Humor and the Gospel

Proverbs 26:11, 17-19, 27:2, 5, 21; Matthew 23:23-28, April 12, 2015


It’s Holy Humor Sunday. The observance of Holy Humor Sunday is a very long-standing Christian tradition. Most churches have their highest worship attendance of the year on Easter—and that is as it should be. Easter is the biggest day of the year; it’s the day that sets Christians apart. It’s the day we start saying “Christ is risen!”

It’s also the start of the Season of Easter. We don’t just leave the resurrection behind and wait until the next time we hit the first Sunday, after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. We keep remembering the resurrection. In fact, every Sunday should be a little Easter.

The idea of observing Holy Humor Sunday gives us a new way to understand the resurrection. It’s as though God got the last laugh. Some traditions say it’s the day that Christians laugh at Satan’s idea that God’s son could die—a laughable, funny idea.

Personally I resisted having Holy Humor Sunday for years, because the idea made me think that one should only use humor one Sunday a year. That is simply too confining to me. There’s too much funny stuff happening all around me to stuff it all into one worship service a year.

This year I discovered a new perspective as a preacher and worship leader and I’ll share it because, I believe it will help everyone get more out of this morning’s message.

At the turn of the year I got to thinking about my career as a preacher. I’ve preached more than 900 times, but I wondered how much of the Bible I had used to base sermons on. I got out my Pastoral Record Book, a copy of the RSV that I wasn’t using and a highlighter and highlighted the passages I’ve based sermons on. I was amazed at how little of the Bible I’d had used! For example I’ve preached only 17.1% of the Book of Genesis and 6.3% of Second Kings. My average is a little higher in the New Testament I’ve preached more than 67% of the Gospel of Mark and 80% of the Letter to the Ephesians. I got to thinking about what I was missing, and what you, as a congregation, were missing. I challenged myself to preach texts that I had never preached before.

Which brings me to Book of Proverbs. Proverbs does not have what scholars call “a narrative arc.” It is a set of collections of wise sayings, or adages. You can think of it as an ancient set of fortune cookie messages. I find it hard to preach proverbs because the task of a preacher is to make the Bible clearer, and for the most part I can’t improve on them. And since each one stands on its own, they don’t lend themselves to being preached in the usual way. So I’m going to do something a little different this morning. I’m going to give a very brief “sermonette” on several of my favorite proverbs. I use that term very guardedly! At my first church, one of my predecessors was asked to preach a sermonette one day when there were a lot of extra things happening in worship, he thundered “Sermonettes are for Christianettes!” and preached his usual 25 minutes.

Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.

For years this was the only passage of scripture I could cite chapter and verse. To me, it means ‘Don’t make the same mistake twice.” My mother had her own spin on this one, she would often say to my brother or me after witnessing one of our mishaps, “Did you learn anything?” And I learned a lot from experience—don’t touch the stove when it’s hot; I’m not ready to ride my bike no-handed—things like that.

Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.

Stay out of other people’s arguments. They’ll figure it out. Or not. You’ve got enough problems.

Like a maniac who shoots deadly firebrands and arrows, so is one who deceives a neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!’

To me this gets at how one uses humor. Humor can bring people together, but it can also do a lot of damage. Having to say, “I am only joking” is a sign that you’ve misused humor. And we all make mistakes. When you’ve hurt someone by using humor badly. Apologize first, then say, “I was only joking.”

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth- a stranger, and not your own lips.

This is one that the first President Bush’s grandmother used often. Elsie Lajcak had her own version of it, she used to tell her children, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.”

Better is open rebuke than hidden love.

This one sounds really harsh, doesn’t it? But I find some truth in it. While I don’t like it when people tell me I’m wrong, at least I know what they think and I can respond to them. We might still disagree after a conversation, but clarity is a gift.

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, so a person is tested by being praised.

This one gets at character. How do you respond when someone praised you? I suspect that most of us are very skilled at turning aside compliments. That’s all Midwestern, humble and modest. Still, I believe that this tendency can go too far. I often challenge my colleagues to let compliments penetrate their defenses—criticism already does! A healthy person should be able to withstand the testing of praise, without getting a big ego.

I want to spend a little time on the gospel passage this morning. This lesson is part of a much longer dialog Jesus had with the religious authorities. This happened in the days after what we call Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode up to the temple triumphantly, and Maundy Thursday, when he was arrested. He spent these days in the temple, really, really irritating the Pharisees and scribes. He has very, very harsh words for them and their hypocrisy. Jesus is really, really angry that those who lead the people in faith are doing such a poor job, neglecting righteousness and justice for the sake of status and appearances. He is very, very sarcastic. He also uses gross exaggeration to make this point. “You strain a gnat and swallow a camel.” That’s impossible, but it’s also visually arresting. It’s an image that helps us see something extreme.

And he says they worry more about the outside of their cups than the inside. Appearances are more important than substance and their status is too important to them. They are like white-washed tombs. Sparkly, dazzling on the outside, but inside they are filled with rot and decay.

I want to be very clear about this. Jesus is really angry at the scribes and Pharisees. And he uses sarcasm to make his point. Sarcasm comes from a Greek word, which originally meant “to tear flesh, to bite the lip in rage or to sneer.” If you ever doubt that Jesus was fully human, take a look at passages like this one.

Sometimes people tell me that they are shocked, shocked! at how certain characters behave in the Bible. They bring an expectation to scripture that everything in the Bible is noble, laudable and should be emulated. Stories like those about King David’s scheming to seduce Bathsheba for example, to these people do not belong on the Bible.

I prefer to see the Bible as a much more human book. Not a set of standards of model behavior, but rather a collection of stories about God’s faithfulness to humanity in spite of our flaws, sins, short-comings and pettiness. Rather than emulating the cluelessness of the disciples, for example, I recognize my own cluelessness and realize that Jesus chose imperfect, flawed, that is, human, people to spread the Good News. That’s us. That’s the people we find in the Bible. And we are the Church. We are the ones entrusted to tell the world that Christ is risen. God uses us, and it’s laughable, and we can laugh at ourselves securely, because we trust the depth of God’s love for us. That love enables us to have the last laugh. Amen.