Returning to Laughter


Thank you choir. Sunshine. You should know that that piece was originally planned for the Sunday following the election. We changed it for reasons that are probably obvious.

Are we ready for sunshine yet? Are we even seeing any sunshine on the horizon?

It was 19th century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker who said that preachers should stand in the pulpit with one hand on the Bible and the other holding the newspaper.

Perhaps we could paraphrase Parker today by saying that preachers need to bring both whatever religious wisdom we can muster, on the one hand, and apply it to the issues of the day…even if those issues come to us as tweets, rather than on newsprint.

When I selected this sermon topic and imagined dealing with the spiritual theme of “joy,” I thought we would surely be ready to take a breather from our national political drama.

But that drama goes on. Relentlessly. We should be celebrating the temporary injunction that halted the thinly disguised ban on Muslim immigration. That “so-called” judge’s decision deserves celebration in my judgment. And bless the 9th Circuit for its decision last night not to reverse that “so-called” judges order.

So far the courts are showing up as intended by our founders. It is so appropriate that the ACLU will receive our shared plate this month. We want them to have all the resources they need.)

But we can’t just celebrate. We needed to join with many others to crash the congressional phone system in opposition to the woman nominated to lead the Department of Education, the billionaire who has a life long record of opposition to public education and who has donated significant amounts to the political campaign chests of every major Republican legislator, every one, as well as our new president. How many of you have made a call, written an email or signed a petition questioning her confirmation?

And next week we expect efforts to deconstruct the modest limits placed on those financial institutions that nearly brought our economy crashing down 10 years ago by their irresponsible greed. The attempt will be made to gut Dodd-Frank.

Meanwhile, internationally, we push our allies away with no appreciation for their support.

And, thus far, we have just been dealing with Executive Orders. Congress has not yet even begun to act.

There has not been one day when values we, as liberal religious folks, cherish have not been under attack.

I believe it is certain that the challenges coming our way will continue.

“Reality is coming unhinged,” to quote one progressive blogger. The norms for behavior and political leadership that we believed were shared by all or most of us, seem no longer to apply. “Alternative facts” are the order of the day. Reasoned argument seems to carry no weight.

We do not have much experience in sustaining our efforts or, indeed, in sustaining our spirits, when such challenge is constant and the need for response is unrelenting.

So, perhaps it is not as inappropriate as it may seem, for us to focus on joy…or if we cannot get to joy, if joy is a bridge too far, at least to look for satisfaction enough to sustain us…through what promises to be a long period when we may well have to be satisfied with damage control, rather than an expanding realization of Beloved Community.

And, let’s acknowledge that joy is a good topic for us. We progressive folks tend to be such a serious lot. William Butler Yeats described one of his contemporaries in a way that may remind you of “us”: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Joy and praise have not been our long suit.

Keep the Bible, or religious wisdom, in one hand said Theodore Parker. Well, what can we find there to sustain us?

There is a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition, from Japan:

“A man was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff.

Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him, waiting for his arrival and roaring at him. He was caught between the two.

And to make his situation even worse, two small mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death.

That is when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

“Ahhhh,” he exclaimed as he savored the sweetness. “Ahhhhh!”

He never had realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.”

“Ahhhh,” the joy of living in the present, the story counsels. Find beauty, energy…sweetness… even in moments of extremis.

Many commentaries have been offered on this story.

The tiger on top of the cliff can be seen as the past…to which we cannot return. The tigers below, the future with its dangers.

Aren’t there always tigers in our lives…threats and dangers.

The mice can be seen as time and the passage of time. We have only so much; we only go around once, as they say. Or as one piece of anonymous wisdom recommends: “Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal.”

I think there are always tigers. I think there is always the limit of time.

What is that strawberry? Is it joy? And can we reach or it?

Do we look to communities that have been oppressed for spiritual direction? The Jewish community which has survived oppression for so long? Last month I spent time in southern Spain where Jews, Christians and Muslims managed to live together without killing each other for some 700 years. But one of the last places I visited was the tiny synagogue in Cordoba, now one of only three in all of Spain. When the Christians finally forced the Muslims out, in 1492, only those Jews who converted to the Christian faith were allowed to remain. They were forced out too and the Inquisition followed.

I often look to my African American heritage to hold me up. To W.E.B. Du Bois: “the prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence.”

Amen to that.

Or Frederick Douglas, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” I am certain that our president knows nothing about the man whose name he invoked in his compulsory Black History Month video moment.

Douglas’s urging to agitation most certainly has its place.

And there is, in fact, satisfaction that comes with the “good fight” even when the outcome does not go our way.

It was Gandhi who said: : “Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself.”

The faces of the impressive numbers who have taken to the streets in recent days have been, the vast majority of them, smiling not snarling. We have not seen such love-filled gatherings since those bygone days of yesteryear…called the 1960’s.

