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Holy Humor

It may not surprise you to learn that my first vocational dream as a child was to be a comedian. I loved making people laugh. My first trip to the principal’s office in the first grade (somehow, I made it through Kindergarten unscathed) was for the nebulous charge of “being the class clown.” I still remember walking into the principal’s office and sitting on his brown tweed couch. “So, you’re the class clown?” he said, “I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.” And just like that, my fate was sealed. As I progressed in my repertoire, second grade held for me a big comedic breakthrough. I actually made a kid throw up at the lunch table because he was laughing so hard. (I had been pretending my plate was a monster truck challenge course, and my milk carton was the monster truck, crashing from food compartment to food compartment, mixing the contents of the plate with the sound of engines roaring. (At least, I thought he had thrown up because he was laughing so hard, my teacher made me visit him in the sick room, and he told me he had actually thrown up because the food looked so disgusting—jeez, someone was suggestible!) Something about the punishment system for causing this kind of mayhem during lunchtime seemed a bit ineffective. Behavior of this sort caused you to get put up on the stage that was at one end of the cafeteria. It was like a promotion!

Church doesn’t seem like a very natural place for comedy, does it? Perhaps this is the case because so much of what we find funny is crude, rude, or socially unacceptable. Self-professed “clean comedy” oftentimes reeks of cheese. Or, perhaps it is just so unexpected in the religious life. A search for “humor” in the Bible yields few satisfying results. It seems religiosity is just serious business. But maybe not. Proverbs says, “The cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Of course, a few verses later, it says, “Folly delights a man who lacks judgment, but a man of understanding keeps a straight course.” Since Jesus is the incarnation of God, that means there is a literal Divine “funny bone.” It may be a little hard to detect, but some of Jesus’ sayings and parables are humorous. Take the much beloved “mustard seed.” As we all know, it “is the smallest of all the seeds, but it grows into the largest of all the shrubs, and all the birds find shelter in its shade of its branches.” (Mark 4: 34) This last little bit would have reminded the original hearers of something else, and it would have been funny. Ezekiel 17:22-23 says God will “take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on high on a lofty mountain. (So, a sprig of a shoot: a tiny little “starter plant”) On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” Now, that’s a pretty funny allusion when you think about it, isn’t it?! Talk about scaling back your expectations: From the Kingdom of God pictured as a noble cedar on a mountaintop to a mustard shrub. Have you ever seen a mustard shrub?! That’s funny! And the original hearers of that parable would have found it so. They would have laughed when he told the parable of the mustard seed, and he probably would have told it with a “wink and a grin.” He was recasting Ezekiel’s grand vision in a humbler guise. But—then it would have dawned on the hearers of the parable—what else do we know about Mustard shrubs? They are pervasive! They spring up everywhere the wind blows. They need little encouragement. Now there’s a new twist on Ezekiel’s prophecy. Not “set up on a mountaintop,” but pervading in the valley—growing where we didn’t think possible. So, humor leads to enlightenment. Humor has “interpretive value.” There is a place for humor in the church—Jesus sets the precedent.

So, this Sunday will be fun. There will be practical jokes, wordplay, mind-games, joyful music, unexpected twists, and hopefully you will leave benefitting from that “good medicine” of a joyful heart. (Proverb 17:22)