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Asking the clergy: How does humor work in your religious teachings?

Faith is a serious subject most of the time, but once in a while, a lighter touch is needed to get a sermon's message across. Here is how a priest, a rabbi and a minister use reverent humor to unite their congregations with laughter.


The Rev. Steve Phillips, pastor, First United Methodist Church, Oceanside:

Many years ago, Butterball set up its Thanksgiving hotline to answer a question about cooking turkeys. One year a woman called in asking if it was safe to serve a turkey that had been frozen in the bottom of her freezer for 23 years. The Butterball expert asked whether the freezer had remained under zero degrees throughout that entire period and the woman was absolutely certain that it had. After consulting with her supervisor, the expert said that there was no reason that the bird should not be safe for human consumption. However, she added that it would not be worth eating. "That's what I thought," said the woman with a sign of relief. "That's why I gave it to my church!"

An absurd story with a serious moral -- sin sets in when we give less than our very best to God. As a preacher, my goal is to give my congregation nuggets of truth that will stay with them long after the benediction has been given. The writers of the Bible were well aware of this technique. In Genesis 25:30, Esau, famished from the hunt, demands of his brother Jacob, "a let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished." With that, an inheritance and a father's blessing are squandered for a bowl of lentil soul. Jesus often uses humor in his parables. Just picture the image of a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. Now that's funny!


Rabbi Glenn Jacob, Temple Am Echad of Lynbrook:

Within the tradition of fatalism, the quote is often, "if you don't laugh, then you cry." A folk tradition from Eastern Europe was the belief that it was not worthwhile to sit and complain when everyone was suffering. Jewish humor has always been a part of the communal exercise of converting suffering into something bearable. There's an old folk tale in which a man of little means is traveling with a man of importance. The second man asks three riddles, and one of the riddles, is, "Which one of us will carry the other?" The man of little means cannot solve that riddle, so he asks his clever daughter when they arrive at his home. She says the answer: "The one who will entertain the other for the duration of the trip." (Of course, the man of importance marries the woman.)

The point of the story is that we carry each other with humor. Jewish humor is meant to be the way we create and maintain community because we love to laugh together. The ideal is that if we can figure out how to laugh together, we can figure out how to solve the problems that affect all of us together. Jewish humor is not meant to attack or to denigrate; it's meant for people to bond together as a common experience. If I use humor at the beginning of a service or sermon, it serves a purpose, which is to bring people into the same space at the same time, and into the same state of mind to listen or participate.


The Rev. Ralph Sommer, pastor, St. Bernard's R.C. Church, Levittown:

Whether it was the funny image of a camel fitting through an eye of a needle or calling the vacillating apostle Peter "Rock," Jesus certainly knew how to make people smile. I think the essence of humor is surprise -- seeing things we didn't expect. And God is a God of surprises. God makes me laugh with joy when I encounter new unexpected blessings. So I try to copy God when teaching classes, preaching a homily, and even giving counsel by using unexpected humor. It's not stand-up comedy, but a twist of a phrase, an honest insight into the sometimes absurd condition of our lives, an unexpected connection between God's life and our daily lives -- these are the things that I find make people laugh a bit. As Pope Francis said, "A Christian without joy is either not a Christian or he is sick. There's no other type! He is not doing well health-wise! A healthy Christian is a joyful Christian." Plus I find that if I say something that makes people smile, they're more likely to remember it and share it with others. And that's no joke.

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