Friday, April 27, 2007

Stem Cell Forum A Success!

We had a wonderful turnout last night as the Church hosted a forum on the Science, Ethics, and Politics of Stem Cell research.

Our distinguished guests included Dr. David Albertini, Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical School, Myra Christopher, President/CEO of the Center for Practical Bioethics, and Lori Hutfles, Executive Director of the Kansas Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

As promised, here is more information:

You can find The Center for Practical Bioethics' Policy Brief on Early Stem Cell Research here.

You can find out more about legislation affecting public policy on Stem Cell Research here.

Thank you for coming out and helping to make this event a success!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sermon: "The Committed Life" (Delivered 4-22-07)

There is so much that can be said, will be said, and needs to be said about the nightmarish tragedy that struck Virginia Tech this past Monday. Those horrific events, while situated in a particular community on a particular campus in a place that most of us have never been and will never go to, have rippled and resonated and affected people all over our country and our world. On one level, the Virginia Tech shootings are sure to prompt nation-wide conversations and debates; there will be intense debates about gun ownership as well as many conversations about mental illness, treatment, and medical privacy. On another level, the shootings prompt larger existential questions about meaning, humanity, and community. I found myself remembering words spoken by the great Unitarian minister Forest Church after September 11th, who said that the idea that our lives can be made absolutely secure is a seductive and dangerous myth. The world is not secure, and while it is wise to take reasonable steps to promote safety, to live will always involve risk. And because life has inherent risk, it carries inherent meaning as well.

I’ve often wondered if years from now, if we won’t look back on the first decade of the twenty-first millennium as the decade when Americans were capable of achieving “total media absorption.” This decade began with the terrorist attacks of September 11, which introduced us to the ability to watch a news-story 24 hours per day, for weeks on end on the television. Next came the military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which similarly we were able to watch in around-the-clock fashion. Within a few years, this style of news media expanded. It is now possible to watch 24/7 coverage of the Don Imus scandal or the competing paternity claims for Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.

In his novel Infinite Jest, contemporary author David Foster Wallace imagines a form of media so rapturously enthralling, so completely addicting, that all who view it instantly forget their human impulses to work and to relate, to eat and to drink, even their need to breathe – and therefore suffer a media-induced coma, followed by a media-induced death. We’re not there yet, although sometimes I wonder if we might not be getting close.

The great paradox is this: that even when we are confronted with this world at its most tragic and traumatic, even when we are confronted with this world at its most evil and depressing, even when we are confronted with this world at its most devastating or at its most excruciatingly banal… even then, even then, life goes on and is no less meaningful.

We still need to breathe. The need to feed your children and walk your dog persists. You still need to pay the bills and do the laundry. You still need to get some exercise. And what you do in your normal life – helping the children with their homework, volunteering with this church or another charity, going to your job which is sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating… what you do does not, all of a sudden, become less worthy because of what is on the television. Everything changes and most things are still the same.

The great paradox is this: the world shakes but your life goes on. The ground under our feet shakes, but life goes on no less meaningfully than before.

This morning, I want to talk to you about living a balanced life. I also want to talk to you about living a committed life. Being balanced and being committed are not opposed.

And to introduce this subject I want to tell you about my day last Tuesday, or more precisely the choices I had as to how to spend my day last Tuesday. A couple of months ago I got a call from the Students for Reproductive Choice group at the University of Kansas asking me to speak at a panel on Theology and Reproductive Justice on Tuesday, April 17th. This is a group I have spoken for several times in the past. I always enjoy it and I was happy to accept their invitation. But, then I got a call from the Human Rights Campaign offering to fly me to Washington D.C. on Tuesday, April 17th to help lobby for legislation opposing discrimination against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender people. I was to lobby representatives in the day and then appear at a press conference which would run on CNN. Then I got a request to deliver a presentation at a chapter gathering of UU ministers in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 17th? And, then, on Tuesday, April 17th, like every Tuesday, there are all the people in this church who need to be called on, or emailed back. And, did I mention that Tuesday is supposed to be my day-off? But, the point is, all of these potential activities I had to choose from were meaningful, valuable, good.

