This place matters

This place matters

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and UUs

This is my sermon from Sunday, with a bunch of the congregation-specific stuff edited out.

Keep Believing, Keep Pretending
So, whenever somebody asks me what my favorite movie is, I think “Don't say the Muppet Movie. Say something intelligent. Say Citizen Kane.” But invariably the truth wins out and I proudly admit that my favorite movie of all time is The Muppet Movie. And it's not just because I'm an overgrown child. The Muppets, and the lessons I've learned from them, mean so much to me. And I'm not the only one. While doing the research for this sermon, I actually found half a dozen other UU churches have had Muppet sermons in recent months. It seems there's something decidedly UU about these little guys. 
One of the UU sermon writers was kind enough to post her sermon on her blog, she was able to put to words something I hadn't been able to. She said “In an age that loves CGI, they are instances of a very old-fashioned magic, puppets brought to life by the hands and voices of mysterious, unseen performers. Partly we love them because human beings feel a deep attraction to that magic... Most importantly, perhaps, we love the Muppets because they are also, improbably and irresistibly, embodiments of joy.” And she's right. Think about Kermit the Frog, cheering on his friends and guest stars with his signature “Yay.” (Imagine me standing on the podium and flapping my arms while screaming). Their performances, their songs and dances and their jokes... no matter how crazy they get or how wrong they go, the undercurrent of joy in their performances was palpable.
At Jim Henson's funeral, his friend and fellow Muppeteer Frank Oz said that the best thing in the world was when you watched Jim laugh until he cried. It would happen when they were performing something, for the thousandth time, late at night. It would start with a high pitched whine, and he couldn't speak, and the tears would be rolling down his face. Frank Oz said that it was the best thing to see, because you knew how hard he worked, how demanding the job was, how much pressure he was under. But there was still always that bubbling of joy under the surface and it came through on the screen, and it passed through to the audience.
While I was researching this, I found one quote comparing Jim Henson to his main character, Kermit the Frog. They were both “shy gentle bosses with a whim of steel who ran things as firmly as it is possible to run an explosion in a mattress factory.”
So back to the Muppet movie and why it's my favorite movie. It's partly because the craftsmanship and artistry that went into this film are an incredible labor of love. For example, in the opening scene, the camera pans through a vast swamp, eventually closing in on Kermit the Frog, sitting on a log, playing the banjo and singing The Rainbow Connection. What's crazy about that is that to get that shot, Jim Henson was actually in a custom made pod under the water, breathing through a reed, and making Kermit move. In the film, puppets ride bicycles, drive cars, and tap dance, all in the days before computer animation. That kind of dedication to craft is really impressive, but it's not just the craftsmanship, or the songs, or the humor that make this movie my favorite movie. It's the story, a story that has helped guide my principals my whole life.
So here's the story. Kermit the Frog is sitting in his swamp, playing the banjo, doing his thing, when a Hollywood talent agent stops by in a rowboat. He tells Kermit that he should really give show business a try, but Kermit says he's happy where he is. The agent tells Kermit that he could be rich and famous, and that he could make millions of people happy. Kermit reflects on this. He likes the idea of being rich and famous, but he really likes the idea of making millions of people happy.
So he sets out. Shortly after he begins his journey, he meets Doc Hopper, owner of a chain of french fried frog legs restaurants. He wants Kermit to be the spokes-frog for the operation, and he offers to make it worth Kermit's while. But Kermit declines, saying that all he could see were thousands of his friends hopping around on tiny crutches. But, we soon learn, Hopper won't take no for an answer.
With Doc Hopper on his heels, Kermit sets out again for California, and along the way, he meets Fozzie, the world's worst stand-up comedian; Gonzo, a weirdo; Miss Piggy, his love interest; and the rest of the Muppet gang. He encourages them all to come along, all to go off to Hollywood to become rich and famous and make millions of people happy. 
But Doc Hopper is always one step behind. Once he's sure Kermit won't do his commercials, he decides to kill the hero instead. Finally, in a ghost town out west, Kermit and the Muppets take their stand against Doc Hopper and his gang of frog assassins. Hopper gives Kermit one last chance – he can do the commercials alive, or stuffed. Kermit replies:
Hopper, what's the matter with you? You gotta be crazy chasin' me halfway across the country. Why are you doin' this to me?
Hopper: 'Cause all my life I wanted to own a thousand frog-leg restaurants, and you're the key, greenie.
Kermit: Yeah, well, I've got a dream too. But it's about singing and dancing and making people happy. That's the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I've found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And, well, it kind of makes us like a family.”
In many ways, the story of the Muppets is the story of Jim Henson, and in many ways, the story of Jim Henson is similar to the story of Unitarian Universalism.
Jim Henson was born in the 1930s and was attracted to puppetry all his life. He admired the work of radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and loved to watch puppet shows on TV as a kid. When he traveled to Europe, he met puppeteers who treated puppetry as a serious art form, and he really admired that. But Jim Henson saw all that, and decided to go his own way. While most puppets then were made of wood, he thought they would be more expressive if they were made of foam rubber and fabric. It would be more easy to manipulate their faces that way. He also wanted to get rid of the artificial structure that puppeteers often hid behind while they were performing, instead just having the puppeteers hold the puppets above their heads and having the cameras cut the puppeteers out of the shots. As he became more experienced, he started going to greater and greater lengths to make his puppets interact with their environment as much as possible. Jason Segel, co-writer and star of the latest Muppet movie said that what people don't realize is that if a Muppet is sitting on a couch, there is a Muppeteer scrunched up inside a hollowed out couch making that Muppet move. If a Muppet is driving a car, there is a Muppeteer hiding behind the driver's seat. Segel says that people don't realize that these people are as much puppeteers as they are dancers and contortionists. 
Henson's vision, well, it's a little like Unitarian Universalism. As UUs, we really respect the faiths that form our foundations. We recognize how very much we have to learn from other practitioners of faith. But we needed to go our own way. And it's not the easy way. Anyone who has ever tried to explain to another person what it is that UUs believe knows that. We blaze our own trail. Our services don't rely on a formula or tradition. Our hymns, our readings, and our sermons seek out wisdom in many places. In an effort to understand and respect the voices and beliefs of others, we sometimes have to contort our minds in weird ways. For instance, when I started coming here, I did not get this Wicca thing. I mean, wands and calling the corners and maypoles... I just didn't get it, and it kind of made me uncomfortable. I remember sitting in one of our congregation's Samhain services and thinking “This is just too weird. I don't think I should be here.” And then, listening to her words, following her meditation, I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life that helped bring closure to the loss of a friend and solidify my understanding of my mission. I did something that was really uncomfortable for me – like scrunching up in a hollowed out couch, and the results were magic. 
The Muppet who embodies Unitarian Universalism most to me is Gonzo. Gonzo's the weird looking blue guy with a long hooked nose and a chicken for a girlfriend. Nobody knows what he is, but he identifies himself as a Weirdo. In the Muppet Movie, when he first meets Kermit and Fozzie, he tells them that he's going to Bombay, India to be a movie star. Fozzie tells him “You don't go to India to be a movie star. You go where we're going. Hollywood.” Gonzo replies “sure, if you want to do it the easy way.” Gonzo doesn't do anything the easy way, and he takes pride in it. He knows everybody thinks he's a freak and he couldn't care less. He's got his friends, he's got his girlfriend (Camilla the Chicken) and he's got his career as a daredevil and a performance artist. Gonzo is always off on some crazy scheme – catching cannonballs, catapulting himself into the audience, or notably, tap-dancing in a vat of oatmeal. Once, when asked if he thought one of his crazy schemes would work, he said, “No. Isn't it great?”
UUs never do anything the easy way either, and we put up no pretenses about the fact that we march to the beat of our own drummer. In his book From Beginning to End, UU minister Robert Fulghum writes about a service in which he tried to do a “tangerine communion.” He wanted to try something different, a communion that would make people think about the wonder of nature and the earth and sharing... and it was a disaster. The tangerines wouldn't pull apart evenly, everybody was sticky, little kids were putting their germy hands on everybody's food... it did not work out. But, Fulgham said, even though he wouldn't be trying the tangerine communion again any time soon, it was worth doing. He was trying to bring a new meaning and intentionality to communion, and he did. Just not exactly the way that he hoped to.
My favorite Gonzo moment comes in The Muppet movie, when he decides to buy some balloons for his girlfriend. Camilla's so excited about the balloons that he buys her the whole bunch, and promptly gets carried off by them. Watching him fly away, Kermit screams “Gonzo, what are you doing?” Gonzo replies “About seven knots!” While his friends scramble after him, chasing him the car, terrified he's going to die, Gonzo enjoys the ride, living life in the moment. That's something that Muppets creator Jim Henson really believed in doing. He told people, there is no past, there is no future, there is only this moment. Among his last words were these: “Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and especially your heart... and every day we will open up like a cocoon and turn into beautiful butterflies. And live this moment and the next and the next.”

