Last week I preached my first sermon of a two-part series about the Theology of Humor. Its title is “Humor that Is Divine.” I talked about Ali Kay Wood’s experience of her mother driving them to a wedding with the two-tiered wedding cake on her lap that ended up smashing into the dashboard with icing flying everywhere, when her mother made a turn that was too sharp. After the initial horror and shock at the situation, they both began to laugh uncontrollably. Ms. Wood found that laughter cathartic as it freed them from the anxiety over the situation. She explained that the laughter came from God, deep within her soul.
I mentioned a 2011 University of Oxford study that discovered laughter releases mood-boosting endorphins, increase pain tolerance by as much as 10%, increases blood flow by 22% and protects you against the ill effects of stress. We heard “a laugh or two a day keeps the doctor away!”
We heard from Father James Martin, a Roman Catholic priest and an author who wrote “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” He proclaims that the “endpoint of life is joy” for Christians, yet we give sorrow and suffering much more airtime in our lives than we do laughter, humor and joy.
I also mentioned a few scripture passages I won’t go into now as you may go on the church’s website to find those examples this week, after tomorrow. Some of those were likely not examples you were able to wrap your head around as funny for we are programmed to see the Bible as only serious in tone and content. This past week I thought that perhaps I used the wrong word in connection with a few biblical passages- funny. In contemporary times we tend to think of funny the same as ‘goofy’ or something to be laughed at not with. Better words for biblical humor might be wit, irony and mirth used in parables, puns and plays on words that are often lost in translation from ancient Hebrew and Greek to English.
I used to think that people laughing during a funeral visitation or service wasn’t too appropriate but over the years, especially after I became a pastor, I saw it as an important way to address the pain and grief of loss, when rightly managed. We tell humorous stories about the deceased that remind us of the good times we had with them for which we are so thankful. I start today’s sermon with a story that happened around a funeral. It is our own Jeanette Levellie who wrote this story for “All Creatures,” a publication of Guideposts, with which many of you are familiar. I will read excerpts adapted from it. It is called “Saved by the Bird,” in and of itself humorous as a play-on of words (saved by the bell!) Jeanette writes, “My only sibling, Daniel, had died of a sudden heart attack a month earlier (than when my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Dwayne drove up to the church for Daniel’s funeral in their motor home.) I noticed a huge, chartreuse parrot sitting on the dash. What on earth? I thought, I couldn’t imagine anyone would bring a bird to a funeral. But I was too busy crying in their arms to ask.
“Daniel and I were never close growing up. We didn’t agree on much, but we still loved each other. And you can’t have a brother one minute and forget about him the next. In the weeks following his death, I grieved as if I’d lost my best friend. My heart was both hollow and aching in places I never knew existed.
“Uncle Dwayne’s voice brought me back to the present. He pointed towards the motor home. ‘Would you like to meet our Bolivian parrot, Chloe? She came from a bird breeder in Oregon, who hatched her from an egg, so she’s not scared of people. You might find her entertaining.’
“I nodded, but was doubtful anything could lift my sagging soul. But when Uncle Dwayne stepped down from the motor home with Chloe on his finger and walked toward me, her soprano squawk tickled my ears. ‘What’s your name?’ she cackled. ‘I’m Jeanette, Chloe.’ I smiled into her lovely, bright eyes. It was the first time I’d smiled in a while.
“’Step up!’ she screeched, and stepped onto my finger. ‘You look pretty!’
“’You’re pretty too, Chloe,’ I said, my smile widening. “’You’re beeee-u-tiful! Hello Chloe,’ she nearly sang.
“’She calls everyone Chloe,’ Uncle Dwayne said, his laughter echoing around the church parking lot. Chloe mimicked his laugh, bobbing her head up and down. Before I could stop them, chuckles flew up from my belly and grew into loud guffaws. Chloe echoed each of my laughs. This caused me to laugh harder, until Chloe and I were performing a hilarious duet. I doubled over from the ache in my stomach, tears ruining my makeup, but I felt freer and more at peace than I had since Daniel had passed.”
Jeanette ends her story with this: “A very wise man once said, ‘laughter does the heart good like medicine.’ I wonder if he had met a Bolivian parrot name Chloe.” I’m pretty sure that Jeanette would say her laughter was a gift from Jesus!
Brene Brown, a religious researcher and storyteller, exclaims, “laughter, song and dance create emotional and spiritual connection. They remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: we are not alone. We may say this is the case with Sara in the story I read to you from our Genesis passage. Often we think it was wrong for Sarah to laugh at God’s messengers who told her she would bear a child in her old age. Who at the age of 90 years old wouldn’t laugh at hearing that proclaimed- I mean, honestly- it would seem ridiculous and also would normally be impossible. 101 year old Virginia Zimmerly told me she wouldn’t laugh if God told her such a thing, she would cry! I find the most amusing part of this story to be when the Lord (we imagine through the messenger) states to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. God said, “Oh yes you did laugh.” It sounds to me just like a parent would say to a child who says, “I didn’t do that,” and the parent responds, “Oh yes you did!”
Sarah and Abraham named the son they eventually had as God predicted, Isaac, that comes from the Hebrew verb sahaq which means “laughter” or “he will laugh,” very appropriately. Paul refers to Isaac in the books of Romans [9:7] and Galatians [4:28] as celebrated by way of the child of promise. God keeps promises, so that through Abraham and Sarah, there would be a multitude of descendants eventually becoming the nation of Israel. Hebrew people hearing or reading that would laugh with joy at that passage of fulfillment.
One article I read, from “The Liturgy of the Heart” Volume 2, explained that laughter can be a prayer. “Laughter is a prayer that tries to deal with the incongruities of the human situation. All prayer is essentially a response to the initiative of God. Laughter is a deep down, radical response to this moment (of God’s initiative.) No matter how tragic, how complex the situation may be, I believe that this moment comes from God (who) intends it for my good, so I accept it and laugh, knowing that God will provide.” [end quote]
Another story about Abraham happens when he and Isaac go to the Mount of Mariah for a sacrifice to God. We know Abraham thinks the sacrifice is to be Isaac, as God seems to lead him to believe. We are aware that Abraham had waited for a son to be born to him from Sarah for so long and Isaac was extremely precious to him. Young Isaac asks, “Father, here is the wood and the fire but where is the lamb of sacrifice?” Abraham said, “My son, God will provide” again desperately thinking it would be Isaac. Well, God did provide and the provision was actually a ram caught in a bramble bush. I can certainly imagine Abraham laughing with relief at that ram provided!