Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sermon - "Transforming Faith"

This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of Transformation. It seems like an appropriate theme for the Spring. And today we are going to talk about transforming faith. I mean that in two ways. For one, I’m really curious about what it would look like for us as Unitarian Universalists to open ourselves to having a transformational experience in our religious life. I don’t mean feeling like you got a new idea, or feeling motivated to do a little better this week. I mean what would it take for us to come to church open to the possibility of leaving a different person, transformed by the sacred, filled with a new spirit of love, justice and compassion, so much so that you couldn’t help but make changes in the rest of your life. We are talking today faith that transforms the lives of individuals.
And we are also talking about a faith that is willing to transform itself to be relevant and powerful in the current world.

A couple of weeks ago in the question box sermon I was asked a seemingly innocuous question. It was “What is the biggest challenge facing Unitarian Universalism today?” Since then I have been chewing on what was at the time a very fast answer. I explained that the way we do church hasn’t kept up pace with the changes in American society. The way we do church is profoundly outdated. The committee structures, worship styles, the use of our physical space, the entire way we organize ourselves is all based on a 1950s understanding of American society. I’m not just talking about our Fellowship now. I’m talking about Unitarian Universalist churches and the vast majority of mainline churches in America. Our old model no longer fits an American society that is fundamentally different from 60 years ago.
One big difference is the availability of young women to spend volunteer hours in the church. Historically women have been the volunteer force that power churches. But women are now half of all workers on U.S payrolls and 4 in 10 mothers are either the sole breadwinner (a single, working mother) or are bringing home as much or more than their spouse. Obviously the increased opportunities for women in the workforce is tremendous. My point is, churches haven’t adapted their structure to compensate for the decreased availability of young mothers to participate.
And it’s not just the case that more women are working. Perhaps more importantly, everyone is working more hours. In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. And it seems that adults are not alone in this trend. Last year we showed the documentary film called “Race to Nowhere.” It’s an amazing film about the frightening consequences of the excessive pressure placed on middle and upper-class children to compete and succeed. The minor research I did for this sermon has certainly raised my attention to what seems like an epidemic sense of competition and over work. But for now, suffice it to say, working people, parents, and their children across our country are completely overwhelmed with keeping their head above water.
And to top it all off, the concept of Sunday as a Sabbath no longer exists in American culture. Sunday is another Saturday. It’s one last day to do the errands, finish the homework, practice your sport, or get a jump on your email before the work-week starts again.
This congregation has an amazing 60 year history. For all the radical free thinkers we have gathered here in this community though, it’s amazing how much this institution has stayed on a particular track. A couple of big changes happened. In the early 70s the dedicated members were able to buy this wonderful building. They no longer had to meet in people’s homes or in a rented space. And then 24 years ago they were able to pay for professional ministry, albeit on a part-time basis. Other than those two major shifts, the structure has largely remained the same.
There is much to be said for a stable institution. As a minister, it’s certainly a comfort to know that this church is quite solid. We own our building. That’s an amazing accomplishment. But if you look around the country, we realize that mainline and liberal churches that aim at doing the same old thing, well they aren’t doing very well.
I don’t know what the prescription is for changing to mirror the new American society. I wish I could tell you. I don’t even know that totally changing the way we do church is necessary. But I do no that we cannot expect that individuals or families will find their way to us. It simply isn’t the case any more. If we expect to serve a wider world, beyond the incredible 90 or so people that we have gathered in our midst, we have to be open to the possibility of meeting them where they are.
I think we all agree that a church isn’t about a building that it owns. It’s not about a particular leader. It’s not about a set of shared beliefs or even the wider denomination. A church is the people that make it up, and the relationships that they have with one another. You are, all of you together are the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach. The tricky part of that is, that inviting any new people into this community, growing this church, having a church that is equipped to thrive in the next decade, means that new people come in, relationships change. If the church is the people that make it up, and you bring in new people, well then growing and I mean growing in numbers and in spirit, growing requires a willingness to change.

