How Do We Find Happiness? Humor and Humility

Song of Solomon 4:1-5
October 20, 2013

How beautiful you are, my love,

   how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
      behind your veil.

Your hair is like a flock of goats,
   moving down the slopes of Gilead. 

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
   that have come up from the washing,

      all of which bear twins,
         and not one among them is bereaved. 

Your lips are like a crimson thread,
   and your mouth is lovely.

Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
   behind your veil. 

Your neck is like the tower of David,
    built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
         all of them shields of warriors. 

Your two breasts are like two fawns,
    twins of a gazelle,
      that feed among the lilies.
         This is the Word of the Lord….

            I want to start with a story. It’s one of my favorites, and one that I believe reveals a lot about religion and human nature. Back in the Middle Ages there were periods in which the Jews were heavily discriminated against, often violently.  

            During one of those periods the advisors to the pope tried to convince him that unconverted Jews should not live in Rome, the center of Christian Catholicism. The pope was unsure, but eventually relented and issued a decree: all Jews either had to become Christian and be baptized, or they would kicked out of Rome. The Jewish community panicked.  hey weren’t just being forced out of their homes. They also knew that they would be persecuted and attacked throughout the rest of Europe. They had lived good lives in Rome, and had been treated with relative respect. And so they sent a delegation to the pope asking him to rescind his decree. The pope listened patiently, and finally said, “Okay, I will rescind my decree if one of you can defeat me in a theological debate in pantomime (don’t ask me why he felt the need to debate in pantomime – it’s just part of the story).

            The Jewish delegation went back and reported to the rest what had happened. The Jews again panicked. The pope was known far and wide as a master debater. How could they possibly hope to defeat him, especially when he was the debater and the judge? They asked for volunteers among the rabbis, but each declined, saying that they couldn’t possibly bear the burden of debating on behalf of all the Jews. They then asked the leaders, but they, too, declined in fear.  No one would volunteer. Finally, the custodian of the synagogue volunteered: “I’ll debate the pope!” The rest responded, “How can you, a custodian, possibly hope to defeat the pope?” He answered, “Because none of you are willing.” 

            So the day for the debate came. The Jewish delegation entered St. Peter’s Basilica with their black robes flowing, and their white beards swaying. The pope sat ominously on his throne, flanked by all the cardinals. The custodian stepped forward, and without delay the pope jumped off his throne, stood before the custodian, and in one motion began the debate by sweeping a finger across the sky. Without skipping a beat the custodian defiantly pointed toward the floor. The pope stood back in surprise at the gesture. He thought for a moment, and then held his index finger up before the custodian’s face. The custodian responded without hesitation by holding up three fingers in the pope’s face. Again, the pope stepped back in shock at the man’s response. 

            The pope pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his brow. Pausing for a while, he finally reached into his robes and pulled out an apple. With that, the custodian reached into his robes and pulled out a flat piece of matzo bread. The pope stopped, looked at the man in amazement, turned to his cardinals and said, “The debate is over. This man has defeated me. The Jews can stay and keep their faith!” With that, he strode out of the room, followed by his cardinals.

            The cardinals stopped the pope and asked, “What did that man say?” The pope responded, “He is a master debater.  I could not defeat him.  I started by sweeping my finger across the sky to say, ‘God is the master of the universe.’ Then the man pointed to the ground, saying, ‘Yes, but there is also the devil who wants to take our souls.’ Then I put one finger out to say, ‘God is one.’ Imagine my surprise when he puts up three fingers to say, ‘Yes, but he is manifested in three persons.’ Finally, I pulled out the apple to say, ‘Some heretics say the world is round.’  The man responded by pulling out his bread to say, ‘Yes, but the Bible tells us that the world is flat.’ I simply could not defeat him.” All the cardinals agreed that the Jews could stay. 

            Meanwhile, the Jewish delegation asked the custodian what had happened. He said, “It was all a bunch of rubbish. The pope starts by sweeping his finger across the sky, saying, ‘All of you Jews get out of Rome!’  So I pointed to the ground and said, “No way!  We are staying where we are!’ He then puts a finger in my face, saying, ‘Don’t get fresh with me!’ So I put my fingers up, saying, “Hey, you were three times as fresh as me!’ Finally, he pulls out his lunch, so I pulled out mine.”

            I love that story because it has all the elements of a profound story. First, it speaks to how we all can be confused by theology, especially when expounded by big religious figures. Second, it speaks to how the powerful often use religion to oppress the weak. Third, and maybe the most important, it teaches that it’s the humble who are closest to God, not the proud. And it teaches all of these lessons in a humorous way.

            One of the things I’ve been very, very aware of since I’ve become a pastor is how important humor is to the spiritual path, mainly because humor often makes us humble, and grounds us more in our humanity. I had a conversation with Connie Frierson, our associate pastor, on Thursday, and I told her something that I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before. I realized that over time my spirituality has become a spirituality of joy and laughter. I’ve come to discover that, in addition to all the spiritual practices of prayer, Scripture reading, and reflection we can do, one of the most powerful ways of discovering God comes from learning to find joy in life. Laughter is an entryway into joy. Often my approach is to find the joy in whatever situation we are in, even if we are in a bad situation.

            I don’t think I developed this spirituality on my own. This spirituality has been, and is, very much a part of Calvin Church’s life. You can see it in our worship and pastoral staff during worship services in the way we banter back and forth. That’s because we find joy in each other. You can see it on our staff in general in staff meetings. It often takes us 20 minutes to get down to business because of our laughing. And you can see it in our church as a whole.

