“Holy Fools Day”
Rev. Greg Ward preaching
Dorothy Steinicke worship associate
Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica
April 1, 2018
CALL TO WORSHIP Dorothy Steinicke, Worship Associate
In her essay The Village Watchman, author Terry Tempest Williams writes of her Uncle Alan, a man labeled mentally disabled but who, she said, truly met the definition of being special.
Only ten years older than she was, Alan was an example to Williams and her siblings that someone could simply be who they were without attempting to conform to people’s expectations.
Williams writes, “Alan was ten years my senior. In my mind, growing up, he was mythic. Everything I was taught not to do, Alan did. We were taught to be polite, to not express displeasure or anger in public. Alan was sheer, physical expression. Whatever was on his mind was vocalized and usually punctuated with colorful speech. We would go bowling on Sundays. Each of us would take our turn, hold the black ball to our chest, take a few steps, swing our arm back, forward, glide and release—the ball would roll down the alley and hit a few pins, we would wait for the ball to return, and then take our second run. Little emotion was shown. When it was Alan’s turn, it was an event. Nothing subtle. His style was Herculean. Big man. Big ball. Big roll. Big bang. Whether it was a strike or a gutter, he clapped his hands, spun around on the floor, slapped his thighs and cried, “Goddamn! Did you see that one? Send me another ball, sweet Jesus!” And the ball always returned.”
As Alan reached adulthood, now a large, strong, impulsive man, his family found that they could not cope with him at home and he was sent to live in a state institution.
Williams and her siblings learned that they could go to Alan for absolutely honest answers although those answers often did not simplify the issue they had asked about. They came to judge the character of new people in their lives by how they responded to Alan.
Alan died in his twenties a few days after Williams asked him to tell her how it felt to be inside his body and he replied, “I can’t tell you what it’s like except to say I feel pain for not being seen as the person I am”.
May we remember that the differences of each of us do confer unique awareness on them and on us and consider these differences as gifts rather than liabilities.
STORY FOR ALL AGES
Once in the beautiful plains next to the ocean was a temple that had once been known throughout the world for its wisdom and heart and beautiful music. The members were all enthusiastic. The hymns coming from the temple deeply touched the hearts of people who came there for solace and inspiration.
But, over the years, things changed. Fewer and fewer people travelled to the temple. Those who remained became disheartened and sad.
Deeply worried, the leader of the temple went off in search of an answer. Why had his temple fallen on such hard times?
The leader came upon a wise master and asked her, “Is it because of some failure of ours that the temple is no longer full of energy and excitement?”
“Yes,” replied the master, “your lack of curiosity has failed you.”
“Lack of curiosity?” questioned the leader. “Of what should we be curious?”
The master looked at the leader for a long, long time, and then she said, “One of you is the messiah in disguise. But, because you have lost your curiosity, you have failed to look deeply enough in one another to discover who it is.” Then, the master closed her eyes, and she was silent.
“The messiah?” thought the abbot. “The messiah is one of us? Who could it be? Could it be Brother Karl?
Could it be Sister Carmine?
Could it be Master Alvarado?
Could it be Brother Yumin?
“Which one? Which one? Every one of us has faults, failings. Such obvious defects. Isn’t the messiah perfect? But, then, perhaps these faults and failings are part of the disguise. Who could it be?
When the leader returned to the temple, he gathered the people together and told them what the master had said.
“One of us? The messiah? Impossible!”
But, the leader testified to the wisdom and sincerity of the master.
“One of us? The messiah? Incredible! But, which one? Which one? Is it him? Is it her? Is it me?”
Whichever one of them was the messiah seemed a mystery. Surely it was an amazing disguise!
Not knowing who amongst them was the messiah, all the monks began treating each other – and even themselves – with new respect. “You never know,” they thought, “any encounter I have could be with the messiah! I’d better be kind.”
It was not long before the temple was filled with new joy. And soon, such joy permeated beyond the walls and attracted new people who came wondering what all the excitement was about. And all the people who came from afar noticed the inspired words, the singing and the regard shown to one another.
And once again, the temple was filled with the spirit of love.
READING “Sweet Darkness” David Whyte
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your home
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you fully alive
is too small for you.
Let us pray and rejoice for all the empty tombs across the land that offer evidence of something saved
But let us also rejoice for all those who make such salvation possible
Those who walk with us, eat with us, listen and love us.
