One day as a graduate student, I lunched with a professor, and we discussed the ills of the world — war and poverty and injustice and religious hypocrisy — and as we parted he made some joke. I looked at him strangely, and he slapped me on the back, and with a big smile said, “you gotta keep a sense of humor, Lee.”
Probably because I so needed to hear it, I have not forgotten that incident: and I have continued to grapple with the question or how one can or should maintain a sense of humor when one has undergone “consciousness raising,” when one no longer can carry about a poly-anna-ish, “life is good,” self-centered and indulgent life in America when so many are poor and oppressed. Much should be said in this regard: first, a retreat to the naive poly-anna is no solution; life is hard and human history is too often violent and brutish indeed. There is much serious work to do: works of mercy and justice and truth-telling. But second, perhaps more importantly, the virtue of humility might teach me that much of my seriousness, whether as a parent or professor or social critic, is grounded in a false pride that thinks my pronouncements and opinions will change the world, that the world would be just fine if everyone behaved as I thought they ought.
In other words, too great seriousness may be a vice grounded in the conceit that I think I ought to be God, is grounded in a so-called Messianic complex. But this is one of the fascinating things about the Jesus-story: Jesus, whom many call Messiah, had no Messianic complex. He did not fix the world, force everyone to do and to live as he thought best, but said we’d all be better off if we had the imagination of children, or practiced simple gratitude, or served up cups of cold water. He imposed no grand design, but called people in freedom to live quietly and humbly, which is to say, no to take ourselves too darn seriously.
So tonight we look for tokens of such humility and humor, unearthing a few of the dangers which may lurk in taking ourselves too seriously.