The Gift of Laughter: Fifth Sermon on St Paul’s Letters


Sermon preached by Fr James Koester SSJE on Philippians 2.1-18, the fourth of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities.

I want first of all to express my gratitude for the invitation for us to be here today. As you know my brothers and I are members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, known better here as the Cowley Fathers, so it is a delight to be here in Cowley, the parish where it all began.

We have been on pilgrimage to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our founding, as we have explored the roots of Christianity, and thus Anglicanism in this land, but also discovering our own roots as an Anglican monastic community and especially as a particular monastic community that had its origins in this neighbourhood.

One of our customs at the Monastery is to read the obituary at Compline of a brother on the anniversary of his death. So over the years we have read about the small house on the Iffley Road where Fathers Benson, Grafton and O’Neill began the life of our community, and now we have seen, what is known to you as the Isis Hotel, the very house in whose parlor chapel those first three Fathers made their professions on 27th December 1866, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, and thus began the life of our community. We read about the chapel at the top of the stairs where Father Benson’s teaching to the early members of our community acted as the crucible where our community’s life took shape, and now we have celebrated the Eucharist there and explored the rest of the old Mission House, now St. Stephen’s House. We have seen, and even touched, the names of departed brothers inscribed on the walls of the Mission House Lady Chapel, including many of those whom we have known and loved over the years in our Monastery in Massachusetts. We have met and stayed with the All Saints Sisters and the Sisters of the Love of God, whose histories are so tied up with our own. And some of us, having heard about the Gladiator Club, founded after the Second World War by Father Hemming, have now been to the Gladiator Club and met some of its members, had a drink, and watched a couple of rounds of Aunt Sally. We have prayed in the cell in the Mission House where Father Benson died and stood outside this Church by his memorial cross. And today we are here, in the heart of the Parish of Cowley St. John, with you, who are no less the daughters and sons of Father Benson than we are.

We fly back to Boston tomorrow morning with hearts and minds full of memories and images of our pilgrimage. I will remember celebrating the Eucharist in a small side chapel at Canterbury Cathedral being watched by tourists and pilgrims as they made their way to the site of Becket’s Shrine. I will remember shedding a few tears as I preached in the Founder’s Chapel in the old Mission House, where Father Benson himself preached so many years ago. I will remember processing around Norwich Cathedral on the Eve of the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin singing the hymn Sing We of the Blessed Mother, and ending up by the statue of Our Lady of Pity listening to the choir sing Ave Maria. And now I will remember preaching from the pulpit in this Church where Father Benson must have preached. But most of all, I’ll remember laughing.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that we travelled 1000’s of miles by airplane and train and coach and ferry to see, and be, and pray in various places and what I am taking home with me is memories of laughter. Yet laughter, at least when you laugh with and not at someone, is a sign that something important it happening. It is, I think, I sign of friendship. As Paul writes in Galatians, laughter is for me a sign of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.1

We say in our Rule of Life that for us no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace. The forging of bonds between us that would make us ready to lay down our lives for one another is a powerful witness to the reality of our risen life in Christ. In an alienating world, where so many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy, we can bear life-giving testimony to the graces of friendship as men who know by experience its demands, its limitations and its rewards.2

It is this, I think, that Paul hints at in the Letter to the Philippians when he writes: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….3 Here Paul is inviting people into a bond of deep mutual friendship marked by love, unity and humility. Echoes of this kind of mutual friendship are heard in that great hymn of love in the First Letter to the Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.4

It is this patient, kind, enduring friendship that was manifested by the One who has called us friends,5 who has laid down his life for us6 and who invites us to lay down our lives for one another7 and who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.8

In a world where we can friend and unfriend someone with a click of a button, the idea of laying down one’s life for one’s friends is radical indeed. In fact, is there anyone or anything in your life that you would be prepared to die for? Or who would be prepared to die for you?

