“Paradoxical Interventions: With Reference to Rev. Billy, Universalism, and Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 Silent Film ‘The Circus”

“Paradoxical Interventions:
With Reference to Rev. Billy, Universalism, and
Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 Silent Film ‘The Circus’”

by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, January 6, 2019
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

When Pablo Picasso was a schoolboy, he was terrible at math. Part of the problem was that the number 4 had a nose. At least, it looked like a nose to him. And that, in itself, became a terrible obstacle. Whenever his teacher had him write the number 4 on the blackboard, Picasso would look at the unmistakable, protuberant nose hanging like a cliff off its face. And he couldn’t stop his reckless chalk from filling in the rest of the face.

If Picasso’s imagination could have been reined in, his math grades certainly would have been better. But Picasso without his imagination would have been like a tree without leaves. Everyone who looked at the number 4 saw a 4. Picasso perceived the start of a face. Pablo Picasso, of course, ended up making a major contribution to art, and no one (with the exception of his math teacher) ever begrudged his difficulties with the number 4. But the evidence of his runaway imagination can be found in all his works.

                         —Robert K. Cooper, High Energy Living


Opening Words

A Blessing

Think of the year
as a house:
door flung wide
in welcome,
threshold swept
and waiting,
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
to you.

Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.

Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.

let the weary come;
let the aching come;
let the lost come;
let the sorrowing come.

let them find their rest,
and let them find their soothing,
and let them find their place,
and let them find their delight.

And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty;
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.

And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.

– Jan Richardson


The Sermon

Here’s the backstory to this sermon.  Some of you know that I am a member of a ministers study group called Fraters (F-R-A-T-E-R-S, like the Latin for “brothers” except mispronounced).  Meeting continuously at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury annually in January since 1903, this was originally a very stodgy band of old white Universalist brothers.  There are photos of Fraters sitting by the fire, smoking long clay pipes.  It took pretty much forever for the Fraters to admit women and a little bit longer for them to admit Unitarians.  And now we’re also tackling issues of race and class.

We worship together, present papers by candlelight in the Olde Kitchen; there’s a banquet and a Flowing Bowl where we sing (some of you will recall me singing that old favorite “The Five (Five) Constipated Men in the Bible” I learned that at Fraters.  (“There was Moses.  He took two tablets!”  “There was Cain.  He was not Abel!”)  And we even conclude our retreat with a most serious ritual communion.  And there are hi-jinks and merriment and traditions.  We sleep at the Inn and in the morning we are awakened – knocked up – by a Frater perhaps reciting something from the Rubiyat and singing “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” or something.  Some decades ago, someone played a prank and planted blooming crocuses in the snow, and so now there are always croci at our meetings.  There’s often a spelling bee, too, but that makes us nervous ever since some years ago a fight broke out and chairs were thrown.

Fraters has officers: The Keeper of the Purse (fines are assessed for misbehavior and I got a hefty fine the year I flew our remote controlled helium clownfish and buzzed the public dining room).  For a long time I was the Scribe, kept eccentric minutes and wrote the annual invitation letter (one was entirely in Latin).

And there is the presiding Prior.  “Prior” is an ecclesiastical term; we’re sort of mad monks, you see; and the Prior rotates each year and is a benevolent despot.  The Prior assigns the topics of the papers we present.

This is a long-winded way of saying that today’s sermon was not my idea; I’m not to blame.  This year’s Prior is Hank Peirce, our minister in Reading, and this is what he assigned me, and I quote, “I would like you to write about Rev. Billy’s idea of sanctuary, and sharing sanctuary as a church then expanding it to the whole world al-la a Universal sanctuary.”

Now this makes pretty much no sense to me whatsoever.  But the Fraters will meet the last week in January and so this morning I’m starting to wrap my head around this topic and, if necessary, I’ll return to it the next time I preach on the 27th.  These sermons will become the paper I present to the Fraters.

Once again, I am not to blame.  Hank Peirce. Revhank1@gmail.com.

I don’t want to talk much about Rev. Billy (What’s this with Rev. Billy?  Rev. Hank?  Should I be Rev. Johnny?)  Just so you know, if you don’t already, Rev. Billy was the white-suited big-haired New York City preacherman who was here with us last spring, on Earth Day, jumping up and down and shouting Earthalujah, with his 35 member gospel choir.

Rev. Billy was not everyone’s cup of tea but he was our sanctuary guest Maria’s favorite service here so far by far!  She likes some liveliness!

