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.


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