My goal in my ministry is to try to live this ministry in a way that is committed and in a way that is balanced. That means sometimes saying “yes” and sometimes saying “no.” I said “Yes” to the honor to being asked to serve on the Executive Committee of the UU Ministers Association. I said “No” to the honor of being asked to serve on the board of the UUCF. I said “Yes” to being asked to serve on the Board of the MAINstream Coalition. I said “No” to being asked to serve on the National Board of Choice USA. It isn’t easy to say no to Gloria Steinem!

Whenever I reflect on the idea of a balanced and committed life, I recall the list created by my friend and colleague Tim Jensen about the roles a minister is expected to perform:
Preacher, Teacher, Pastor, Leader, Writer, Performer, Caregiver, Coach, Student, Scholar, Historian, Storyteller, Advocate, Mentor, Mediator, Negotiator, Entrepreneur, Peacemaker, Prophet, Priest, Rabbi, Chaplain, Sage, Mystic, Poet, Pilgrim, Spiritual Seeker, Spiritual Guide, Visionary, Organizer, Manager, Long Range Planner, Professional Expert, Organizational Consultant, Institutional Memory, Personal Companion, Partner, Parent, Trusted Friend, Philosophical Gadfly, Administrator, “Boss,” Strategist, Facilitator, Fundraiser, Expeditor, Supervisor, Servant, Shepherd, "Sheep Dog," Master & Commander, Major Idiot, Skipper, Experimenter, Analyst, Observer, Pundit, Critic, Counselor, Motivator, Devil’s Advocate, Wise Fool, Court Jester, Plucky Comic Relief, Medic, Personal Trainer, Baby Sitter, Dog Walker, Cat Herder, Snake Charmer, Duck Aligner, Weasel Wrangler, Chef, Gardener, Fisherman, Firefighter, Dishwasher, Custodian, Repairman, Jack-of-all-Trades, Quarterback, Point Guard, Relief Pitcher, Cheerleader, Pinch Hitter, Lead-off Hitter, Clean-up Hitter, Catcher, Center Fielder, Utility Infielder, Free Safety, Placekicker, Punt Returner, Bench Warmer, Water Boy, Umpire, Groundskeeper... and, of course, Juggler and Miracle Worker.

Commitment and balance. Balance and commitment. These are not necessarily contradictory, although they sometimes feel that way.

In thinking about my day last Tuesday, which was far from a normal day, there are a number of things I could mention. The obvious question, considering the five worthy activities in four different states, is which I should have chosen. You might have an opinion here. I will say that I seek to strike a balance between all my worthy activities – some time for sermon writing and study, some time for visiting, calling and counseling, some time for committees, some time for staff supervision, some time for denominational business, some time for continuing education, some time for service to the community and service to the wider world, some time for myself. I try to strike a balance, all the while trying to demonstrate a commitment to all these worthy recipients of my energy.

And what about this church? And what about you?

Coming back around to my refrain, what we do here has been made no less meaningful. What we do here continues to be important, needed, good.

This coming Thursday we will host a fantastic forum on the topic of stem cell research. We will host a panel of distinguished experts, and empower our community and each other to be more informed and more active around this issue. This is important, needed, and good. Similarly, our mission of being a religious community that involves people in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world – our mission of using our resources, facilities, and our collective energy to help promote our values and serve the community is still important, needed, and good. Our work we do to care for and support each other through hard times is still important, needed, and good. The work we do in promoting spiritual development in our children – helping them to live lives of ethical significance, conscience, and meaning is still important, needed, and good.

As ever before, the potential for us to bless each other’s lives, serve the community, and change the world is not diminished. Our efforts are still important, needed, and good. Life continues and is not less meaningful. We’re no less called to live lives that are balanced and committed.

A few minutes ago, when I made my list of all the things I could be doing on my usually busy Tuesday, the motivation was not to brag. The motivation was to remind us that the only things that limit us as a church are the size of our vision, the strength of our creativity, and the depth of our commitment. Our vision, our creativity, and our commitment.

