Sunday, April 08, 2018

Laughing at Ourselves: a sermon, old but still relevant

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, April 8, 2018

            Say, didja hear this one?  A Unitarian Universalist family moved into a new neighborhood.  Their little girl finds a new playmate living next door and they are happily getting to know each other.  One day, the playmate says, “We’re Episcopalians, what are you?”  The UU child thinks hard for a moment, puzzling over this question and finally says, “I’m not sure, but I think we’re American Association of University Women”.
            Or what about these one-liners”
            You may be a Unitarian Universalist if:
                        You are unsure about the gender of God
                        Or you think the trinity is “reduce, reuse, and recycle”
                        Or  you consider them the “ten suggestions” instead of the ten commandments.
            Or, since the word Unitarian means “one” and Universalist means “everything”, Unitarian Universalist means “one of everything”.
            And that famous scene from the hotbed of theological inquiry, The Simpsons show, where two neighbor boys are showing Bart Simpson, the modern Dennis the Menace, their new video game.  Now Rod and Todd, the neighbor boys, go to a conservative megachurch and their video game is entitled “Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster”.  In it, you shoot heathens with Bibles to turn them into Christians.  So Bart finally asks, “what happens if you don’t hit them straight on?” and Todd answers, “well, when you only wing-em, they turn into Unitarians.”
            We UUs have given the world a lot to laugh about over the centuries since we began to be a serious religious path.  That’s a good thing!  To be the Holy Fool is a noble task.
            What is humor?  What makes something funny?  And what does it have to do with religious faith?  It’s been said that the relationship between humor and faith springs from the fact that both deal with incongruity and paradox.  We laugh when something surprises us by its oddness or its juxtaposition with its opposite.
            Remember the dumb junior high jokes from the 70’s?  If you weren’t born yet, please, don’t judge us by our humor.  Actually it was our kids’ humor and we parents and teachers had to deal with it, but remember some of those dumb jokes?  What’s red and goes putput?  An outboard apple (not the computer).  Why did the elephant wear red tennis shoes?  So she could hide in the strawberries.
            Comedy often is anchored in tragedy.  We laugh to keep from crying.  And sometimes we cry to keep from laughing.  Laughter and tears are closely connected.  You may have noticed at memorial services that the mourners often do as much laughing as crying and that’s because life is both heartbreaking and hilarious.  Even death can become an occasion of laughter and sweet memory.
            Some of us may remember the late Norman Cousins, who healed himself of a terminal illness by watching Three Stooges and I Love Lucy videos?  Cousins called laughter “inner jogging” and credited his daily laughter workout as a lifesaving therapy.  Of course, he died anyway, eventually.
            There’s a doctor in India who invented “Laughter Yoga”.  Dr. Kataria writes:  “We all know that laughter makes us feel good.  A regular 20 minute laughter session can have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing.  Laughter is gentle exercise.  It fills your lungs and body with oxygen, deep-cleans your breathing passages and exercises your lungs.  This is really important for people who don’t get regular aerobic exercise.
            When we laugh our bodies release a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that have startling positive effects on our system.  Stress is reduced, blood pressure drops, depression is lifted, your immune system is boosted…. Western science is just starting to discover the great effects of laughter.”
            We laugh at the absurdities of life.  We laugh to help ourselves accept the inevitable.  We laugh with others and feel ourselves connected to them.  We laugh to put our human bumbling into perspective.  We laugh to let go of unwanted memories.  We laugh to release emotion.  We laugh to fight anger, fear, and depression.  We laugh to ease an unhappy heart.
            And we laugh to poke holes in egotism, both our own egotism and that of others.  We laugh at our politicians’ antics and foolery; we laugh at the ridiculous things public figures do.  And we gingerly and sometimes painfully laugh at ourselves, at our own egos, at our own ridiculous behavior.
            Laughing at ourselves is probably one of the most important and yet painful things we can do.  As Unitarian Universalists, we endure a certain amount of laughter at our expense, at times.  We are so different from other religious traditions that people don’t understand who we are as a religion, as a body of believers who believe in reason and the worth and dignity of all. 
