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April 23rd, 2017

“A Christian should and must be a cheerful person.”  (Martin Luther)

Genesis 21:1-7

April 23, 2017

Farewell to Holy Humor

Saying farewell to Holy Humor Sunday is bittersweet to me.  I’ve enjoyed this 21-year run, but I’m ready to give it up.  I’ll tell you why before I’m done.

The “farewell” service took me down memory lane, with many of those memories attached at the end of this manuscript.  I skimmed through my various sermon manuscripts and, honestly, had a lot of fun doing so because I shared many stories, personal and otherwise, that have made me laugh.  Sometimes others laughed with me.

Here’s one from 1998’s Holy Humor sermon.  This series of classified ads allegedly appeared in a small town newspaper –

(Monday)  FOR SALE: R.D. Jones has one sewing machine for sale.  Phone 948-0707 after 7 p.m. and ask for Mrs. Kelly, who lives with him cheap.

(Tuesday) NOTICE: We regret having erred in R. D. Jones’ ad yesterday.  It should have read: One sewing machine for sale.  Cheap.  Phone 948-0707 and ask for Mrs. Kelly, who lives with him after 7 P.M.

(Wednesday) NOTICE: R. D. Jones has informed us that he has received several annoying telephone calls because of an error we made in his classified ad yesterday.  His ad should read as follows: FOR SALE: R. D. Jones has one sewing machine for sale.  Cheap.  Phone 948-0707 after 7 P.M. and ask for Mrs. Kelly, who loves with him.

(Thursday) NOTICE: I, R.D. Jones, have no sewing machine for sale.  I smashed it.  Don’t call 948-0707, as the telephone has been disconnected.  I have NOT been carrying on with Mrs. Kelly.  Until yesterday, she was my housekeeper, but she quit.

I read that for the first time when Linda and I were in seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.  I still can picture myself rolling around the yellow carpet in our apartment, sides hurting, eyes watering, barely able to catch my breath.  I really don’t think I’ve laughed harder or longer at anything in my whole life, before or since.

It’s not quite as funny now, maybe because I’ve read it so many times or maybe because I’m older and different things make me laugh.  Humor is generational.  Some of our young people are thinking, “What’s a classified ad?”

Yesterday Linda and I were at Carowinds with our daughter Jeni’s Middle School chorus, and one of her students came up to me and said, “Have you seen the movie Constipated?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “It hasn’t come out yet.”  If you laughed at that, your sense of humor is stuck at about 8th grade.

A boy named laughter

The Bible itself includes many stories of side-splitting humor.  One blogger gives his “top ten” list online.  His number one is the one I shared in my first Holy Humor sermon (1997).  Let me get to the end of the story first, or at least the end of this part of their story.  This is from Genesis 21:1-6.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

You might read that and think, “That’s not very funny.”  If you’re a guy, for example, you’re thinking, “What’s so funny about circumcision?”  This is, by the way, the first time in history we ever hear about a baby boy being circumcised.  Thanks a lot, Abraham, parents have been agonizing about that ever since.

God had first appeared to Abram when he was 75 years old and his wife was 65.  He told them that even though they were childless at that time, their descendants would be as the grains of sand on the shore.  My guess is that even though they were old, they tried first to produce descendants the old-fashioned way.  If you or someone you know has experienced years of infertility, you know that over the previous forty or fifty years, there was nothing funny about not having a baby.  It was agony.

Nevertheless, they tried again, for years.  Unsuccessful, they decided their legal heir – Abram’s servant Eliezer – could be the biological father of their descendants.  “No,” God said, “this child is coming from Abram.”

So they went the route of a surrogate mother.  In keeping with their culture’s customs, Abram slept with Sarai’s servant Hagar and produced a son, Ishmael.  That too wasn’t God’s plan, and the descendants of Hagar and Sarah are still warring today.

More years passed, and God changed their names to Abraham, who was now 99, and Sarah, who was 89.  My mother is now 89!  God said to Abraham, “Ishmael’s not the one.  You and Sarah are going to have a son.”  One hot summer day, three mysterious visitors come to visit Abraham.  While he and the visitors sit down for conversation, his wife Sarah goes inside the tent to make lunch – still in earshot of everything that is being said.  That’s when she hears it.  One of the visitors says to Abraham, “Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Sarah can’t help it.  Hers is one of those spontaneous laughs.  Ha!  She is so embarrassed about her reaction that she tries to deny it.  “I didn’t laugh!”   Have you ever tried not to laugh inappropriately?  Often times it’s with your child who says or does something really funny but you know it needs to be corrected. Our daughter Cara was about three years old when I asked her to do something and she put her hands on her hips and said, “I will do what I want.”  I said, “What did you say, young lady?”  Meekly she replied, “I will do whatever you say.”  I couldn’t laugh in the moment, of course.

Sarah is trying really hard not to laugh.  “Yes, you did laugh,” the visitor replies.  Later, when her son is born, she declares, God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me  (Genesis 21:6).  “Isaac” means, “He laughs.”  Pretty cool name for a kid, right?  “What’s your name, young man?”  “Laughter.”  He probably got a few whippings at school for being a smart aleck.

