Holy Humour Sunday
There’s an 11th commandment in the United Church. “Thou shalt not let the service run overtime, or they name shall be mud.” But humour is one of my favorite topics, and I could go on about it for hours. But I’ll try to contain myself. If my face starts turning purple you’ll know why.
Three things I want to make very clear. Humor is a very serious business. I mean exactly what I said. Humor is a very serious business.
Secondly, I am not saying you should laugh your troubles away. You can’t do that anyway and you shouldn’t try. Humor can help us confront some of life’s problems. But it is not a means of escape. It’s not a vacation from reality.
And third, a sense of humour has very little to do with the ability to tell a joke. That’s a theatrical skill and a very good one. A sense of humour has to do with an attitude, a way of seeing things, a way of being.
My grandmother had a great sense of humour, though I don’t think she told a joke in her life. When we’d come for a visit, if she was in the middle of some baking, she would come and put a dab of flour on each of our noses. That included my dad, who was a bit of a dry stick. But even he would smile, and sometimes laugh a little.
There’s a wonderful old legend in the Bible that comes to us from thousands of years ago. It was about a woman named Sarah. Sarah was married to Abraham, and the two of them were leaders of a little tribe of herders with a few mangy sheep and goats. But God had been whispering promises in Abraham’s ear about how he was going to sire a whole nation of people. Now both Abe and Sarah were 90 years plus and the prospect of having a baby was, you might say, kinda slim.
Then one day a couple of bright eyed strangers came by, angels, they said, and they told Abe that they’d be back in a year or so, and Sarah would be pregnant. Now Sarah was just inside the tent, and when she heard this she laughed so hard, she almost lost her store teeth. 90 plus, and she’s going to have a baby? What a hoot! So when it actually came true — when Sarah did have that baby, she and Abe named the baby – what would you think – “laughter,” that’s what they called him. In Hebrew, the word isYitsak, or Isaac.
And the story goes on to take up the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Bible, about a very special race of people called the Hebrews, who later on became known as the Jews, and it all started with a baby named Isaac. A baby named laughter.
We had a bit of fun with the book of Jonah because that’s what you should do with a piece of scripture like Jonah. It’s not history. Nobody got swallowed by a whale or a fish or anything else. The book of Jonah comes from an ancient writer poking fun at the Hebrews who thought God was their own tribal possession. A hilarious parable portraying a caricature of both God and Jonah, was this writer’s way to get folks to laugh at themselves and their own narrow-mindedness.
This is Holy Humour Sunday. It’s not my little brain-wave. Many medieval churches celebrated this festival on the Sunday after Easter, and it’s being revived in churches all over the continent.
They are doing this, because humour is a means of grace. A very much under-used means of grace. A means of grace is something we do that helps us tune into the grace of God that surrounds us. Tears are a means of grace. The first person to see the risen Christ was Mary of Magdala, and she saw the risen Christ through her tears. Music is a means of grace. Poetry. Community. Food. Work. Study. Worship. And of course, prayer. And laughter should be in that list of ways in which God’s grace makes its way into our lives. We don’t usually think of humour in that context, and so we miss out on this fine source of spiritual nourishment.
Laughter is not the opposite of seriousness. Laughter is the opposite of despair. Let me say that again, because it’s very important. Laughter is not the opposite of seriousness. Laughter is the opposite of despair. In its physiological symptoms; laughter is very much like jogging. The heart rate increases and the body produces more endorphins that reduce pain and tend to make you feel good.
One of the best things about humour is that it helps us keep things in perspective. This is especially important in a community like the church, where we have such an interesting and diverse group of people. A rainbow community.
A diverse community of people has the potential to generate wonderful creativity but also destructive tension. To enhance the creativity, and minimize the tension, a good dose of humour is absolutely essential. But here it’s not our ability to laugh at others, but our ability to laugh at ourselves
That’s really important for people like me who write books and preach sermons. You are all very polite and kind and you who sit there and listen nicely while I “speak the truth from on high!” Can you think of anything more arrogant than me standing up here behind this pulpit and assuming that intelligent people like you should believe, understand, and seriously consider what I have to say?
