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Humor: God's Special Aid for Living

Rev. Al Carmines

Say you are a stranger -- a man or woman -- at the foot of three crosses watching three criminals die. You are jeering much as a crowd at lynchings did in this country less than 60 years ago. And one of them turns to the others and says: "Today you will be with me in paradise."

What do you do if you know nothing of the situation?  You might well laugh. For it's humorous -- as if one bum said to another on the street in front of this building: "Today you will be with me in a palace."

Humor is distinct from the rejoicing -- which I preached about two weeks ago.   Humor -- no matter how good natured, needs a barb -- it needs a fall guy, a banana peel. That does not make humor sinful, but it does give it edge. And part of living in this world is edge.

Part of living life in this world is humor also. In some scale of values, Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce and Jay Leno and David Steinfeld are in a sense healers. They are practitioners not of tough love, but of tough like. That is what humor is -- tough like.

Humor can be used by God to warn, comfort, and change.

I am sure that to the Hebrews the story of Baalaam's ass was funny. A man is riding a donkey which suddenly turns and talks to him. Now before the 20th Century in the rationalistic 19th Century such an occurrence had very little meaning. But since Bruno Bettleheim and Dr. Seuss, we suddenly realize that fairy tales are wholesome -- for the maturing of the human being and perhaps for the maturing of animals. My cat Alma used to wiggle on her back and wreathe with pleasure when I played a song -- only when I did it and only on my old out of tune piano. But she was driven to ecstasy by the sound.

When Solomon displayed his wit and wisdom to the Queen of Sheba there was humor. Here the King of a small and somewhat backward kingdom showed the Elizabeth Taylor of his time a thing or two. He dazzled her like Billy Crystal. The story in which Solomon threatened to cut in half and divide a child among two women claiming to be the mother was grisly, but also grotesquely funny in the same way Flannery O'Connor or Bernard Balamuc can be funny.

Fairy tales are also filled with orgres and ghosts and fairy godmothers and wizards. Earlier in the century, people thought we could protect our children from those apparitions, but we have learned that elements of these fairy tales like wicked step mothers need to be absorbed for the health of us all.

It is a hilarious story when Jesus turns to his disciples with a coin and tells them to go pay taxes with it. For Jesus doesn't tell the full truth. Whose image is on the coin, Jesus asks. Why, Caesar's, the disciples replied. "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's," Jesus tells them. Well who does the coin -- or anything -- ultimately belong to, but to God? Jesus used a joke to make a point.

The healthiest humor is simply the ha ha ha of a good belly laugh -- not at anyone's expense except perhaps our own. To be able to laugh at an one's self or at others or another person with love is one element of growth.

We sang today about people who are poor yet rich, about people who are loony and romantic yet realistic about their chances and about moon rivers, mountains, seas, and the eloquence of fools. They are parables of modern life and as such cannot be dismissed. From Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondeheim, they all have something to teach us.

Humor is God's way of showing us we are not omnipotent. That may come as a shock to some of us. But we are mortal, fragile humans prone to evil as the sparks fly upward. Yet humor has a redeeming quality, too. It tells us that God believes that we are able to take it and stand up to it -- that God believes we are able and worthy of repentance and a place in a kingdom -- in Heaven -- where there is no need for humor, but where there still might be a good chuckle every now and then.