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The Spirit of God in Daily Life: In Our Humor

August 7, 2011
Sermon:  The Spirit of God in Daily Life:  In Our Humor
Text:  Luke 6:21


We sometimes think that all of the Beatitudes of Jesus are contained in the fifth chapter of Matthew.  Others, however, appear in various places in the Bible.  I want to refer to one section of a verse of Scripture from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 6, that also contains a beatitude:  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  We do not hear that particular beatitude very often, but it is also from the lips of Jesus.  With that Scripture in mind, we continue our series of messages The Spirit of God in Daily Life.  Today, we are considering how the Spirit of God works in our lives through the gift of humor.

One of the great temptations in preaching a sermon like this one would be simply to string together a bunch of jokes or stories so that everyone could get a good laugh.  That is not what I intend to do today.  I have actually been thinking about the place of humor in Christian life and especially in Christian worship for a long time, even since my days in seminary.  I have much more to say to you than I can possibly cover in the time we have this morning, but I hope to make you think a little more deeply about the importance of humor in our lives.  I want you to consider how laughter is an integral part of being a Christian.  God’s Spirit tickles our funny bone and gives us a spirit of real gladness.

Is Christian humor an oxymoron?  Are the two contradictory?  Some people would think so.  Some people believe that we should have only somber faces, that we should never laugh during worship.  How can you can listen to a Children’s Sermon, hear Holly announce the wrong page number of a hymn or some silly comment I make and not laugh?  This Sanctuary is a place of great joy, a place where we can laugh together.  We do, as Paul enjoined the early Christians, “rejoice with those who rejoice; and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).  It is so important for us to respond in that manner.

The old woman was very, very sad.  Her life had been so hard.  Late in life, she had been uprooted and relocated to a place she did not know at all, a place where she knew no one, a place where she felt displaced.  Looking back on her life, she saw that so many dreams and promises had been unfulfilled.

One day while she was in her kitchen baking bread, strangers came to her door.  As she listened to their conversation with her husband, she began laughing, something she had not done in a long, long time.  Her laughter was like ice breaking off trees in the wintertime, like the low grinding sound an old Ford trying to crank on a cold morning.  Eventually, this woman broke into a full belly laugh.  She learned through eavesdropping that she was pregnant – at ninety years old!

I can guarantee you that circumstance was not included in the new Medicare bill.  You will find this story – the story of Abraham and Sarah – in the book of Genesis.  God had promised this couple a child, but God did not give them that child until very late in life.  Abraham and Sarah named the child Isaac, the Hebrew word for “laughter.”

You can find humor throughout the pages of the Bible; but you can miss it, especially if you read only the King James Version.  Humor is very difficult to translate, not only from one language to another but also from one culture to another.  In order to find the humor in the Bible, you probably need to read one of the paraphrases such as The Living Bible or The Message by Eugene Peterson.  One of those paraphrases will help you see more clearly just how much humor the Bible contains in whimsical wordplay, in puns, in the naming of people and places, and in human interactions.  Let me mention just a few stories.

We find a touch of humor among the plagues of Egypt.  Moses had declared to Pharaoh, on God’s behalf, “Let my people go.”  When Pharaoh refuses, God sends a plague of frogs.  Try to imagine the land covered with frogs.  Egyptian magicians, not to be outdone by Moses, use their magic to conjure up even more frogs from the south of Egypt.  The area has a double-whammy of frogs.  They are everywhere.  Pharaoh finally tells Moses, “OK, I will let the people go.”  When Moses cries out to God, his prayer is a frog-like shout that can carry above all that croaking.  That shout was the Hebrew equivalent of “Ribbet.”  You miss that humor if you do not know the Hebrew language.  I missed it, and I have studied Hebrew.

Consider the story about Balak, who wants to put a curse on the people of Israel.  He summons a man named Balaam for that purpose.  As the story progresses, we see that the donkey has more sense than either of the two men.  In the end, you see that the real donkey – the Revised Standard Version – is not the beast.  Balak and Balaam are the real fools here.  It is as if God has turned the tables.  The animal has the sense.  The two men are foolish.

