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.