Change is very scary stuff, and it should be. We are talking about allowing something that we love deeply to change. My hunch is, that we also recognize that if our congregation changes, then we might have to change along with it. And I don’t know that that is such a bad thing. That is after all why we come together. That is the purpose of churches, to change people. Our mission is to change people, from the inside.
Yes, we do come here and build relationships with one another. And we come here and we do social justice work. I’m glad for that because together we can do way more than we ever could on our own. But those aren’t the only reasons we come together. If building community and doing good deeds were our only goals then we might as well become a chapter of the Lions’ Club or the ACLU. Our mission is for people to be transformed in the process of building relationships, and doing social action, and engaging their heart and mind in worship.
The mission of our church comes in three parts. And those three parts depend on one another. One part is to build community; one part is to help the world. And another part is to grow spiritually, to transform. My hunch is our ability to change and grow as a congregation is inexorably related to our ability to open ourselves to change as individuals.

One of the most valuable experiences of my recent trip to India was not on our agenda at all. In fact it was a 20minute outing that I made with a couple of other people because I felt stir-crazy in our hotel. We walked up the road a bit to visit a temple to the Lord Hanuman. The worship that we observed there was as different from Unitarian Universalism as you could get. It was around 6:00 in the evening. People stopped in the temple on their way home, as they did most nights of the week. Everyone left their shoes outside on their way into the temple. Once they got in, they reached over head to ring a gigantic brass bell, with a piercing loud klang. Then they did their thing, each of them engaged in little personal rituals to embody their relationship and devotion to Hanuman. Many rubbed the statues of Hanuman. All bowed. Some kneeled to the ground. Still others fully prostrated themselves, lying flat and kissing the ground in respect. Then on their way out. The temple priest offered each person a small bit of coals from the fire he was tending. And each person popped the bit of coal into his or her mouth.
In every way imaginable, it was the complete opposite of Unitarian Universalist worship life. What was so impactful to me was the sense of willingness that these worshipers brought with them. The bowed, knelt and kissed the ground in reverence to their God. I couldn’t help but think about the mindset that we Unitarian Universalists bring to church. Obviously, the point is not that we should copy ancient Hindu worship forms. But I do wonder what it would look like to come to our place of worship and offer ourselves to be changed by what we encounter. What would it look like to come to church with a willingness, an openness to engage both body and mind in an act of devotion. Not to Hanuman, not to me, not even to this church, but to what we each find sacred.

Offering ourselves to be moved, to be changed is scary stuff. It seems especially scary for us as Unitarian Universalists. Transformation is one of the scariest things in the world. It means letting go of a world we knew, letting go of security and being vulnerable in the world until we find our bearings. Even the good, happy life transformations can open us to vulnerability.
The last time I preached on the topic of transformation I did a whole sermon on butterflies. Transformation in butterflies obviously has an astoundingly beautiful result. But the transformation also involves a time of extreme difficulty and vulnerability. Coming out of its cocoon is the most vulnerable moment in the lifecycle of a butterfly. With it’s new brilliant colors, a newly emerged butterfly needs to spend some time inflating its wings with blood and letting them dry. It can’t fly away, or do much of anything to protect itself. A butterfly’s first experience of its new beautiful life is one of complete vulnerability to any number of predators. Some butterflies' wings may take up to three hours to dry before they can use them to fly. What a frightening way to come into a new beautiful self.
Transformation for yourself, or for an institution that you love is very scary business. A couple of our members are fond of the saying “growing old aint for sissies.” Well change isn’t for sissies either. A lot of us do what we can to avoid it.

There’s one change however that I know is going to happen. A full-on transformational actually. The exterior of our building is about to get transformed. We’ve managed to replace our sewer line, which was the necessary work. Now it’s time for the exciting stuff. We are planning on painting, changing the sign on the building, and totally reconfiguring the patio. It’s going to be a whole new, beautiful space for us to gather after service, and to welcome in new visitors.
This past year we did an amazing job coming together to raise the money for this transformation. We raised over $10,000 ourselves and had the smarts to ask for a grant to get a grant for another $10,000. The leadership of this congregation is brining about a transformation of our outside.
With that exciting change on the horizon, I can’t help but wonder if we have the potential to transform the inside as well. Will we have a face lift this year, beautifying the outside, or do we have the capacity to usher in new life, to rejuvenate, to reinspire this community? I think we can.

