This morning, I’d like to depart from John’s Gospel and speak on Psalm 84:4—How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord. Why? To bring some joy and humor into my writing and to your listening. Some of today’s stories you may have heard before, but I’ve added new ones and some one-liners to turn this sermon into Part II of Humour in Worship Produces Joy. How great and grand is that? Hannah is nodding. Maybe she needs some humour big time?
Now, as you can well imagine, there are always some sad-sacks in church who don’t like to lighten up. “Pastor, religion is serious business. You don’t see Jesus laughing or telling jokes, do you?” they would tell me. They didn’t have to argue with George Bernard Shaw who said: “If we sing in church, then why can’t we also laugh and dance?” Or consider the wicked wit of Oscar Wilde who said a lot of negatives about clergy:
If you’ve not got any humor, then you’re finished. You might just as well be a clergyman. The trouble with the clergy, is that they can convert others, but they’re unable to convert themselves. In public, they wail against pleasure, but in private they worship the pleasure of gratification and indulgence.
At my installation at Epiphany in Sept of ’97, the place was a rockin’ n’ rollin! I overheard one member in the first pew say to say to another: “I think the pastor is trying to be funny.”
In fact, the first Christmas Eve at Epiphany, a young woman at the exit door asked if I had been a comedian, before I became a pastor, to which I answered: I was a pastor before I became a comedian.
MF, let me tell you: Every pastor can pretend to be serious, but no pastor can pretend to be humorous. That’s because wit and humour, love and laughter is not a state of mind, but of the heart. Over the 15 years at Epiphany, there were members who left because they did not believe that humor had any place in the worship of God. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Because humor is a gift from God, she expects us to use it, as well as in church. Humor is great preventative medicine. If not for humor, I would have been buried 6 feet under a long time ago, together with the 629 people who were dying to see me. As Mark Twain once said: “Humor must both teach and preach, if it would live forever, and by forever, I mean 30 years.” Humor and laughter MF: How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord, and, if I may add—use humor to sing your praises.
And singing, MF, is something which Lutherans are good at—at least most of them. I have made fun of Lutherans for years and made fun of Anglicans the last dozen years. Both suffer from blandness and excessive calm, from a fear of giving offense to a lack of urgency and an open and immence fondness for church potlucks.
Life hasn’t been easy: 1 ½ years of COVID, social distancing and wearing masks all the time, family breakups and marital breakdowns. Marriage may be grand, but divorce is about 250 grand—so Wayne McCracken tells me. Love may be a sweet dream, but marriage is the alarm clock—so my wife tells me. Don’t plan anything too far in advance, because Jesus may come any minute—so Sherry’s Mom, Maid Marion, used to tell me. That’s why worship needs to address our existential problems in meaningful ways, but also produce love and laughter using wit and humour.
Now, sometimes I would begin my sermons with a skill testing question, at which point everyone would slink under the pews not to be seen: What’s the most Lutheran instrument in a symphony orchestra? The Harp! Why? Because you can’t run around with it. How do we know that Jesus and his disciples drove a Honda Accord? Mk 6: 32: Jesus and his disciples were in one accord. Why did God create a world that sucks? So we don’t fall off.
Now, some of you may remember this piece of self-deprecating humor from my previous sermon: Sherry & I were doing some gardening in our backyard. Sherry began working quietly, just a few feet away, when I interrupt her: “Sweetheart, I can’t possibly rip these obstinate weeds from the hard ground with my bare hands. Tomorrow morning I’ve got the communion service at Zion to conduct. I can’t distribute the bread with these green stained fingers. I mean, what will the good people of Zion think?”
“Don’t be so silly,” Sherry responded, without blinking an eyelash, as she’s always very focussed on whatever she’s doing. “This is not a problem!” she says with a determined look. “For heaven’s sakes, put some garden gloves on and you’ll be just fine!”
Now, I’ve got to tell you good folks that, that Saturday was not a good day for me. You all know Murphy’s Law: If things can go wrong, they will. And because it was just one of those days, I responded with something rather dumb: “Sherry, how can I possibly celebrate the eucharist wearing garden gloves?! How will that look?!”
Well MF, what seemed like an eternity went by with Sherry only shaking her head in disbelief. But finally her stupified gaze rested heavily on me with these words: “My dear husband, my reference to wearing gloves had more to do with gardening, than communing.”
By the way MF, you may remember that principle to which most church members adhere: Do not associate with the pastor during the week, lest you might find yourself in the sermon at the end of the week. Obviously Sherry is unable to follow that dictum; but for all others, the principle remains: To all things clergic we are allergic.