Among the prophets, we see a very interesting event occurring in the story of Abigail, a woman who conspires with King David.  David decides that her husband, who is doing wrong, has to die.  Abigail actually saves her husband’s life temporarily by informing David that if her husband should die, she would be available to marry the king.  David takes that promise to heart.  When her husband dies, David takes her as one of his many wives.

Consider the humor found in the story about Ruth.  She behaves in a most unlady-like manner in making herself available to Boaz, who is as dense as a stump.  Unable to get through to Boaz that she is available for marriage, she crawls under the covers with him.  He is horrified at her assertive conduct, but says, “I would like to marry you.”  She answers, “That’s what I thought you would say.”

The book of Esther is really a very comical story about the tables getting turned and the bad guy getting his comeuppance.  To this day, the Jewish people celebrate the Feast of Purim, mentioned in that Scripture.  That celebration is a combination of April Fool’s Day and Halloween where people dress up and play jokes on each other.  This wonderful story of Esther leads to this expression of humor within the Jewish community.

The book of Proverbs is a collection of lampoons.  The two targets for its satirical attack are foolish men and quarrelsome women.  Men are quick to point out the proverbs that focus on a quarrelsome woman:

–          “Like a gold ring in a swine’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.” (Proverbs 11:22)

–          “It is better to live in a desert than with a contentious and angry woman.” (Proverbs 21:19)

–          “It is better to live on a corner of the roof than in a house of companionship with a quarrelsome wife.” (Proverbs 25:24)

–          “The constant dripping on a rain-stormy day and a quarrelsome woman are alike.” (Proverbs 27:15)

Men get their comeuppance in the book of Proverbs:

–          “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, a rod for the body of fools!”  (Proverbs 26:3)

–          “Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand so is a parable in the mouth of fools.” (Proverbs 26:9)

–          “Like a dog that returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11) This one is probably the most disgusting and the most poignant.

What about Jesus?  Did he have a sense of humor?  Absolutely.  He had a tremendous sense of humor.  Jesus was, in the tradition of the rabbis, a storyteller and master at one-liners.  Like the messages of Proverbs, Jesus communicated the wisdom of the Bible with a kind of wry smile.

The full recognition of his humor has pretty much eluded us, but a Quaker named Elton Trueblood explains Jesus’ humor in his book The Humor of Christ.  You see humor in a comment like, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus was always ready with an answer, using irony and paradox, even giving his disciples nicknames like “Peter the Rock” or “James and John, Sons of Thunder.”  Jesus is constantly speaking about the priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  He tells the story about priests who are so preoccupied with their religion that they do not have time to stop and help a man who has been beaten.  Many of his comments would have had his audience laughing.  Consider these examples of Aramaic hyperbole, which illustrate the humor of Jesus’ day:

–          “Why do you look for a speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye when you have a piece of lumber sticking out of your own eye?”  (Matthew 7:3)

–          “Why do you strain out a tiny gnat but swallow a camel?” (Matthew 23:24)

Long before Mary Poppins, Jesus knew that a spoonful of sugar would make the medicine go down.  He had a knack for teaching in the context of something that could be easily swallowed.

Jesus’ parables should not always be taken as deadly serious.  Does someone take a lamp and put it under a bed stand?  That is silly.  Would someone choose to whitewash only the outside of an ossuary, a place for bones, without cleansing the inside?  Jesus said that he would dine with friends, whether they were rich or poor, whether they were drunkards, tax collectors, or people from the street.  When his adversaries complained about his associated with common people, he said they were like children in the marketplace who could not be satisfied.  He said, “We play the flute, and you will not dance; we have sung dirges, and you have not beaten your breasts” (Matthew 11:17).  It is important for us, as followers of Christ, to know that we must catch the humor of Jesus in order to see our Lord in a different light.

Humor is an excellent stress-reliever.  Proverbs tells us that a good laugh is like good medicine:  “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).  Dr. Hans Selye talks about this very point in his book Stress without Distress.  He says that when we laugh, we give ourselves a natural tranquilizer that has no harmful side effects.

Abe Lincoln was president during one of the most stressful times in American history.  Lincoln enjoyed reading the cartoons about him drawn almost daily by Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist.  He insisted that Nast’s cartoons be sitting on his desk in the Oval Office when he walked in every morning.  Lincoln began the day with a good laugh.

Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton did not like the President.  One day Lincoln said to Stanton, “Why don’t you laugh?  If I couldn’t laugh, I don’t think I could do this job.”  Abe Lincoln knew that laughter will relieve stress, even in the most difficult of times.  Dr. Selye knew it.  Bill Cosby knows it.  He is fond of saying, “If you can laugh at it, you can survive it.”

Humor not only relieves stress, but it also helps us in our sorrow.  Some of you have been to funerals that I had led.  You know that occasionally we will laugh.  It is not uncommon to laugh during a funeral in this Sanctuary.  I have learned from my own experience that in the midst of our sorrow, there is reason to laugh.

One of my favorite stories about the humor in sorrow is about a pastor green out of Southeastern Seminary and serving a church in eastern North Carolina.  One day a woman in his church called and said, “We have had a great tragedy.  Would you please come to my house and be here when my son comes home from school?”

When the pastor arrived, he discovered that her little eight-year-old son’s beagle named Barney followed the boy to the bus stop that morning, just as he did every morning.  Normally when the bus returned in the afternoons, Barney would be sitting there waiting and wagging his tail.

On this particular day, Barney had followed the boy to the bus stop.  After the bus left, the dog followed his nose like a beagle will do.  A dump truck had run over and killed the dog, and the mother had wanted the pastor to be there when her son came home from school.

When the school bus dropped off the little boy and he saw that Barney was not waiting for him, he knew something was wrong.  After walking down the driveway and seeing the preacher’s car, he knew that something was very wrong.

Once inside the house, the little boy asked, “Mama, what’s wrong?”

“Son, the preacher wants to talk to you.”

My goodness how that pastor talked and talked and talked, trying to explain to this little boy what had happened to his dog!  He was so new at being a pastor that he began saying things that even he did not believe.  He finished by adding, “Jesus came and took Barney to heaven.”  After talking some more, he finally asked, “Do you have any questions?”

The little boy, sniffling and crying, asked, “Yes, sir, just one.  What does Jesus want with a dead dog?”

Even in the midst of sorrow, there is reason to laugh.

Bill, a friend I had in Winston-Salem, was literally dropped on his head one icy day when he was an infant.  That fall resulted in a terrible brain injury.  He suffered all of his life with cerebral palsy.  Though he had no control over the motor functions of his body and his speech was contorted and slurred, his mind was sharp.

In many ways, Bill was a remarkable man.  Each week, he typed a script for his half-hour radio program by holding a pencil in his teeth and pecking the keys of a typewriter.  Each Sunday, someone else read that script.  President Gerald Ford invited Bill to the Rose Garden at the White House and named him the Handicapped Citizen of the Year.

One day I received a phone call, telling me that Bill was in the hospital.  He was asking for me.  When I walked into his room, he was laughing.  I asked, “Bill, why are you laughing?”

He answered, “I have inoperable cancer.”  It took me forever to understand the word “inoperable” because his speech was so slurred.

I asked again, “Why are you laughing?”

“Because everybody thought I was going to die from something weird.  I am going to die just like everyone else.”

Can you believe that Bill was able to find humor in his situation?

Clare’s father, Mr. Jack I called him, had a great sense of humor.  Two weeks before he died, he called me to his bedside and said, “Kirk, this path is getting narrow.  There’s not enough room to turn around.  You’re going to have to take care of things.  After I die, you will find everything you need in the top drawer of my roll-top desk.”

When he died two weeks later, I gathered the family.  I went to the top drawer of the desk and got out a ledger and two letters, both addressed to me. I opened the first one marked “To be read before my funeral.”  He wanted me to do his funeral and included instructions about the pallbearers he would like to have.  He had written, “These are the guys I want you to ask to be pallbearers.  Some of them will not want to do it, but you remind them that they all owe me.  Kirk, I know you’re a Baptist, but in order to get these guys to be pallbearers, you’re going to have to get them liquored up.”  It turns out that I did not have to do that; somebody else did it for me.  Those men came to the funeral “liquored up.”

The family and I went to the mortuary and picked out a beautiful wooden casket.  Then we walked over to the vaults stacked against the wall.  The funeral director gave me a spiel, saying, “This is our top-of-the-line model.  This one is mid-range, and this is the bottom-of-the-line.”

I asked, “A vault is a vault is a vault, isn’t it?  What’s the difference in the three?”

