Tricky Religion

When I was very new in England, a new acquaintance described another as “rather worthy.” 

The sound of her voice was not – as I would have thought – positive and full of praise. I was puzzled. This turns out to be one of those subtle differences in how English is used on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the US, worthy means good, worthwhile, of value… it’s purely a compliment. 

Here, as I soon learned, worthy can have a very different flavour. Worthy describes someone or something that has good qualities but is boring. 

Like religion… 


Oh yes, religion can be so worthy! 

Like the way some ministers – including your own – can go on and on about what is important and what is not, of what we can learn here and there, of odd holidays from far flung traditions, of the great and the good of centuries past… 

Blah, blah, blah

Today, as if it was not enough of a trick on us to steal an hour of sleep, we look forward to the trickiest day of the year: the 1st of April – April Fools Day. 

So, today, with that in mind, let’s move away from religion’s worthy side and look at aspects that are a bit more… well, more tricky. 

I told you a story earlier about the popular character of Nasreddin Hodja. He is remembered the sometimes tricky and sometimes foolish character and appears in the folklore of many Muslim countries. 

Nasreddin is a classic trickster – a character who seems to avoid that worthy path of religion. Tricksters play tricks, of course. They may be fools or clowns… their trickery may get them what they want or maybe even what is good for others… it may be foolishness revealed as wisdom or shrewdness, or it may just be foolishness revealed to be just foolishness - that sometimes gets them in deep trouble. They may be crazy like a fox… or just plain crazy. 

One night Nasreddin Hodja looked into his well and saw there the reflection of the full moon.

"Oh no!" he cried. "The moon has fallen from the sky and into my well!"

He ran into his house and returned with a hook attached to a rope. He then threw the hook into the water and commenced to pull it up again, but it became stuck on the side of the well. Frantically the Hodja tugged and pulled with all his might. The hook suddenly came loose, and the Hodja fell over backwards, landing flat on his back. Scarcely able to move, he looked up into the sky and saw the full moon above him.

"I may have injured myself in doing so," he said, "but at least I got the moon back into the sky where it belongs."

Every culture in the world has at least one trickster among the bundle of tales and legends they carry with them. 

In the stories of the native peoples of the American Southwest, Coyote is the principal trickster. In the American Northwest and British Columbia, Raven is the most storied trickster. In England, it was Robin Goodfellow – maybe better known as Puck. In Africa and the West Indies, it’s Anansi the spider. In more recent times, think of Bugs Bunny, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character, Doctor Who, or the inimitable Bart Simpson. 

Tricksters play a part in the origin stories of many cultures. 

Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden.

Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her. In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he pleased Gray Eagle's daughter. She invited him to her father's longhouse.

When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle's lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole. As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky… When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

Raven's feathers never became white again after they were blackened by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.

The trickster Prometheus of Greek mythology stole fire from the Gods to bring to humans. In the stories of other cultures, Coyote or Raven made that crucial gift. 

Tricksters can use their unusual approach to solve seemingly intractable problems. Biblical King Solomon played the role of trickster when two women came to him claiming to be the mother of the same child. Solomon suggested cutting the child in half -- a trick that revealed the identity of the true mother. 

The trickster has been a source of hope for the downtrodden and the hopeless. The trickster shows that cleverness and persistence can defeat sheer power. 

The stories of Br’er Rabbit are like this. These stories have deep roots in African and Native American culture. The rabbit in one story is trapped by his enemy the fox. As the fox is deciding how to kill Br’er Rabbit, he goes through one after another option and Br’er Rabbit begs “whatever you do, please don’t throw me in that horrible brier patch.” The fox is fooled and – thinking he is dispatching Br’er rabbit throws him into the Brier patch – the rabbit’s terrain and home. The rabbit happily scampers off tormenting the fox for his stupidity. 

Slaves in North America told and retold these stories knowing immediately that they were Br’er rabbit and that master was the fox. They could have a secret laugh and store away just a bit more hope that freedom would someday come. 

And a Nasreddin story about preserving dignity in the face of defeat. 

Nasreddin Hodja purchased a piece of meat at the market, and on his way home he met a friend.

Seeing the Hodja's purchase, the friend told him an excellent recipe for stew.

