Normally, you wouldn’t find a blog post on humor mentioned in a series on Stewardship, Giving, and Generosity. The topic of stewardship and giving is not an easy one to speak about. It makes some people feel very uncomfortable. Both speaker and listener share long moments of angst when the topic is raised publicly.
But humor is a great equalizer. It eases the tensions and diffuses the inherent discomfort in a subject.
Humor is one of the most effective ways to work through a very sensitive topic for many in the church. Humor opens the heart.
Some may think differently about the use of funny stories in the context of a sermon. Its use in the pulpit has been discussed and debated (and disagreed about) for centuries. Does humor put the spotlight inappropriately on the preacher? Does it draw attention away from the seriousness of the purpose of the sermon? Is it manipulative? Distracting? Seductive?
No pastor or preacher should allow the pulpit to become an entertainment venue for jokes and quips. But, a little humor may make an important point a bit easier for some to grasp and accept. Humor can be a useful tool to make a clear, compelling point. And make it memorable.
Exchange Rate = Zero
Sometimes we might want to illustrate that riches on earth do not carry forward into rewards in heaven. So imagine the opposite: what if you could take it with you? Would you be rich there, too? This story illustrates that there are two different currencies; one in heaven and on earth. And the exchange rate is zero.
There was a rich man who was quite distressed over the prospect of not being able to take his riches with him when he died.
So, before he died, he loaded his briefcase with two gold bars from his private vault and left instructions to have the case locked with the key, handcuffed it to his wrist and the key placed into his grave clothes. His family carried out his orders correctly, to the letter.
When he appeared at the pearly gates, he had the briefcase with him, key in hand.
St. Peter asked, “What do you have in your suitcase?”
Very proudly, the man unlocked the case, opened it and displayed his two gold bars.
St. Peter said, “Isn’t that special! You brought pavement.”
Everyone knows the story is silly. But the visual of a man standing in front of the proverbial pearly gates with everything he thinks is important is unforgettable. But gold is good for nothing in the Kingdom, except to pave a pedestrian roadway. It may be trite to say, “You can’t take it with you,” but the anecdote makes that truth memorable.
Groans too Deep for Words
I have opened a stewardship sermon with this bad joke:
There once was a strongman at a circus sideshow who demonstrated his power before large audiences every night.
Toward the end of one performance, he squeezed the juice from a lemon between his hands. He said to the onlookers, “I will offer $200 to anyone here who can squeeze another drop from this lemon.
A thin older lady hobbled up the stage. She picked up the lemon and clamped it between her two frail, boney hands. She squeezed. And out came a teaspoon of lemon juice.
The strongman was amazed. He paid the woman $200 but privately asked her, “What is the secret of your strength?”
“Practice,” the woman answered. “I have been treasurer of my church for forty-two years!”
People will give you a courtesy laugh on this one. But even a groaner still introduces the subject in a lighthearted way. Then, with any tensions diffused, I can get down to my text.
What about Anecdotes?
Sometimes an anecdote will prove just as effective as a joke.
For example, how can a preacher illustrate the biblical truth that God owns everything; that giving is only returning what is rightfully his? Consider this unforgettable story:
A father and small son are traveling on a freeway. The boy says he’s hungry and would love to stop for a snack. They see the Golden Arches ahead and pull off the road. But boy sits at one of the tables in the restaurant and the father returns with a bag full of steamy, fresh French Fries. The boy’s face brightens with delight! He is hungry. The father sets the fries before the boy and takes his seat opposite him. He loves his son and loves to watch him eat so heartily.
The two sit at the table together while the boy munches away at the snack. Then the dad does what all dads would do. He reaches over and takes one french fry for himself. The little boy snaps at his father, ”Dad! These are mine. Why don’t you get your own?”
The dad thinks about this incident on the long, silent drive home: I gave my son every fry he had….and all I wanted was one. My son doesn’t understand something. He doesn’t know that I could take all those fries away in an instant. Or, if I felt it best for him, I could add to that bag of fries so abundantly that he’d be overwhelmed by them. He thinks that they are his. How did he forget who bought them and brought them to him?
