“In a World Full of Nonsense…..”
NOTE: The end of this audio file is clipped. It should end as follows:
“So, in times of victory and defeat, love and loss — in all the times of your life — may God grant you that gift.”
The sermon title in your program this morning is incomplete on purpose. One implication of it’s being unfinished is that in a world full of nonsense there may be a remedy. I think there is, so the full title would read: In a World Full of Nonsense, Learn to Laugh. If you are a visitor I must tell you that we are serious about our spiritual life in this place, and 99% of sermons from this pulpit seek to inspire, teach, comfort or challenge, but about every 2 or 3 years I like to celebrate laughter because it’s one of the world’s best medicines, a kind of ultimate therapy whether we aim it at the foolishness all around us that might otherwise drive us crazy, or whether we aim it at ourselves and learn humility. The last is harder for most of us, but the ability to laugh at our own absurdities is one of the high roads to sanity and good health.
That particular kind of laughter is therapeutic, what somebody called “a tranquilizer with no side effects,” but most laughter arises from moments of joyful surprise or clever jokes or life’s frequent ironies. It’s this kind of laughter that Martin Luther had in mind when he said, “If we’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” Or Oklahoma’s homespun philosopher Will Rogers when he said, “We’re all here for a spell, get all the good laughs you can.” Or that a more sophisticated philosopher named Sydney Harris had in mind when he said, “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed [us] with the incalculable gift of laughter.”
People often tell me how much they enjoy this congregation’s sense of humor, how pleasant it is to hear your innocent and healthy laughter on a Sunday morning. I understand their happy surprise because I grew up, as I would guess some of you did, among churchpeople who seemed afraid that the sound of laughter during worship might be demeaning to God, that God expected them to be contrite or tightlipped or tearful, but never to enjoy the blessed relief of laughter — that saving grace which the great English novelist, Thackeray, once called “sunshine in a house.”
I have come to believe that includes God’s house at times, but I wouldn’t have learned it in the church of my childhood. We were so solemn most of the time that it simply didn’t occur to us to laugh — even at things that should have seemed absurd. Instead, we turned a lot of trivia into deadly serious stuff. We should have laughed, but didn’t, when the preachers who ruled our lives told us that if some of Betty Morgan’s hair failed to get wet the day she was immersed, she would be lost unless a second baptism got her all the way under and redeemed her dry bangs. We should have laughed at the puritannical silliness of being told that it was OK to play Rook at home but not Bridge or Canasta because those games use “spot cards” — our preacher’s odd way of describing hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds — and since “spot cards” are used to play poker we must avoid the very appearance of evil. Or that if you were sick or traveling on Sunday morning and missed communion, you’d better come in and get it on Sunday night or God would brand you a sinner. We should have laughed at all such irrational nonsense but we were held captive by our preachers, and we didn’t. In a good deal of our church life, at least, we could have said with Woody Allen, “Most of the time I don’t have much fun.”
And puritannical folly extended into the colleges supported by those churches. My preaching son in Oklahoma City, who loves to tell stories about the lack of humor in two of those colleges where I was a student, and one where I taught briefly, gets very loosely creative sometimes in what he remembers. I was reading one of his sermons the other day when I came across the following surprise: “The Tennessee Bible college my father attended as a Freshman had a rule that members of the opposite sex could not get closer than 18 inches from one another at social functions.” I have no idea whether he dreamed that, or was using his fervent imagination to get a laugh, but the story is pure fiction. The only thing true about it is that the administrators of that college would have made such a rule if they had only thought about it. What I did tell him — and I share it with the younger half of this audience just to let you know how times have changed — what I did tell him was that when I held hands at one of our college basketball games with a girl I had been dating for months, both of us were campused for six weeks…..and if you’ve never heard of being “campused” it meant that we were confined to our dorms and classrooms for that month and a half and could not go to a movie or a restaurant or any place that was off campus. Some teacher or dean should have laughed that excessive punishment out of existence but no one dared.