Those who do not leave our side when the suffering begins
Those who stay with us till the end
Those who anoint us and prepare us for transformation
Those who keep vigil
Those who roll away the stones blocking our becoming
Those who rejoice – instead of lecture us – about how we changed.
Spirit of life and love,
Make of all of us
Messiahs to heal the hurt in this world
Until we all stand together
Joining voices in one long
SERMON “Holy Fools Day” Rev. Greg
Let me start this morning with a confession: I am a foolish man…
…I had hoped in that somewhat deliberate pause, the room would erupt in an uproar of rebuttals and a deafening cacophony of testimonials offered in my defense…
…Hearing none… allow me to (reluctantly) persist, for it seems to be my fate to charge forth into territory where none but fools fear to tread. But I hope, as I do, that we can discover how – and why – fools play such an important role in religion. And why – if we have faith – they can play an important role here, too. Let me explain.
This is my 19th year in the ministry. Which means it is my 19th Easter Sermon. And since I’ve only served Unitarian Universalist Churches, it means it’s my 19thtime I’ve stepped into a pulpit and faced a room filled with people who’ve never agreed about anything – except maybe – to agree to disagree. And, on no count does that principle apply with greater accuracy than agreeing to disagree with whatever is known about Easter.
That’s not exactly true… Because I have it good evidence that Unitarians agree that, on Easter, it’s very amusing to watch the minister squirm for twenty minutes to say something they won’t have to deny in the reception line.
I am, indeed, a foolish man.
I say that while making a distinction between myself and Alan – Terry Tempest Williams’ uncle – the man Dorothy described in her call to worship. Alan was a fool. At least, according to the people who had him committed. Alan kept trying to live a life larger than what was allotted him. He made people uncomfortable. And the serial discomfort which surrounded him rose up to silence him.
Alan knew this. It was likely the constant backdrop to a life lived boldly – ceaseless conditioning to dial it down. Constantly conforming to something he was not. Being stuffed into a world too small for all that was inside him. Taking what is precious and making it less than it is. Denying truth. Failing to recognize the ‘all-ness’ of his is-ness.’
How many of us have been asked at times to accept a world too small for us?
How much of the world is asked to live in such a place?
- People of color
- The poor
The world has scarcely known a time where some dominant culture has not taken advantage of its momentary place atop the social strata to define the rules and punish the people below them for being unruly.
Because who will stop them? Who, among the oppressed, will rise up, go in to the den of oppression? Face the oppressors? Question their authority?
Only a fool.
Today is the day a good portion of the western world celebrates a tiny, barely significant moment when a single man and a few stragglers pulled one over on one of the largest armies of the most dominant empire the world has ever known. Indeed, so subtle was the moment they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, no one even noticed it at all for nearly two days. And then only by a few people.
It wasn’t until months and years later that word got out about what had transpired. The great victory won. And it wasn’t until years and decades after that, that anyone bothered to tally up the score and predict a victory for the underdogs. But it was definitely this small band of fools who had the last laugh.
It is important for me to stop here and remember how many different beliefs are in the room this morning. And knowing that I am in a room of believers – because everyonehere believes something– even if it’s not the samething– I want to be careful not to offend anyone.
So, please know, if you are a believer, I am not calling you a fool. And know that if you are a Christian, I am not calling you a fool. And if you are a non-believer who is sympathetic to Christians and Jesus’ message and the power of spirituality to transform lives and transform the world, I am not calling you a fool.
Being a fool is not something anyone else can just pronounce upon you. It’s something you have to earn yourself.
It has come to pass, especially in these days of blog posts and Trump tweets, that we’ve gotten pretty careless with our words. People are called fools on a regular basis, without much thought, as though anyone could be a fool.
But today, you should know, is a high holy day among fools. And the bar for such a feat is actually quite high among the fool hearted. If you want to be anything more than an ordinary fool, you have to prove you’ve got what it takes.
Having knelt before some of the patron saints of April Foolery, I will share some of the classics that gotten some fools the attention they are looking for.