The quality of our friendship is defined, not by the click of a button, but by our willingness to die, and that begins, I think with laughter. And that is what I find astonishing! Not only was Jesus willing to die for his friends, but after the resurrection, that company of terrified women and men were willing to die because of what they had seen and heard. As we read in the First Epistle of John: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our* joy may be complete.9

Something happened to that band of women and men and it began not with threats, or fear, or terror, but with laughter. Again we say in our Rule of Life: Jesus chose to work the first of his signs and reveal his glory at the wedding feast at Cana, and he was the chief guest at many meals held to celebrate the new life he was bringing through the gospel. His joy will abound in us when we celebrate by feasting on the holy days that commemorate the great acts of creation and redemption, and the glories of the saints. He will continue to reveal his glory among us on the joyful occasions when we have festal meals to mark professions, clothings, anniversaries, holidays and special turning points in our life. These feasts are another expression of our eucharistic life, and anticipate the heavenly banquet which the risen Lord is preparing for those who love him. The careful preparations that make our festivities so pleasing are sacred tasks. Our ministry of hospitality finds one of its richest expressions as we welcome guests to join us in these festal liturgies and meals of celebration.10

Something happened all those years ago when the first disciples headed off in all directions to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection. Those early Christians had discovered what true friendship meant because they had seen it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and it began, not cowering behind locked doors in the Upper Room, but laughing around dinner tables, astonished by the unexpected quality of the wine, 11 speechless at the audacity of the host’s guest list,12 and stunned into silence watching their teacher was their feet.13

Something has happened to me over the last three weeks. I have been astonished at unexpected tears in small chapels. I have been made speechless by the incredible generosity of our hosts. I have been stunned into silence as I have become aware of the presence of God. And I have laughed.

Friendship is marked, not by the click of a button, but by our ability to laugh. Though the Gospels don’t tell us, I am sure that Jesus laughed, and having laughed, he was willing to give up his life for his friends.

Friendship is marked, not by the click of a button, but by our ability to laugh. Though the epistles of Paul don’t tells us, I am sure that Paul laughed, and having laughed, he was willing to give up his life for his friends.

Friendship is marked, not by the click of a button, but by our ability to laugh. And I have laughed this past three weeks, and having laughed I go home, not just as a pilgrim, but I hope a better friend and all that that means.

But that is all about me. What about you? Who do you laugh with? That’s the person in whom you will begin to see the face of Jesus who calls you his friend. It is in the face of the one with whom you laugh that you will discover the face of Jesus, who calls you his friend. It is in the face of the One who calls you friend that you will discover the truth of what this means: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 And it all begins, I think, with laughter.

1 Galatians 5: 22 – 23

2 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Graces of Friendship, chapter 42

3 Philippians 2: 2b – 5

4 1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 8

5 John 15: 15

6 John 15: 13

7 1 John 3: 16

8 Philippians 2: 6 – 8

9 1 John 1: 1 – 4

10 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Rhythm of Feast and Fast, chapter 28

11 John 2: 1ff

12 Matthew 9: 9ff

13 John 13: 1ff

14 John 15: 13


Feast of the Transfiguration: The Clearer Reality of Dreams


Sermon preached at St Mary and St John on the Feast of the Transfiguration by the Revd Katherine Price, Chaplain of Queen’s College, Oxford.

Since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d like to share a memory with you. When I was little I too used to climb up into a marvellous world to see wonders… not up a sacred mountain but just up the ladder into the loft space in our house! Of course the loft was full of junk but when you’re that age nothing is junk: an empty toilet roll isn’t something that’s served its purpose and needs to be thrown away but just a rocket or a dragon that hasn’t happened yet.

Up in the loft I had my little den, for making up stories. And my dad had his for his inventions. And if I was careful he would let me play with the oscilloscope… Don’t worry, I have no idea what it does either! To this day – it’s just a thing with knobs and switches and wiggly lines. This was before kids had ipads… It was years before I realised this isn’t one of those cute childhood memories everybody has!

And pinned up on one of the beams my dad had put a quote from T E Lawrence – the hero of the film Lawrence of Arabia and it read “the dreamers of the day are dangerous men”.