One of the reasons we wanted to update the outside of the building is to make it more welcoming to visitors, which is obviously an important cause. But the biggest reason why I am so excited about his change is that I want this church to feel like the home of everyone here. This place is our place. It is for everyone here. The building was painted pink over ten years ago. Some of those people are still hear. But many more have joined our ranks. This is a home for all of us, not just something that we walked into where all the decisions had already been made and all the work had been done. This is a home that is growing and changing with our contributions and our efforts. I think our transformation as a community can be more than skin deep.

Some of you Laguna Beach locals may recall having read of the Butterfly Lady in the paper a couple of years ago. The title sounds like a fairytale, but she exists. She is my neighbor. She has planted the entire garden around her house with milkweed and other flowers that attract monarch butterflies. Countless butterflies come to feed and they leave their eggs. Caterpillars hatch. And she spends hours in her garden inspecting the underside of leaves to see where they have started making cocoons. When she finds one, She gently takes it to an aquarium where she protects the fragile transforming creature until it hatches. There is nothing quite like holding a butterfly as it hatches, watching it flap its brand new wings before it’s first flight.
Often I see her out in her garden, tending the tremendous flowers and inspecting for caterpillars. Every morning, every afternoon I see here and I can’t help but be reminded of us here, and the garden that we create, this safe place where people can be transformed into their full and magnificent selves.

We all know that change is scary, transformation is hard work. But it is not a solo project. Maybe we are also responsible for creating an environment for other people to have their transformation, a safe space for people to spread their wings when they are vulnerable. Maybe, one day our church will look more like a butterfly sanctuary.
May we be a butterfly sanctuary, a garden full of lush foliage to feed our souls for the journey. May we be a safe space for our tender vulnerable wings to unfold. And may we be a place for sunshine to catch the beautiful array of colors and patterns that we each reflect. May we be a testament to all the tenderness and beauty that humanity has to reflect.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Sermon - "A Global Faith"

A Global Faith
Most of you know that I spent a couple of weeks last month in India. I was traveling with a group of eight other Unitarians on a trip with the UU Partner Church Council. We spent the first week visiting some major tourist sites around Delhi. We saw the Taj Majal, and Jaipur, and Agra. Some of you saw some of the pictures I posted on Facebook. The second week of our trip we trekked to the far Northeastern corner of the country. We went to the Khasi Hills to visit our Unitarian comrades there. That’s right, there are Unitarians in India, about 10,000 of them, and they have been there since the late 1800s. But I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.
It is difficult to return home from this sort of trip. Not because of culture shock, or because of guilt. It’s difficult because all kinds of people want to have very quick conversations about the travel experience. As my father put it, “what was the biggest highlight of the trip.”
I know people would like to hear about how India changed my life, or all the amazing things that I did and saw. I understand, we want to hear from our friends about their adventures, particularly when they go somewhere we haven’t been able to go.
We saw a lot of things in India, amazing art and architecture. We ate wonderful food and met even more wonderful people. But what I saw mostly in India was a lot of poverty. This wasn’t a shock; it wasn’t eye-opening. I have spent plenty of time in the developing world. When people ask me what I saw, this is what I want to tell them. I saw people working very hard for very little in return. I saw a country that has fundamentally failed to provide access to education. I learned about a country where more people have access to cellular phones have than they do to operational toilets. I learned about a culture so invested in social hierarchy (ie. caste system) that real financial mobility is unimaginable. And finally I saw in action, a government so riddled with corruption that it’s people had given up hope in getting the services they deserved.
This is what I saw in India 99% of my waking hours there: poverty, environmental degradation, and oppressive social hierarchy. That’s the foundation of the story. Still in that churning heap of difficulty, a few remarkable pieces of hope appeared.

