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Fortune Favors the Fool – 4/1/2012

The story is told in China about a man who was called Yu Gong, which means, ‘Old Fool.’ Yu Gong lived in a place called Jizhou which was not too far from a great river called Han. But in order to reach that river, Yu Gong and his friends and neighbors had to travel a great distance in order to go around the tall, impassible mountains that were in their way. So one day Yu Gong shared an audacious plan with his family: if they could move some of the mountains out of the way, the people would be able to reach the river, safely and easily.

Some of his children and relations thought this was a wonderful idea. And some of them thought he was an old fool: how could he – one man, nearly 90 years old – or even all of them working together – one single family – ever hope to move so much earth and stone? Despite these doubts, Yu Gong and those willing to risk working with him, set out to move those mountains. Day after day they dug the dirt and broke the rocks and hauled it all away. Some of their friends and neighbors saw them doing this and eventually joined in the work – the first one to start helping was a young child, whose baby teeth had only just finished falling out. But some of those same neighbors and friends only watched a laughed at Yu Gong and the other workers.

One of these was Zhi Sou, whose name meant, ‘Wise Old Man’. He mocked Yu Gong and said, “You old fool – you will never move these mountains.”

“You are wrong,” the man replied. “My children will have children; new people will come to our city, and some of these will recognize the importance of our work. Generation after generation, our effort will continue; eventually we will succeed.”

Today, if you go to Jizhou and stand in a high enough place, you can see the river Han in the distance – there are no longer any mountains in between.[i]

All of life is a gamble. In each choice we make there is a risk of failure or disappointment. Sometimes there is a risk of what others will think of us for the choices we make, and sometimes those choices put at risk our very lives. Recently there was a story in the national press about a group of Christian card-counters. Card-counters use observation, memorization and math to keep track of their odds while playing black jack. If they do it well, and don’t get caught, they can place their bets in ways that make them money. This group of young card-counters did just that, and made quite a bit of money. They mostly knew each other through bible camp and church connections, and their practice and planning discussions included a good bit of theology along with the math. Their outfit was successful and tight knit, but eventually it broke up. One of the former members explained his reasons for dropping out like this: “I just felt like it didn’t do anything for anyone else. It wasn’t good enough. I think my time can be spent investing in things with higher returns.”[ii]

That is what we are talking about this morning: investing in things with higher returns. We come together as a congregation to help others and each other in an economy that is defined by self-interest. We come together to forge a common truth, in the midst of a public discourse that is based on slamming opposing opinions together as loudly and as angrily as possible. We seek to be a house of peace, living in a world at war. Our law is service, against a common law of profit. Our spirit is love, on a planet too often shaped by fear. We look out at a society where people are alienated, disconnected, broken up into little pieces and kept separate from each other, and still we affirm there is a unity that binds all of us together. We are a fundamentally countercultural organization. From the limited perspective of self-interest, sharing the money you earn by your work with this congregation is a great way to prove to yourself and everyone else how much of a fool you are. So let me now praise the great virtue of foolishness.

Five hundred years ago the priest and author Erasmus wrote, “In Praise of Folly,” in which he said that ‘Fortune favors the fool,’ while wisdom makes us timid. Part of his point was that the radical but simple kindness and compassion that he saw at the heart of his religion was being watered down and excused away by the complex over-thinking of the supposedly wise. The Unitarian Universalist author, Kurt Vonnegut, people who are supposed to know everything don’t tend to like simple, clear ideas. “[C]larity looks a lot like laziness and ignorance and childishness and cheapness to them.”[iii]

In a story from the Buddhist tradition, there lived a monk who was renowned for his insight, and the goodness of his teachings. One day, the governor of the province, who was 80 years old and a very powerful and important person, came to the monk and asked him what was the most important teaching of all. The monk answered, “Don’t do bad things. Always do good things.”

The politician was angry and disappointed at this answer. “I knew that when I was three years old,” he shouted.

“Yes,” the monk smiled. “The 3 year old knows it, but the 80 year old finds it very difficult to do!”[iv]

This is not a unique teaching. Jesus, also, told his students to become like children. The Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum said much the same thing in the title of his book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. So I hope that both the adults and the children present will listen carefully to this part: We grown-ups get a lot of mileage out of the fact that we know things that kids do not. And they do need us, to pass that knowledge onto them. But children also know, from an early age, the simple rule to do what is right, even when it is hard. And sometimes they are much better at remembering that than we are.

The great feminist, activist and poet, Adrienne Rich, died this past week. Among her most famous words are these:


My heart is moved by all I cannot save: 

so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,

reconstitute the world.

A passion to make, and make again

where such un-making reigns.


It is a great risk, a perverse – we might say, foolish – impulse to try to reconstitute the world. To make things that matter, in the face of un-making. But that is what we are here to do: as individuals, as a congregation, as a species. And even though the deck might seem stacked against us, I would agree with Erasmus: fortune favors the fool.

First, because to do what is right is the greatest fortune there is. It is the greatest hope that a parent can have for their child: more than wealth or fame or wisdom or security, to live a life that is good. It is its own reward. Patrick O’Neil, who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living preachers we have as Unitarian Universalists, tells the story of a woman from his congregation who asked him for an urgent meeting one day. She explained that she had come into a great deal of money. Something she might have wanted, perhaps, but nothing she needed. So she decided to make a gift to her congregation, and she handed Patrick a million dollars. As she did, she was crying, and when he asked her why she said, “Because this feels even better than I thought it would!”[v]

And as good as that is, there is even another reason to give of ourselves – of our time, and our talent, and our treasure, in support of the things that matter most to us. Just like in the story of Yu Gong and his foolish plan to move the mountains: sometimes, we win. Sometimes we feed a hungry person, or save a life from emptiness and fear. Sometimes joy returns to broken hearts. Sometimes new and wondrous thoughts burst forth into the mind. Sometimes hate falls before compassion, sometimes hope triumphs over despair. That’s what we are about as a congregation: each of those things happens here, each and every week. They happen as much as we can make them happen, and we can make them happen according to however much energy, and vision, and passion, and yes, money, we have to put towards those great and lofty works.

Today is the day when each of us must make our choice for this year: how much can we, how much will we, give of our own resources, towards the common resources that serve our common dreams? Each person or household amongst us must answer that question for ourselves. But I urge you to give foolishly: to share all that your love for this community and your sympathy with its mission and purpose demand that you do. Be bold, friends. It is the only way to move those mountains.


[i] Adapted from a version found in the collection Harmony, by Chen Hui and Sarah Conover, Skinner House Books, 2010.

[iii] From the titular essay in his collection, Palm Sunday.

[iv] A longer version of this story may be found in Sarah Connover’s collection Kindness.

[v] Rev. O’Neil told this story in his sermon, The Shoemaker’s Widow, reprinted in the collection The Abundance of Our Faith, edited by Terry Sweetser and Susan Milnor, Skinner House Books, 2006.


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