Like the old cut-out bug in the lamp trick
Or the caramel onion
Or the air horn under the chair
Or, if you have more time, the unbroken line of shopping carts around the car trick
And, of course, there is the old favorite of painting the soap with clear nail polish…
But one of my favorites: adding a few new faces on the wall where they hang the Minister’s portraits
But, I’m afraid none of those will cut it today. For today is a high holy day in the pantheon of fools. And the bar for foolishness has been raised. Especially, for anyone who hopes to be a holy fool.
The last time April Fools’ and Easter fell on the same day was 1956. Due to the quirks of Easter requiring the synchronicity of lunar cycles and the Gregorian calendar, the two coincide only intermittently. The next time it happens will be 2029, and then again in 2040—but after that, not again in this century. Which is rare enough that we need to talk about how the fool has a venerated – even a ‘holy’ status.
The Fool is one of the 78 cards in a Tarot deck. It belongs in a group of 22 ‘major arcana’ (power) cards. It is sometimes numbered 0 (the first) or XXII (the last). However, it is unnumbered in many decks, because it is different from the other 21 trump cards and plays a unique role in the game.
The Fool is titled Le Mat(in French), and Il Matto(in Italian) tarot decks. These roughly translate as “the madman” or “the beggar”, and may be related to the word for ‘checkmate’ in the original use of tarot games.
In the earliest Tarot decks, the Fool wore ragged clothes and stockings without shoes, and carries a stick on his back. He has feathers in his hair and an unruly beard like a wild man. He is often chased away by an animal, either a dog or a cat who has torn his pants.
In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck (picture shown), the Fool walks with a far-away look along the side of a cliff. He carries a white rose (a common symbol of purity or freedom from baser desires)
In the original Tarot games, playing the Fool card excuses the player from either following suit or playing trump. And at the end of the trick, the player then takes back the Fool and adds it to their own trick pile along with the most valuable card from the winner’s pile.
A hundred years after the fool appeared in Tarot, Shakespeare began incorporating this character’s special powers to offer commentary to his plays.
Nearly every one of Shakespeare’s plays had such a character
- Dogbery in “Much Ado About Nothing”
- Falstaff in “Henry IV”
- Feste in Twelfth Night
- Puck and Nick Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
- The Gravediggers in “Hamlet”
- The Fool in “King Lear”
These characters were usually clever peasants or commoners who use their wits to outdo people of higher social standing. They were the fools – amazingly popular among the “groundlings” (theatre-goers who were too poor to pay for seats and thus stood on the ‘ground’ in the front by the stage). But they were also favored by the nobility. Most notably, Queen Elizabeth I was a great admirer of the popular actors Richard Tarlton and Robert Armin who portrayed the majority of Shakespeare’s fools.
Shakespeare took the tarot fool – which had evolved into the jester
His fools didn’t follow any ideology. They rejected all appearances of aristocracy, law, justice, moral order. They pointed out brute force, cruelty, lust and foreshadowed ignorance and tragedy without pretense.
His treatment led Isaac Asimov, in his Guide to Shakespeareto say, “the great secret of the successful fool is, of course, that he is no fool at all.”
This is the kind of Fool Jesus was. Which is to say sentient. Knowing. Able to see through things and name them for what they were. Willing to expose the foibles and moral failings of the powerful and suggest that humility – rather than audacity and arrogance – might be the proper moral prescription.
It takes a nearly god-like courage to be so bold… to take such risks of bravely calling out those who could – without much effort or thought – simply strike us down. And to walk deep into their lair and say this standing before legions of soldiers with nothing but the truth in your heart to protect you… it is what you and I would consider foolish and most of us would refuse to consider lest we relish trembling in our own mortality.
But Jesus had this remarkable Trump card up his sleeve which he used often and to great effect. Jesus spoke in parables, using idioms of the day in such a brilliantly paradoxical way they forced your brain to slam on the breaks and come to a screeching halt. Whereupon Jesus would seize the moment of distraction to plant the tiniest of mustard seeds.
Have you ever had one of these moments?
Where some abstract truth came whistling into your brain?
Just a second before…
you had it all figured out…
You were in control…
In fact, you were sure…
Your brain was filled to the brim with all your sure-ness…
only to encounter an April Fool’s moment…
That was all part of the holy foolery that was Jesus’ ministry.
It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which grows into a large tree allowing the birds of the sky to nest in its branches”
The goats and the sheep.