Probably the most wonderful thing that we saw was that orphanage that is run by the Unitarian churches there. With the financial backing of American donors, they have a safe clean building with an administrator and two house moms that take care of twenty young children. Each child’s mother had died and there was no real support structure to care for them. Without the orphanage they would have ended up either on the streets or working in manual labor for relatives on a farm. But here they are nurtured in a healthy home-like environment, and they are given the opportunity to attend school. It was amazing to meet a play with these kids, even for the very short time that we had there.
The other major source of hope and inspiration came from the commitment of our Unitarian sisters and brothers. They were intensely proud of their churches, in much the way we are. But in India, Unitarianism is something that is passed down in the family; when one person in the family converts, the whole family becomes Unitarian. So we saw there the sense of extended family, uncles and aunts, grandparents and grandchildren all coming to the same congregation and worshipping together. And we got to meet the ministers of the area, all eight of them. That’s right, eight ministers almost completely lacking in formal ministerial training served around 30 churches on a volunteer basis. In their day jobs they were teachers and journalists and university professors. The commitment of the Unitarian church of North East India was truly an inspiration. Not just because they lived out their faith, but because they did so in the midst of tremendous challenge and difficulty.

That is after all the Easter story, the resurrection of an assassinated holy man, the renewal of hope after the winter, the promise of life beyond death. Easter doesn’t happen without a challenge, resurrection doesn’t happen without death. This is a reality that our Unitarian brothers and sisters around the world know well. This ability to choose hope in the face of tremendous hardship is what we can learn most from them, and what we can celebrate with them this Easter morning.
We American Unitarian Universalists have this somewhat peculiar habit of bringing Christian holiday’s into our worship life. It’s a wonderful way of celebrating our Christian heritage, and it draws upon some of the truly timeless teachings that resonate across traditions. The danger, however, comes when we take these holidays out of context. I live not far from St. Mary’s Episcopal church and I couldn’t help notice their sign out front with all the worship activities of holy week. Let me tell you, they have been busy, telling and retelling they story of Jesus, the life the trial, the crucifixion and death, all in preparation for today, for Easter Sunday.
That is how resurrection comes, not just in the Easter story, but in our lives. Resurrection comes after death, the renewal of hope comes when we have faced fear and hardship. And it happens time and again, as we choose to hope rather than despair. The resurrection of hope is a battle that happens on a daily basis in our heart and throughout human history. Hope is a choice that we make every day of our lives and it is one of the most important choices we can make.

I told you I would get back to talking about how there came to be so many Unitarians in India. It all started with a man named Hajom Kissor Singh.
He was born in the Khasi Hills in 1865 and lived in that area for his entire life. With no knowledge of Unitarianism existing in other areas, he became a Unitarian through his own studies. Singh watched that the Welsh missionaries had done. They taught converted the locals to Christianity to escape the fear of demons from their indigenous religious beliefs. And Singh quickly realized that the fear of demons was only replaced by the new fear of Hell. He also witnessed the hostility toward Catholic missionaries wishing to settle in the Khasi Hills, as well as their unfriendliness to his own questioning. Eventually through his own study, he decided that he would have to leave their church to seek what he called, "the true religion of Jesus, the love of God."
Young Singh had reached classic Unitarian beliefs and began sharing his ideas with others, without knowing that anyone else in the world thought as he did. When he was 25, he learned of Charles Henry Appleton Dall, an American Unitarian minister in Calcutta.There soon ensued an excited exchange of letters between the two men. Dall sent a volume of the writings of William Ellery Channing. Singh suddenly understood that many others, called Unitarians, shared his faith. Thereafter he called his faith "Ka Niam Untarian" (The Unitarian Religion.)

On September 18, 1887, Singh led the first real church service in his home in Jowai. One woman and two men joined him as the first members of a new church. By the end of 1899 Khasi Unitarians under Singh's leadership numbered 214. Singh led a growing Unitarian movement in his state where there are now more than 30 churches having some 10,000 members.
What is remarkable about Hajom Kissor Singh and about the other Unitarians I want to tell you about is how they chose hope. I’m Singh he was a smart guy. I’m sure he worked very hard. But more important than any of that I want you to hear that he chose not to accept a message of despair he had been given. Even when he thought me might be the only person in the world with this peculiar belief in a loving God, Singh chose to believe in a message of hope. Fortunately he found that that same message was shared with others around the world.

