as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 9, 2023
When I was in my early twenties, I used to take part in a lot of mass mobilizations. It was an era of giant puppets and papier-mâché. On the streets of Seattle, Chicago, or, say, Washington, DC, it was not uncommon to find massive figurines–sometimes requiring a whole team to transport and maneuver–lumbering down the pavement, serving as nodes in the whirling river of dissent.
There, Mother Earth in a battle with the Monopoly banker. There, a caricature of the President. There, a chorus of masked dancers representing solar power spin and bop in an epic duel with fossil fuels. There….
The range of puppets was only limited by the imagination of the puppeteers and the target of outrage. Creative interpretations of what best symbolized the anti-war, pro-labor or ecological movements abounded.
Each hinted at the absurd possibility that the world might yet be turned upside down. Each offered a testament to what love looks like in public. Each offered a story in which justice was coming to reign on a planet filled with injustice. Each suggested that compassion would triumph over hate, peace over war, harmony with the Earth over ecological devastation…
I suspect that some of you participated in mobilizations with such puppets. And that more of you saw images of them on television, the internet, or in print media.
If you only observed such events from the distance of news coverage, you might not know that the puppets were often accompanied by acts of street theater. One of my favorites was a group who titled themselves the Groucho Marxists. Their routine was pretty much like it sounds. Clowns dressed in the style of Groucho Marx paraded about. With greased on black smears for moustaches, rumpled classic suits, wire rim glasses, and uncooperative ties, they ran around making statements and handing out slip of quotations from both of the Marxs: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” “These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.”
The whole experience was absurd, surreal, foolish. But that was the point, to disrupt the ordinary and suggest that the impossible is actually possible. I suspect that you have had a similar experience in a different venue. If you have ever been to the circus, you have seen them there, the clowns: infinitely unfolding from a tiny car; pulling a bouquet of tissue flowers from the air; or bouncing around in those ridiculous shoes.
Puppets, street theater, clowns, I offer you this panoply of images as an atypical entry into our Easter reflections.
“God made the wisdom of the world look foolish,” claims a Christian text. “I believe because it is absurd,” is a statement widely misattributed to the early North African Christian theologian Tertullian.
I think of such words this time of year when I, the fairly rationalist Unitarian Universalist minister, get called on to preach our Easter sermon.
I believe because it is absurd, the thing that Tertullian never said, can be taken as the summit of anti-rationalist religion. It refers to the literal resurrection of Jesus, a religious story that many Unitarian Universalists refuse to take seriously.
I believe because it is absurd, there is something about the words that speak to me of the essence of faith. They remind me of the truth that so often when things seem difficult or impossible there still remains a chance that they can be different.
We Unitarian Universalists have long had a tradition of focusing on the life, rather than the death, of Jesus. This always leaves us somewhat confused come Easter. If the resurrection of the dead is not particularly important then what is the point of the holiday?
I take it as an opportunity to recall that Jesus, as encountered through texts labelled as dissident or heretical, taught something I call the resurrection of the living. When asked who he was the Buddha is said to have replied, “I am awake!” Jesus provided a similar teaching when asked about the resurrection:
It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is,
and the transformation of things,
and a transition into freshness.
The revelation of what is…
Faith is, in part, the understanding that it is possible to make a way out of no way. The revelation of what is, the resurrection of the living, sometimes simply revolves around waking up to the reality to the future is unwritten, nothing is constant, and there is always the outside chance that, in our most difficult moments, our lives will take a turn for the better—that love might overcome hate. And I have to mention all the ways in our personal lives, in the state of Tennessee—where white supremacists expel Black men from the legislature—and throughout the country—as a rash of anti-LGBTQ legislation makes its way throughout state house… Everywhere the politics of cruelty seeks to reign, we can hope for the possibility that it can be overcome with love.
In this, I have benefited in my years from knowing clowns, holy fools. Stories from two come to me this morning. There was Oscard who would appear, sometimes, seemingly from nowhere. And there was the man they called Fellow Worker Stupid. The old labor organizer, I never met him directly–he died sometime in the 1980s–but heard tales of his actions and words of his stupid wisdom from those he mentored.
Oscard and Stupid, both helped me to wake up to what is, to undergo the resurrection of the living, to better understand the absurdity of faith and trust that sometimes the impossible might yet become possible.
Let us start with Oscard. She was better known as the Rev. Kay Jorgenson, the longtime community minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco and co-founder of the Faithful Fools.