Jim Henson died in 1990, at the age of 53. He died from bacterial pneumonia, after refusing to go to the hospital because he didn't want to be a bother to anywone. Forget the whole joy and love thing for a second. If you take one thing away from this message, take away this: go to the hospital when you're sick. 
After Henson's death, thousands of fans wrote sympathy cards to Kermit the Frog. Some simply said they were sorry. One said that it was a good thing there were other people who could do Henson's job, because that way, Henson could watch the Muppets perform from heaven. One fan said, “Perhaps the substance of Jim Henson's genius was the ability to see wonder far off in crazy directions and get people to follow him there.”
At his funeral, there were many performance, many eulogies, and much music. At the end, the surviving Muppets and their Muppeteers remembered him with a song.

If just one person believes in you,
Deep enough, and strong enough, believes in you...
Hard enough, and long enough,
It stands to reason, that someone else will think
"If he can do it, I can do it."

Making it: two whole people, who believe in you
Deep enough, and strong enough, 
Believe in you.
Hard enough and long enough
There's bound to be some other person who
Believes in making it a threesome,
Making it three.....
People you can say: believe in me.....

And if three whole people,
Why not -- four?
And if four whole people,
Why not--more, and
more, and

And when all those people,
Believe in you,
Deep enough, and strong enough,
Believe in you...
Hard enough, and long enough

It stands to reason that you yourself will
Start to see what everybody sees in

And maybe even you,
Can believe in you... too! 

You all know I never give a sermon without giving homework, and I'm not making an exception. This is the easiest and probably the hardest homework I've given. Believe in you. Go home, go out into the world, believing in you. You've got a job to do. I don't know what your job is, and most days I don't know what my job is either. But I know we can do it. And I know it has to start with believing. 


JCG said...

Love it! I'm sure the congregation did, too! Gonzo is also MY favorite Muppet. Shameless plug - I even have an essay about him in KERMIT CULTURE, a book I co-edited that was published by McFarland in 2009. You would actually probably like it!

Khrysso Heart LeFey said...

...and... Mah Na Mah Na.

Khrysso Heart LeFey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.