The dreamers of the day… Daydreaming isn’t generally seen as something very productive. When we call someone a bit of a daydreamer we’re saying they’re not in touch with the real world.

But it seems to me we have some funny ideas about reality. We have this way sometimes of talking about ‘real life’
as if perhaps our lives here in Oxford are less ‘real’ than they might be in somewhere that doesn’t feature in Morse and Harry Potter! Or as if a conversation on facebook or by text hasn’t happened ‘in real life’…

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke is an account of what could be a kind of dream-like state. We hear that the disciples were very sleepy but they had stayed awake or an alternative translation reads they had ‘become fully awake’.
They’re on the edge of sleeping and waking. And there are features of this story which remind us of dreams: for instance, Jesus’ face changed – but they aren’t able to describe how. And then Moses and Elijah are somehow there. Have they been there all along? But Peter somehow knows who they are and he just takes it in his stride, the way you do in a dream.

Now when I say this is like a dream I am not at all suggesting that it is not something real. Our Old Testament reading today from Daniel is also a dream: Daniel says he saw this while he was asleep. People at the time of Jesus took dreams very seriously; I suppose since Freud we’ve started taking dreams seriously again, in a different way: but we’ve all had that experience of a dream helping us to see things differently and perhaps waking up and realising we have an answer or a solution to something that was bugging us the night before.

The disciples see reality more clearly, not less. They see the real truth about Jesus’ divinity. They’re not seeing something that isn’t there but seeing what is there, differently.

That’s what I love about icons, like the one on the front of your pew sheet today. They are pictures of real people and places: – You won’t find an icon which shows Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes or the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary in an Italian city – But as we might imagine they really are in the eyes of God. They are a reminder that heaven is not ‘somewhere else’. It’s here.

And it’s not just religious images that can do this. It’s all kinds of art and creativity: painting, poetry, photography. A photographer or a poet isn’t oblivious to the real world on the contrary, they are very attentive to what is actually there
they draw our attention to what we might overlook the beauty of the sky reflected in a puddle or the sparkle in the eye of an old man on a park bench. And you don’t have to be a professional artist: if you’ve ever used one of those photo filters online, like instagram or prisma – This is where you take an ordinary photo and turns it into something that looks like it’s been painted. Suddenly we see our lives and the people around us as worthy of art. We see what is there, differently. And we see its potential.

There’s this fashion at the moment for ‘upcycling’ – for making something new and beautiful out of junk. Or there’s that graffiti art just here next to the church: taking something we often think of as destructive, as vandalism and instead making it creative. There’s that phrase isn’t there, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”… I saw a really beautiful and humbling example of this the other day that was reported as part of the commemoration of fifty years since the decriminalisation of gay relationships: there is a man who goes around planting and photographing pansies at the places where homophobic attacks have happened. He has taken something which you would think was entirely negative and he’s found a way of making it into an excuse for beauty.

The Transfiguration, this event on the mountain, occurs as Jesus is on his way to his ultimate appointment with death –
an agonising and humiliating death and yet he talks about his ‘departure’ as something to be accomplished or fulfilled
a creative action. As a society, we are not good with suffering. We treat pain and misery as something simply to be blocked out. We feel bad about feeling bad!

And when someone is suffering and helpless and close to death you hear this phrase ‘die with dignity’ as if a human being who is suffering and helpless is not ‘dignified’.

Jesus needs his disciples to see him as he really is so that when they see him on the cross  there will be no doubt in their minds that he has not only dignity but glory and so that when they see other people suffering and neglected and despised they will look for beauty and glory in them too.

But he’s also teaching us something about prayer. These words from the cloud, “This is my son.” We’ve heard them before: after Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan and again in St Luke that happens again when he is praying. We tend to think of prayer as a very private thing, but Jesus has invited his friends to be there to watch and learn.

Prayer often looks a bit like daydreaming. In fact, when I wander around the beautiful footpaths on the Kidneys here
or in an art gallery I’m sometimes hard pressed to say, am I daydreaming or praying? Either way, it’s not withdrawing from the real world. It is training ourselves to look at the world in all its ugliness and see it in all its glory.