The Joke's on (U)Us

Sunday, April 1, 2012 - 9:00am
Rev. Erika Hewitt

What do you get when you cross a UU with a Jehovah’s Witness? Did you hear the one about the UU monastery? How about the one about the UU at the gates of heaven? At this service we’ll tip our hats to April Fool’s Day by laughing at ourselves — but we’ll also listen for how these jokes provide a perspective on our faith so that our laughter points us towards the growing edges of our UU movement.

Sermon Text: 

“The Joke’s on (U)Us” ~ © Rev. Erika Hewitt
1 April 2012
UU Community Church of Santa Monica

It’s been a good week to be a Unitarian Universalist. Nowadays I’m proud all the time to be a UU. In the past couple of years, as social media sites like Facebook converged with our Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, I get daily reminders about what a great religion this is. Nearly every day I see shining, honorable demonstrations of how fiercely we UU’s stand on the side of love, and justice.
In a week when our country – and many wise UU’s – have been engaging in dialogue about racism, justice, and activism, it might seem unseemly, or just off-point, to nod to a secular occasion like April Fool’s day.
Hear me out, though: What brings me joy, as a longtime Unitarian Universalist, is not that we get press, in our saffron-gold “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts. It’s nice to appear in the news, but our visibility isn’t what pleases me the most – it’s that the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign has provided us with a voice, a place, and an identity. We’re talking about who we are & what we stand for.
We badly needed this, as a people of faith. For a long time, we needed practice articulating our religious identity and what we stand for. It’s always been an uphill battle, because myths and half-truths about us abound – fueled, in part, by UU jokes. Some funny jokes, some bad ones. This morning we get to poke fun at ourselves and have a few laughs as I tell a few carefully-selected UU jokes.
As a genre, the jokes that you’re about to hear present a (dare I say it?) serious message. Their humor plays on well-known traits of our UU faith and its congregations, but some of the jokes seem to caricature us, and others make me feel uncomfortable. My hope is that, through laughter, we open ourselves to our growing edges and consider how our liberal religious heritage and purpose are seen by the world.
“Jokes are democratic,” writes Garrison Keillor. “Telling one right has nothing to do with having money or being educated. It’s a knack, like hammering a nail straight. Anyone can learn it, and it’s useful in all sorts of situations. You can go your whole life and not need math or physics for a minute, but the ability to tell a joke is always handy.”
Jokes are also as old as time – even religious jokes. In the 1850s, Rev. Thomas Starr King, who held ties to both the Unitarians and the Universalists, distinguished between the two with this quip (paraphrased):
Universalists believe that God is too good to send them to hell, and Unitarians believe that they are too good for God to damn. We Unitarian Universalists still seem to think that we’re pretty special.
Question: How can you tell a Unitarian Universalist?
Answer: You can't, they already know it all.
Let’s pretend, for a tongue-in-cheek moment, that we’re not Universalists (by that I mean it’s a hell joke, and Universalism grew out of the belief that there is no hell). This joke caricatures our over-educated, upper-middle class streak:
Joke: A man was being given a tour of Hell by the Devil. “This is the area where we keep people who violated the food taboos of their religion,” the Devil said. “Behind this first door are the Catholics. These are the ones who ate meat on Friday. Behind the second door are the Jews. They all ate pork. Behind the third door are the Unitarian Universalists.” The man looked puzzled. The Devil clarified, “They ate their entree with their salad fork.”
I’ll admit that joke might better pertain to New England UU’s than us on the Left Coast... but there are so many more jokes playing up our Unitarian Universalist tendency to believe that we “know it all” – as well as our belief that everyone we encounter wants us to “share” what we know, whether our input is solicited or not.
One old saw goes, “UU’s go into every new situation with an open mouth.” Then there’s this joke:
Did you hear the one about the UU monastery? In order to allow for peaceful contemplation, you must take a vow of silence – unless you think of something REALLY good to say!
What these jokes imply is that we UU’s are never timid to speak what’s on our mind – which can lead to what some would call a “diversity” of opinions, and what a more critical spectator might see as a prickly conflict.
Joke: A Unitarian Universalist died, and to his surprise discovered that there was indeed an afterlife. The angel in charge of these things told him, “Because you were an unbeliever and a doubter and a skeptic, you will be sent to Hell for all eternity – which, in your case, consists of a place where no one will disagree with
you ever again.”
Joke: In trying to figure out whether there was an afterlife, a Unitarian Universalist saw a signs on a bulletin board for a lecture on “The Way to Heaven” and for a presentation on “Avoiding Hell” and for a discussion “About Heaven and Hell.”
Of course he went to the discussion.
If the corpus of UU jokes highlights our affinity for “lively discussion,” it also points to our aversion to power. Unitarian Universalists have a tendency to distrust authority and its delegation. In other denominations, parishioners take comfort in knowing that the bishop or priest or vicar – or the custodian – will get things done. Not us!