And for us to really become all that we might become, we really need for the commitment to be shared by each and every one of us. That is the definition of shared ministry. We share fiscal responsibility for this church; we all share in the commitment to fund its vision. We share the caring ministry; to those who grieve or feel low we share the responsibility and the privilege of care, compassion, support. We share the membership ministry; when visitors come for the first time we all share the responsibility of extending a warm welcome. When we think of someone we haven’t seen in a while, we all share the responsibility to let that person know that they are missed and that they are missing something wonderful.

When commitment is shared, only then do we begin to realize the things that are possible, all that we envision and imagine and dream of – all of these, they are all made real.

Let me be clear on this: the commitments we make to this church reach far beyond you. A worship service wouldn’t be beautiful without a pianist to play, voices to sing, hymnals from which to sing, candles to light, and chairs on which to sit. A religious education program needs teachers in every classroom, and supplies in every classroom. Social justice requires strong membership. It all happens because everyone commits. When our commitments are small, the entire system is diminished. When our commitments are enlarged, the entire church is invigorated.

To put it another way, we depend on each other. We depend on one another. The ability for one committed person to shine and excel depends on the strong commitments of many others. Our nominee for President of this congregation next year has spoken at board meeting and elsewhere about one of his goals as President. His goal is 100% involvement – that every single person in this church has a place where they are involved in furthering the mission and vision of this church. I love his vision here – every single person has somewhere where they are committed.

I thank you on behalf of all your fellow congregants for making a financial commitment to this church. I thank you on behalf of all of your fellow congregants for all your commitments. Let me end by saying that what this church does and all that it will do is important, needed, and good. What we do matters and that truth is never, ever diminished.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Stem Cell Forum at SMUUCh April 26th!!!

Please forward this on to anyone you know:

“Stem Cells: Science, Ethics, Politics, and Faith” is the topic of a forum Thursday, April 26th featuring distinguished panelists Dr. David Albertini, Hall Professor of Molecular Medicine at KU Medical Center, Myra Christopher, President of the Center for Practical Bioethics, and Lori Hutfles of the Kansas Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

Presented as a community service by the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, panelists will discuss the science, ethics, and politics of stem sell research. “As a church, one of our most important roles is to be a place where the community can come to learn about important issues, become discerning in their thinking, and grow empowered to act on these issues,” said, Rev Thom Belote. Belote will also moderate the forum.

The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, is located at 7725 W. 87th Street (between Metcalf and Antioch) in Overland Park, KS. For more information, call (913) 381-3336.


Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church is a religious community of people engaged in worship and the celebration of life, personal and intellectual growth, caring and supportive fellowship, humanitarian service, and social action. Founded in 1967, we are celebrating forty years of liberal religion in Johnson County. We are a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, an association of more than 1,000 congregations in North America.

Homily: "The Courage Equal to Faith" (Delivered 3-4-07)

[This homily was delivered during a service celebrating all of the Past-Presidents who have served the Shawnee Mission UU Church. Following the homily, we unveiled a handsome plaque in their honor.]

The angels conspire to bless us, but the angels need a little help.

The following is a true story:

I moved to Dallas, Texas at the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend, 2001. The day after Memorial Day, I was to begin a summer-long chaplain residency at a Dallas hospital. Upon completing the chaplaincy, I was to begin a 9-month internship at a congregation in suburban Dallas. That first Sunday in town, the Sunday before Memorial Day, I attended church at First Unitarian, the large urban congregation in Dallas. I introduced myself to their Senior Minister, Rev. Laurel Hallman after the service. About five days later I received a call from Rev. Hallman and she asked me if I could preach at her church two weeks later.

“No,” my brain answered, “I’ve only preached twice in my life. And you’re asking me to preach at one of the largest UU churches in the country on two weeks notice.”

“No,” my brain answered, “Congregations like First Unitarian don’t schedule worship only two weeks in advance.”

“No,” my brain answered, “You have no clue who I am. I just walked in off the street.”

“No,” my brain answered, “I’m not worthy to preach at a church as esteemed as First Unitarian.”

“Yes,” my mouth answered, “I would love to preach at your church in two weeks.”