A community minister, I should note, is different than a parish minister. Rev. Scott and I are parish ministers. We primarily serve a congregation, in our case the First Unitarian Universalist. A community minister, in contrast, is someone whose ministry is principally through a community organization and with the larger community. Typically, community ministers have a relationship with a congregation–they are members and accountable to it–but are not employed by it or responsible for things like leading Sunday morning services or campus operations.
Kay was an unusual minister. She only got ordained in her mid-fifties. Some people run away from the church to join the circus. She ran away from the circus to join the church. Not really, but in her early years she had trained as a mime, and she spent the first half of her working life clowning.
From her gently hilarious feats of pantomime, she learned that humor and love have the power to break down barriers. It was something she deployed to try and bring a new spirit to the church. I remember coffee hours in San Francisco when she would welcome visitors who seemed uncomfortable with a spontaneous bit of miming, a clown nose would appear and there was her persona Oscard–maybe producing a quarter from behind the ear of a nervous child or faking a tumble and bringing a grin.
She could also use her humor to great effect to transform the tenor of a meeting. I remember being at one where she was present. We were debating some action that people in the community wanted to take. The precise subject is unimportant–though the general outline is that involved establishing a nonprofit to serve the community. Nor am I sure why she was there, since as a community minister she did not usually attend such discussions.
Whatever the case, the objective of the action was widely viewed as desirable but well beyond the congregation’s resources. The congregation grew heated. Kay just sat there, saying nothing. Things got more tense. The reasonable people in the room insisted that the proposed plan of action was impossible. The advocates for the action insisted that it was possible. It appeared that an impasse had been reached. Finally, someone asked Kay for her opinion. She responded by quoting a line from the Blues Brothers:
It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.
Expecting wise counsel, rather than non sequitur a movie citation, everyone was confused. People started laughing. Asked to elaborate, she refused to say more. Somehow this was enough to change the direction of the conversation. The congregation voted to proceed with the action and somehow came up with funding for the nonprofit. It went on to provide services for a decade or more.
Kay’s chief ministry was with the Faithful Fools. Organized with her longtime collaborator Sister Carmen Barsody, a Franciscan nun, the Fools are a street ministry. They see their work as primarily bridging the divides that separate people. In all that they do, they challenge people to reflect on the simple question, “What keeps us separate?”
It is a question designed to spur the resurrection of the living, the waking up to what is. It is coupled with an embodied spiritual practice, which Kay and Carmen named street retreats.
Most of us think of spiritual retreats as rarefied events. They take place in spaces outside of our ordinary lives and typically involve travel to spaces beyond those we regularly inhabit. Some of you, for instance, just joined Carol and me for our annual spring retreat to UBarU. Located outside of Kerrville, it is a rural oasis where it is possible to escape the rigid pressures of regular living–work, school, even worrying about cooking a meal. There are wondrous stars at night, trails and labyrinths with wildflowers and brambles, and ample opportunities for relaxed reflection.
Street retreats are the opposite. They take place in familiar spaces and challenge participants to experience them in new ways. Rather than traveling to some far-off center in search of spiritual engagement, participants are invited to walk the streets surrounding the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco for an afternoon, a day, or, sometimes, even a week.
There are only two real rules. You are not allowed to spend any money. And you have to stay on the streets. That is it. Walk through the streets, pay attention, talk to the people that you encounter, and as you do, continually ask the question, “What keeps us separate?”
The San Francisco Society, like First Unitarian Universalist, is a center city congregation. The Bay Area has a significant problem with housing. Tens of thousands of people live on the streets. Many of them live near the Society. Being in the streets for any length of time, means actually engaging with the unhoused. If you are going to eat without money then you end up going through the same soup lines that the unhoused do.
Kay even made it her practice to routinely sleep on the streets–she was particularly fond of sleeping on the steps of the Society. On longer retreats she invited participants to do the same.
All the while, she and Carmen ask for reflection on the question, “What keeps us separate?” The more the question is asked the more participants, in Kay’s words, “recognize our selves waking up.” Waking up to an understanding that “Homelessness is not a state of being. It is an event in time.” Waking up to the reality that housed or unhoused, people are all more alike than we are different. Waking up to the truth that the homelessness exists because of the vast structures of economic violence that ensure that housing is connected to employment, that demand that housing is provided only at a profit, and that you need to have wealth or income in order to have a home. And waking up to the reality that even in difficult spaces there remains something of hope and beauty–Oscard always had the potential to appear with clown’s nose, a non sequitur, or a strange routine. Waking up to the truth that love us to provide housing for all.
