SERMON: Fools to Remember

OPENING WORDS
Rev. Drew C. Kennedy

We come to love a church,
the traditions, the history,
and especially the people.

And through these people,
young and old,
known and unknown,
we reach out —

Both backward into history
and forward into the future —

To link together the generations
in this imperfect, but blessed community
of memory and hope.

MEDITATION
by Rev. Wayne Arnason

O God, whom we know as love, we gather here this morning as seekers and finders, creators and destroyers, givers and receivers of love. From the day of our birth we have asked for love, and yet as we grow and change in time we realize how little we really know about how love is given and how to grow within its nurture. Help us to recognize the love that surrounds us and in which we have our being. Help us to understand how we can be perfect channels for that love. Help us to see ourselves as the loving people we are and can be. In silence now, we bring to our minds’ eye the people who have loved us and continue to love us:

People who are not here with us today, but whose love we carry with us — People who are there every day, and whose love we sometimes take for granted — People who might be within our circle of love, could we but extend it a little further —

In silence now, we hold these people in our hearts.

(Silence)

In returning from silence, we ask that our hearts may be opened to all whose names and faces have crossed our minds. We ask that old wounds may be healed, that constant joys may be celebrated, and that the love we share with the people in our lives may be our abiding teacher. Amen.

SERMON

Every religious culture has tales of the saintly man or woman who kisses lepers, preaches to the birds, walks naked in the marketplace, eats insects and honeycomb; turns sacred rituals upside down. ~From Holy Folly by Philip Zaleski

Yesterday was April Fools’ Day. If I were writing the sacred calendar of Unitarian Universalism, April Fools’ Day would be our high holy day and the Great Fool would be our patron saint.

Why? Because we take ourselves so seriously. Because we can sometimes get so caught up in intellectual debate that we forget to enjoy life. Because I think church should be fun. And because I want us to stop worrying about being smart and move instead toward being wise.

Wes Nisker, in his book Crazy Wisdom, points out:

The fool is the most potent of the archetypes and, also, the most capable teacher of wisdom. There are actually two types of fool: the foolish fool and the Great Fool. The foolish fool is inept and silly, a clown of the mind. The Great Fool is wise beyond ordinary understanding. [And] is the rarest of beings.

Innocence is the trademark of fools. The innocence of the foolish fool makes him clumsy and unsophisticated, because he tries to live according to convention. The Great Fool, however, does not try to fit in; in his innocence he lives by his own rules. The fool and his money are soon parted, but the Great Fool gives his money away. The foolish fool gets lost, while the Great Fool is at home everywhere.

Wouldn’t it be amazing—wouldn’t we be amazing—if we tried to become a little more like the Great Fool? I think, at its heart, Unitarian Universalism is this kind of foolish faith. We live by our own rules, strive to be generous, and know through our connections in the interdependent web, that our home truly is everywhere. There is a deep and precious wisdom in this “foolish” way of being—a wisdom that is a part of our heritage and history. Our Unitarian Universalist story if full of fools!

One of my favorite Unitarian fools was Theodore Parker. Not many people have heard of Rev. Parker unless they’ve studied transcendentalism or for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. But I think every UU should know his name. Why? Because when Unitarianism was in danger of becoming equally arrogant and irrelevant, Theodore Parker called us back to ourselves. In his most famous sermon “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity,” Parker challenged the Christianity of his time to let go of old and obscure arguments of theology. Imagine him as a holy fool in the temple, daring to say to the religious elite in 1841:

Anyone who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian, and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and “only infallible rule” of the next… Men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying. For centuries… the theological doctrines derived from our fathers seem to have come from … the caprice of philosophers, far more than they have come from the principle and sentiment of Christianity.

Can you imagine? A preacher, standing in a pulpit willing to tell the congregation that the theological insights of the ages were not truths at all, but simply the prevailing opinions of the day? Here was a minister, preaching from the pulpit that most of Christianity was simply superstition that needed to be let go. He was like the child in the old story, yelling out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

Theodore Parker was a man of intense and deep conviction and faith. His daring sermon was inspired by his desire for the Unitarian church to let go of theological argument and pay attention to what was happening around them. Parker was appalled by slavery, by injustice and poverty, and especially by the indifference he saw to these matters in Unitarian churches. He longed for religion to be relevant, and to stand up against what he saw as the great sins of the day. He longed for, in his own words:

Real Christianity [which] gives [us] new life… [tha]t would make us revere the holy words spoken by “godly men of old,” but revere still more the word of God spoken through Conscience, Reason, and Faith, as the holiest of all. It would not make Christ the despot of the soul, but the brother of all… who went before, like the good shepherd, to charm us with the music of his words, and with the beauty of his life to tempt us up the steeps of mortal toil. …It would have us make the kingdom of God on earth … For it is not so much by the Christ who lived so blameless and beautiful eighteen centuries ago that we are saved directly, but by the Christ we form in our hearts and live out in our daily life, that we save ourselves, God working with us, both to will and to do.

