UU Humor: How Far Are We Willing to Go?

By Larry Sherber

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2007 December 02

How important is it to have a good sense of humor? I know that without one, I'd be in big trouble! My significant other, Carole, a trained sociologist, tells me that most humor, particularly jokes, are, more often than not, used at someone else's expense. They can be negative and hurtful, usually directed at a minority group. That theory is in almost direct opposition to one of my favorite personal sayings: "Even bad humor is better than no humor at all." After thinking it over I have come to the conclusion that we are both right. While I attempt to be more socially sensitive with my use of humor and as inoffensive as possible, Carole, I think, forgives me when sometimes I go too far. That said, I know that not only myself, but we, as a congregation, can laugh at others, as I discovered when I humorously and sacrilegiously revisited the Ten Commandments in one of my earlier sermons.

One of the things that attracted me to Unitarian Universalism was also our ability to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously. Self descriptive names like "God's frozen people" and admitting that we are often more comfortable with 4 letter words than we are with 3 letter words like "God" are part of the self deprecating humor that draws me to the UU tradition. The question is how far are you willing to go? We will find out today, for this sermon is a true test of our ability to poke fun at ourselves. I am going to say things that some of you will consider ignorant, insulting, disingenuous, irreverent, blasphemous, or even downright ridiculous. When it's over, if I am shunned by this congregation, if my car is firebombed, if the Unitarian symbol is burned in my front yard, or if the UU home office in Boston writes me a letter demanding that I return to practicing Judaism, you will have failed the test. Today we will find out if our claims of being liberal and truly open-minded are sincere, or are we, in reality, closeted left wing religious fundamentalists.

I have studied, read, and reread our 7 Principles many times. I have used all of them in sermons or in serious conversations when discussing our religion with non- Unitarians. Recently I took a deeply honest and introspective look at the "Holy 7," confirming, once again, that I have too much time on my hands. The realization that I am not in complete agreement with them has made me doubt my standing as a good Unitarian. However, out of this unclean thinking arose a new set of tenets specific to me, and me alone. I call them Larry Sheber's New, Personal, and Unabridged 7 Principles.

I will start with a reading of each UU principle, explain my viewpoint, and reread the new one. "We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: #1 – The inherent worth and dignity of every person." I was only 18 years old, a freshman at Ohio State, when I had my first really traumatic social experience. Because I was not recognized as one of the "popular" kids in high school, I was aware that I was no Don Juan with the ladies. I was even considered by some, dare I use the "n" word, a nurd. Feeling less than confident, but driven by raging hormones and a desire to "fit in," I decided to ask a Jewish sorority girl out on a date. I specifically chose one I had met that I felt sure did not know of my previous non-reputation with the opposite sex. To protect her identity we will call her Sarah Goldberg. Much to my surprise, she said "yes" and plans were made for the big night. Unfortunately, on the morning of that fateful day I received a phone call from Sarah explaining that her grandmother had taken ill, that she would have to return home, and maybe we could get together sometime in the future. I took the bad news in stride, naively believing she was being truthful. A few days later I was informed by a friend that, in reality, Sarah had been on a date with a socially preferable Jewish fraternity guy that night. To make a long story short, my self-esteem was crushed and I have yet to completely recover. I never again had contact with Sarah. But even if she has become a pillar of the community, a mother of 12 - raising them all to become Rabbis and social workers, or has become the Jewish "Mother Theresa," I just can't seem to let go of this. I have used prayer, meditation, psychotherapy, and reconciliation exercises, but, no matter how hard I try, I find that I am not a big enough person to forgive or forget the incident. I blame most of my character flaws, partially, if not completely; not on genetics, not on my dysfunctional family, or even on my lack of intellect – but, you guessed it, on the event that occurred with that Jewish sorority girl so many years ago. Therefore, my new first principle reads: The inherent worth and dignity of every person, with the exception of Sarah Goldberg.

"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: #2 – Justice, equality and compassion in human relations." I am not unfamiliar with the meaning of the word "justice." As a sociology graduate student in the early 90's I spent a considerable amount of time studying and learning about justice from my theory professor, an elderly German Jew who had spent time in 4 different concentration camps in Germany as a teenager during WWII. I have come to the conclusion that true justice would be sending George Bush and Dick Chaney to Iraq naked and having them stay there until they have convinced everyone not to follow them home when the war ends (although I don't know why anyone in their right mind would follow a naked Dick Cheney anywhere.) I realize that these thoughts do not show much compassion, so, you see my problem here. I guess my principle #2 will have to read: Justice equality, and sometimes compassion in human relations.

