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Boo! – 10/27/2013

There is a common bit of homiletical advice which says, “When in doubt, begin the sermon with a joke.” So because I am a Unitarian Universalist and doubt is among our most cherished values, I will begin with a few, but I will need a little help. Let’s start with the basics:
A: “Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo!”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “I’m sorry to have frightened you. Please don’t get upset. Here, let me try something less intense: How is a raccoon different from a television set?”
B: “I don’t know. How is a raccoon different from a television set?”
A: “In a lot of ways; they’re just pretty different things, as things go. You see, most humor is made out of a combination of things you expect and things you do not expect, reversing roles, undermining preconceived notions. Raccoons and televisions aren’t particularly funny in and of themselves. They’re common, predictable things. But if you buy a new digital raccoon to tell you stories about the Real Housewives of Maycomb, Alambama, and you put the box it came in out with the trash, and then a family of wild television sets knocks over the can, and makes a nest in that box – that’s funny!”
B: “Surrealism isn’t really ‘ha-ha’ funny.”
A: “Alright, let’s try that first one again: Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo!”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “Boo Radley; one of the supporting characters in the novel-turned movie, To Kill a Mockingbird – which is set in Maycomb, Alabama. In the story, Boo almost never leaves his house, so you wouldn’t expect him to be knocking on your door. That’s why it’s funny. Knock, knock.
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “To.”
B: “’To’ who?”
A: “No, no. It should be, ‘to whom?’”
B: “Now wait a minute. Our lives, our society, and our entire world depend on certain predictable things: rules that are basically the same wherever you go or whomever you deal with. It gets warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. Gravity pulls us down. Money can be exchanged for goods and services. A joke might play with those expectations, but it’s still a sort of agreement with rules of its own. You can’t just change the rules in the middle of it.”
A: “Ah, but the expectations we have – the rules, as we understand them – aren’t just natural things, they’re built over time. Sometimes they need to be built up, and sometimes they need to be torn down so that new ones can replace them. Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo.”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “No, no. ‘Boo whom?’ As in, Boo Radley, whom we mentioned earlier.
B: Well if we’re going to keep coming back to the classics, tell me this: Who’s on first?”
A: “David Ortiz?”
Let’s stop there – thank you very much. Today’s sermon is the latest installment in our series on the intersection of emotion and spirituality, and our emotion of the day is surprise. Surprise sits at the intersection of fear, celebration, and grief. It is the feeling we get when we get something unexpected, and that feeling can feel good – like with a joke, or at least a good one. It can also be a sort of neutral feeling of puzzlement or curiosity. In the famous story of her adventures in Wonderland, when Alice ate some magical cake and grew to over nine feet tall, surprise was her first response. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she exclaimed. But shock and amazement can soon give way to grief and dismay, as they did for not-so-little Alice, when she realized her size left her trapped in the room, and she began to fill it full with her tears.
In late October, officially the spookiest time of year, we are presented with many opportunities to be startled and shocked. Most are those we are free to choose, others come, well, by surprise. From the vast Halloween industry that feeds the Salem economy, to a tiny plastic spider left by a mischievous loved one on our night stand, now is the season of [gasp]. Modern American Halloween is well-divorced now from its origins in English folk-Christianity, but there are still attempts to connect it to religion.
There is a niche industry designed to compete with haunted houses called hell houses. These are productions that can be as elaborate and involved as the familiar professional ticketed displays, but instead of just providing cheap thrills, they are meant to carry a message. They cater to conservative Christians, and their horrors are presented as depictions of hell. So that the bloody corpse that jumps out at you from the shadows has a back story involving blasphemy, premarital sex, or some other such act their theology deems worthy of eternal punishment. As our tradition takes a hard line against the idea of eternal damnation, I sort of wonder what the Unitarian Universalist equivalent of a hell house would look like. We sometimes say that hell is the condition of suffering that human beings create for themselves and each other through malice and indifference. Perhaps depictions and reenactments, then, of famine and genocide, or of the numbness and self-loathing: the quieter consequences of bigotry and contempt. That seems to me, if anything, even less entertaining than the fundamentalist sort.
But surprise does not have to leap out from behind a corner and frighten us in order to be instructive – in order to teach. In the famous story of Archimides in the bath, the Greek philosopher was just settling in for a soak when he noticed the way the water level rose as he got in. He realized that this could help him solve a puzzle he’d been working on and shouted “I’ve found it!” – ‘Heureka’, in the Greek. The story continues that in his excitement to report his solution, he jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets of the city naked, so that one shock for him must have led to a few more for his neighbors.
Great insights and realizations come to us as surprises – departures from the familiar course of life into some new and awesome mode of being. Surprise is a major recurring theme in human religious thought, but its character varies wildly. Gautama Buddha is said to have sat under his tree for 49 days in his quest to attain enlightenment. The lead up to that final achievement is full of drama: he nearly starves until a young girl offers him porridge. In one version, the demon Mara commands an army to attack the seated mystic, all to no avail. But the actual moment of enlightenment is peaceful, serene: like waking up gently from a very deep sleep.
At perhaps the other end of the spectrum is the story of the prophet Muhammad. In the story of his first moment of revelation, he stood alone in a cave on a hill. An angel appeared before him – all power and light – and he could suddenly see letters of fire carved into the sky beyond the mouth of the cave. “Read,” the angel commanded over and over, as the poor man protested that he was illiterate. Until the angel grabbed him, and held him, and by some unknown force the man could read for the first time in his life. Now that is shock and surprise!
Again and again in the Abrahamic tradition – the collective name for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the common expectations of the original audience for a sacred story are undermined. In a culture where first born sons are the assured heirs to their fathers’ property, second borns inherit instead – first Isaac from Abraham, and then Jacob from Isaac. A people enslaved become a great nation, and the crucible of three of the most influential religions

