I have never been criticized for being too serious in a sermon. Humor is my downfall. Sometimes I've attempted a little remark in a sermon, and people have come to me later to say, "That just was not appropriate for church. It wasn't funny!"
Looking through the New Testament, I can find only two places where laughter is explicitly mentioned. The first instance is Matthew 9, when Jesus was called to the home of a ruler of a synagogue, and it's no laughing matter. The synagogue ruler's little daughter has just died. Jesus comes into that place of death, and he dares to speak of life: Your daughter will live.
The crowd laughs. What kind of laughter is that? It's mocking laughter. It is the cynical laughter of disbelief. The crowd laughed when Jesus spoke of life intruding where there was this horrible grief, death, sadness, and weeping.
The second type of laughter is not the cynical laughter of disbelief, but the laughter that comes from reversalthe smile that breaks out on the face when things go better than you had expected. That's the essence of many jokes: you're going down one path and suddenly flip at the end in unexpected ways, and we laugh. We find the laughter of reversal in Luke 6:21, when the grin is occasioned by that unexpected grace of God.
Cynical laughter comes naturally.
Our Scripture reminds us Sarah had reason enough to weep: she was 90 years old, and likely had a bowed back, few teeth, and digestive problems. When God promised Sarah and her good-as-dead husband (the words are Paul's) that they would have a number of children greater than the number of the starschildren by whom all the families of the earth would be blessed99-year-old Abraham let out a toothless cackle. When Sarah overheard, she, too, had a good laugh: God talking obstetrics to somebody my age? Don't make me laugh! This is the first kind of New Testament laughter: the laughter of cynical disbelief.
When God heard Sarah laugh, he asked her a fabulous question: Is there anything that is too wonderful for the Lord? Then he told her to name her child Isaacwhich means "laughter"just to remind her every time she looks at him that the joke is on her.
When you work around the church a while, the laughter of cynical disbelief begins to come quite naturally. In 1986, our denomination passed a resolution declaring we were going to make 9 million new members by 1994. Our denomination had been losing about 65,000 members every year since the early seventies. Nine million new members? Well, I laughed. I thought, Isn't this typical? We don't want to make systemic changes in our church that would enable us to reach out to new people. This is just window dressing, sloganeering, platitude.
I went home and wrote an article in which I argued that there was no way in heaven we were going to make 9 million new members unless we started baptizing dogs. I offered, as a fit recipient for the sacrament of baptism, my mixed-breed terrier. I said, "This dog, as far as I know, has shown no interest in biblical studies. Therefore, it would make a perfect member of this denomination." I also said, "This dog has the sexual ethics of some members of my former congregations." I laughed. When the article came out in The Christian Century, not everybody laughed. The magazine lost about four subscriptions, and two of our bishops have not spoken to me since.
You learn that kind of cynicism as a pastor. You sit in the back of some workshop at some pastors' school, and someone says, "Try this. Do this." You laugh; you've heard it before. Such humor is a defensive mechanism.
Evangelical laughter comes as a gift.
There is another kind of laughter in the New Testament. It is not that laughter that comes quite naturally. Rather it's laughter that comes as a gift: evangelical laughter.
Three chapters later in Genesis, the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Nine months later, she laughed all the way from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward. Isaac"Little Laughter"was born. Sarah laughed a second time. But this time she wasn't hiding in the tent when she laughed. Hers is now the laughter of evangelical wonderevangelical laughter. Sarah says in Genesis 21:6, "God has brought laughter for me. Now everyone who hears will laugh with me." It's a gift.
But alas, in my experience, the last people to laugh when this divine joke is on us may be the clergy. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Is that a promise or a threat?
Fred Craddock tells a story about a young pastor who went to pray with an older woman. She was near death in the hospital. Near the end of his visit he asked her, "I need to leave, but would you like to have prayer before I go?"
The old woman said yes.
"Well, what would you like us to pray for today?"
She replied, "I'd like to pray I'd be healed, of course."
The young pastor gasped but went on: "Lord, we pray for your sustaining presence with this sick sister. If it be thy will, we pray that she will be restored to health and to service. But if it's not thy will, we certainly hope that she will adjust to her circumstances."
Suddenly the old woman opened her eyes and sat up in bed. She threw her feet over the side of the bed, stood up, and exclaimed, "I think I'm healed!" She strode out the door. The last thing the pastor saw was this old woman striding down the hall toward the nurses' station saying, "Look! Look at me!" The pastor went down the steps and out to the parking lot, but before he opened the door of his car, he looked up and said, "Don't you ever do that to me again!"
It's quite a move, an evangelical shift, from that cynical laughter of disbelief to that astonished evangelical laughter that accompanies the unexpectedand often unwelcomeintrusions of a living God. When the promises of God come true, we laugh. "Blessed are you who weep; you shall laugh."
The story is told of a young pastor who was sent to an inner city church. The bishop warned her, "This used to be a good church, but it's aged. There's really nobody left but a group of old people who are just holding on. You keep them comfortable, and we won't forget about you out there." She gulped and went. She met with the administrative board the first week and, sure enough, looked out on a sea of white hair. The chairperson of the board said, "Well, dear, tell us a little about yourselfyour call into the ministry, how you see yourself as a minister."
In describing her call she said, "I've always enjoyed working with children. I've always felt as if I had particular gifts in that area."
There was nervous laughter in the board meeting. The chairperson said, "My goodness. You can look at us and see we're long past those years here. Gladys, when did we last have a children's Sunday school class here?"