It happened to Jeremiah the prophet. God told Jeremiah to go out and preach the word. “But God,” said Jeremiah. “I’m just a kid. What do I know? I’m not qualified.” To which God said, “I know. Go do it anyway.”
I have that sense every time I write a sermon or an article or a book. I hear a quiet, indulgent, loving chortle — God in the background whispering, “Of course you don’t know what you’re talking about, Ralph. Of course you are not qualified. That’s true of every preacher that ever stood behind a pulpit. But go and do it anyway.”
I’ve been doing radio and television work and writing books and magazine articles all my adult life, and that kind of work is full of danger. You get lots of kind comments, affirmations, and a kind of a fawning fan-club – and you start thinking you can walk on water. The social and psychological illness created by an inflated ego is not covered by any health insurance scheme, but it is more debilitating and destructive than any disease I know of. There are no pills or potions. The only antidote is a sense of humour that helps you laugh at yourself.
And God works through courageous and caring people, to help guys like me keep things in perspective. Such as a loving spouse. Bev knows that underneath this expensive suit there is just a very ordinary guy who struggles with hemorrhoids and a hernia… And children. And grandchildren. Especially grandchildren.
He’s a young man now, but when our grandson Jake was a toddler, he would climb on my lap and snap my suspenders and giggle. One day quite a few years ago when we were at their house in Vernon, a phone call came for me. “Would you accept an honorary doctoral degree?” Whooeee! I was dancing and shouting and singing. I was high as a kite.
Jake wanted to know what was going on with Grampa. His dad, Don McNair whom some of you know, tried to explain to Jake what an honorary doctorate was. He wasn’t succeeding too well. Now you need to know that Jake was a bright child who was having problems with toilet training. He could discuss the theory quite intelligently, but the actual practice eluded him. So his mom and dad tried various incentives. Finally, Don’s attempts at explanation got through. “Oh,” said Jake. “It’s like when you get a gold star for going poo in the toilet.”
Well exactly. Little Jake hit the nail on the head. His insight didn’t dampen my delight, but it kept my feet on the ground and my head on my shoulders. Everyone in the family had a good laugh and life went on.
The point is simple. When it comes to dealing with the low-cal problems, minor conflicts, little irritations, those things that can accumulate and blow up — keeping those small problems in perspective is essential. Laughter is often the most helpful kind of response. But sometimes we have to deliberately push ourselves to see the humor in these situations. That’s when we need to learn the fine art of laughing at ourselves.
Humor is one of God’s great gifts to oppressed peoples. The oppressor can take away everything, but the oppressor cannot take the soul. And that soul can break forth in blazing anger and side-splitting laughter or be quietly refreshed by the soft humor of those who have no strength left.
Humor is a declaration of freedom. You see that drawing of Jesus on the slide up there. It’s usually called, “The Laughing Jesus,” but Willis Wheatly, the man who drew that picture, called it, “Jesus Christ, Liberator.”
Humor is a fearful threat to dictators, single-minded revolutionaries, bureaucrats, television evangelists and social-justice radicals. Humor helps us see the true colors of the “principalities and powers” even though they seldom see it themselves. A healthy sense of humor is one sign of emotional and spiritual health.
All of which has a direct bearing on our life together here at First United. The advent of big-box stores and the Internet may bring many material benefits, but it has resulted in a drastic loss of community – of people to people relationships, the way the two cats related to each other in the song we heard. We’re doing a lot of community building already, here at First United, but the need is great. And nurturing a healthy, lively sense of humor about ourselves as a church, and ourselves as individuals, is one of the essentials of any genuine community. We have that here at First, and it’s wonderful. But we need more of it.
We need to work at that fundamental sense of humor that brings life-giving water to the very roots of life. It is not joke telling. It is an attitude, an approach. A sense of humour means that we see a fundamental beauty to life, an intrinsic joy. There is a holy humor in our lives — that calls us to celebrate the tears and the laughter of the abundant life.
It is a way of being, a means of grace, through which we, like this laughing Jesus, are liberated.