            Back in 2005, we were part of a large, national study of churches. Diana Butler Bass—a church historian, researcher, and writer—studied mainline churches that were growing, but not by offering contemporary worship services and a ton of programs. Instead, they were growing by emphasizing prayer and spirituality—what Diana called “spiritual practices.”

            She studies 75 churches overall, and 12 churches intensively. Calvin Presbyterian Church was one of the 12. She released the results of her study in her 2006 book, Christianity for the Rest of Us. Calvin Church is mentioned prominently and constantly in the book. The particular practice she noted us for was discernment and listening to God as a community and as individuals. She wrote about how we run our meetings, how we encourage listening for God in budgeting and stewardship, and how we teach the congregation to make listening to God a priority.

            After she wrote the book, she told me that she and her research assistant, Joe, had a dilemma regarding our practice. Discernment was a prominent practice, but she noticed another “practice” that we have that no other churches had to the extent that we had: humor. According to her, we use humor in a way that no other church does. She saw our humor as a real spiritual practice that opened us up to God. This stands out because so many churches are SO SERIOUS.

            For me, humor is essential to spiritual growth because it makes us humble. Humor grounds us. Let me share two favorite stories as an example of what I mean. A grandmother was visiting with her grandson, and she asked him, “So, Mikey, do you say your prayers every evening before you go to bed?” He said, “Oh yes,… every night.” “And what about in the morning?” she asked. “Do you say your prayers every morning?” “Nope,” he replied. “Why not?” she asked. He answered, “Because I’m not scared in the morning.”

            I love this story because it points out that we often only go to God and pray when we are scared, struggling, or in trouble, but that we are called to reach out to God when things are going well, too.

            Another: Two men were hiking through the countryside across fields and pastures. Suddenly they heard a snort behind them. They turned to see a huge bull, with sharp horns, snorting and stamping, preparing to charge. “Run to that fence in the distance!” the one man said to the other. They ran as fast as they could, but the bull was gaining on them. “We won’t make it. We have to do something!” the one man said. The other replied, “What do we do?!” “I know,… say a prayer!” the first one said.  “But I don’t know any. I was never taught to pray”  “Pray anything,… it doesn’t matter what. Just pray whatever you know!!!” the first man said. So, as they sprinted, the other man yelled out, “Oh God, for what we are about to receive, make us truly grateful…”

            Again, there is great humility in the story that reminds us something Connie Frierson said in a sermon a few years ago: Don’t wait till you are in trouble to work on your faith and your relationship with God.

            There’s a deep connection between humor and humility. You can find that connection in the Creation story of Genesis. The word “humility” is literally rooted in the Genesis story in which the first human being, Adam, is created from the dirt, adamah (Genesis 2:7).  God breathes God’s Spirit into the adamah to create Adam.  The Latin root for “dirt” and for “human” is humus. Thus, to be human is to be “of the soil.”  o many words spring from humus:  humility, humor, and human.  All connote a sense of groundedness—a recognition that at our foundation we are nothing more or less than created matter.

            Good humor grounds us in our humanity. It reminds us that while we may be spiritual creatures, we are also humans created from humus. And this gives me an opportunity to show you what I mean through my favorite church joke. It’s a bit racy, but my hope is that your spirit of joy and humor will let you forgive me for that.

            There once was a pastor of a church that was doing poorly financially. The pastor didn’t know what to do, but he was desperate. If the congregation didn’t get more money soon the church might have to fold up shop. In desperation he came up with a bold plan: “I’ll hypnotize the people to give more money.” So the next Sunday, during his sermon, he pulled out a watch on a chain, swinging it gently back and forth. Once they seemed to be mesmerized by the watch, he gently said to the congregation, “You will each put $5 in the collection plate.” After the service, the plates were full of $5 bills, enough to pay all the church bills for the week. He decided to do it again the following Sunday. He pulled out the watch, swung it back and forth, and said, “You will each put $10 in the collection plate.” Afterwards the plates were overflowing with $10 bills, enough to pay the bills for the rest of the month. If he could just get $20 from everyone, they would have all the bills paid for a year. The next week he pulled out the watch and said, “You will all…”  At that moment the watch chain broke, the watch fell, and he yelled out, “Aw, crap!”  It took them two days to clean up the sanctuary. 

            This joke tells you all you need to know about how reluctant we are to give, how easy it is to manipulate people to give, and how all of our best laid plans can backfire. Humor is part of God’s world. I chose our scripture for this morning because I think the Song of Songs is an intentionally humorous book of the Bible. It is profound. It is a love sonnet between God (the groom) and us (the bride), but the imagery is both evocative and humorous. Comparing the bride’s hair to a flock of goats cascading down a mountain, her neck like the ramparts of a castle, and her teeth to shorn sheep with twins is not meant to be deeply serious. It is both evocative and joyful, using humor to bring out both. If you look at the picture on the cover of this sermon, you will see what these descriptions all would look like. It shows that the Song of Songs is meant to be both humorous and deep at the same time. The Bible is full of humor, mostly that we don’t get. In the original Hebrew you find puns galore, along with sarcasm, facetiousness, and absurdity.

            The humor of Song of Songs taps into the same humor that the greatest television comedies does. Whether you are talking about shows like “I Love Lucy,” “The Dick van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” or “Modern Family,” they all start with the recognition that everyone in the show is flawed and human. And they exploit their humanness to both humor and humble us. Every character who lifts him- or herself up is brought down. And every character who is laid low gets brought back up. In great comedies, everyone is a fool, but they are fools in a community of people who keep lifting each other up no matter how often they stumble. These shows remind us, simply put, that we need humor as humans because humor keeps us humble. And real humility leads us to happiness.

            I have a simple message to close with for this morning:  When we combine humor and humility they allow us to find joy in the simplest things of life.