This may not seem so radical to us, but to his contemporaries, Parker was a heretic. His Unitarian colleagues were incensed and tried to persuade him to resign from the ministry. He refused. So they shunned him. They would not allow him to publish his writing in the Unitarian papers of the day. They would not allow him in their pulpits or preach in his. He was so isolated that when he moved to Boston to take another pulpit, he was forced to preach his own installation sermon.

Theodore Parker was, in the best sense of the word, a fool. Nothing could stop him from preaching his truth. Despite the consequences, he fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Even among Unitarians, he was branded a heretic and considered a trouble-maker for his insistence that Christianity should be a living and a lived faith. He was shunned as a fool in his time, and yet, looking back, we consider Theodore Parker one of the great forebears of our faith.

I could tell hundreds of stories about other “fools” of our faith tradition. Unitarians and Universalists have often played the role of the Holy Fool. They have taken unpopular stands throughout history, often at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. They have taken risks, dared to look foolish, and often found themselves to be leaders—the ones “ahead of the times”—whose new ways of thinking and being brought about important turning points in the human story.

But not all holy fools are so far away from us. In fact, this congregation’s history has it’s own times of “foolishness.” Some of you may not know the stories of the risks South Valley has taken, from finding a way to finance a co-ministry at the same time as purchasing this building (even though everyone said it couldn’t be done) to the designation of this congregation as a hate free zone when Salt Lake City was awash in painful and devastating homophobia. If you haven’t heard these stories, ask someone who has been around a while. You’ll see that South Valley has dared to risk doing things that needed to be done, even if it looked foolish to many. The “Great Fool” has been known to show up around here now and then and that is a very good thing.

In our culture, where competence is valued so highly, it can be hard to play the fool. Even when we know what must be done, it takes courage to face the opposition, knowing that we might look foolish standing out there all alone—ahead of the times. That’s why, as a church community, we must make our congregation a safe place for the fool to live in each of us, and to be part of who we are together. The fool, after all, is the part of us that will never stop learning and who will stand up for what is right, even if it is unpopular. The fool refuses to get stuck in fear, negativity, or ego, but instead keeps moving forward—toward challenges and ways of being that keep things stirred up, lively, and even joyful.

Dennis Campbell wrote “The Congregation as Learning Community,” in which he states:

The healthy congregations of the 21st century will be those that leave behind the process of linear thinking and create within their internal culture the behavioral patterns, structures, and values that will naturally position them for a continual cycle of renewal. These congregations will never be finished with their learning…

At our recent REGAL Summit, we talked about what it would look like if South Valley really embodied this idea of being a learning community, a community of shared ministry and spiritual development. As I thought about this sermon, I realized, that in a way, we described a community that would welcome and encourage each person’s holy fool. Listen, as I read you the list we came up with:

How can we nurture an atmosphere of shared ministry and spiritual development in our congregation?

  • By fostering opportunities for deepening relationships
  • By creating an intentional comprehensive faith–based culture of leadership
  • By nurturing church as a family of choice
  • By claiming a unifying motto that energizes our faith
  • By sharing our good news
  • By nurturing and celebrating a culture of joy and enthusiasm
  • By being of service to something beyond ourselves
  • By sustaining vitality in the midst of change

What an amazing list. It seems to me, the fifteen people present found a way to describe what a healthy, happy church would look like. Imagine, if you will, South Valley as a place where deep relationships are formed and nurtured; where leadership is celebrated as a part of learning; where our congregation felt like a family—a chosen family; where we had a motto that helped us remember and renew our strength; where we couldn’t help but share our “good news;” where the very culture of our community was filled with joy and enthusiasm; where we made a point of being of service to each other and to the world; and where we expected that things would always be changing, and we would change and grow too, feeling the vitality of that change and growth and celebrating it together!

What an amazing congregation that would be: a community of holy fools, learning, leading, laughing, and loving each other; a community connected through time and commitment to the fools of the past and the foolish future; a community of people whose hearts were full, whose courage was strengthened, and whose lives were relevant, meaningful, and real! We would surely, surely, be fools to remember. And we would, one life at a time, change the world.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

CLOSING WORDS
adapted from Barbara Cheatham

And now we take our leave.

Before we gather here again —
may each of us bring happiness into another’s life;
may we each be surprised by the gifts that surround us;
may each of us be enlivened by constant curiosity and the spirit of the fool —
And may we remain together in spirit until the hour we meet again.

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One thought on “SERMON: Fools to Remember

  1. Crazy Wisdom is one of Juergi and my favorite books of all times – and we each I have our own copy to scribble in…. (we share everything, but certain books).
    Thanks for your insights – you inspire me !
    From one fool to another: have a wonderful week!
    Ines
    PS: I’ll be campaigning for that holiday !!!!

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