Wow. It is a compelling story for any parent in the room because we have all had our hands slapped away from our child’s plate when we reached for a bite. Our kids have acted selfishly and were blind to our loving provision. But the point is made: God has given us our resources and money and when He asks for a tithe, many of us figuratively slap His hand and say, “Hands off my money.” But King David’s prayer calls us back to basic truths: “All thing come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” (1 Chronicles 29). The story about the fries brings that point home.
Giving is a tough subject to bring up. Many people don’t want to hear sermons that make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. But people can be encouraged to laugh. It is good to laugh. And sometimes, as Sarah might say, behind the laughter is a hope and a promise that God is going to do something big.
Frederick Buechner reminds us of the story. “Abraham laughed “till he fell on his face” (Genesis 17:17), and Sarah stood cackling behind the tent door so the angel wouldn’t think she was being rude. When the baby finally came, they even called him “Laughter”—which is what Isaac means in Hebrew—because obviously no other name would do.”
Tell it Slant…
Emily Dickenson coined a vivid phrase in a short poem:
Jesus told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But sometimes he mentioned it in the context of a story, a parable, or symbol. He told it slant.
Consider, for example, Jesus’ warning about treasures. It is non-direct:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21 ESV).
This is not a joke as we might call it today. But it is a very earthy take on deep spiritual issues. You get the stewardship lesson immediately. He is NOT promising that we can take treasure to heaven. But he is telling us that our use of money in this life will either work against us or for us.
The following ludicrous story makes a similar point:
A man died and went to heaven. He is at the Pearly Gates by St.Peter, who led him down the golden streets. They walk by mansions after beautiful estates until they came to the end of the road where they stopped in front of a little shack. The man asked St. Peter why he got a simple hut when there were so many mansions where he would be more comfortable. St. Peter replied, “I did the best with the money you sent us.”
We should not preach a “Prosperity Gospel”. However, we do know that givers will prosper, in many ways. Solomon has this to say about it: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25 NIV) Jesus and Paul say the same thing: The more we give, the more we receive. (Compare Luke 6:38 and 2 Corinthians 9:6.)
We should want to preach this incredible truth, but it’s best to preach it ‘slant‘.
Help is on the way
In an earlier post, I encouraged church leaders to devote a series of 3-4 weeks to preaching and teaching about stewardship. Every year. Yes, every year. Knowing that the church and the preacher are going to focus on stewardship every year will give great comfort to the members of the church, even if they cannot attend for whatever reason.
Here is a great joke that will set the congregation thinking about stewardship…and a few other things. It is a great introduction to the subject and it will help every hearer laugh.
Two men were marooned on an Island. One man paced back and forth worried and scared while the other man sat back and was sunning himself. The first man said to the second man, “Aren’t you afraid we are about to die.” “No,” said the second man, “I make $10,000 a week and tithe faithfully to my church every week. It’s Stewardship Month at my church. My Pastor will find me.”
Perfect joke! Why? Because it allows the preacher to talk about a ‘peace that passes understanding‘ that comes with generosity. In a wonderfully subtle way, it also throws the preacher under the bus and makes fun of his efforts to teach and encourage giving. It is a great joke to tell just before you list the true benefits of sacrificial giving.
Jesus said that too?!
Finally, did you know that Paul quotes Jesus only once in the New Testament? Yes, it is true. Quotes from our Lord never appear in Paul’s letter directly, except one time only, and then from Paul’s lips (in Acts, not his letters). And the subject of that single, non-Gospel quote is, you guessed it, about money and giving.
“…remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35) This is slant too. Rather than tell people to give, Paul is telling them to remember how Jesus told them to give…and not to focus on how to receive.
And it also means that Jesus’ teachings on treasures, generosity, and stewardship were so widely known and followed that they didn’t have to be written down. They were ‘memes’ in the ancient world.
They were understood as Gospel, even if they were not in the Gospel!
Giving is part of what it means to follow Christ. No joke!