Joke: The copy machine broke down at the Unitarian Universalist church. Since it was Sunday, no repair person was available, and they desperately needed more copies of the order of service. After fluttering around the machine in distress, a member more mechanically inclined than the rest found the problem.
“It’s just out of paper. The flashing box said right there ‘Replace Paper in Tray 2.’ Sheesh, can't anyone here follow directions?”
Another member retorted, “If we were the kind of people who followed directions we wouldn't be Unitarian Universalists!”
Maybe it’s true that, because we spend so much of our energy and time thinking rationally, we UU’s think that we know it all. I can think of two areas, though, in which our not knowing becomes problematic. The first area in which our ignorance is our Achilles’ heel: Christianity.
Here’s a true story told by the Rev. Tony Larsen. One day when he was meeting with the high-school youth from his congregation, he told them this joke:
One UU says to another UU, “I’ll bet you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer.” The second UU says, “I’ll bet you $20 I can.”
So the first UU says, “You’re on – $20 it is.”
The second UU recites, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
The first UU looks at the 2 one and s nd ays, “All right, you win – here’s the $20.”
That’s half of the punchline. The other half is this: when Tony told that joke to the youth in his UU congregation, nobody got it. None of them knew the Lord’s Prayer, either!
What does it mean that real-life UU’s are so ignorant that they don’t understand jokes about themselves? We UU’s enjoy learning about exotic religions, but often ignore the Christian tradition that shaped our Unitarian and Universalist histories (both of which were Christian until the 20th century, and which remain Christian in some congregations).
Some UU’s don’t want their children to learn about it. A number of UU’s have come to our faith having been wounded by Christianity, and those wounds seem to be so painful that our tolerance and curiosity are cut off, and we neglect to conduct the “responsible search for truth and meaning” that our Principles promise to us.
In addition to lack of familiarity with our Christian roots, our “know it all” attitude evaporates when it comes to our own spiritual beliefs.
Joke: Each religion has its own Holy Book: Judaism has the Torah, Islam has the Koran, Christianity has the Bible, and Unitarian Universalism has Roberts' Rules of Order.
Our tolerance – or penchant – for ambiguous theology intersects with what I believe is the most egregious UU stereotype: that we are a faith with no core religious message. When it comes to defining who we are as an Association and what we believe as individuals, our answers rarely satisfy.
Question: What happens when you cross a UU with a Jehovah's Witness?
Answer: They knock on your door, but they have no idea why!
We’re even mocked on “The Simpsons.” On one episode, the Simpson family attends a church ice cream social, where Lisa is impressed by the choice of ice cream available. “Wow,” she raves, “look at all these flavors! Blessed Virgin Berry, Command-Mint, Bible Gum....”
“Or,” Reverend Lovejoy says, “if you prefer, we also have Unitarian ice cream.” He hands Lisa an empty bowl.
“There’s nothing here,” says Lisa. “Exactly,” says Lovejoy.
Garrison Keillor frequently spears our religious faith as being comprised purely of out-oftouch social justice hippies, whose passion centers on saving Arctic caribou and boycotting Nestle.
Question: Do UU's ever pray?
Answer: Only when they think a Democrat is going to lose an election.
Even Michael Moore has poked fun at us. In a lecture a few years ago broadcast on National Public Radio, Moore insisted that audience members get out and do something for their communities. “Do something,” he insisted, “don’t just hold long meetings in the basement of the Unitarian church.” (At an Occupy Wall Street speech in Oakland last fall, Michael Moore softened his stance towards us by adding, “God bless the Unitarians.”)
The pattern here is that in media both serious and satirical, Unitarian Universalists are purported to be so open, so zealous and yet so mushy on matters of faith that we don’t know what we believe in. I get the feeling, sometimes, that these authors of popular culture are not so much laughing with us, as at us... and, in the process, conveying a stereotype that might keep religious seekers away from our doors on Sunday morning.
There comes a point, for me, at which jokes like these cease to be funny by virtue of their volume and ubiquity... and the truth that they hold. Isn’t it so, after all, that we continue to define ourselves by who we aren’t rather than who we are? Isn’t it true we’re rendered tongue-tied when friends or co-workers ask us, “What do UU’s believe?” And might it be possible that our belief that we “know it all” – about the war in Iraq, about
who to vote for – is, in itself, intolerant?
I don’t want our distinguished liberal religious movement to be portrayed as an empty bowl, or an offshoot of the Democratic party. I don’t want to belong to a faith where you can believe anything you want, and change your mind anytime you need to. Our beliefs will change throughout our lives; we’re never “done” learning. But religious faith is not disposable. I don’t want to be laughed at; I want to co-create a faith that garners respect.
Our Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to transform the hearts and souls of our members, who then work to transform the world. Our purpose is to help people live lives of purpose and meaning, and to encourage one another to spiritual maturation. As a minister, my wish for you and for Unitarian Universalists everywhere, is that we commit ourselves to proving punchlines wrong. May we create and celebrate even more reasons to be proud of this imperfect but extraordinary and ever-evolving faith.

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