That June, beyond serving as a chaplain at the hospital and preparing to preach at First Unitarian, I was also expected to attend a weekend Board Retreat for the suburban congregation I was to intern at. In preparation for the retreat I was supplied with the minutes of the previous board meetings. The first item mentioned in the minutes was a discussion about the congregation’s $30,000 budget deficit. Uh-oh! A motion had been made that they could cancel out a third of that deficit by canceling my internship. The motion barely failed. Those who had voted to cancel my internship were named. This was very uncomfortable.

In the first week of my internship I received a call. The man on the phone, Hardy Sanders, a member of First Unitarian where I had preached weeks earlier, had called to offer to subsidize the cost of my internship. A check for $10,000 was on its way. The congregation ended the year with a surplus, by the way.

To this day, I do not know what went on behind the scenes. I don’t really care to know. I do know I am glad that I said “yes” when Rev. Hallman asked me to preach. I do know that I am glad that the motion made at the board meeting failed. And I am certain that angels conspire to bless us, but the angels need a little help from us.

There are a couple of things I could say about this story. It goes a long towards explaining why fiscal conservatives tend to push my buttons. But more than that, it is a story that I find instructive about the importance of leadership. As Unitarian Universalists, our seventh principle reminds us that we are caught up in an interdependent web of all existence. As a part of that web, all of our actions – day to day and in every way – do not take place in isolation. Our actions and our struggles cause vibrations; our splashes cause ripples. What we do or leave undone is felt widely. There are ramifications. There are consequences.

Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the Twentieth Century, believed that the word “faith” had been corrupted beyond repair, and that we shouldn’t bother to use it anymore. Instead of the word faith, Tillich suggested we use the word “courage.” We would say, “You need to have courage,” instead of, “You need to have faith.” Instead of saying, “I’ve lost my faith,” people would say, “I’ve lost my courage.” And, in a church, instead of saying, “It takes faith to lead,” we would say, “Courage is necessary to lead.” It is necessary. It does take courage.

Courage is a word that we tend to understand too narrowly. If I asked people here to name a courageous Unitarian, we’d tend to think of James Reeb, the civil rights martyr. We’d tend to think of James Barrett, the clinic escort gunned down in Florida. We’d tend to think of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Olympia Brown. Or Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian minister who wrote his sermons with a gun on the desk in front of him, in the event that anyone should come to demand the fugitive slaves he was hiding, and helping to safe passage.
Prophetic courage is often the most visible form of courage. Prophetic courage is courage equal to faith. But there are other expressions of courage, other expressions of courage equal to faith.

And please don’t think I’m being melodramatic with this point. There was, I believe, a very real courage expressed by those board members several years ago who voted not to diminish the programs of the church even when the money wasn’t coming in. There is also I believe, for every officer of our church, for every steward of our church, for every trustee of our church, the opportunity to display courage faithfully and faith courageously.

During the service this morning you have heard from three past-Presidents. One had the courage to lead a brand new church at the moments of its inception. The next had the courage to lead this church at the time of its faltering, when otherwise it may have died. The third had the courage to lead as it was entering a wide-eyed time; the courage to envision that it might live into its greater promise.

The angels conspire to bless us, but that sometimes the angels need a little of bit of help from those with courage.

Today, as we honor all of the past-Presidents of this church, we lift up also all those who led, who acted with courage, who visioned, who dreamed, who showed up, pitched in, rolled up their sleeves – all those so often nameless – but especially the Past Presidents of this church, selected from among their peers. They were the ones willing to put their name on the line. Today we put their names on the wall and hold them in gracious esteem.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sermon: "Life's Victory Over Death" (Delivered 4-8-07)

When Christians speak about what I am going to speak about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day.

(The following story is adapted from Robert Fulghum’s book, Maybe (Maybe Not).) The year is 1992. The city of Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia has become a war zone. The region has erupted into a civil war, as warlords and political factions manipulate ethnic and religious hatred. Thousands will die or be maimed. The rest will live in fear, resorting to a kind of animalistic desperation that accompanies the instinct of self-preservation.

To live in Sarajevo at this time is to live amidst bombed out buildings and it is not to know if your building will be the next to be bombed. There is rubble in the streets, and walls are pock-marked with the evidence of sniper-fire.

In May of 1992, a line has gathered outside of one of Sarajevo’s few bakeries that remain open. The people in the line are waiting for a chance to receive some bread. A mortar shell strikes near the line, killing twenty-two people instantly.