More recently in other parts of the world other remarkable Unitarians have chosen hope over fear. I’m thinking in particular of the Rev. Mark Kiyimba and the Unitarians in Uganda. New Life Kampala is a Unitarian community of 110 members that meet every Sunday.
Like in India, the Unitarians of Uganda also run an orphanage, but for a very different reason. Uganda has been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. New Life Children's Home has been set up to provide a place for children who have lost parents to AIDS or who who are themselves HIV positive.
But most impressively, the UU Church of Kampala is one of the only organizations in Uganda that is vocally supportive of the BGLT community. This is what makes the choice of hope so remarkable, especially for their leader.
Rev. Mark Kiyimba has been a vocal opponent of Uganda’s anti-gay laws and culture. In 2012 he fled Uganda in fear for his life. For several months he addressed groups across the U.S. about a bill in the Ugandan Parliament that proposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” That provision was dropped last May, but the bill would impose life imprisonment for homosexual acts and jail terms of seven years for anyone counseling or abetting people in such acts.
Today Rev. Mark Kiyimba still lives in Uganda, leading the Unitarian church there. He continues to advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trandsgender people publicly, knowing that his political voice may one day cost him his freedom, or his life. But day after day, week after week, and now year after year he has made the choice to hope in the face of darkness.

That choice is what Easter is about. It is what the flower communion that we celebrate is about. The Unitarian Universalist Flower Communion originated in 1923 with Dr. Norbert Capek, the founder of the modern Unitarian movement in Czechoslovakia. He sought a ritual that would provide a sense of unity to his diverse religious community, a ritual that all could partake in. The traditional Christian elements of bread and wine no-longer held meaning for his formerly Catholic parishioners, so Capek turned to the natural surroundings of spring, he turned to flowers. For many years all the children and adults participated in this colorful ritual, which gives expression to the life-affirming principles of our liberal faith.
In 1940, Nazi forces took control of Prague. They found Dr. Capek's gospel of the inherent worth and beauty of every person to be --as Nazi court records show-- "...too dangerous to the Reich [for him] to be allowed to live." Dr. Capek was sent to Dachau, where he was killed the next year. This gentle man suffered a cruel death, but his message of human hope and decency lives on through his Flower Communion, that we celebrate today.

Even in his final writings from Dachau, Capek CHOSE to speak of hope. Hope doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Hope is a choice that is made in the midst of challenge.
Just before he was put to death in Dachau, Dr. Capek wrote this prayer:

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals.
Oh blow ye evil winds into my body's fire; my soul you'll never unravel.
Even though disappointed a thousand times or fallen in the fight and everything would
worthless seem, I have lived amidst eternity.
Be grateful, my soul, my life was worth living. He who was pressed from all sides but remained victorious in spirit is welcomed into the choir of heroes. He who overcame the fetters, giving wing to the mind is entering into the golden age of the victorious.

Norbet Chapek, Hajom Kissor Singh, Rev. Mark Kiyimba, I wanted to tell you their stories today because each one of them made the very hard, but crucial choice of hope over despair. In the darkest of times, even in the face of death they chose to believe and to preach a message of love. May we go forth and do likewise.
As we celebrate on the story of Easter and resurrection, may we remember that hope springs eternal, it’s there for the choosing, every day of our lives. The resurrection of hope isn’t something that happened once two thousand years ago, but something that happens around the world, in the hearts of women and men when they make a simple choice to hope for something more.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sermon - "Faithful Fools"

Faithful Fools
Every few months the ministers of our district get together for a business meting and retreat. It’s a nice combination of continuing education, social time, and spiritual renewal. At a recent retreat we sat around telling jokes. Of course a few of the ministers really enjoyed holding court, and who doesn’t like a good joke? What was really striking about that evening was realizing how long it had been since someone told me a joke. The whole concept of telling jokes has sort of faded from our culture a bit. Yes, people are witty or occasionally make a pun. But the telling of a story joke seems to be a rare thing these days. When was the last time someone said, “oh, have you heard the one about the…” It has been a long time. Or maybe I’m just hanging out with people who are way too serious.
With that in mind, I want to share with you a joke that I heard at choir practice the other night. So one night a trucker was driving through a pretty rural area. It was dark and he was getting tired. There were only a few farm houses that he passed now and then, and out of the blue, he ran over a cat. He felt terrible, and he realized that there was a house just right by where he hit the cat. So he pulled over and went up to the house.
“Lady, I’m really sorry, but I think I may have just run over your cat. I feel terrible.”
She said, “I don’t know, there are a bunch of cats our here in the country. Did you see what the cat looked like?”
And the trucker went…. (dead cat face)
“No No!” She said. “What did the cat look like before you hit it?”
And the trucker went…(scared cat face)

