SERMON: “The laughter of Derision”
Mark’s Gospel records that the soldiers before his crucifixion mocked Jesus.
In the 17th and 18th verses of the 15th chapter: “They clothed him in purple”. (Purple being the colour associated with royalty, of course) “and made a crown of thorns” – a crown… but oh the irony – it would have certainly given them a “good laugh” – and this they “put on his head, and began to salute him: ‘Hail! The King of the Jews’”
What a jolly jape for them! What a laugh! This juvenile miskey-taking must have had them in stitches.
How cruel. How hurtful. Not clever; but condescendingly wicked.
I remember reading about a so-called tribute to that magnificently awful self-styled “poet and tragedian” the wonderfully bad bard of Dundee, William Topaz McGonagall. This particular accolade was written in 1891 by students from Glasgow University who talked of his splendid achievements, professing the hope that some of the inspiration of the great man would be passed on to them from afar.
It’s an acutely cruel piece of sarcasm.
As always when he was being made fun of, McGonagall missed the point entirely and was happy to accept apparent praise from such educated men.
So many others ridiculed this figure of fun, who really did think that he was making a serious contribution to literature.
But the last laugh is on him. He is still widely read and gives pleasure to thousands with his ill-constructed doggerel.
Others – not as naive as McGonagall – can be wounded and distressed by such verbal sneers and ridicule which can sting and maim and destroy.
Think of how children’s laughter can have its cruel elements. The strong pick on the weak – the poor laddie, the disabled girl, the slower pupil.
How children can gloat when they triumph over another child. How they laugh when they see something demolished or kicked out of shape.
Sadly, many adults haven’t outgrown this childish trait.
When I was the Healthcare Chaplain, my first office in the old Infirmary was in the front hall.
The print out of inpatients was kept there for visiting Parish Ministers.
One clergyman thought he was a right wag.
For some reason, he was slightly obsessed with the fact that I’m Zaccheus like in stature.
Entering my office, he’d always say, “Don’t get up – oh, you already are!”
One conversation- and I can’t remember how it came about, probably because I was having a coffee at the time– was about my not drinking milk.
“You don’t drink milk…. What not even CONDENSED milk!”
Oh how we chuckled…….. especially when he added, “But surely you’re going to have some SHORTbread with your cuppa”
That was several years ago, and it didn’t bother me then nor now.
I’m still 5 foot 5…………
…….. and he’s 6 feet under!
This spirit of mockery is everywhere, at home, school, college….and it’s cruel and corrosive.
When my late wife underwent a not too successful operation in a certain hospital (not here), post surgery, drugged up to the eyeballs with morphine and other analgesics, one night she got out of bed and started to wander down the corridor.
The nurses, sitting at their station, suddenly noticed this disoriented woman heading toward the ward exit.
“What are you doing, Helen?”
“I need to speak to my husband”
“Back to bed with you!”
The next morning, Helen apologised.
And the response….. “That’s OK…you gave us a good laugh”
A good laugh.
Probably the same kind of mentality that underpinned rich Londoners flocking to Bedlam to laugh at the antics of the inmates. A visit to the then called madhouse was a good day out, ranking with public hangings and featured in the tourist guides of that time.
I guess all of you will know the story of “The Elephant Man” who lived at the end of the 19th century.
John Merrick was grotesquely deformed, his body and face distorted, his skin thick and pendulous, hanging in folds – resembling the hide of an elephant.
People flocked to see him at carnivals and sideshows, where he was billed as “Half a man; half an elephant”
Exhibited as a freak, an object of mocking disgust, Merrick was eventually freed from those wanting a cheap laugh.
He was, it was discovered, a gentle, highly intelligent, sensitive man with a romantic imagination. This makes his degradation at the hands of others all the worse.
An eminent surgeon of the day, Sir Frederick Treves, helped to rehabilitate him – even introducing him into high society…. he became a favourite of the then Princess of Wales (later to become Queen Alexandra).
How often the objects of our humiliation are, in reality, not weaker than us – but rise above our puerile insults and jibes, appearing stronger, more noble, better than us.
Supremely – how true of Jesus in the scenario we remember today.
The soldiers dressed him up with the Imperial purple, the Royal cloak, and on his head placed that other symbol of majesty, the crown….. though this crown was fashioned from twisted thorn leaves.
And they made a show of homage and obeisance as they pretended to worship him.
In reality, they were mocking the freak, taunting the weakened fool, humiliating the deluded weakling who misguidedly talked about the Kingdom.
Oh, the irony! They may have tried to make a caricature of Jesus as King, while the truth is that he is the King of Kings!
Beneath the jest, there was an eternal truth.
And Christ rose above it all. He may have been treated as a ribald crowd would a figure of fun, but he suffered them – and would suffer FOR them – and rode out his humiliation with dignity.
Through the centuries and continuing to this very day and this very hour, there has been many a burlesque of allegiance to Christ, near matching the mockery of the soldiers.
A crown has been put on his head, a crown of formal declaration, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
People have stood in reverence as those words have sounded out to the stirring words of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
But how many really mean it? How many are taking it lightly, half-heartedly, perhaps even with a tinge of mockery underpinning it?
On the spot where this mockery of Christ was supposed to have taken place, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is a particular Chapel.
It’s name? “The Chapel of the Derision”
The Chapel of Derision reminds the worshipper of all that Jesus went through by being scorned and rejected by the very people He came to save.
It is said that anyone who puts an ear to the altar in the Chapel of Derision will hear the sounds of laughter representing those who laughed at Jesus.
It’s a strange combination of words, isn’t it? Chapel; derision
But is it really so paradoxical? If there should be a church of Christ in which class and race lines are drawn, a church in which Christ’s teaching of self-sacrifice and humility and compassion is disregarded, would it not, in truth, be a chapel of derision?
There’s an old internet story – an urban legend – of an American pastor who transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning.
He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food….NO ONE in the church gave him change.
He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit at the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation……..
“We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek”….The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation…..The homeless man sitting in the back stood up…..and started walking down the aisle…..the clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him….he walked up to the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment….then he recited:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning…many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame….
….. then he said….”Today I see a gathering of people……not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples…when will YOU decide to become disciples?”
It’s not necessarily a factually true story, but isn’t it true of how many so-called Christians make a mockery of what we are called to do?
Today, on this Passion Sunday – or call it what you will – let us be glad (yes, “glad”)… even joyful and happy… a happiness shot through with love, adoration and praise, giving true homage to the one who could never be hurt by mockery, never wounded by cruel laughter, but who rose above it all.
We commemorate not a time of humiliation, but celebrate a time of victory.
So let us “bring forth the Royal diadem and crown him Lord of all”!