A few years ago, a group of us – David Lance, Janet Powers, Deb McKenna – accompanied by the New Yorker environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert, joined with Billy and the choir and we invaded a robotics lab at Harvard where, in preparation for the demise of the honeybee, they’re inventing a replacement robotic bee.  Billy’s choir was dressed as bees, following a most regal Queen Bee.  Through a megaphone in the hallowed Harvard engineering halls, Billy preached about the coming apocalypse, and we sang, “Ro-bo bee you can’t pollinate me,” and for the baffled robotics engineers we left sacred offerings of fruits dependent on pollination.

Then we went to Kendall Square and invaded the headquarters of Monsanto where we denounced the neonicotinoid fertilizers that are causing hive collapse and killing the honeybees.  And, yes, of course, we performed an exorcism.

The thing about Rev. Billy is that he does baffle people: you can’t quite tell if it’s all a spoof, or if it’s religion, or politics, or theatre…and that’s the point: they’re all of those things.  Billy and his choir are progressives – they weigh in on environmentalism (they joined us at the gas pipeline protests); they make a stinging critique of consumerism, the shopocalypse (check out his book, What Would Jesus Buy?), as well as the immorality of our immigration disaster (Billy was passing around Love Knows No Borders stickers long before we were).

The genius of Rev. Billy is that he has realized that progressives are oh-so boring when we go around chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho (fill in the blank) has got to go!”  That’s a yawner.  Raised fists sometimes have their place but touching hearts, firing our imaginations, and stirring in some ridiculousness…now that’s a potent recipe for social change.

Well, I told you more about Rev. Billy than I intended.  And I have yet to touch on the other things that Rev. Hank assigned: sanctuary and Universalism.  With this odd assignment I feel like a circus juggler who does just fine with a few balls or pins or spinning plates, but then someone tosses up a kitten.  Juggle that!  And then someone tosses up a whizzing chainsaw.  Juggle that!

Well, I’ll try.  But here I’m going to take a turn and tell you about – and quote – one of the best sermons I’ve heard in a long time.  Last fall I was asked to visit a preaching class at Harvard and help critique the students.  There were about a dozen students, UU, Buddhist, atheist, Christian, what have you.  I listened to four sermons the day I visited and one of them was by a UU woman named Sophia Lyons.  She was brilliant.  She has a background in theatre and performing arts and she’s married to a Blue Man (you know the Blue Man Group?).  Sophia’s sermon was about the transformative power of story and myth and archetype, and particularly the archetype of the trickster, the Fool, the Holy Fool.  She quoted Joseph Campbell:  “Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive.”  That is what we all want, right?  To be put back in touch with the experience of being alive.

And so Sophia talked about a favorite memory she shares with her father.  They watched Charlie Chaplin films together.  They loved them and their favorite is called “The Circus.”  It was made in 1928, and was written, directed, composed by and starred in by Charlie Chaplin, playing his favorite character, the Tramp.

After hearing Sophia’s sermon, I googled my way to a YouTube version of The Circus, and though it’s a silent film, in addition to everything else he did, Charlie Chaplin actually sang the opening song with the title credits:

Swing little girl, swing high to the sky,
And don’t ever look at the ground.
If you’re searching for rainbows
Look up to the sky—
You’ll never find rainbows
If you’re looking down.

At some length now, I’m going to quote Sophia.  This really doesn’t capture the brilliance of her sermon but she lays out the basic of the story in The Circus, a film she said she’s seen more than 200 times.  I recommend you see it at least once (It’s only a little more than an hour)

“The story is this,” Sophia says, “a circus is in town and the general culture of this traveling show is an oppressive one.  The ringmaster is an angry, greedy bully of a man.  He continuously beats his (own) daughter, who (high-swinging on the trapeze) stars in the show, and the workers, the other acts, even the clowns are a miserable, broken lot.  The show itself, no surprise here, is also dying.  Crowds are sparse and the few people that do show up seem to absorb the dismal, joylessness of this place, turning quickly into demanding, disgruntled hecklers.

…Really, the story is the story of the Tramp.  He lives on the streets, he is homeless.  He scrapes and pillages for food, he sleeps where and when he can, he moves through city and country scapes looking for work, looking for companionship, looking for love.  But he is path-less and un-rooted to society or any one person.  In fact every story depicting the Tramp begins and ends with him alone.  And, he is a Fool.  He is our hero, but he is also our Fool.

…The Tramp, not unsurprisingly, finds himself enmeshed in this circus…  Upon running away from the police, he stumbles into the middle of a live performance.  Suddenly the audience comes to life watching this unexpected clown fumbling through the ring.  The act ends in uproarious laughter and applause.

This is where the rest of the story unfolds: he is deceptively hired on by the ringmaster as a poorly paid prop handler who, every day, enters the ring to set up an act and every day inadvertently creates comic mayhem; selling out more and more seats.  He is the star of the show and does not know it.