Many of you are too young to remember. But some of us were shaped in a time when love was not a dirty word and when the Beloved Community seemed a predictably achievable dream.

There have been glimpses of such optimism and such confident joy since those days. But they have not been sustained. And it has sometimes felt artificial to try to reclaim “that lovin’ feeling.” Anger is no stranger to many of us and there are fundamentalisms and fundamentalists on the left as well as the right.

But it is true that there is satisfaction in the work and in the witness, regardless of the outcome. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” said Albert Camus in our reading. Happy in the effort, content with the work itself.

But I wonder whether that alone will be enough to sustain us, let alone get us close to joy. Remember that the 60’s gave way to the 70’s and the love children were followed by the “me” generation.

We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yes I get that. Though his crime and his punishment were so profoundly individual.

We live in community. And there is strength…and joy…that Sisyphus could never know in his solitary and perpetual punishment.

Toni Morrison’s novel Sula is set in the early years of the 20th century, in pre-Civil Rights America. Morrison presents the response of one African American community to the persistent violence of the time:

“What was taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones…They did not believe Nature was ever askew – – only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing that they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide – it was beneath them.”

There is a quality of – call it “doggedness” – my grandmother would have called it “cussedness” – groundedness is the only language that comes close for me. They lived grounded in an unshakeable affirmation of their worth and their power (their agency) even in adversity, even in extremis.

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was Ida Victoria Penland Love. Yes, her married name was Love. She taught in a two room Black schoolhouse in western North Carolina for 50 years. Every black child in town had her as teacher. She was almost 80 when she finally retired.

Ida stood 6 feet tall and was rail thin but with an unbreakable will and with an unshakeable commitment to her community. I knew her only as a young boy and I will never understand what it cost her to be so strong. But her example is with me always.

“The purpose of evil was to survive it.” Toni Morrison could have been describing my grandmother. ”They knew anger well, but not despair…” “[Despair] was beneath them.”

And, as Toni Morrison reports, it was that attitude that allowed them, that demanded of them…celebration and joy.

It was that attitude that allowed them to reach for that strawberry…tigers be damned…or perhaps in language more appropriate for religious community… all the prejudice and all the oppression of their world notwithstanding.

Zadie Smith, in her novel Swing Time, has her narrator, a bi-racial young woman and sometimes dancer from Britain, present for a dance with a group of village women in Gambia:

“I watched them for a minute, the two [older] women, as they danced at me, and I listened carefully to the multiple beats, and knew that what they were doing I, too, could do. I stood between them and matched them step for step…There were so many voices screaming at me that I stopped being able to hear the drums, and the only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything.”

I will never know what it cost my grandmother to be strong or even if she experienced it as costing her anything at all. She seemed to join with Toni Morrison’s characters, though, in living as if despair was never on the table and in living as if anything less than strength was beneath her.

From the Upanishads, one of the earliest layers of wisdom in the Hindu tradition:

“That which is whole is joy. There is no joy in fractioned existence. Only the whole is joy. … But one must desire to understand the whole.”

One must desire to know the whole…even though the whole is not all goodness and light. One must desire to know the whole including the evil and the anger that can seem to dominate.

It is the whole that is holy ground…all of it. Remember our Universalist religious ancestors who tried to live as if God’s love had no boundaries. None.

Each month, I lead the Board of Trustees in a reflection on our monthly theme. Thursday night, I asked them to share where they are finding joy in these difficult days.

I ask you as well to think about where are you finding joy.

The responses around the Board table were varied of course, just as I am sure they are in this sanctuary. They spoke of finding joy not only in service but in swimming; joy in poetry and in children and grandchildren, joy in seeing the first bulbs send shoots up even through the recent ice and snow.

Everyone was able to name some source of joy. And that is not a bad take away for us to remember…that each person was still finding some joy.

But I was most struck by one Board member who spoke of finding joy in early work in the garden and specifically in clearing the old away to make space for what is coming. That is the language that struck me: “Make space for what is coming.”

Because that is what we are doing by our resistance and our persistence. We are making space for what can come, for what can grow even out of these days.

I will never know whether my grandmother’s strength was a burden or a source of joy in her life.

I will never know. But perhaps, if I remember her life, I can match her steps. Perhaps we can match the steps of those on whose shoulders we stand, those who prepared the way, those who made a way out of no way. Even in these days when it feels like a firehose is drenching us and trying to push us back…even in these days when love seems the least of the virtues in our public life…

Even in these days, we may be able to find not only joy but deep satisfaction and even success in working together and praying together and laughing together… as we witness for the only hope worth striving for…a beloved community in which all are welcome and in which love lifts us up…every one of us.

So may it be.

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