I don’t know why that struck me as so funny on Tuesday night, but I thought I’d share the laugh with you. And a sermon about humor without at least one joke in it just isn’t right. Unfortunately that’s the only joke I have for you. This is after all, a sermon.
Delivering a sermon about humor is a little bit like writing an opera about plumbing. It’s not the best medium to explore the topic. But still I think it is doable and worthwhile. What we do in worship is basically celebrate and think about the things that shape our lives. Sometimes that means issues of social justice, sometimes it’s theological beliefs, sometimes it’s life challenges. Today we are talking about humor. And I do believe it shapes our lives, or at least it allows us to get the most we can out of sometimes-difficult realities.

One of the realities that is sometimes difficult to face, and sometimes literally dangerous to talk about is our political environment. It may not be what comes to your mind when talking about humor, especially after a joke about a cat getting run over, but political satire has been an ingenious tool to of social critique for a very, very long time.
We can pretty safely assume that political satire dates back for as long as people have organized themselves in social groups. Someone must have been there to joke about the absurdities and injustices. For as long as we come together in groups, there will be problems, and there will be creative ways of bringing those problems to light. And while humor changes from one culture to the next, the need to vent social frustrations is always there. The earliest source of political satire in recorded history is Aristophanes who wrote around 300 B.C. His plays poked fun at top political figures and religious leaders through by mocking daily Roman life. It seems like he’d be right at home on Saturday Night Live, or Comedy Central today.
Political satire has a long and deep history, and it as powerful as ever today. I remember as a Political Science student in college, we discussed as much of the Daily Show, from comedy central as we did anything in the news paper. And just this past year, one of the most significant pieces of satire is still raising eyebrows. Stephen Colbert, from his news comedy show “The Colbert Report” raised well over a million dollars and formed his own Super PAC to demonstrate how easy it was to inject large amounts of money into the political system. It was intended as a joke. It’s a joke that’s both absurd, and laughable. At the same time it points to a political reality that makes you want to cry. Anyone, even a television goofball, can inject limitless money into politics to fund the voice he thinks should come out on top. It’s one big elaborate joke to help open eyes to the fragile and, many would argue, declining state of American democracy.

Finding a political voice is important of course. But the reason I most wanted to talk about humor is that it is a really powerful tool for personal healing and growth.
For one thing, it can offer a breath of fresh air in a painful time. As part of the ordination process we all do a short internship in hospital chaplaincy. It’s difficult but amazing work. We met with families, all day every day. Occasionally they had just received good news, but for most of them, their lives were being transformed by illness and loss. It was our job to be a supportive presence as they came to find some meaning of their new circumstances.
We described that work as helping people to dive beneath the surface, to submerge in the murky waters of emotional live, and find a comfortable rock at the bottom to sit on for a while. It was helpful doing that sort of abstract work to have a very clear physical description of the task at hand, diving below the surface to swim down into the depth of meaning and healing.
It’s not easy. That sort of reflection is actually quite exhausting, especially as you are faced with trauma. But it has to be done. But thank God for humor. Thank God for the ability, in the midst of all that hard work, swimming through the depths of our emotional lives, to be able to come up once in a while. Come up to the surface and gasp for refreshing air in the joy of laughter.
Occasionally people think they shouldn’t laugh to tell jokes in the hospital or in times of grief. Quite the contrary. In the right quantity a good sense of humor can save our sanity in the darkest of times.

