Fools’ Service

Fools’ Service
4-1-07
Rev. Douglas Taylor

There was a man who was stranded on a desert island for many, many years.  One day, while strolling along the beach, he spotted a ship in the distance.  This had never happened in all the time he was on the island, so he was very excited about the chance of being rescued.  Immediately, he built a fire on the beach and generated as much smoke as possible.  It worked!  Soon, the ship was heading his way.  When the ship was close enough to the island, a dinghy was dispatched to investigate the situation.  The man on the island was overjoyed with the chance to be rescued and met his saviors as they landed.  After some preliminary conversation the man in charge asked the man on the island how he had survived for so many years.  The man replied by telling of his exploits for food and how he was able to make a fine house to live in.

“In fact,” the man said, “you can see my home from here.  It’s up there on the ridge.”  He pointed the men in the direction of his home.  They looked up and saw three buildings.  They inquired about the other buildings next to the man’s house and he replied, “The far one, that’s my church – I go there to worship on Sundays.”

They were greatly impressed by the man’s obvious piety.  When they asked about the middle building the man’s face clouded over, “That’s where I used to go to church.”

Charlie Chaplin has said “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.”  I have come to see laughter as a vital part of life.  I don’t mean life should be a laugh a minute and that I feel ready to give up my day job for the life of a stand up comic.  Simply that life is full of tragic suffering and hardship that can overwhelm a person.  Laughter makes life sweet.  And life should be sweet.  Life is full of bitterness, laughter is a balm, a balancing mechanism to keep you steady.  “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.”  Certainly laughter can be an escape, but as such it can also serve as a release – a liberation from pride, arrogance, heartache and pain.

A Unitarian Universalist went on vacation and arranged for his mother to stay at his house and take care of his cat. And, just to be sure, he asked his minister if he would look in on them every day and make sure they were all right. “No problem,” said the minister. The man flew off to Mexico and after a couple of days he called the minister and asked how things were going.

“Well,” the minister said, “your cat died.”

“Wow! You call yourself a minister? Do you have to come right out and tell me like that? Couldn’t you have a little more consideration? I’m on vacation. Couldn’t you have broken it to me a little more gently? Like first telling me that the cat was on the roof, then that the cat fell off the roof, then maybe the next day telling me you had taken the cat to the vet-like that, not BOOM all at once! By the way, how’s my mom doing?”

“Well, she’s up on the roof. . .”

One professor, in an evaluation of me, wrote: Douglas has a well developed sense of the absurd, a quality that will be put to good use in his ministry.  Granted, humor and holiness are not always seen as compatible. Faith is serious business after all and much of what passes for humor these days is far from holy!  But consider: one of the goals of religion is the sorting of priorities; of putting first things first.  Humor has a delightful way of poking at misaligned priorities.  In some ways, there has always been a deep connection between laughter and my own call to ministry.

There is a story of a young boy who suddenly announced to his mother after church one morning, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a preacher when I grow up.”

“O, my darling boy,” the mother gushed, “Tell me what made you decide to be a preacher.”

“Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go the church on Sunday anyway, I figure it would be more fun to stand up front and yell.”

I’ve been overheard to say, “If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it!”  And I mean that not as a rhetorical question only.  Perhaps the answer will occasionally be that we are doing something that is not fun because it is really important.  But I think it also suggests that just because it is important and serious work we do need not always approach our work with an absence of humor.

Laughter has not always had a good rap among theologians and philosophers. The early Greek philosophers saw laughter as a mixture of anxiety and pleasure – part of that old slippery-slope into immorality.  They saw it as a great moral danger and potential weapon.  As if to laugh is to succumb to some great inner flaw or at least as a temptation toward vice.  Plato held the perspective that laughter arises from our desire to feel superior over other people. Aristotle was a little more sympathetic claiming laughter to be the cathartic potential of both tragedy and comedy.  However, he further believed that laughter was intimately related to ugliness and debasement.

The early Christian church was a fair mix of both Jewish thought and Greek thought.  Jewish thought has always held a valued place for joy.  One commentator noted that while professional comedians make up 5% of the population in the United States, something like 80% have been Jewish.  Clearly the Greek thought won out on the question of humor in Christianity for a long time.  The Early Christian Church denounced laughter on the grounds that Christ wept but never laughed….so weeping alone led to unity with God.  Recent Biblical commentators have released Jesus from such dour friends citing the subtle irony found in several parables and sayings.  “Let me help you take that speck out of your eye while I walk around with the large beam in my own!”  Come on, that’s funny!  Much of humor is a sudden juxtaposition of what you expected and another unexpected reality.