Much later, I began my teaching career in a similar church-related college where I first met your esteemed choir director who had come as a student from western Kansas, and who had — as one breathless coed told me — curly hair to die for! He and I can recall times when the people in charge of that place could have used a little more of God’s gift of laughter — like the day its president defended our total racial segregation by observing that bluebirds and blackbirds do not bathe together in the same bird bath. Or the day when I was invited to join a Discipline Committee of 9 faculty where we spent two solemn hours debating whether students could go on hayrack rides, and finally voted to permit it provided the kids sat on baled hay only and were back before dark. Those of you old enough to remember the ads for the Jane Russell film called Outlaw will know what they were thinking. I was the only professor who thought the debate and the decision were both hilarious — a character defect for which, to my great joy, I was relieved of further service on the committee.
I still think one of the best ways of responding to pure nonsense is to laugh at it. As Mark Twain liked to put it, laughter has more power to blow up absurdity than all the gunpowder in the world. Wholehearted laughter, laughter with no hint of arrogance or malice, is one of humanity’s greatest gifts — a savior of sanity in homes, schools, workplaces and churches. I have always felt awkward and uncomfortable around otherwise good people who seem suspicious of laughter , people with eternally serious axes to grind, people who major in minors.
That defect has a long history. I still recall my father’s amazement about people he knew during World War I who lobbied grimly for changing the word hamburger to Americanburger because the sandwich, after all, had gotten its name from the German city of Hamburg. TV’s John Stoessel would have said, “Give me a break!” I grew up and heard a strident feminist tell an audience that the word history ought to become herstory , as if somehow that might be the cure for male chauvinism. And only a few days ago I read about still another humorless person making mountains out of molehills. A fundamentalist Christian from Kingsville, Texas, started a campaign to take the word Hell out of the popular two-syllable greeting, Hello . If you can believe it, he suggested Heaven-o as a more Biblical salutation, arguing that when he answered his phone with Heaven-o people’s puzzled reaction would give him an opening to preach a quick sermon.
And that word reminds me that sermons are expected to take off from a text, so belatedly I now offer a pair of them, one sacred, one secular — one from the Bible, and therefore the most important justification for a sermon on laughter, and the other from the crowded world of jokes that circulate on the Internet. Since people who feel secure with their faith are never afraid of jokes about it, I’ll start with the second and secular text which has a marvelous moment of fun with three different religions: Catholicism, Judaism and golf. It claims that the Pope was invited by his College of Cardinals one day to discuss a proposal from Benjamin Netanyahu, who was the leader of Israel. One of the Cardinals said, “Your Holiness, Mr. Netanyahu wants to challenge you to a game of golf to show the friendship and ecumenical spirit shared by the Jewish and Catholic faiths.”
The Pope thought this was a good idea, but since he had never had a golf club in his hands he wondered if there might be a Cardinal in the group who could represent him in the match. “None of us play that well,” they told him, “but there is a man named Jack Nicklaus, an American golfer who is a devout Catholic. We can offer to make him a Cardinal, and then ask him to play Mr. Netanyahu as your personal representative. In addition to showing our spirit of cooperation, we’ll also be sure to win the match!”
Everyone agreed it was a good idea, so they called Jack Nicklaus who was deeply honored and agreed to play. On the day after the match, Nicklaus called the Vatican to inform the Pope of the result. He said, “I have some good news and some bad news, your Holiness.” The Pope said, “Cardinal Nicklaus, please tell me the good news first.” “Well, your Holiness, I don’t like to brag but even though I’ve played some pretty terrific rounds of golf in my life, this was the best I have ever played, by far. I must have been inspired from above. My drives were long and true, my irons were accurate, my putting was perfect. With all due respect, my play was truly miraculous.” “There’s bad news?” the Pope asked. Nicklaus said, “Yes, there is. I lost by three strokes to Rabbi Tiger Woods.”