Some of you have probably seen or heard of the laughter yoga group that meets on the beach every morning. The leader of the group is active at Tapestry UU in Mission Viejo. They are a pretty fascinating group of people. On Main Beach they gather in a circle and just laugh, for probably an hour. There are no jokes or gags. They just get together and laugh. They believe that the simple act of laughing is healing. Obviously, there is the cardio activity involved. A good laugh probably is a decent workout, especially if you are doing it for an hour.
But there is also a work out to be done for your brain. Laughter, or simply smiling isn’t something that just happens in our face. It has a much deeper root… our brains. Laughter is a chemical experience, and the same is true for any emotion in our lives. And the more we exercise that emotion, the more we train our brains to experience it.
I don’t know if you know this, our brain reinforces our emotional lives and it learns to be more efficient at producing that emotional state. Each and every times we have a particular thought or feeling, our brain sends and electrical pulse through a particular network of neurons. And every time that happens, that network of neurons get strengthened and enlivened. It’s like an emotional muscle; the more we flex it, the more prepared we are to flex it, with greater speed and strength. Of course the opposite is true as well. If we limit our emotional lives, those aspects that are not practiced at firing get stifled and weak. Laughter yoga, or having a good laugh in general isn’t just about a cardio experience, it’s also about feeding our brains and enriching our emotional lives.

Finally giving credit where it is do, “Faithful Fools,” the title of today’s sermon is actually the name of a Unitarian Universalist ministry in San Francisco. It’s not a church. It’s not a ministry that probably any of us would recognize as a religious organization. It is a couple of ministers and a good number of volunteers who do outreach with the homeless community. They do a few standard things, like hosting a weekend emersion experience to understand homelessness. And they host daily meditation opportunities. But they also have poetry workshops, and improv comedy experiences.
The remarkable thing about Faithful Fools is that they intentionally use comedy and the arts to build a bridge to an alienated community. Rather than offering an answer or a handout, the compassionate folks at faithful fools offer a joke and a smile. How refreshing it must be, as a homeless person to be treated as a human being, to be seen not with sad condescending puppy-dog eyes, but to be invited into a moment of laughter. Part of their website reads “We work to build community by breaking through boundaries that separate us, such as economic power, religious beliefs, class, race, gender, ethnicity, and together we discover what connects us.” And it seems there are few tools more effective that humor for transcending those barriers.

But like any other piece of outreach or bonding, humor is a two-way street. Linda Frost can tell you, improv comedy, or any comedy for that matter, doesn’t work without an audience. It’s not a whole lot of fun to tell yourself jokes. Comedy only works if we are willing to let ourselves laugh at it, to laugh out loud.
For the past several years I have attended Outfest, the LA Gay and Lesbian film festival. They bring in all sorts of films from around the world for an amazing two-week festival every June. Some of it is quite serious, and some of it is funny. The challenge, with international films is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, especially when a room full of people want to appear very serious about the subject of film.
I remember one particular film was about set in Iceland. It was about this totally bizarre Icelandic form of wresting, that’s actually a balancing thing, where to men sort of teeter back and forth, until one throws the other off balance. It looks like very, very bad dancing. One of the scenes in the movie was the lead character sitting in his tractor as they are digging tunnel for a new road. All you saw was his face in the darkness, and the roar of a machine for a good three minutes solid. The monotony, the absurdity of the task was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Laughing alone is scary business, particularly when others want to appear serious. But fortunately, by the end of the movie, other people had caught on. They were laughing with me, at what was obviously making light of the monotony of life and kookie forms of cultural expression.
My point is, we have to be willing to get the joke sometimes; we have to let ourselves laugh at the absurd. After all receiving a joke is receiving a gift. And to graciously receive that gift we have to open our minds, open our hearts, and open ourselves to the vulnerability of being silly. If someone offers you a ray of sunshine don’t turn your back. It may be the gift you need the most in your life.

Too often we think the doing something is the most important thing. Unitarian Universalists are doers. The people in this room have accomplished amazing things. Just ask someone out on the patio after service. Your ongoing commitment to make the world a better place is honestly a profound inspiration in my life. Unitarians make things happen.
But we need to remember sometimes taking action isn’t always the most powerful way to improve a life. In fact taking the time, making the effort to turn off the computer, put the phone down and look another human being in the eyes, and smile, that’s making the world a better place. If just for a moment, being present with another person, in tears or in laughter, or in an anonymous sincere smile, changes things. It may not change the entire world, but it changes that person’s world. Sometimes I think that’s the best we can do, change the world for one person, for one moment, and have faith that that seed of peace will one day spout and spread.