Despite being a victim in this exploitative system he stands separate from it; he is unchanged, un-phased by it.  You see, the Tramp, this Fool, always holds tight to Love, and no mortal can break this.  You can probably guess that he becomes the great liberator of the girl, the ringmaster’s daughter. His very presence in this dark and dismal place brings light, joy and reconciliation to the oppressive ring.”

To which I say, “The Tramp is mightier than the Trump.”

Sophia says, “This is the possibility of the Fool archetype–offering a portal into the realms of childlike wonder and imagination.  A key that unlocks our own creative spirit, our own resilience, our own child-like hope.

By the end of this story the Circus is leaving town and the Tramp stands beside the departing caravan.  He sits down on an old barrel and stares at the ground, the indent of the circus ring surrounds him. His shoulders slump and we wonder, for the first time, if the circus has snuffed his light out. That maybe it ultimately broke him.

Suddenly, a large piece of paper gets kicked up in the wind and it blows into his lap.  He opens it and discovers on it a picture of a star; a remnant of one of the acts from the circus.  He crumples it up and looks into the distance.  Then he stands up, pulls his shoulders back, playfully kicks the crumpled up paper star with one of his out-turned feet, turns his back to us and walks off into the distance; each step becoming more and more bounding and buoyant.  Cane twirling.”

Sophia said she and her father always cried at the ending.  And making her sermon all the more poignant that day I was at the preaching class, there was another student who had, we knew, recently experienced the death of a family member; and midway into Sophia’s sermon that student began to sob and she sobbed and she sobbed.  Sophia continued and finished her sermon, and when she did we comforted the other student, but there was something in that story that, in Sophia’s words, “provided safe passage to what I now call the realm of the Spirit….  Because transcendence, soul rearrangement was available here.”

“It was literally born out of being able to identify with the Love, identify with the suffering, identify with the laughter, identify with the hopelessness.  Identify with the oppressor, yes we have this in us too–someone who lives with unchecked pain and anger and aims it at their fellows, AND, identify with their transformation, their redemption, their humanity. “

Sophia concludes, “This is the potential of story, if we are up for taking a closer look.  It can literally grip the potential inside all of us – you see we can access these archetypes within ourselves and our own stories as a way to heal ourselves.  We heal ourselves when we know ourselves.  And when we know ourselves we can know others.

This is where we start my friends.  Our outer work, our outward facing, justice-centered work depends, depends, on this kind of inner healing.  Depends on this kind of soul-searching and soul-rearrangement.  I call this living intensely in this world.  And when we access this, live intensely into this, we begin to open to our fellows. Because we begin to see how alike we humans are. Hear that.  We are more alike than we are different my beloveds.  We share this thing called humanity.”

When I preach this sermon to the Fraters, I want to suggest that what connects Rev. Billy, and sanctuary, and Universalism is that they are all a kind of paradoxical intervention, a small tincture of the unexpected that makes possible a rearrangement of the soul, a transformation of the whole.  Rev. Billy shouts, “Change-a-lujah!  Earth-a-lujah!  And then he buzzes, “Robo-bee….!”

Sanctuary takes some old words off a page: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…(We heard these words spoken from this pulpit last night by Rabbi Abramson…)

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love her as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Sanctuary breathes life into those old words, makes deeds out of creeds, and what you get is a living breathing woman who loves her family with a fierce love…and you get comrades who defend others’ lives with our own.

And Universalism proclaims the unlikely affirmation that all may be saved, saved from alienation and meaninglessness and boredom and that all souls – even yours – may grow into harmony with the divine.

Our rational side says, You gotta be kidding!  And yet there is amazing grace!  I think that may be my next sermon, “What’s amazing about grace?”

I guess this is what holds aloft the balls, the pins, the spinning plates, the kitten and the whizzing chainsaw, not to mention Charlie Chaplin’s twirling cane:  Together you and I, we share this weird, wonderful, senseless, soul-pummelling, soul-soaring thing called life.

And who woulda thunk: hope abides.  Hope abides.  Hope abides.  Who woulda thunk?


(At the conclusion, an audio recording of Charlie Chaplin singing was played.)


Swing little girl, swing high to the sky,
And don’t ever look at the ground.
If you’re searching for rainbows
Look up to the sky—
You’ll never find rainbows
If you’re looking down.



Closing Words


Nothing else matters much – not wealth or education or even health – without this gift.  Nothing!  This is the final deposit and distillation of every faith and every creed: that somehow somehow somehow somehow we keep zest in living.  Amen!