their fears. Even the most experienced comics like Ken Dodd admit to stage nerves; even the most devoted believer in Jesus might think twice about giving it all up for him. But when we do become holy fools for Christ, he fills our lives with all that is good, the best they can be.

    Every year our Methodist brothers and sisters have a special service in which they recommit themselves as followers of Christ: as fools for Christ. The Methodist Covenant prayer says,
    I am no longer my own but yours.
    Put me to what you will,
    rank me with whom you will;
    put me to doing, put me to suffering;
    let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
    exalted for you or brought low for you.
    Let me be full, let me be empty,
    let me have all things, let me have nothing.
    I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
    to your pleasure and disposal. [7]
    These are the words of a holy, happy, fool, a fool for Christ. Could they be yours?

    [1] Charles Nevin , Tickling shtick, The Guardian, 23 October 2004
    [2] ] Maureen Paton, Ken Dodd on his tattyfalarious life, The Times, 24 October, 2008
    [3] Stephen Smith, Why Ken Dodd has no plans to hang up his tickling stick, BBC Newsnight, 24 September 2010
    [4] Sydney Carter, Lord of the Dance, Stainer & Bell
    [5] John Davies, 'Stooge Jesus', a poem originally commissioned for the Greenbelt Festival 2007 (revised extract)
    [6] Frederick Buechner, 'Fool' in Wishful Thinking, a Seeker's ABC
    [7] The Methodist Covenant Prayer