Gladys said, "What was the name of the bald-headed guyduring the Eisenhower administration I think it was. Or was it Lyndon Johnson? It was a long time ago."
But in the next few weeks, as fall began, the young pastor noticed children marching past the church about 3:00 every afternoon on their way home from school to empty apartments around the neighborhood. She prayed to God, "Show me the way." That very afternoon, she was visiting a church member who lived in a small apartment. The woman was showing her an old scrapbook of yellowed newspaper clippings. She said, "You know, I knew Count Basie, and I played with the Dorsey brothers on one occasion. I played clubs up and down the East Coast."
The pastor said it was as if a light came on, as if a dove descended. She said, "Do you still play the piano?" The woman said, "Given enough time, enough Ben-Gay, I can. Yeah, I can play the piano. But I can't have a piano here in the apartment. It's too small."
"You meet me down at the church, 2:30pm Wednesday," the pastor replied. Then she called up a couple of other people. "Come to the church at 2:00. I need you to spread sandwiches." They came down; they spread the sandwiches. They opened up those creaking doors of the fellowship hall that led out onto the streetdoors that had not been opened in years. They pushed the old upright piano out on the stoop overlooking the sidewalk.
Around 3:00, the old woman started to play. She played a medley of hits from the forties. Just as she was moving in to a rendition of "In the Mood," the children start walking down the sidewalk. A crowd gathered, and she moved into another tune. Around 3:15, the pastor came out. She taught them "Jesus Loves Me," and everybody sang. Then the pastor told a story and brought peanut butter sandwiches out. The pastor said, "If you like this, we're going to be doing this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week."
That happened about two months ago. Now, three days a week, they've got about fifty children in that fellowship hall. It turns out some of them bring their parents on Sundays. They've virtually doubled their Sunday attendance. A bunch of old ladies in a church headed for death got intruded upon; they got a bunch of children. Is anything too wonderful for God?
As I said, the last people willing to have a good laugh with God are often clergy. I once told the church, "You say you want the budget increased 10 percent next year. That's crazy. We were 2 percent behind this year. The economy, Republican administration, and everything elseyou're crazy. There's no way the budget can go up 10 percent!"
But the lay people went ahead and agreed to the 10 percent increase. They had a visitation campaign, and two months later, a lay leader stood up at a congregational meeting and said, "I want to announce that we not only subscribed next year's budget in full, we went 2 percent over." The place broke out in applause. He said, "Now, let's see. I think there was someone here who said it's crazy to raise that budget 10 percent. Does anybody remember who that was?" I was peeved. But Sarah laughed. Sarah's story is one of transformed laughter. Hers was playful and exuberant and shattering and intrusive faith. The parameters of the expected and the conventional were broken.
In my last church, we decided to start an evangelism program. We gathered books about church growth, and they all suggested we have a neighborhood canvass. We bought little brochures and split up the neighborhood. Everybody was given a map. Gladys and Mary were told to go down Summit Drive two blocks and take a right. They went down Summit Drive and got disoriented, so they took a left and evangelized the wrong neighborhood.
At 5:00 we gathered at the church and made our reports. The pickings were fairly slim; very few people were interested in our brochures. Gladys and Mary, though, said, "We started knocking on doors, and we met Verline. She lives in a two-room apartment with her two children. She didn't know anything about church, so we told her about it, and she said she was interested. We told her about the Wednesday morning women's Bible study, and she was interested in that."
I was still irritated that they turned the wrong way.
I was teaching the Wednesday morning women's Bible study that week. Gladys pulled up, and Verline stepped out of the car with her two children. Somebody volunteered to keep her children down in the nursery during the Bible study. Verline had a Bible with herthe first Bible she ever owned. One of the women's circles had gotten together and bought it for her. She was so proud of that Bible. It had leather binding and her name in gold letters on the front.
We got into Bible study. Because it was just before Lent, we were talking about the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4. I said, "Jesus was tempted, but he resisted temptation." Then I asked, "Have any of you ever encountered temptation and resisted?"
One woman spoke up: "Yes. Last week I was at the supermarket. I was checking out. There was some confusion at the line, and before I knew it, I was standing in the parking lot. I had a loaf of bread I had not paid for. I thought to myself, The supermarket is not going to miss that loaf of bread. But I thought, Wait! You're a Christian. I went back in that store and paid for that loaf of bread."
I said, "Well, good. Now that's resisting temptation."
That's when Verline spoke up.
Verline said, "Well, a couple of years ago, I was into cocaineI mean, really heavy. You know what that's like. I was just as crazy as hell. My brain was fried. I didn't know where the hell I was, and you know what that's like. That cocaine gets in you, and you don't know what you're doing. I was living with this guynot the man that's the father of my children, but a guy that came in after that.
"So one night, he's got his eye on this gas station he wants to hold up. And sure enough, we go down there and hold up that gas station. We get two or three hundred bucks. It was like taking candy from a baby. But I knew it was coming. A couple of days later, he's got his eye on this convenience store. Something deep in me just said no, and I told him, 'I'll hold up that gas station. I won't hold up that convenience store.' And he beat the hell out of me, and I threw him out. But, you know, it was the first time in my life I'd ever said no to anything. For the first time, it was like I was a real person."
I said, "Okay, I think it's time for our prayer time now."
As I was helping Gladys into her car, she said to me, "Your Bible studies used to be dull. I'm going to go home and get on the phone. I think I can get a crowd for this."
I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. But I heard Sarah laugh.
William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).