Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut Does Easter Week

The triumphal entry.

A man who is believed to be the Messiah, the savior, comes riding into town the week before Passover. Although many have their doubts, and are even at that moment plotting against him, thousands cheer and sing his praises. He is given a hero’s welcome.

He will be crucified.

No, this is not a sermon about John Calipari, the new UK basketball coach. Nor is it about Barack Obama’s entry into London, or any of the other hundreds of heroes and heroines we humans have created from our own need. But it is about a story that fits the familiar motif with which we are familiar: we humans tend to kill our heroes. Or, as ministers like to remind one another during that brief season known as the “Honeymoon” when they can do no wrong: “Don’t get comfortable on the pedestal. You are either on the pedestal or under it.” Jesus was on the pedestal on Palm Sunday, and under it by Friday, according to legend.

Kurt Vonnegut gave one sermon, and it was on Palm Sunday. He was then a Unitarian, as were some of his German-American ancestors before him, and it was a Unitarian sermon. He spoke not about the on or under the pedestal motif I have just described, although an Episcopal minister suggested he do so. She told him to say that it was a "brilliant satire on pomp and circumstance and high honors in this world." That may have been the stimulus for him to look at humor in the Palm Sunday story.

Vonnegut tells the audience that he is a "Christ-worshipping agnostic." He begins his brief homily thus:

I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by-and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don't know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. It may be that music is that second good idea being born.
He also said that music is only proof he needed for the existence of God.
(from Palm Sunday)

But Vonnegut goes on to talk about another part of the story, the part where Mary is washing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with oil. Judas, who is present at this sort of farewell dinner, and who we, the reader, know will go on to betray Jesus, chides her for doing so. Basically, he says, in what Vonnegut calls trying to be more Catholic than the Pope, “you shouldn’t be using that expensive oil on his feet. You should have saved it to sell and use the money for the poor.”
To this Jesus replied (KJV): Let her alone…'For the poor always ye have with you; but you do not always have Me.'

Vonnegut goes on to point out that was a joke!

He says that in his German-American upbringing in Indianapolis, this very sentence was often paraphrased to prove that even Jesus got weary of the poor and their neediness. People would say, “The poor will always be with us.” Meaning don’t get too worked up about trying to help them. Now, in my childhood, no one ever quoted the Bible on purpose, but I got the same message: somehow the poor have chosen their lot, so we don’t have to feel too guilty about not being poor, or too obligated to do anything for them. It’s as if Jesus said, “Why? They’ll just spend it on crack anyway.”

Jesus was being ironic! How could that be? Isn’t Jesus, and everything to do with Jesus, deadly serious? OF COURSE NOT! His words come to us through many layers of interpretation and translation, but they are often ironic and even humorous. I like to imagine him laughing often, and relaxing, and enjoying the company of others as he strives to show them with words, the only real weapons he had, what is true. Even at the impending hour of his death, he could inject a note of humor.

Humor is the essence of wholeness; it is such a wonderful part of what makes us human. Humorless people aren’t more spiritual; they are spirit-less and as dead as Lazarus. They are bore asses like Judas who want to make everybody comply. Jesus was not that kind of person. He was also liberal. He was what the humorless liberal-haters like to call a circumstantial ethicist. He didn’t see everything in terms of rules and black and white. He said, this time it’s okay to use the oil; don’t worry, I won’t be eating too much more.. I’ll be DEAD in a few days.

Or, in Vonnegut’s own words: I would tell them, too, what I don't have to tell this particular congregation, that jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning-up to do afterward-and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.

That makes it ironic in a sad, not funny way, that humorless humans have used that phrase to be less merciful.

Kurt Vonnegut was no Messiah, but he was often prophetic, and he used humor to get his points across. He could, like Jesus in his interpretation of the Palm Sunday-eve story, laugh at himself and make us laugh at ourselves. He could cut right through the hypocrisy and humorless uptightness of our world. Not always, of course; it must have overwhelmed him at times. In 1984,he attempted suicide. But he lived to write and laugh a whole lot more. He died in 2007, at age 84. He swore he’d not write another book, but he did, A Man Without a Country.
In this book, he gives, with humor, a pretty good explication of his beliefs as a Humanist, something many of us, his fellow Unitarians, claim to be:

Do you know what a Humanist is? My parents and grandparents were Humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife… And if I should ever die, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in Heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke. How do Humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all Humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?” But if Christ hadn’t delivered his Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake. (80-81)

And, like Jesus, Vonnegut lived his life as he preached it. He raised seven children, four of them adopted. He didn’t use drugs, commit adultery, or "sellout," although he did smoke PallMalls (“the classiest way to commit suicide.”) Most of all, he spoke and wrote the truth as fearlessly as he was able. That alone makes him remarkable.

Upon his death, his son read the last words he’d written for an audience: "I thank you for your attention, and I'm outta here.”

So, I chose him today to help make 3 points:

All Humanists do not hate Jesus. So… LISTEN MORE CAREFULLY.

Jesus and the religion of Jesus (not about Jesus) can be full of humor, laughter and yes, even joy. So…. LAUGH MORE OFTEN.

Pedestals, palm fronds, and public office all have their dangers. So… BE MORE MERCIFUL.

Listen, laugh & love. Your Easter will come.

I’ll close with the words Vonnegut himself used to close his Palm Sunday sermon.

This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.

I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.