"I'll forget it for sure," said the Hodja. "Write it on a piece of paper for me."

The friend obliged him, and the Hodja continued on his way, the piece of meat in one hand and the recipe in the other. He had not walked far when suddenly a large hawk swooped down from the sky, snatched the meat, and flew away with it.

"It will do you no good!" shouted the Hodja after the disappearing hawk. "I still have the recipe!"

Tricksters play an important role in the storehouse of images and stories that fuel our imaginations. We can laugh at our own misfortune. We can gather hope even in oppression.

But the very best side of the trickster character is in his relationship to injustice. 

The trickster does not confront tyrants head on… nor does the trickster go for the worthy proclamations and resolutions that many religious folks are prone to make. 

The trickster’s foolishness makes him seem unthreatening, but once close enough, he shows a bright light upon injustice and tweaks the noses of the mighty. 

The trickster holds up hypocrisy to be seen for what it is. In the story of the cauldron, Nesreddin ridicules a neighbor prepared to take advantage of his apparent foolishness. 

Another time, Nesreddin Hodja was invited to a banquet. Not wanting to be pretentious, he wore his everyday clothes, only to discover that everyone ignored him, including the host. So he went back home and put on his fanciest coat, and then returned to the banquet. Now he was greeted cordially by everyone and invited to sit down and eat and drink.

When the soup was served to him he dunked the sleeve of his coat into the bowl and said, "Eat, my coat, eat!"

The startled host asked the Hodja to explain his strange behavior.

"When I arrived here wearing my other clothes," explained the Hodja, "no one offered me anything to eat or drink. But when I returned wearing this fine coat, I was immediately offered the best of everything, so I can only assume that it was the coat and not myself who was invited to your banquet."

And the trickster takes the side of the poor: 

A beggar was given a piece of bread, but nothing to put on it. Hoping to get something to go with his bread, he went to a nearby inn and asked for a handout. The innkeeper turned him away with nothing, but the beggar sneaked into the kitchen where he saw a large pot of soup cooking over the fire. He held his piece of bread over the steaming pot, hoping to thus capture a bit of flavor from the good-smelling vapor.

Suddenly the innkeeper seized him by the arm and accused him of stealing soup.

"I took no soup," said the beggar. "I was only smelling the vapor."

"Then you must pay for the smell," answered the innkeeper.

The poor beggar had no money, so the angry innkeeper dragged him before the court.

Nasreddin Hodja was at that time serving as judge, and he heard the innkeeper's complaint and the beggar's explanation.

"So you demand payment for the smell of your soup?" summarized the Hodja after the hearing.

"Yes!" insisted the innkeeper.

"Then I myself will pay you," said the Hodja, "and I will pay for the smell of your soup with the sound of money."

Thus saying, the Hodja drew two coins from his pocket, rang them together loudly, put them back into his pocket, and sent the beggar and the innkeeper each on his own way.

The tricksters throughout all cultures have shown a way to be in confronting power without being crushed. 

The Hebrew prophets used the trickster spirit and foolery to capture the attention of the people and the powerful. 

Isaiah walked naked and barefooted about three years. Ezekiel lay before a stone that symbolized besieged Jerusalem, and he baked his bread on dung. 

They didn’t take up arms. They didn’t make worthy speeches. They acted outside of the norms and turned to trickery, foolery, comedy, and other behavior beyond the normal, predictable paths to make their points. 

Maybe tricksters take life so seriously that they know seriousness is not the answer. Knowing that the direct, head-on approach will not work, they turn to other means. 

Imagine a congregation that responds to the injustice in the British Civil Partnership act by saying “if we can’t marry gay people we won’t marry straight people.” What a foolish thing to do… or not so foolish after all. Oh, I suppose you can imagine that, since that congregation is you. 

How many petitions, worthy sermons, resolutions, and letters to our MPs was that action worth? Many… 

What trickery and foolery should we be contemplating today? How might we take a foolish approach to a problem that is just too serious for seriousness? 

Let us never take ourselves so seriously that we cannot laugh at our own misfortune. 

Let us never have so high an opinion of ourselves that we can only speak lofty words, write thoughtful letters, and pass well-constructed resolutions. 

Let us never shrink from risking being the fool for justice or the trickster for hope.