           Garrison Keillor, formerly of Prairie Home Companion, raised UU jokes to an art form, though he had his comeuppance recently when it came to his personal behavior.  He even encouraged his listeners to send him Unitarian jokes.  This bothered me a little because I have considered his humor at our expense to be a little unkind.  But I think he did us a great service during his heyday, probably without realizing it, by elevating us to the position of America’s Holy Fool.
            Remember the little boy who cried out, at the parade, “the emperor has no clothes!” and was ridiculed and shushed by those who were afraid to tell the truth?  That little kid was a UU at heart.
            Remember the Unitarian educator who said “children need accurate sex education” and was ridiculed and scorned by the public?  You don’t?  That was Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, whose radical ideas in 19th century Massachusetts drew laughter and financial ruin.  Today,  our UU curriculum “OWL, or Our Whole Lives” has been called the premier sex education program of our time.
            Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have been benevolent radicals, on the far edge of religious thought, for centuries.  We have carried the banner for progressive causes for a long time:  for religious freedom, for reproductive freedom, for abolition of slavery, for humane treatment of the mentally ill and for prisoners, for civil rights, for marriage equality, to name a few.  We have been ahead of the social action curve for a long, long time.
            And virtually every cause we have supported has been ridiculed, fought, and finally accepted.  I’m reminded of a t-shirt I used to have, portraying a quote attributed to Gandhi:  “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
            The Fool is a real historical character, both in secular and sacred life.  The court jester was the one person who was allowed to say anything he wanted to the King.  He was safe and his character figures in many a folk tale and even in Shakespearean drama.
            Jesus was not the first Holy Fool---Hebrew prophets and other sages beat him to it---but he certainly did speak new truth to power.  And that’s what the Holy Fool does, speaks truth to power.
            What does our Unitarian Universalist humor say about us?  Behind the quick punchlines, behind the ridiculous scenarios, what is the real message?
            Here’s one:  People had heard on the news that a great flood was coming, so the Catholics said their rosaries, the Buddhists used their beads, the Protestants joined in prayer, and the UUs taught a class to learn how to live underwater.  (OO, that’s a little too close to home in our current environmental crisis, isn’t it?  Still funny.)
            And then there’s this one:  Garrison Keillor did a skit on Prairie Home Companion long ago, in which the Rapture had come.  For those of you who don’t speak conservative Christian, the Rapture is the moment in time when Jesus is supposed to return to earth and take the faithful up to heaven.  It’s a big deal in evangelical churches and some even think that we are currently in those dreaded End Times, judging from the chaos in our world.
            In the skit, Keillor is helping a child find her parents, who have disappeared.  He suspects that the Rapture has come and her Baptist parents have gone to heaven, leaving her behind.  But just to make sure, he calls around.  Hmmm, the president of the US is still at his desk.  Billy Graham is home as is Jerry Falwell.
            Then he dials another number and gets a recording.  “Thank you for calling the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Nobody is here to take your call, so please leave a message and we will return your call as soon as possible.  Oh my gosh, all my clothes just fell off and I’m going up into the air---------dial tone.”
            When Keillor turns on the radio, he hears “Meanwhile, in Boston, hundreds of men and women who were protesting the war in Iraq suddenly disappeared, according to eyewitnesses, leaving their clothing lying in the street, all of which was made from recycled materials and had political slogans written on it…”
            On another station, Rush Limbaugh is speaking in tongues and Keillor moans, “Why would the Unitarians be raptured?  They don’t want salvation, they want closure’.  Interesting that Keillor is still earthbound in the skit and that the Baptist parents eventually turned up.
            Funny as this is, there may be sweet truth in it.  The Holy Fool, the ridiculous character, the one nobody understands or takes seriously as a real religious faith, the one other religions make fun of at times, may be rewarded at last.
            Some humor is definitely unkind.  Some humor is limited by its content and language to expression only by insiders.  We think of words that voice racial or gender stereotypes.  Jokes about certain things are now understood to be inappropriate.