And that’s only one of the funny stories in the Bible.  Balaam’s donkey talks back to him.  Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, saying, “Maybe your god is sitting on the toilet.”  Jesus talks about a camel going through a needle’s eye.  Eutychus falls sound asleep during one of the Apostle Paul’s all-night sermons and falls out the window.

Why laughter matters

So why have one Sunday where we celebrate joy and laughter?  The point is to remind ourselves regularly why laughter matters.

First, laughter displays the image of God. Of all God’s creatures, humans are apparently the only ones who laugh.  Laughter requires thought.  A punch line is funny because our minds are led in one direction and a totally unexpected twist takes us by surprise.   Casey Stengel said, “All right, everyone, line up alphabetically according to your height.”  You wouldn’t laugh at that without a prefrontal cortex.

Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Laughter is the beginning of prayer.”  Prayer, laughter, and love all presume our Godlike nature.  We give glory to God as his creatures when we laugh.  We look like him when we laugh.

Second, laughter demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit, especially joy.  Joy is not the same thing as laughter, of course.  The world can take this beautiful gift and distort it as it does all of God’s gifts.  The world’s humor is often profane – that is, it makes fun of that which is sacred or private.

Joy is the fruit of the Spirit, Paul says, and it’s a shame that there have been movements in the church which imply that to be a Christian is to be dour, miserable, and mad. G. K. Chesterton said, “Laughter has something in common with faith; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves, something they cannot resist.”

Third, laughter defeats the power of the enemy.  The devil loves discord and despair.  Laughter diffuses both.  The devil loves death, the ending of anything that’s good.  Laughter refreshes and renews life and hope.  Have you noticed in a bad job or bad marriage or bad situation, no one laughs?  Jokes aren’t funny.  We laugh when we have hope, when our souls are light.

Martin Luther said, “A Christian should and must be a cheerful person.”  The very idea of Holy Humor Sunday is that we remember God’s last laugh on the devil when we raised Jesus from the dead and we determine never, ever to let the devil have power over our lives and situations.

So that brings us to the question, “Why farewell to Holy Humor?”  Why, after 21 years, are we calling it quits?

Strike One against Holy Humor Sunday is difference.  Not everyone loves this.  Some don’t think my jokes are funny (believe it or not) and others think it’s silliness without a lot of spiritual depth or impact.

I’m not worried about them though.  Since last year’s Holy Humor Sunday, the church has a new membership software program called Realm, and I have complete access to it as senior pastor.  This week I made a list of everyone who’s ever complained about Holy Humor Sunday.  I went into Realm and deactivated their membership.  Are they in for a surprise when they are met by bouncers at the next congregational meeting!

More seriously, Corinth is a place where we distinguish between essentials and non-essentials.  I’ve enjoyed Holy Humor Sunday, and as pastor I probably could have had my way if I insisted.  But it’s not about me.  Those who didn’t care for this tradition have been very patient over the years, and I thought it was about time I listened to them.  Few have actually complained; they just didn’t come.

That takes us to Strike Two: attendance.  One of the original purposes was to combat the post-Easter attendance slump.  You are well aware that not only the once-a-year attenders, but also the once-a-monthers all show up on Easter, and bring their families with them.  But they’re sure not planning to come two Sundays in a row.  In most churches attendance drops dramatically the Sunday after Easter.  Holy Humor Sunday was designed to give people a reason to come back the following week.

At Corinth, we now have three services and are usually short-staffed the week after Easter.  We combine because it’s hard to pull off Holy Humor in all three services.  However, combining services always reduces our attendance dramatically, so it has the reverse effect of our original intention.  It will be interesting to see what happens next year without Holy Humor!

Then there’s Strike Three: weariness.  Honestly, Holy Humor Sunday is a lot of work, and most of it falls on me.  Holy Humor has always been my baby.

I would not compare the level of time and energy to Pastor Paul and Pastor Amy and dozens of others who left last Sunday and gave their Easter break to mission trips.  Still, Holy Humor Sunday requires a lot of creativity and energy at a time I don’t feel like I have a lot.  A growing church means that Easter weekend requires even more of me than it used to.  Last weekend, I had the Maundy Thursday service, then preached in the community Good Friday service.  On Saturday I already had a wedding planned, but a church member was discourteous enough to die on Thursday (could the rest of you plan better, please?) so we had a funeral on Saturday morning.  A sixteen-hour day on Saturday was followed by the biggest Sunday of the year.  I was ready this week for a bit of a break, but immediately had to turn my focus to Holy Humor Sunday.

So, it’s time for the farewell.  But hey, Holy Humor Sunday celebrates Jesus rising from the dead.  Never say never, you know.   Holy Humor Sunday might rise again!  Amen.

21 Years of Holy Humor

A Brief History

The late Jo (Mrs. Morris) McGuire introduced Pastor Thompson to the Fellowship of Merry Christians in 1996 by giving him two books distributed by Guideposts, Holy Humor and More Holy Humor.  Authors Cal and Rose Samra of The Fellowship of Merry Christians (joyfulnoiseletter.com) urged congregations to set aside the Sunday after Easter as “Holy Humor Sunday” to commemorate “God’s last laugh on the devil” when he raised Jesus from the dead.