Now, lest you think I’ve lost my marbles—don’t answer that—there are times when I do say something sensible and judicious. Eg, not long after that gardening episode, Sherry and I were sitting down at our patio for BBQ supper. Sherry noticed that I didn’t offer a prayer, asking God for her blessing on the food. To which I said:
My dear wife, you spoke eloquently about the garden gloves, but with respect to this food on my plate, well… I have prayed for God’s blessing on these leftovers on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Additional blessing over the same food is simply not necessary, even with the best of human and divine intentions.
Now, I do like taking credit for stuff, but after 42 years of ministry, I’ve conducted over 400 weddings, where there were always folks who thanked me for the sunny weather, or mothers of the bride who wanted me to change the rainy weather. They all thought I had a hotline to God. But, I politely declined their thanks and requests, and told them that I have nothing to do with the weather. I’m in sales, not management. Want management? Go see my wife, who has an MBA in management.
God gave us the gifts of mirth and laughter. But, we don’t own laughter. Laughter owns us. We don’t stop laughing just because we’ve gotten older. We know we are old, when we stop laughing—laughing with others and at ourselves. Wit and humour are gifts which keep on giving. They are the work of the soul. They enrich the soul and enliven the spirit. Humor heals the heart. Humour keeps the church from suffocating under too much seriousness. Humor also keeps the church from suffering cardiac arrest. Humor helps us relax and enjoy the moment—especially in church. Humor–How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord.
Love and laughter are contagious, even for God who gave us these in the first place. Humor is part of God’s DNA. Humor is not to be hidden under a bushel, but to be used—including church. Wit and humour are essential ingredients for all of us, especially for preachers and those who must listen to them—including their wives and sometimes their mothers, who according to Oscar Wilde are the only ones who try to practice what the preacher says! That’s a long shot!
Now, when it comes to one-liners, I remember saying to many a confirmand over the decades: Well, hard work may pay off for you in the future, but laziness obviously pays off right now. And for those who only bet on winners, instead of underdogs, I say: “Eagles may soar, but you know, it’s not weasels which get sucked into jet engines!”
Occasionally, I’ve mentioned my grandfather, who raised me and from whom I learned discipline, hard work and the value of money. He was always preaching at me about the early bird that catches the worm. In German: Die Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde. If I didn’t hear it once, I heard it a million times, after which I finally said: Well Grandpa, the early bird may get the worm, but it’s the 2nd mouse that gets the cheese. Now, it took him a while to get it, but then asked: Are you trying to be smart? Oh no, Grandpa, I’d say.
When I was still a little kid, I remember asking my grandfather for a nickel to buy an ice cream cone, at which point he would always launch into his story about when he was kid and had to get up at 7 and walk a kilometer to milk one cow with a bucket that had a hole in it—and all before going to school.
And every time I asked for a nickel, he’d unleash a new version of the same old story, where he’d get up earlier, walk more kms, milk more cows with a bucket whose hole became increasingly larger. The last version I heard was him getting up 4:30 to walk 15 kms to milk a dozen cows with a bucket whose hole was the size of toonie. Did I ever get my nickel for the ice cream cone? I don’t think so.
But, when my kids went to visit their great grandfather, he’d pull out his fat wallet and call the kids over and say: Ooooh, let’s see what Grandpa has in his wallet for Elizabeth & Maria? He then proceeded to hand them each a 5 or 10 or even 20 dollar bill. At which point, I took their money, because that was my money.
Humor, MF, is not only contagious, it is fragile. We enjoy it when we can and we may find humour in the most unexpected places.—like funerals. It may not seem obvious, but humor at funerals is almost a staple. The bereaved crave some lightness to alleviate their stress.
Now, there was a funeral situation, where the wit was rather subtle. A Scottish widow, who was actually Presbyterian, asked me to conduct her husband’s funeral. She had heard flattering reports from her friends who attended funerals I conducted. She wanted me to quote “speak most eloquently about my husband, to enshrine his memory in the hearts of the attendees for years to come,” and then asked: “Rev’d how much will that cost?” Well MF, it didn’t take me long to recognize both the frugality of this widow and her egotistical request for self importance.
So, with some wit, I answered: “Well, let me see: For that kind of a funeral, my fee is $350.” To which she said: “That’s what the funeral home told me, but I said—It’s too much.” Then she asked, quite unabashedly: “What can you do for half that price?”