That’s a happy, healthy sound you just made, even in the House of God — who not only has no law against laughter but who, according to my other sermon text, the sacred one, also has a sense of humor. The ancient Hebrew poet who wrote the second Psalm looks around at the absurd posturing of certain kings and countries, and feels sure enough of God’s response to say, “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” If laughter is a divine trait, surely we can celebrate it in an occasional sermon. It has therapeutic value, for one thing. Long before the New England Journal of Medicine told us that, we heard it from the Bible’s book of Proverbs [Ch. 17) which assures us that “A merry heart does good like a medicine.” Even in church — even in church, where innocent, wholesome laughter at times is surely as much a part of godliness as quiet devotion and reverence.
Some of the most delicious church-inspired humor comes from the creative confusion shown by some of the kids in Sunday School in what I call their “not-quite-Bible” stories: the little girl, for instance, who told her startled mother that Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark, and that Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day but a ball of fire by night; and the little boy who mixed his Sunday School lesson with his smattering of knowledge about poison and American history, and proudly told his father how Moses went up on Mt. Cyanide to get the Ten Amendments. One kid with a passion for music thought the men who followed Jesus were called the 12 decibels. Another came home to quote Paul’s command that a Christian should have only one marriage partner, explaining that this practice is called monotony.
Unintended humor runs wild in church bulletin bloopers, now faithfully passed along on every minister’s E-mail. I like one that said “Our 8th grade Sunday School class will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the church basement on Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.” One church announced that “The Peacemaking Workshop scheduled for Saturday morning has been canceled due to a conflict.” Another bulletin told of how “Miss Charlene Mason sang, ‘I will not plass this way again,’ giving obv ious pleasure to the congregation.” And still another announced the wedding of a couple of church members by nothing that “Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married on Octr. 24th in the church. So ends a friendship that began in school days.”
And speaking of weddings, people like to get married in lovely places like this one, where along with the tears and the tender hopefulness, there are occasional moments when laughter is the only possible response. One little boy, picked to be in a relative’s wedding, was sure he had it right when as he came down the aisle he would take a few steps, stop, turn and face people in the pews, put his hands up like claws and make a sound like this: [Roar, with hands up]. People were amazed at first and then they began to chuckle as he kept it up — step, step, stop — grrrrr! all the way down the aisle. By the time he got to where the wedding party was waiting for him, the audience were all in tears from laughing so hard, but because the little boy thought he was only doing his job he was about to cry over being laughed at. When the his older brother, the Best Man said, “What was that little circus all about?” he sniffled and said, “I was being the Ring Bear.”
Beyond the doors of the church, humor is one of life’s most dependable saving graces. Husbands and wives who can laugh at themselves, and with each other, build strong and stable homes. And good humor pops up in some of the most unexpected places — even, oddly enough, in cemeteries. James Agee, in a beautiful American novel called A Death in the Family , has a character explain what epitaphs are for. “It’s so you can feel you’ve got some control over the death,” he says. You own it, and you choose a name for it.” Most gravestone epitaphs are sad or tender, but some take control by making a final joke. Like this one in a New Mexico cemetery: Here lies Johnny Yeast. Pardon me for not rising. Or one I found in which a a man had requested burial between the two wives who had blessed his life, and had these words put on his stone: Here I lie, twixt Millie and Tillie. I loved them both, but let me tilt toward Tillie.
I have walked in cemeteries in several countries, intrigued by words carved in granite, marble or wood, sometimes no longer able to make them out after rain and frost and wind and the long slow march of time had worked their inevitable mischief, but somehow — out of a darkness that had fallen on someone centuries before I was born — I could still feel the triumph of the human spirit that comes when even the greatest sorrows are defeated by laughter. So, in times of victory and defeat, love and loss — in all the times of your life — may God grant you that gift.
We thank you, gracious Lord, for the laughter that is sunshine
in any house — in yours and in ours. Amen.