He answered, “This top of the line model comes with a lifetime guarantee.”  I promise you that was the man’s explanation.

I asked, “What does that mean – a lifetime guarantee?  Whose lifetime are we talking about?”

“I don’t know.  That’s just what they told me to say.”

I told that story at Mr. Jack’s funeral.  You can imagine how pleased the funeral director was with me.  I think from that point on everyone in that little town purchased the bottom-of-the-line vault.

Humor has healing power.  Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, came down with a disabling illness, a muscular skeletal disease.  The doctors gave him no hope of recovering.  His good friend Allen Funt, whom you know from Candid Camera, asked Cousins to get permission from his doctors to allow Funt to spend three hours a day with him.  Every day, the two men watched one comedy after another, including replays of the old Candid Camera program, The Three Stoogies, The Little Rascals, and Laurel and Hardy.  Lo and behold, Norman Cousins began getting better.  His doctors were amazed.   He began regaining control of some of the muscular systems in his body.  Cousins waited ten years to write a book about this experience because he wanted to be accurate.  In that book, The Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins credits humor with causing his improvement.

Humor has benefitted the patients in nursing homes time after time.  One facility in the Clemson area conducted a study about the effects of humor on the ill.  Researchers showed a third of the nursing home population only newsreels.  A third of the population watched only movies that were tragic.  The final third watched only comedies.  Do you know what they discovered?  The health of those who watched comedies improved.  The health of those who watched the newsreels and the tragedies got worse.

A young woman who wanted to be an actress went to New York City and auditioned.  She worked hard for a short period before having painful episodes with her legs.  She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and told that she would never walk again.  This woman returned to her home, where her parents worked with her, massaging her legs.  Before long, able to stand up and move a bit, she told her father, “I want to pursue my dream.”  She returned to New York where her career took a different turn.  She went into comedy.  You know this woman as Lucille Ball.  Her show was I Love Lucy.  Laughter, the gift she wanted to give to so many others, helped in her own healing.

Many of you know Michael J. Fox, a man stricken at a young age with Parkinson’s Disease.  Fox has written about his illness in several books.  Consider the titles: Lucky Man: a Memoir and Always Looking Up: The Adventure of an Incurable Optimist.  He, too, has benefitted from the healing power of humor.  Grady Nutt and Jerry Clower have made a profession out of humor.  They know that the gift of humor, a gift from the Holy Spirit, is to be treasured.

Does humor have a connection with our faith?  Does it make any difference in our lives as Christian people?  I say yes.  You cannot find any one particular Scripture verse that says that humor is a gift of the Holy Spirit; but the Holy Spirit not only comforts, not only empowers, but also brings gladness into our lives.  One way that happens is through the gift of humor.

We heard the beautiful song “Standing on Holy Ground” earlier in the service.  Every place is sacred, holy, if we believe the Spirit of God is there.  Likewise, every single experience in life can be sacred if it is impacted by the Spirit.  We must pay attention, be alert, to the humor in those experiences.  Humor can certainly be negative if it is cutting, degrading, demeaning; but humor at its best is seeing the irony, the paradox, the ridiculous in our own lives.  The Italian poet Dante called his great poem about the Christian life The Divine Comedy.  Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian, said that the Christian faith is the most humorous point of view a person can take.  Humor is sacred.  It is a gift of the Spirit of God.  Do you know which book of the Bible mentions laughter more than any other book?  The word “laughter” is used more in the book of Job than in any other place in the Bible.  Right in the middle of our deepest sorrow, our pain, our agony, the Holy Spirit brings this great stress-reducer, this healing balm that we call humor.

Laughter is the Global Positioning System (GPS) of the soul.  It is one of the ways that we gain our perspective and get our bearings.  I know this reference is not politically correct, but here it is anyway.  Uncle Remus said, “Everybody needs a laughing place.”  You do.  I do.  We all need a laughing place.  Where will we find it?  We will find it smack-dab in the middle of our faith.  Pay attention.  Humor is in the Bible.  It is in every aspect of life, even in those experiences that are so difficult.  Humor is a gift of God’s Spirit.

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If not, could I extend an invitation to you, an invitation to come and accept him, to begin to walk in fellowship with him?  I invite you to make whatever decision God has laid on your heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2011

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