Now, I had never bargained over funeral services, but we were this far along. I just needed some more levity to keep my sanity. “Well, for half the price, it would be nothing fancy, you understand, but no one would be able to doubt the solid virtues and endearing qualities of your late spouse,” I said. “That’s still too much, she replied. What can you do for $100, she asked? Tongue in cheek, I responded: “For that price, I would tell the listeners the truth about your husband.”
Sometimes, humor is not recognized, even when it’s in your face, and sometimes, humor is personal, to keep our senses and saneness, while at the same time, making truth the double-edged sword that it is. A lot of stuff can be funny, as long as it happens to some one else. After all, 99% of clergy give the rest of us a bad name. And if perchance you think that nobody cares, try missing a few payments. Or, if by chance, you’re in luck because everything is finally coming your way, it probably means you’re in the wrong lane.
Last story. And it’s one you’ve all heard before, but with an addi-tional ending. Remember Alleluia Lutheran Church in Richmond VA? Back during my doctoral studies at Union Seminary, I got an invite by the Council Chair at Alleluia Lutheran to preach during Lent. Now, to my surprise I discovered that Alleluia was an all-Black parish, with the exception of the organist, who looked like Bach.
Now, the church accomodated around 250 worshippers and I quickly realized that the dozen council members—all men—sat in the first 2 rows, right under the massive and elevated pulpit. I also learned that if the councilors agreed with what you had to say, they would shout out: Preach Brother, Preach! I mean, if you were preaching and a mass of heavy set Black Men hollored: Preach, Brother Preach! … I mean, your corpuscles would start a hummin‘ and your hormones would start a bubblin‘ and you’d want to preach as if your life depended on it! Of course, that never happens in white churches, where the white folk check their watches and count the pages of your sermon and then mumble: Stop Rev! Stop!
Now, I also heard that if the women of Alleluia Lutheran liked what you had to say, they would raise their hands, give a little wave like the Queen, and whisper together, out loud: You da man! You da man! I mean, if you were preaching and a mass of black and silver-haired women were waving their hands at you, and whispering out loud You da man. You da man … I mean your chest would expand with pride and your heart would burst with passion.
But, I got to tell you good folks, I did not hear one Preach Brother Preach! nor one You da man! Instead, in the middle of my sermon, one little ole silver-haired lady in a back pew, she done put up both hands and prayed feverishly: Help him Jesus! Help him! Jesus!
Well, I almost died and went to heaven that morning! But, luckily for me, the council invited me back — for Good Friday. They thought I could learn something about how to preach. The one stipulation was that I deliver a 5 minute GF sermon. Nothin‘ more/nothin‘ less.
Well I arrived at Alleluia Lutheran early that Good Friday and soon discovered that there were 7 preachers, preaching back to back: 6 Black men and myself. I was in the middle of the pack and when it was my turn, I preached with ferver and passion. But, I was just getting warmed up, when my 5 minutes was up. So I sat down in my appointed chair and the previous preacher looked at me and said: Ya done aright, boy! Ya done good! But old Brother Jeremiah—he‘s gonna show us up for what we is: Beggars! Just you wait & see.
Well, I didn’t know it then, but old Brother Jeremiah was the former long-serving and suffering pastor. He was quite elderly, with a walker and had to be helped to climb into the pulpit. The absolutely amazing thing is that once he got started, he was like a train—nothing could stop him. He preached for an hour and half and had everyone mesmorized and he did it with a one liner, over and over and over again: It’s Friday, but Sundays a’Comin‘!
Now, that one-liner may not blow you away, MF, and that’s because I’m no Brother Jeremiah. He started his sermon really slowly and softly: It’s Friday and my Jesus is dead on a tree. But that was Friday and Sunday’s a-comin!
One of the coucilors yelled: Preach Brother Preach! And it was all the encouragement old Jeremiah needed. So he came on louder and stronger: It was Friday and Mary was cryin‘ her eyes out! The 12 were a-runnin‘ in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday and Sunday’s a-comin! The ladies of the parish began waving their hands and whispering: You da man! You da man! Men began hollering: Keep goin brother, keep goin! And he did:
It was Friday and Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin around laughin, pokin each other in the ribs. They thought they were back in charge. They didn’t know it was only Friday, but Sunday’s a-comin!
The old preacher used this one line over and over for one and half hours. He had worked the congregation up into a absolute frenzy until everyone was just exhausted. And finally, when no one could take it anymore, old Jeremiah just yelled at the top of his lungs: It’s Friday! and the congregation yelled back: Sunday’s a-comin!
MF, that’s the good news for today and for the rest of our lives! AMEN.