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in human history. The story of Moses reverses the standard plot of legendary kings in the ancient middle east: in their stories, a child of low class and no prospects comes from the wild to civilization and is revealed to secretly have a noble birth – he becomes a great ruler because he was meant to be king all along. Moses is a child raised in the heart of civilization, and the top of his society’s pyramid, who is revealed to secretly have been born a slave – his role of leadership takes him out into the wilderness and away from the privilege and power of his upbringing.
The teacher Jesus is famous for lessons that upend expectations. It is part of the thumbnail sketch that many of us were raised with: having long hair and a beard, turning the other cheek, and saying crazy things that cause lots of trouble. In the parable of the great banquet, the honored guests who get to enjoy the sumptuous food and generous hospitality are the poor and disabled. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the repentant sinner is favored over the man who is righteous but proud. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, everyone receives the same pay, whether they worked all day, or just for a bit of it. The stories are worn down by familiarity, they have been translated and re-translated, and displaced from their context by thousands of miles and thousands of years. But still, the words attributed to Jesus fall like punchlines. “For the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Surprise: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Get it?
Before it became common wisdom to open pretty much any sermon with a joke, there was a tradition among German preachers to lead with a joke on Easter Sunday each year. This was called the risus paschalis – the paschal joke or Easter joke. It was meant to set a parallel for the grand cosmic joke of the Easter story. A teacher teaches until he is silenced by the authorities, is captured and killed, his students wail and mourn and then, the great reversal of expectations: an empty tomb. The constant of death upended. What a punchline! What a surprise!
One of the reasons why surprise is so crucial to religious experience is that the things that surprise us – the points where the course of life departs from the expected – are the things that we do best at remembering. A few years ago, Deb told us the story of the ten plagues. She had all kinds of props and puppets and sound cues. She even tossed out confetti to symbolize the plague of insects. I can’t remember what I preached that day – I certainly wouldn’t expect the rest of you to – but I remember that story. That Sunday also points to how such breaks from the common place can often have unexpected consequences. It took forever to clean up that confetti.
Many surprises, though, are more than just minor conveniences requiring a vacuum cleaner. The hardest points in life: losing a job, ending a relationship, or the death of a loved one: sometimes we can see these coming from a little ways off, but their date is rarely preordained. If we are happy in the lives we have, and can only be surprised when those lives veer off course, than it is no surprise that so many of us dread surprises. How many of us here this morning, I wonder, came here for the first time – perhaps even today – because of some terrible surprise we needed help in grappling with? Community – real community, forged out of deep relationship –

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is meant to magnify our joys, and soften our sorrows, through sharing.
Sometimes, the surprise doesn’t come from something unexpected; it comes from everything continuing as normal. In 1833, the American preacher William Miller declared that the second coming and the end of history would take place in roughly ten years time. Interest in his prophecy and biblical interpretation grew over the next decade. By 1843 he was at the head of a national movement, looking to him for a more specific date on which they could expect the world to end. March 21, 1844 became the first official deadline. When it passed, the certain target was moved to April 18. After that, the day of reckoning was declared to be set for October 22. None of these dates proved to be the last in recorded history. The whole affair came to be known as the Great Disappointment, though it was more than just a historical footnote. Entire new Christian denominations were formed from the surprise of no surprise at all as the former Millerites scattered in search of a new truth to follow.
When we refuse to see or acknowledge the obvious, we must eventually be surprised. Like the ancient Chinese story of the thief who set out to steal a great iron bell in the dark quiet of night. He stole, unseen, into the fortress where it lay, unhooked it from its fixture and by a great feat of strength made off with it. His plan was working perfectly: he could not hear even the faintest noise from the bell as he ran with it. When the guards surrounded him and forced his surrender before he could make his way home, the thief was perplexed. “But how could they have heard me?” he wondered, as he took the cotton from his ears.
By its definition, surprise comes when it comes: it cannot be forced. You might demand of your loved ones that they throw you a surprise birthday party – plan it all out for them, with a time and a place all arranged. But the actual feeling of surprise would be as far from that as it could possibly be. What we can do, is cultivate a willingness, even a desire, to be surprised. An openness to see what is really there, even when it does not make sense or meet our expectations. All wonder, all awe, requires some sense of surprise. Even the flowering of a plant, the ending of a storm, the growth of a child – things that must happen, and do happen every day, millions of times over – there is surprise to marvel at even here. The surprise that something as vast and as delicate as the world continues on.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Boo Radley is an ominous mystery. He lives as a recluse on the margins of the town, rumors swirling about his strange ways and tarnished history. When he finally appears outside his home for the first time, he looks like a ghost: gaunt and pale. He is a frightful image, a child’s boogey man come to life. But he doesn’t come out to scare or to harm. Boo steps out of the literal and metaphorical shadows when he does in order to save lives, to stop a dangerous man and rescue the Finch children. The line between fear and wonder is thin, and sometimes heroes look like monsters.
We live in a world built out of expectations, not all of which can last against the strange and unpredictable unfolding of time. We can hide from it, turn away and ignore new information that disrupts old ways of thinking, and doing our best to insulate ourselves from the inevitable. Or we can step out of the limited familiarity of our cherished understanding of “the way things have always been,” and try to meet the unexpected on our own terms. Knowing this, may we go out into the world with the will to be surprised.

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