“So This Guy Walks Into a Bar….”

I confess I actually started a sermon with those words.

I couldn’t resist. It’s part of that creativity definition: putting things where they don’t belong. Whatever the congregation was expecting to hear, it probably wasn’t the bar joke format.

I used it because the punch line summed up exactly the point of the sermon, in a way that the congregation was likely to remember. The fact that it drew laughter was a bonus.

Like most people, I enjoy humor in a sermon, and I try to make a point of using it whenever I can.

Now I understand that I am not a standup comic, and the purpose of the sermon is not to elicit guffaws from an audience. I know how gratifying it is to the ego to be able to make people laugh and how tempting it is to tap into that source of pleasure for its own sake. Cribbing the latest round of jokes off the internet can be a cheap and easy way to spice up a sermon.

I know too well the temptation of tossing in humor that has only a peripheral connection with the sermon theme just because it will get laughs.

I have felt the temptation of steering a sermon in a certain direction just so that I can use a particularly funny story or incident.

I am sure that I have been guilty of saying things during a children’s sermon meant to get laughs from the listening adults when I really should be focusing totally on the little human beings with whom I am sharing that time.

When humor becomes the goal, rather than a tool for proclaiming, bad things happen. It’s part of what a friend of mine refers to as “the dark side of the farce.”

Forgive us, Lord, when we degrade the honor of proclaiming the word with such actions.

On the other hand, humor can be effective in so many ways:
Humor keeps people listening, and in some cases, it keeps people awake.

Humor creates memorable moments and puts ideas into an easily remembered form.

Humor has a way of dissipating anxiety and easing tensions when dealing with awkward or touchy issues.

There are far too many times when I make mistakes that create awkward moments in the service. On Stewardship Sunday, I was giving instructions for bringing the pledges up to the altar when I noticed that I had forgotten to tell the usher not to set up the communion rail, which was blocking the way to the altar.

I’ve finally learned that humor is the best way to recover. Rather than stand around uncomfortably while the ushers tried fixed the obvious mistake, I deadpanned, “Your instructions today are to hurdle the communion rail. . .”

Anxiety gone while we fix the problem.

In a sermon, self-deprecating humor can close the distance between a preacher and the congregation. It’s why I especially enjoy the puppet theater at our church. The puppets can get away with saying things to me that many people in the congregation are probably thinking but wouldn’t dare say. They take the air out of any tendency toward pastoral pomposity.

Finally, humor is a stealth weapon for breaking down barriers to the preached word. It’s almost impossible to get self-righteous or defensive or mad when you’re laughing.

Jesus came to bring us more abundant life, and one of the great joys of life is sharing laughter in the service of a good cause.