The next day, or maybe a few days later, a man in a formal evening suit comes to the scene of the carnage. He rights a damaged chair and sits amidst the wreckage, takes out his cello, and begins to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. For twenty-two consecutive days he returns to this place, one day for each of the twenty-two senseless, tragic deaths. The man is Vedran Smailovic, an accomplished cellist who has played with the Opera and the symphony. A New York Times reporter asked him, during his three week vigil, if he was crazy to make himself an easy target for the snipers and to expose himself to the artillery shells that continued to rain down on the city. He responded, “You ask me if I am crazy for playing the cello, why don’t you ask them if they are crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

When Christians speak about what I am speaking about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day.

A year ago I was blessed to hear Dr. Paul Farmer speak here in Kansas City on disparities in global health. He began his lecture by telling the story a young man who came to his health clinic in Haiti who was wasting away with HIV/AIDs. When this young man arrived at Farmer’s health clinic, he was emaciated, skeletal. On the absolute edge of death, the anti-retroviral drug treatment he received from the clinic began to return him to life. He gained weight. He improved. Now he works as a health counselor working to prevent the spread of HIV and caring for those who are afflicted with disease.

When Christians speak about what I am speaking about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day.

One more story. If you’ve gotten to know me, you probably would not describe me as a “chicken soup for the soul” type of person. I don’t tend to get all choked up and teary-eyed and emotive at those daily inspiration types of stories. Give me a story about prophetic courage. Give me a story about a selfless person dedicating their life to the greater good. Give me a story about creative witness to a tragic truth. But don’t give me chicken soup.

Except for I had this vague recollection while thinking about what to say today. I vaguely remembered a human interest news story about a man who ran a marathon less than a year after undergoing a heart transplant. And, as I remembered this story, the family of the person who donated the heart came to cheer him on in the race, and the man who ran the race did so in order to raise awareness for organ donation.

I’m not a squeamish person. I’ve worked in the Emergency Room of a Level One trauma center and seen all manner of amazing things that make scenes from the television show ER look tame and ordinary. I’m pretty good with most of the scenes on ER or Grey’s Anatomy, except when it is the heart. When it is the heart, I grow faint and have to leave the room, and experience the shivering willies and the howling fantods.

It is normal for people who undergo heart procedures to face acute and severe depression during their recovery. While the medical reason for this is a mystery to me, it makes a sort of sense: there is something about the heart that touches the depths of the psyche. So, the idea of somebody running a 26.2 two mile race with somebody else’s heart inside of them is exciting.

I went looking for this news story on the internet and found that the person from the story I was remembering could have been Scott Brown of California who completed a marathon in 2004 a year after receiving a new heart. Or, it could have been Gary Blinn of Nebraska who ran a marathon in 1992, two years after receiving a new heart. Or, maybe it was Hartwig Gauder of East Germany, a transplant recipient who completed the New York marathon. Or maybe, it was Roger Bouchard, or John Fisher or Donald Arthur (to name just a few) all of whom ran marathons after having heart transplants. There is even a world-record holder for fastest marathon run by a transplant recipient; that record being held by Greg Osterman of Ohio. Who would have imagined? Speaking as one for whom the idea of running a 26.2 mile race is decidedly unappealing, I still cannot help but be awe-struck by all these people running marathons with other people’s hearts inside of them.

Death is a fact of this world, as common as the dust to which eventually we all will return. And though it may be common – universal – death is by no means equal. It can come naturally, as the inevitability of nature. It can come artificially through engineered human malevolence and strife. It can come randomly. It can come as the result of generations of social injustice. But even though death – in all its many guises and its multitudes of forms – is a fact of this world, so is it also equally a fact that sometimes, sometimes, life rises up to claim a temporary victory over death.

When Christians speak of life’s victory over death, they speak of the resurrection of the Christ on the third day. This morning what I am talking about is the same; the who, the where, and the when have changed. We need not locate life’s victory over death in one man, in one far off land, on one day 2,000 years ago.