Workers and the vineyard
The prodigal son
The good Samaritan
And a hundred others…
Each of these parables has a key that unlocks a moral truth. But it forces you to stop and look through your pockets to see if you’ve got that key. And unless you do, you end up getting locked out and looking foolish yourself.
A couple of examples:
From Luke, the parable of being sued for your cloak.
“If someone sues you and demands your cloak, give him your tunic as well.”
Most often this is thought of us as a call for generosity – giving more than what was asked. Such was ordinary foolishness. The holy fool knew that if you were paying with your cloak, it meant you had nothing else but the clothes on your back to pay your debts. To give your cloak AND your tunic would be to stand naked in public. And when someone outside the courthouse asked why you were naked, got to tell them they ‘sued the pants off you.’ Jesus was calling people to expose the ruling class for their greed and turning public opinion against them.
Another from Matthew and Luke… the parable of turning the other cheek:
“If an enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well.”
This is often interpreted as a call for temperance and passive non-violence. But as a holy fool, Jesus knew the moral code of the day gave Roman soldiers the right to backhand a Jew in public. It was a demonstration of the social strata – who was on top. The person striking was powerful. The person struck, not even human. But the rule was the soldier had to use his right hand and could only back hand the subordinate. To swing with an open hand was dishonorable and put you on the same level as the Jew – made you equals. So Jesus urged them to turn the other cheek – the left cheek. This tempted the soldier – to either flail – OR – use his open hand. Either way, making the Jew his equal.
This is what Jesus wanted. Equality. For people to live at the same level. To reveal that under all the exploitation and oppression, the subjects enduring the contempt and aggression were human beings – with hearts and hopes and dreams and children. To call forth courageous foolery, pull back the curtain hiding the actors and scripts and props that keep everything in place. And, for once, speak creatively… playfully… plainly… boldly the lines written into the margins. Speak the moral paradox. Those are the fool’s lines.
The most talented fools are socially and culturally fluid. They can build a wide berth for the vulnerable. Keep the powerful at bay. Exercise Aikido-like maneuvers that turn an oppressor’s aggression against them. Turn violence into humility, suffering into courage and hope.
But even Jesus could not subdue the entirety of an empire’s malevolence, ego, greed and habitual contempt. He had them off balance for some time. But when they regained their footing they struck. Swiftly. And without mercy.
Longevity is not the aim of the fool. Nor is it notoriety. And certainly not convenience and comfort. If these are what you find yourself craving, the pantheon of holy fools is not where you want to drop off your application for employment. Which is too bad.
Because that’s what the world needs. And, ironically, it’s exactly what we need.
Whether we are part of the dominant culture, or we live in the margins, whether we’re mad as hell or cavalier and complacent…
- When children are shot in the schools and the public reacts by buying more guns…
- When people of color are gunned down in their own backyard
- When women are assaulted and their perpetrators are protected – and elected to office…
… then the paradigm we live in doesn’t leave enough room for any of us to be fully human.
That’s what Jesus knew. That’s what Alan knew. That’s what we all know.
We don’t need to take down the empire all by ourselves. We just need enough foolery – enough courage, creativity, compassion, conscience to ask the right questions… so that the whole thing stops… just long enough to plant a few mustard seeds.
The Romans crushed Jesus. And in that moment, he looked like a fool. But in less than 12 generations, Christianity rose up and became 90% of the Roman Empire. If you wonder how, than understand it did so by building orphanages, establishing monasteries for women, feeding the poor… honoring the outcast. Where did such ideas come from? A whole lot of mustard seeds.
Since that time a good deal of Christianity – of all religion – has been overrun. Co-opted and corrupted by dominant culture again. The need for a band of holy fools has always been with us. And never been greater.
So understand this: Jesus didn’t come here promising we’d be saved if we believed in him. He came promising we’d be saved if we believed like him.
Use your curiosity, creativity, and compassion in subversive and revolutionary ways. Do not be afraid. For the Messiah is one of you.
And he made you to build a world that was meant to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you fully alive
is too small for you.
The tool kit of a Holy Fool:
- Empathy and an ability to read people
- Knowing what the Moral Imperative would ask for
- Playfulness and a great sense of humor
- An ego that has been loved enough to drop its defensiveness
- Enormous compassion
What oppression have you noticed that forces people to live smaller than they are?
What great injustice makes you want to speak truth to power and compel you to start building such a tool kit?
What brings you full alive and for what are you willing to die?