What separates us? It is an absurdly simple question.
Absurdly simple questions were the forte of Fellow Worker Stupid. Before fleeing to Canada to escape imprisonment for his political beliefs, he had been an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s and early twenties. The IWW, sometimes known as the Wobblies, believe that there is inevitable conflict between employers and workers. They also practice radical democracy and seek to implement it both on the job and in their union.
I used to organize with the IWW and I have shared with you some of my own experiences of workers implementing the union’s philosophy. It revolves around direct action, the idea that best way to solve a problem at work is to solve it when it arises. A few months ago I offered you an example of this when I told the story of workers at a pizza place who began the practice of binning gloves when management refused to deal with a particular safety issue.
You might recall that the workers at that particular restaurant, were constantly burning themselves because management would not buy adequate oven mitts. They talked and talked with the managers about the issue but nothing got done. Finally they came up with the game of binning games. At the end of every shift, they checked the gloves. If they were “sub-par” they would toss them into the bin behind the store. Their manager would try to stop them and insist that they continue to use unsafe gloves. But it is hard to monitor who is putting what in the trash and taking it out to the curb all the time. And at the end of a couple of shifts, the gloves were all so bad that they all had to go. Pretty soon there came a time when there were no gloves left. The managers did not know who had binned them all. And so, in order to keep the restaurant open they had to rush out and buy a bunch of new oven gloves. The tactic worked. After that, there always were adequate gloves. People started getting burned a lot less.
Stupid was one of the people who taught my mentors tactics like that. I was told that he always looked for the most obvious, or direct, solution to a problem. Even if it seemed like the solution was somehow impossible. To a problem like gloves with holes, he would suggest just throwing them out. If told that the direct solution was impractical his tactic was reply, “What do I know, I am stupid?”
Part of what he taught was just to ask people the question of why and then offer them the space to reflect. When organizing a labor union, this might be the simple question of why do you work where you do? Why is your job unsafe? Why? Why? And usually the retort, when the dead end or an uncomfortable answer had been reached, “What do I know, I am stupid?”
His stupid questions led him to be a fount of wisdom–a constant encouragement to wake up to the world as it really is and demand that there is more love somewhere. It filled him with sayings that challenged people to recognize the power structures that they were caught up and see the world, and its possibilities, the absurdities with which we live, just a little bit differently.
Most of these were quite simple folk knowledge. He collected them in a series of handprinted pamphlets that I was given and encouraged to study. They cover a range of things from politics to parenting:
Brooks, streams, and rivers,
Get very crooked because they take the path of least resistance.
Sometimes people do the same.
And for the same reason.
Children, do need love and affection.
And those who do the least to attract it,
quite likely are the ones,
who need it the most!
Even the smallest task becomes impossible,
to those who are unwilling to try.
What do I know, I am stupid?
Gian puppets, the Groucho Marxists, Oscard the clown, Fellow Worker Stupid, I have shared stories with you about them this Easter Sunday for two reasons. First, they reflect the message of Jesus–as found in his life, not his death. Second, they connect to the classic Unitarian understanding of Jesus, which we should recall whenever we come to Christian holiday.
First, the message of Jesus. Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, was a rabble rouser. He was always going around trying to turn the world upside down. He turned the money changers out of the temple. He preached the beatitudes, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” He challenged the greatest power of his day–imperial Rome–and called on people to wake up to the world as it is: filled with both injustice and beauty and ever needing more love to overcome the politics of cruelty.
He was, in his own way, a blessed fool.
Rather than share stories about him this morning, I have told you about the blessed fools that I have known. I have done this because the core of classical Unitarian Christianity–which we do well to uplift this Easter morning–is that each of us contains within the likeness to God. It is the task of the religious community to help us uncover that likeness. And it is a likeness that is found when we have the faith to believe in the absurd. We are not asked to believe in the absurd invoked in those words incorrectly credited to Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd,” speaking of the literal resurrection.
We are asked instead to believe in the absurd proposition, proven to be true by the actions of so many seekers of love and justice, that it is possible to make a way out of no way. And that each of us has the potential to wake up to the world as it really is and undergo the resurrection of the living.
The resurrection has nothing of this character.
It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is,
and the transformation of things,
and a transition into freshness.
May we each experience, through the lives of blessed fools, and in our own lives, something of the resurrection of the living and wake up to the world as it is. A world where we are called to ask and answer the question, “What is it that separates us?” A world where we know that we can each bring a little more love, justice, and compassion into being.
So that it might so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.