Corinth’s Holy Humor Highlights (contact the church office for sermon manuscripts from dates in bold)

1998 – Church bulletin bloopers

·       Ushers will eat latecomers.

·       Today’s sermon: “How Much Can a Man Drink?” with hymns from a full choir.

·       Weight Watchers will meet at 7 P.M.  Please use large double door at the side entrance.

 

April 6, 1997 – The bulletin front featured “The Risen Christ by the Sea,” by Jack Jewell. The sermon was on Abram, Sarai, and their son, Isaac, which means “Laughter.”

April 19, 1998 – We featured the Class of Joy, asking George Ussery to lead in prayer for the first of many times.

April 11, 1999 – Class of Joy members were asked to be ushers and greeters.  The sermon featured “St. Peter and the Pearly Gates” jokes.

April 30, 2000 – “Joy to the World” introduced as an unseasonal hymn.  The sermon focused on turning weeping into laughing (Luke 6:21)

April 22, 2001 – Lenoir-Rhyne College’s Percussion Ensemble performed at the services.  A sermon on “joy and restlessness” included funny but actual classified ads.

April 7, 2002 – Bob, Bill, Paul, and Peter dressed as fools and clowns.  Sermon from 1 Corinthians 3 on “God’s Fools.”

April 27, 2003 – First annual paper airplane contest from the balcony.  Sermon, “Who Do You Think You Are?” included famous celebrity misspeaks.

 April 18, 2004 – “Snake Handling” from Mark 16:18 was the service theme, and the sermon was on “The Funny Side of Doubt.”  The choir sang, “Stop Doubting, Thomas,” written by Peter Corneliussen.

2005 – You may be getting old if….

·        You’re asleep, but others worry that you’re dead.

·        Your back goes out more than you do.

·        You enjoy hearing about other people’s operations.

·        Your little black book contains only names ending in MD.

·        Everything hurts and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t work.

·        You get winded playing chess.

·       You sit in a rocking chair and can’t make it go.

 

April 3, 2005 – A large print bulletin highlighted the theme of “The Funny Side of Aging” based on John 21:18.

 April 23, 2006 – 10th anniversary reviewed Holy Humor highlights.  The sermon, “Building on Fun,” shared the origin of Pastor Bob’s nickname, “Colonel Urinal.”

 April 15, 2007 – The bulletin included a “mirror” (aluminum foil) in every bulletin as the sermon shared “The Funny Side of You” – Bob’s favorite church stories.

 March 30, 2008 – Pastor Bob shaved his 25-year beard DURING the service and emerged in the role of “Brother Ron from Pakistan.”  His chidren had never seen him without a beard.

April 12, 2009 – Bob appeared in a long, black wig only to remove it and reveal a “bald cap.” Pastor Bill wore a sumo wrestler’s outfit.

 April 11, 2010 – “The Funny Side of Prayer” (1 Samuel 1:9-18) was the title of the sermon about a man whose name means “Possessed” and his wives, “Fertile” and “Gorgeous.”

May 1, 2011 – Jim and Carol Anderson Shores brought humor through drama to the service in memory of Jim’s mother, Hazel Shores.

April 15, 2012 – Al Henry, a local barber and Christian comic, shared the message.  Bulletins included a sticky note to slap on someone’s back.

2010 – Two boys were spending the night at Grandma’s.  They knelt beside their beds to pray.  The youngest one said at the top of his lungs, “I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE.  I PRAY FOR A NEW TV.  I PRAY FOR A NEW PLAY STATION.”  His older brother interrupted, “Why are you yelling?  God’s not deaf.”  The little guy answered, “I know, but Grandma is.”

April 7, 2013 – The “Cheerful Giving” capital campaign was introduced along with a series of church-related YouTube funnies.

April 27, 2014 – Southern Fried Jazz provided the music and “Uncle Ron from Pakistan” made a return visit with the message on Matthew 28:16-20 in memory of Pastor Bob’s father.

April 12, 2015 – “The Funny Thing About Numbers” featured funny aspects of Peter hauling in 153 fish (John 21) and history’s guesses on the meaning of the 153.

2014 – Some parents don’t get the texting thing.

Mom: Your great aunt just passed away.  LOL.

Son:  Why is that funny?

Mom:  It’s not funny, David.  What do you mean?

Son:  LOL means Laughing Out Loud.

Mom:  Oh my goodness!! I sent that to everyone.  I thought it meant Lots Of Love.

 

April 3, 2016 – Rev. Jack Hinson from the Fellowship of Merry Christians gave the message as Pastor Bob missed his first Holy Humor Sunday for a trip to Disney World with Linda (and a UCC Stewardship conference).

April 23, 2017 – Holy Humor Sunday passed away and was given a fine memorial service.  We also bade farewell to our dear George Ussery, who has attended and even prayed in most Holy Humor Sundays, as he moves to Virginia with his family.

 

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