When Christians speak about what I am speaking about this morning, they speak about the resurrection of the Christ on the third day. But we can just as easily speak about a new heart. But we can just as easily speak about a life saved. But we can just as easily speak about the will to create beauty amidst ugliness, the will to create meaning amidst meaninglessness, the will to uplift humanity amidst inhumanity. What we speak of is the same, even though the who and the where and the when are changed.

I want to tell you about one of the things I love about being a Unitarian Universalist: It is that we are encouraged to appreciate the “what” – the worth, the insight, the truth, the inspiration – without being limited to a single particular who, a single particular where, or a single particular when. Further, we are encouraged to appreciate worth, insight, truth, and inspiration wherever it is found without being exclusive of any who, where, or when.

Take out your hymnals and you’ll see what I’m talking about here. At the beginning of this service we sang hymn #61. “Lo, the Earth awakes again from the Winter’s bond and pain; bring we leaf and flower and spray to adorn this happy day.” This is a great hymn, containing a wonderful message about life’s victory over death. In this case the messenger is nature. But the message does not belong to the messenger!

Turn to #269. “Lo, the Eastertide is here, festival of hope and cheer; join you people all, and sing, love and praise and thanksgiving.” This is a great hymn, containing a wonderful message about life’s victory over death. In this case the messenger is humankind. But the message does not belong to the messenger!

Flip back a page, to hymn #268. “Jesus Christ is Risen Today…” What is going on here? Was the hymnal committee secretly a group of closet Methodists? Does your hymnal contain space-time continuum vortex on page 268 so that when you turn to that page, the book you are holding transmogrifies instantly into a Presbyterian hymnal? Or, maybe there is a simpler explanation. Maybe this is a great hymn, containing a wonderful message about life’s victory over death. “Soar we now where Christ has led, living out the words he said; Made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” In this case, the messenger happens to be Jesus. But the message does not belong to the messenger!

One of the things I love about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we are encouraged to see the what of the message – its truth, inspiration, and insight – without limiting ourselves to the who, where, and when of a single messenger. No messenger owns the truth exclusively, and our faith does not exclude any messenger who speaks the truth!

No messenger owns the truth exclusively, and our faith does not exclude any messenger who speaks the truth! 61, 268, 269. All three proclaim the message of Life’s Victory over Death.

The force of life is an inclusive force! The forces of death always seek to separate – to separate human relation from human relation; to separate the first world from the third world; to separate ethnic group from ethnic group and religion from religion. But the forces of life always seek to include.

When Christians sing about what I’ve spoken about this morning, they too sing of life’s victory over death. “Is risen today… like him we rise.”

When Humanists sing about what I’ve spoken about this morning, they sing of inclusion’s victory over exclusion. “Join, you people all, and sing!”

When worshippers of nature sing about what I’ve spoken about this morning, they sing of life’s victory over death. “Lo, the earth awakes again, and for dirges, anthems raise.”

Take with you this day a new heart. Take with you this day justice’s power to heal. Take with you beauty that dwells amidst destruction. Go forth and live victoriously.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Sermon: "Seriously Funny" (Delivered 4-1-07)


Forgive me this attempt at an April Fool’s Day prayer:

Dear God who laughs – even despite so much pain – help us to better live our lives with a foolishness that is pleasing to you. May we become fools for love – may we love irrationally, illogically, joyfully. May we become more grateful – may we approach each day with a wide-eyed type of foolish awe. May we be more trusting – may we be fools able to see the best in other’s humanity.

Remind us of the power of a smile. Remind us that it is better to laugh with other people than to laugh at them, and that tears from laughter are the sweetest tears. Help us not to live at the expense of other people, and teach us not be entertained by the humiliation of others.

Dear Lord, “please make the bad people good. And, while you’re at it, would it hurt you make the good people nicer.” [a line borrowed/adapted from Philip Appleman.]

And, may we not laugh so as to forget the hurt, desperation, injustice, and anguish of this world – but may we laugh in such a way that we are encouraged to do all that must be done in community, for others, with others. Amen.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A minister, a priest, and rabbi go on a fishing trip…
A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead were walking down the street…
How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?...
Or a joke, which truly does make you want to say “stop,” in which a trio of individuals representing ethnic stereotypes walk into a bar…

There is probably nothing less funny than explaining humor, dissecting jokes. But, what is a sermon without a bit of boring tedium? So, here goes. It has been said that all jokes, ALL jokes, depend on someone getting injured. That’s not funny, and the person who originally said this probably wasn’t very funny either. And this is a startling thing to say, that all jokes depend on someone getting injured. [This insight was gleaned from a discussion on the UU ministers’ list-serve.]

