Humour on the big screen
I’ve just watched the film Keeping Mum for the third time. For me it’s compulsive viewing, with intrigue, murder and romance revolving around the village of Little Wallop.
In the midst of this is the vicar, the Reverend Walter Goodfellow, played by Rowan Atkinson.
The Reverend lacks confidence and has little impact on his Parish. As for his sermons, they are simply tolerated by a sparse congregation.
But a transformation takes place when he gains confidence and introduces humour into his sermons. The congregation is revived and his church is full.
Little Wallop awaits his sermons with anticipation. Laughter and joy becomes the norm. Thus his audience’s attention is secured and his message is received with fervour.
So is there a clue here for us clergy? Well I think so, subject to connection and circumstance.
By the time retirement was upon me, I’d become well practiced at making my congregation laugh.
For my last sermon the reading was drawn from the final chapter of John.
It recorded Jesus addressing Peter with the words: ‘When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and someone elese will dress you!’
So I introduced my sermon with: ‘This morning I informed Christine that my retirement would spell a new regime in our house. I told her she had to drive me around wherever and whenever I wanted to go. Then, when we returned home, she would at once take off my shoes, get my slippers and put them on my feet.
‘She would set the table, prepare, cook and provide me with a five course meal with all the trimmings. Then when I demanded, she would run my bath and lay out my pyjamas and dressing gown.
‘Then I said to her, “In the morning, guess who is going to dress me and comb my hair?” Christine smiled and said “My first guess would be your funeral director.”
With roars of laughter the congregation’s attention was secured and they were engaged with the gospel text.
I shared another of my favourite jokes when introducing a sermon on Zacchaeus, which helped me explain how we often do not understand what it cost him to follow Jesus.
I spoke about the vicar who was interviewing some parents who rarely came to church but wished for their child to be baptised.
He explained at some length to the parents what baptism involved but was not sure that they had understood so he asked the couple if they had any questions.
So the husband asked, “How much will it cost”?
“Nothing,” said the vicar. “God’s gift of baptism is free.”
“There you are,” said the wife to her husband, “I told you it was on the National Health”!
The magic lift
Another joke that sticks in the memory was deployed as I introduced John’s vision in Revelation: ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth’.
I told the story of a young Amish boy and his parents who had never been out of their traditional sheltered community, never watched television, listened to the radio or watched a film.
For the first time ever, they travelled to the nearest town and even visited a large department store.
They stared open mouthed at their overwhelming surroundings and tried to make sense of everything they saw. The father and son could not understand what the little room in the wall with closing doors was all about.
Leaving the mother at the shop’s counter, they approached the tiny metal room and stared at the plump, elderly lady who had just stepped into it.
The doors closed and the numbers over the door lighted up sequentially. Seconds later the doors opened again and out stepped a young, gorgeous and curvaceous blonde lady.
Father could not take his eyes off the transformation and said to his son with a wistful smile: “Quick, go get your mother.”
My favourite joke
A lady in our parish was to marry for the fourth time and was being interviewed by the local press. I felt her tale was a fitting introduction to a sermon on John the Baptist’s “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
The woman had married a bank manager in her twenties but he died young. In her forties she married a circus ring master but the marriage failed.
When she reached her sixties she married a vicar who then sadly passed away. Now in her eighties she was to marry a funeral director.
The reporter said she was fascinated by the different careers of her various husbands.
To which the woman replied. “Oh! It’s quite simple; I married one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go.”
Many people these days have an attention span of a nanosecond. A big reason for this is the speed and development of the media they now absorb.
Imagine that old BBC programme “Always Christian” being compared to a religious broadcast of today. Nowadays, a multitude of cameras scan the church and there are professional singers, choirs and interesting interviews. Each shot lasts but a few moments so as not to lose the attention of viewers.
We may not have the luxury of professional singers in our churches, nor can our sermons be dynamically edited but that’s where humour comes in. By mixing humorous anecdotes and stories into our sermons, we can keep the attention of our own audience and make sure that are not switching off.
Access to humour is all around us. There’s loads of material on the web and in books and with a little imagination, you can easily adapt it to suit your sermon.I often find inspiration too just by listening to conversations.
For example, two elderly ladies were coming out of a funeral service which I had officiated at a crematorium last winter. It was icy and when one slipped she shouted to her friend, “You’d think they would’ve sprinkled some ashes”!