"We, the member congregations of the UU Association, covenant to affirm and promote: #3 – Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations." I sense that after today, after hearing this sermon, that some of you, deep in your hearts, will not want to accept me as a true blue UU, and that my very presence will produce thoughts in your minds that will be a roadblock to your further spiritual growth. Therefore, my third principle will read: Acceptance of one another, with the possible exception of Larry Sheber, and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, especially when he is not present.

"We, the member congregations of the UU Association, covenant to affirm and promote: #4 - A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." As a person with a Jewish background the word "free" appeals to me and immediately caught my attention. Hey, as long as I'm going directly to hell after this sermon, why not take a few shots at my previous religion, as well as my present one. I like the idea of a "free" search. It makes me feel like I'm getting a good deal if I actually do come up with some truth and meaning in my life. So, my new principle #4: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning, as long as there are no extra charges or add on costs.

"We, the member congregations of the UU Association, covenant to affirm and promote: #5 – The right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and in society at large." In recent years I have adopted a new philosophy which is called the "integral vision." The word integral, in this case, means to unite, to bring together, to accept and respect all living and sentient beings. Knowing that UU's are political animals, the phrase "democratic process" in this principle appears to me to be a subtle, hidden, subliminal message to always vote for the Democratic candidate of your choice. To be fair and all-inclusive I have edited principle #5 to read: The right of conscience and the use of the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Communist, and Socialist processes within our congregations and in the society at large.

"We, the member congregations of the UU Association, covenant to affirm and promote: #6 - The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. I have already dealt with the justice issue, so let's look at the words "peace" and "liberty." Once again I have noted a contradiction here. "Liberty," as defined by Webster's Dictionary, is: the power to do as one pleases. We all know that when given the opportunity to do as one pleases, the human response is usually to do something immoral, illegal, or at least to do it to excess. Seldom does anything peaceful come out of it. Another definition for liberty is: the power of choice. How many of you have seen a peaceful situation occur when the "pro choice" forces square off against the "pro lifers?" – where's your world community then? Yes, I have some obvious problems with this principle. But, a clever editor such as myself can remedy the situation with just the use of one well-placed 2-letter word. Principle #6 shall now read: The goal of world community with peace or liberty, and justice for all. That way, when I'm feeling particularly naughty, I can forgo the "peace" thing and feel free to take certain "liberties" guilt-free. On the other hand, when I'm feeling worldcentric and serene, I can curtail my "liberties" and envision a world at peace. No wonder I got a "C" when I took a logic course in college.

And finally principle #7: "We, the member etc., etc., etc., affirm and promote: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." I have yet another concern here. We all have personal prejudices and phobias that defy rational thought. Mine is a small one, but unfortunately the interdependent web of all existence includes cockroaches. How can I be a part of any interdependent web that includes cockroaches? I don't respect them and I feel sure the feeling is mutual. I don't depend on them either, for anything except revulsion. When I was studying sociology, I took a class in family violence. My professor gave us an example of how parents sometimes show irrational anger when their children are "just being kids" and get into trouble. He compared that anger to the irrational feelings some of us get when a cockroach unexpectedly appears. I don't know about you, but I don't just kill the little devil, I obliterate it, I demolish it, I annihilate it into nonexistence – and why? It was only doing what nature meant for it to do – it was only being a cockroach. My professor taught us that if parents could understand this dynamic, that when their kids misbehave, it's nothing personal. They're just being kids, just like a cockroach is just being a cockroach. There's no need for irrational anger or violence. I find that philosophy comforts me and helps to put my mind in the proper perspective when I'm dealing with my grandkids, right wing conservatives, and even fundamentalists. After all, they're just being cockroaches. But if the object of my anger is an actual real-life cockroach – no way! Sorry, I just can't get past this one. So, my 7th principle must be: respect for the interdepenent web of all existence of which we are a part, excluding any and all cockroaches. I hate those little monsters.

So, how do you feel? Some of you looking at me now see a cockroach and others may feel anger that is more rational. Some of you may think less of my parents for producing a genetic freak capable of thinking such strange thoughts and others are probably sorry you didn't walk out in the middle of this sermon as a protest for civility and decency. However, there may be a few of you out there with a Sarah Goldberg or a cockroach in your closet (no pun intended) who may be inspired to go home and make a few "principle" revisions of your own. As for me, I'm not going to blame this sermon on genetics or leading a dysfunctional life. I'm not even going to use my own 6th principle that allows me guilt-free improper or mischievous behavior. No, if someone asks me why I did it I'll give that age old excuse seldom used within the hallowed walls of a Unitarian church: The devil made me do it!