I mean, it is obvious that some jokes are deliberately injurious. If I begin a joke by invoking, for example, Irishmen or Mexicans or Italians or Jews or Blacks or the Polish walking into a bar you can expect that I am going to say something stereotypical and injurious at the expense of an entire class of people. With other jokes, the injury is more subtle. Rodney Dangerfield based his comic career on self-injury: “I get no respect.” And the better of today’s cutting-edge comedians generate their laughs by deliberately injuring their audience, causing those listening to laugh out of a sense of discomfort and shame.

But here is my point: the extent to which we laugh at something goes a long way towards indicating how comfortable we are with injury being done to whoever is the butt of the joke. Did you hear the one about Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton having tea? Depending on which punch-line I choose, you will either slap your knee or you’ll give me a nasty look. The other day I happened to find myself sitting next to a group of Armenians who were having an uproarious conversation recalling gags from the movie Borat. (Borat begins by viciously mocking the citizens of Kazakhstan and, at the same time, Western stereotypes of former Communist bloc countries.) I had to ask them, “Would it have been funny if the comedian who conceived Borat had chosen Armenia instead of Kazakhstan?” I received an angry look. They told me in no uncertain terms it would not have been funny at all.

Do you see the point I’m making here? We’re more comfortable with jokes being made at the expense of some than of others. A bigot will laugh at a bigoted joke; a person who stands opposed to oppression will laugh at a joke that demonstrates the ignorance of bigoted people.

Or, to put it another way, humor can be a force that reinforces stereotypes, that furthers oppression, that insults the weak for the entertainment of the powerful – or, humor can do the opposite. It can explode stereotypes, resist oppression, and empower the weak while exposing the shortcomings of the powerful. We tend to laugh hardest when the amount of injury done by a joke is small, or when it inflicts injury on a target we are glad to see afflicted.

A few years ago I attended a worship service at a Christian congregation. This congregation was located in an urban residential area, the type of place where all sorts of neighbors might pass by on a Sunday morning. During the sermon, a colorfully attired young man on a skateboard happened to roll past on the sidewalk outside the church. Gesturing wildly with his arms, the young man was riding his skateboard and screaming, “Whooo whooo!!!” Every eye in the church looked out the windows. Realizing he had been completely upstaged, the preacher, when the attention of the congregation returned to him exclaimed only after the skateboarder was out of range, “What a fool for Christ!”

What a fool for Christ! This is terminology that I am guessing you may be unfamiliar with. But, since today is April Fools Day and also Palm Sunday, I’ll venture to explain it. A “Fool for Christ”, as the preacher used the term, is someone who is secure enough and devoted enough in their Christian faith that they don’t mind looking foolish and socially unacceptable for the sake of their faith. The term can be a bit difficult to wrap our heads around nowadays, but harkens back to a day in the early church when living as a Christian meant violating all sorts of social codes and taboos. This might have meant inviting lepers, Samaritans, tax-collectors, prostitutes and adulterers into your home. What fool would do that? A fool for Christ. Or it might mean disobeying some of society’s commands about class and gender and rank. What kind of fool would worship with slaves? A fool for Christ.

So, while I am not going to ask you to become “Fools for Christ” I am going to ask you what it might be like to become a UU fool? You could even spell it: F-U-U-L. Are there any social codes and taboos that we might be asked to violate by living faithfully as Unitarian Universalists? I’m going to ask you to bracket that question for just a minute or two, because that question begs another one… why would it be worthwhile to be a fool?

If traffic this week on the Unitarian Universalist ministers’ list-serve was any indication, there are dozens and dozens of sermons being preached this morning on some variant of the theme: “Jesus, the wise fool.”

The theme is adept. The Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem was sarcastic street theater. When Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or that the kingdom is here, or that the first will be last – those are the type of sayings you’d expect from someone playing the fool.

