Primary Text: Genesis 45:1-8
In the words of Patch Adams, PHTHBBBBTTTT!
I think that one’s still my favorite. “O, Captain my captain,” was good, but Patch is my fave.
Why is it that the funniest ones are so often the saddest? The death of Robin Williams left everyone with questions, and no limit to the number of people providing commentary. The best one I found was by a guy named David Wong, a stand-up comedian and editor for Cracked magazine. David understands comedy from the inside, and this is how he describes it:
“At an early age, you start hating yourself. Often it’s because you were abused, or just grew up in a broken home, or were rejected socially, or maybe you were just weird or fat or … whatever. You’re not like the other kids, the other kids don’t seem to like you, and you can usually detect that by age 5 or so.”
He goes on to explain that many of the greats learned comedy as a coping mechanism, as a way of gaining control. And the more troubled they are inside, the better they become at projecting that false front into the world. So much so, that if you have a funny friend, and one day they stop being funny around you, that may actually be the first day you truly meet. It means they finally trust you enough not to put on a show.
That’s interesting to me, because humor is about expectations. Raising them. Breaking them. When we create or reveal an incongruity, we cause an “aha!” in the mind of the other person. Like when your preacher stands up in the pulpit and goes, “PHTHBBBBTTTT!” Like the first joke Aiden ever told me.
“Hey Dad, did you know I can jump higher than a mountain?”
“You cannot, silly.”
“Can too. Cuz mountains CAN’T JUMP!”
It’s that moment where your brain snaps to a new perspective. You know you understand. You know you were meant to understand. It’s one of those amazingly rare moments of direct mind-to-mind communication, and it feels so good. It catches you by surprise, and you laugh. Can’t help it. Which is why it works so well as a defense mechanism.
It’s like the world’s gentlest form of mind control. You reach into someone’s brain, and you force them to see things in a new way. Today’s story doesn’t have much comedy in it, but it does feature forgiveness, and I believe those two are twin sisters.
Instead of seeing the world in a new way, and passing that vision to other people to make them laugh, with forgiveness, we see ourselves in a new way, and when we pass it on, it makes people cry.
Most people are under the mistaken conviction that forgiveness is something you do to people. That’s how the language works, right? I. Forgive. You. Subject, verb, object. But try that in real life. Someone hurts you, really hurts you. “I forgive you?” No. I don’t. I can say it, if you’re my mom and you threaten me, but I don’t really mean it. I hurt! How could I possibly mean it?
Just like comedy, it requires a shift in perspective. Look at Joseph, from our reading today. You know the story. His brothers sell him into slavery. He winds up as a house servant in Egypt. He could have quit. He could have believed what every other person in his life was telling him. But he didn’t. He lived out his values. He lived as if his life had meaning. And he excelled.
He became the head slave, manager of the house, but then the lady of the house got him thrown in jail. Once again, he had plenty of reason to quit, every person in his life was telling him he was nothing. Worse than nothing. He wasn’t just a slave, he was a convict. And yet he continued to live as if his life had meaning, as if he had value. And once again, he excelled.
Now, he’s gone from rags to riches, manager of the entire kingdom, and he sees his brothers. They’ve come to beg for bread. But he remembers what they did. Everything that happened to him. It was all their fault, so he has them all thrown in prison because killing them would be over too quickly.
He forgave them? That’s ridiculous. They sold him! Everything he went through? How is that even possible?
It’s possible because he’d already shifted his perspective. They treated him like a slave, and he said, “No. I’m a child of God.” They treated him like a criminal, and he said, “No, I’m a child of God.”
When he finally sees his brothers again, he never says, “I forgive you.” He says, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves for selling me here.” He’s worried about them! From his perspective there’s nothing to forgive. He says, “It wasn’t you who sent me here, but God.” Once his perspective shifted, forgiveness just happened. He didn’t have to fight it. He’d spent years doing that work, and by the time his brothers showed up, it was already done.
That’s how we forgive. We do the work of redefining ourselves. Whatever happened to you. Whatever you did. That does not define you. It is not the end of you. Every day, you get to choose. Every day, you get to see yourself in a new way.
And when you live as if you matter, when you live as if you have value, when you live as if the world could be better than it is, you wake up one day and discover that victim label is too small for you, and forgiveness already happened.
Last week, I told you that Christianity is not something we force on other people. It’s still true. Running around telling other people they have to forgive is like the world’s un-funniest joke. “You need to be more forgiving. You should be a better Christian. Nya nya nya.” PHTHBBBBTTTT! We know that guy. I’ve been that guy. Don’t be that guy. Christianity and force don’t mix.
That’s doesn’t mean we go it alone. The reason most people are not amazingly funny is the same reason most people are not great at forgiving. Shifting perspective is hard. Especially when it involves looking at yourself. We have a natural, built-in, biological blind-spot.
By show of hands, how many of you are better than average drivers? Isn’t that stunning? Somehow, 80% of you are better than average. How is that possible? All the bad drivers go to some other church? All the good drivers are locals and the bad drivers are tourists? It’s possible. It’s a bit more likely that we have a hard time seeing ourselves honestly.
We need help. You ever notice that you’re funnier when you’re out with really good friends? You’re more forgiving too. I’d lay money on it. You know why? Because they know you. They let you see yourself through their eyes. And that shift in perspective frees you to forgive. Yourself. And other people.
Most of us aren’t like Joseph. There’s a few out there. Nelson Mandela types. Martin Luther Kings. You throw them in jail and they come out stronger. But most of us need help. Especially the funny ones. The harder they work to make us laugh, the harder we have to work to push past the facade, to love the human underneath. And even then, forgiveness isn’t something we do to people. It’s something we have to accept for ourselves.
Robin Williams had everything. Loving family. Financial security. Fame, acclaim, and the respect of his peers. Accomplishments and awards. And none of it was enough, because no matter how many times he reached into our minds and shifted our perspective, he couldn’t shift his own. No matter how many times people spoke love into his life, he couldn’t believe it.
What do we do with that? Three things. First, surround yourself with people who make you laugh, and dare to believe they might be right about you. Next, immerse yourself in the life of Jesus and dare to believe he might be right about you. And then, every single day, invest yourself in the life of another human being, and dare to believe you might be right about them.