            When it happens, some deride the need for “political correctness police” but political correctness emerged from an effort to be kinder.  It’s not okay to laugh at others’ expense.  We teach our children that unkind teasing is wrong.  And usually we remember to be kind too.
            It used to be a sin to laugh.  In the year 390, the theologian John of Crysostom preached a sermon against laughter and playfulness.  He wrote:  “this world is not a theatre in which we can laugh…and we are not assembled together in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins.  It is not God who gives us the chance to play, but the devil.”
            Our Puritan ancestors shared these sentiments as do some of their modern descendants.  And the attitude is not confined to Western traditions but can be found in early Buddhist writings which used the kinds of laughter voiced by humans to separate them into classes according to their enlightenment.  Those of us who laugh boisterously at times would be considered vulgar and uncouth.  I don’t think that the Dalai Lama is one of those kinds of Buddhists.
            The American humorist James Thurber once wrote:  “if a thing can’t endure laughter, it is not a good thing.  Laughter is never out of date or out of place.  Too often the intense person loses the ability to laugh and accuses those who see humor in pompous circumstances of being sacrilegious.  Far from it!  Parody, satire, and wit represent strong emotions, for we usually parody and satirize only those things that mean something to us and when we use these forms with love and affection, we are paying homage.”
            And the Greek philosopher Aristotle said “the gods too are fond of a joke”.  The Bible tells us that “a merry heart doeth good like medicine, but a broken spirit drieth up the bones.”  St. Teresa, the Christian mystic, said, “there is no spirituality without the laughter which the sense of humor brings.”  And, here in western America’s native cultures, we are familiar with Coyote and Raven, the tricksters of native folk tales.
            What is our responsibility as the Holy Fool of American religion?  What does this role free us to do?  It frees to laugh at follies of the powerful.  It frees us to stick our necks out for others, to risk being uncool, to look ridiculous in our intensity and earnestness.  It frees us to laugh at all the UU jokes, make up a few of our own, and relish the laughter of others, because we know we are inviting people to open their minds and hearts and join us in this holy foolishness of leading others.
            What would our prayer, as UUs be, assuming we decided to pray?  How about this?
            To Whom it may concern, God, Ground of All Being, Source of All Light, Divine Daddy, whatever,
            Help us to relax about insignificant details, beginning tomorrow at 7:41 a.m., PDT.
            Help us to consider people’s feelings, even if most of them ARE hypersensitive.
            Help us to take responsibility for our own actions, even though they’re usually NOT our fault.
            Help us to not try to RUN everything.  But if you need some help, please feel free to ask us.
            Help us to be more laid back and help us to do it exactly right.
            Give us patience, and I mean right now.
            Help us to do only what we can and trust you for the rest.  And would you mind putting that in writing?
            Keep us open to others’ ideas, wrong though they may be.
            In the name of everything.  AMEN.
            The Holy Fool reminds the world that there are limitations to creation and evolution.  It points out the ostrich and the platypus and quirky system devised by nature to make sure that the human species reproduces itself.  The Holy Fool tears down the walls we erect to protect us from the real world and pokes holes in our egos.  The Holy Fool points out our irony deficiency and subverts the established norms.
            It’s great to be a Unitarian Universalist, able to laugh at ourselves, giggle about our unorthodox faith, guffaw about the world, and chuckle even about death.  Our good humor allows us to be good in the face of all that tries to divert us from goodness, giving us humility as well as wisdom
            My colleague the Rev. Michael McGee has written, “For life is absurd as well as profound.  Life is filled with love as well as hate, wisdom as well as stupidity, courage as well as fear.  And our religious path at times looks as orderly as a labyrinth and at other times like a drunk staggering to the outhouse.
            To be a fool is not foolish but refreshing, to chuckle through lectures and sermons is not a sin but the epitome of sanity, and to laugh until we cry is not shameful but sanctifying.”
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer. 
            Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, with a joke on our lips and joy in our hearts, remembering that humility and wisdom are the byproducts of laughter.  May we live our role as America’s Holy Fool with courage and conviction and use humor to heal and not to hurt.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.   

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