“Here is the seed of a cedar tree that will grow into a mighty cedar of Lebanon. Here is a mustard seed that will grow into an ugly mustard weed. The Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed.” “Look around you – the Kingdom of Heaven is here.” “And that guy on the skateboard screaming ‘whooo whooo!!!’ – he’ll be first in God’s kingdom.” Excuse me.

I recently led a session with our very gifted Coming of Age class. During our conversation, the topic of this sermon came up. When I mentioned fools, one of the youth in that class blurted out: “Oh, yeah, just like in King Lear. In that play the fool is the only one who gets it. That is one smart fool.” There is nothing like an eighth grader dropping Shakespeare references.

Writing about the character of the fool in King Lear, my friend Chris Walton explains, “The jester in the play doesn’t crack Bob Hope one-liners or play the lute; he introduces a very dark kind of comic relief. He satirizes the King’s misjudgments. He's the only person who tells Lear the truth, even though Lear can't bear to acknowledge the full significance of his mistakes until the end. He makes Lear mad, too. When his impersonations cut too close, Lear threatens to whip him. Their exchanges aren't funny ha-ha; they're funny oh-no.”

They are not feel-good funny. They are seriously funny.

Walton cites an interchange between the Fool and the King in which, when Lear threatens to whip the fool, the fool responds that he wishes he could lie. Lear counters by promising to whip the Fool if he lies, prompting the Fool to throw up his hands, “You’ll have me whipped for lying, and you’ll have me whipped for telling the truth, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my tongue.”

It will hurt to tell the truth and it will hurt to tell a lie and it will hurt to remain silent. Have you ever felt this way?

Where am I going with this? Well, there is a passage in the Gospels that has always caused me to wonder, “What is going on here?” It is the scene where Jesus and Pontius Pilate meet privately. [I will confess that I tend to have a vivid image of this scene for an unusual reason. You see, in the movie version of The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorcese, Pilate is played by none other than David Bowie.]

So, in the accounts of this passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus just says, “You say that I am.” And after this, Jesus is completely silent and refuses to answer any more questions. But, in the Gospel of John, the dialogue is given with greater flourish. Pilate asks, “Are you a King?” Jesus answers, “My kingship is not of this world.” Pilate presses on, “So, you are a King?” And Jesus responds, “You say that I am a King. I’m just here to speak the truth.” And Pilate responds, “What is truth?”

There are a few things worth knowing about this passage. For one thing, this passage is situated in one of the most dubious, agenda-driven sections of the entire Bible. It is an anti-Semitic frame job. But there is something about the passage that only makes sense if you see that Jesus is playing the Fool. Like Lear’s fool: whipped for speaking the truth, whipped for lying, and whipped for holding the tongue.

And like Lear’s Fool, the Fool is the one with access to power, the one able to get the better of the King.

“Are you a King?” Pilate asks. “You say that I am.”
“Are you a King?” Pilate asks. “So says you.”
“Are you a King?” Pilate asks. “Look who’s talking.”
And, of course, you pay a price for that kind of insubordination.

Humor can harm and oppress. It can further humiliate the weak, for the pleasure of the exalted. It can reinforce stereotypes, exploit the vulnerable. Or, humor can counter oppression. It can explode the pretense of those who reign on high and return some of the dignity of those who are kept low. It can resist oppression. Look, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Earlier I introduced you to the phrase, “Fool for Christ.” I asked what would it take to be a UU Fool?

I think you need to have a little bit of the wise fool inside of you to embrace theological diversity and dare to let theological understandings different from your own speak to you.

I think you need to have a little bit of the wise fool inside of you to becoming a welcoming, inviting place.

I think you need to have a little bit of the wise fool inside of you see the funny side of the human spirit – a comedy sometimes liberating and sometimes dark.

I think you need to have a little bit of the wise fool inside of you to keep searching, keep singing, keep journeying – even when you have doubts.

I think you need to have a little bit of the wise fool inside of you to be able to thumb your nose at self-importance, fear and idolatry – to know how to suggest, with a wink, which sacred cows make delicious hamburgers.

Praise be our foolish souls.