A little boy was walking down a dirt road after church one Sunday afternoon when he came to a crossroads where he met a little girl coming from the other direction.
“Hello,” said the little boy.
“Hi,” replied the little girl.
“Where are you going?” asked the little boy.
“I’ve been to church this morning and I’m on my way home,” answered the little girl.
“Me too,” replied the little boy. “I’m also on my way home from church.”
“Which church do you go to?” asked the little boy.
“I go to the Unitarian Universalist church back down the road,” replied the little girl.
“What about you?”
“I go to the Catholic church back at the top of the hill,” replied the little boy.
They discover that they are both going the same way so they decided that they’d walk together.
They came to a low spot in the road where spring rains had partially flooded the road so there was no way that they could get across to the other side without getting wet.
“If I get my new Sunday dress wet my Mom’s going to skin me alive,” said the little girl.
“My Mom’ll tan my hide too if I get my new Sunday suit wet,” replied the little boy.
“I tell you what I think I’ll do,” said the little girl. “I’m gonna pull off all my clothes and hold them over my head and wade across.”
“That’s a good idea,” replied the little boy. “I’m going to do the same thing with my suit.”
So they both undressed and waded across to the other side without getting their clothes wet.
They were standing there in the sun waiting to drip dry before putting their clothes back on when the little girl finally remarked, “You know, I never did realize before just how much difference there really is between Catholics and Unitarian Universalists.”

It is the sudden juxtaposition of what you expected and another unexpected reality.

But those early Greeks are not to be completely discounted.  All humor does contain an impulse, however faint, of anxiety and aggression.  Which is why much of humor depends on context.  What is the setting and who is hearing the joke?  Ethically speaking, it is fair to make a joke about yourself or your group – any group you feel strongly connected to.  It is good to be able to laugh at yourself.  It is, conversely, unethical and offensive to tell a joke that makes fun of another person or group.  For example, I, like most Unitarian Universalists love Garrison Keiler and enjoy his occasional jokes about Unitarians.  Technically, however, we are serving as a favored whipping boy for his wit.  Having noticed this a little while ago, it has not stopped me from enjoying his program and I’m not suggesting anyone should make a fuss about it.  But rather I think it is a fine opportunity for me to pause and notice who do I make fun of?  What do I laugh at?  What does that say about me?  I try to be aware of it.  I also try to use humor in the pulpit with care, striving to poke fun at myself and at my own groups.

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. We believe it must change by itself.  We’re not in the business of telling anyone they HAVE to change.

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?

Eight. One to do it, seven to make sure that the power doesn’t go to his or her head.

How Many Unitarian Universalists does it take to Change a light bulb?

We’re not in agreement as to whether the Lightbulb really exists or if it just another myth.

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

We strenuously object to the term ‘lightbulb.’ We believe there are many ways of darkness dispersion and so would not want to participate in an activity validating the lightbulb as the exclusive light source.

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

We choose not to make a statement either in favor or against the need for a lightbulb.  However, if in your own journey, you have found that lightbulbs work for you, that’s fine.  You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your lightbulb and present it next month at our annual lightbulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of lightbulb traditions including incandescent, florescent, halogen, three-way, and even candle light all of which are equally valid paths of luminescence.

Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein said “One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.”

Two Unitarian Universalists were debating their knowledge of Christianity.  One said, “I bet you don’t even know even know the Lord’s Prayer!”

“Oh really,” the other responded, “I bet you ten bucks I do!”

“You’re on.  Let’s hear it.”

The second man began to recite: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. … ”

The first man cut him off saying, “That’s not the Lord’s Prayer, that’s the 23rd Psalm.  The Lord’s Prayer goes, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep and pray the lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take’”

The second man looked him in the eye and said, “Alright, you win.”

Researchers have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system. To date their published studies have shown that laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexion, and boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gamma-interferon and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being.  Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center conducted a significant study of this and concluded that “The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day”

The poor country pastor was livid when he confronted his wife with the receipt for a $250 dress she had bought. “How could you do this!” he exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” she wailed, “I was standing in the store looking at the dress. Then I found myself trying it on. It was like the Devil was whispering to me, ‘Gee, you look great in that dress. You should buy it.’”
“Well,” the pastor persisted, “You know how to deal with him! Just tell him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” “I did,” replied his wife, “but then he said, ‘It looks great from back here, too!’”

Life is too serious to be taken so seriously.  Humor challenges pretentiousness, pokes fun at pomposity, negates preconceived notions.  In this way it is a risk.  Any time an opening is made in our expectations and our fixed ideas of life there is a risk that we will uncover the dangerous opportunity of growth.  I believe that a religious community such as ours, at its best, presents a radical perspective that is different from the standard accepted perspective on life.  Humor is a wonderful tool not only to boost your blood pressure, it can also heal your heart and give you the wherewithal to face the serious work we have before us of making our world a better place and as well as making our own lives and the lives of others sweeter.

A visiting minister was leading the service began the morning’s prayer saying “Dear Lord,” with arms extended and a rapturous look on his upturned face, “We know we are but dust”

During the dramatic pause, one obedient little girl (who was listening carefully for a change) leaned forward and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice, “Mommy, What is butt dust?”

Church was pretty much over at that point.

In a world without end,

May it be so.