Preaching is an art, but it comes with old conventions. One common practice is to start your sermon with a joke. There are several reasons for this. Some preachers use it as a way to grab the congregation’s attention after the distraction of the offering. Others like to warm up their audience and get them into a good mood. Others use humor to make them seem more human and approachable. In these cases, the joke need not have anything to do with the theme of the service. It’s simply good for a laugh.
I don’t have any objection to laughter, in or out of worship. In fact, I’m all for it. But humor, like everything else in the service, is a form of communication. Therefore, it must be used fittingly and with awareness, if not intention.
Obviously, we would never tell a joke that embarrasses someone or insults any group of people. The core of religion is always God’s love and beneficence, so demeaning anyone, no matter how different, will inevitably hurt our ministry. We no longer live in a homogenous society. We can never know whose nephew, boss, or college roommate we may be hitting with our barbs – or how soon they will boomerang back on us. Even if people laugh, we wind up looking mean, supercilious, or both. Neither trait is exactly pastoral.
But at times the joke is on us. There’s a lot of religious humor out there and some of it is quite funny. There’s a light bulb joke for every denomination. Garrison Keillor routinely makes gentle fun of his Lake Wobegon Lutherans, and he often takes a poke at my denomination, too. In fact, there are an awful lot of Unitarian Universalist jokes. We tell them on ourselves. Like all humor, they are based on an element of truth, for we couldn’t recognize ourselves in them, they wouldn’t spread.
Last week I led my workshop on *Humor in the Ministry* for a Unitarian Universalist ministers’ retreat. Some of the most vibrant discussion was about UU jokes. Despite a few favorites here and there, most of the ministers felt that the jokes weren’t worth the risk. For one thing, they set up barriers against the newcomers who wouldn’t get the joke. But even worse, they had the potential to upset or even insult the new members as they embraced their new faith. It hurt them to hear it maligned or made fun of, even by the minister.
Of course, the one way to kill a joke is to try to explain it, and yet I do think that humor can be used as a teaching tool. I’ve given sermons contextualizing UU jokes, and regularly use the Persian stories about Nasrudin the fool. Jesus used humor, too; some of his parables are quite amusing. At its best, comedy is a way to speak the truth. Our laughter often includes the surprise of recognition and an acknowledgment of our common humanity.
Life is ridiculous and hard. Laughter is a gift that makes it easier to bear. We just need to be sure of our target. The funny bone is very near to the heart.