(This article was originally published in October 2005)
Whatever criticisms one may have of the Synodical Conference conservatives of the mid-twentieth century, one can at least say that Sunday morning for these men meant church. The rite was usually read as it was printed in the big book on the altar. Things were straightforward; there was no monkey business; there was no playing to the crowd. At least that’s how I remember it. It wasn’t that these men didn’t have a sense of humor. Many of them did. However, the jokes and jesting were left for the Gemütlichkeit following the pastor’s conference.
Today, it seems that the hour of prayer has become the happy hour. Of all the “happiness” of the new happy hour, the type which is most egregious for this writer is glib humor. I hate glibness; not only because it is so inappropriate in the Divine Service, but also because I find myself all too often falling into the trap of being glib. Glibness hides things which belie its lowdown character. Webster uses words like this to describe glibness: “slippery, showing little forethought or preparation, superficial.” In spite of superficiality, glib people often give off the aura of intellectual superiority. These negative things are disguised by the easygoing humor which glibness invariably assumes. This humor can be clever, self-effacing, cute, and endearing. This ecclesial cuteness can hide a multitude of sins, including shoddy preparation, the preacher’s personal agenda, and especially the notion that we “grow the church.” This style suits the average American who does not like authority figures. The preacher becomes just another one of us, our guy to chum with, the one who administers our vision of the church, and eventually the one whom we manipulate.
This style suits many preachers as well. Unsure of themselves and aware of the inadequacies which we all possess, they can use glib humor as an entrée into the hearts of their people. Even the humblest preachers find this hard to resist. Just the same, this approach is wrong; and for our biblicist friends, a thing never seen in the B-I-B-L-E. The church of long ago had a name for this vice: it was called pride. The ready laughs and warm approval given preachers by their parishioners merely fuel the ego. However, one has to wonder if this approval is genuine or mere politeness, for few of these ecclesial comedians should quit their day jobs. Satan’s first temptation was to shift the focus of Adam from God to Adam. As confessional Lutherans know (but also forget), when the focus is on the people and on the preacher, then it will never be on Christ. On the other hand, when Christ is at the center, then it is not only about Christ but also about his redeemed. When Meology replaces Christology, then the jig is up. Simply put, since glib humor is not about Christ, and can never be, it is another gospel.
Fortunately the historic liturgy of the Church has a way of restraining these prideful displays. Even homespun “liturgies” act as a restraint. Since glibness is frustrated by the rite, it must find another avenue for expression. Unfortunately the sermon often becomes the showcase. The result is that the preacher is highlighted, the glory of the gospel is obscured, and Christ is demeaned. Once, while on vacation, I attended a WELS church served by a young man who deported himself very well as he greeted people before the service. He followed the big book on the altar word for word. However, when it came to the sermon this young man assumed the persona of a Southern revivalist. The text was the sacrifice of Isaac. The preacher opined, in a bad Southern drawl, that Sarah’s earlier childlessness was in part due to the fact that “there was no more thunder under the covers.” The crowd loved it. His remark left some of us wondering if the poor man had ever read the book of Genesis, or if the Holy Spirit had privileged him with information which the rest of the Church did not have. The sermon could have been salvaged had the preacher noted the Messianic significance of the pericope. He did not.
The second showcase for glib humor is the post-service announcements. A practice which is novel to the Mass and often exhibits Meology to the max (reason enough to abandon the practice). Here it seems that all restraints are gone and the show really begins. Alas! “The Mass is ended, go in peace.” We have had an encounter with the living God. He has given his precious Body and Blood for our well-being now and for all eternity (at least on “Communion Sundays”). This is not the time to see how cleverly the preacher can announce that the chili supper has been moved from 6:00 to 6:30.
God’s Sense of Humor
A number of years ago a South African preacher toured North America touting something called “Holy Laughter.” His yuk-fests left them rolling in the aisles from Toronto to L.A. The spectacle prompted one person to ask this writer whether God had a sense of humor. He does, but it’s nothing like that which passes for humor in the church today. His humor is ironic and painful. He makes us laugh through our tears at our sinful folly, so that we might see it as such. He makes fools of us, so that we might become wise in Christ. He breaks our will, so that it might conform to his own. He makes us sinners, so that he might bespeak us righteous. In short, he drowns us daily in baptism that we might live, and in this dying we are saved. In this tension between heaven and earth, which is played out in the Holy Liturgy and in life, there is no room for glib humor.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter….Came on the following Feet, and a Voice above their beat - “Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.” (The Hound of Heaven, Sir Francis Thompson, +1907) §
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is a rostered pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and resides in Chicago, Illinois. This article first appeared in the 2002 Michaelmass issue of Gottesdienst and has been slightly revised.