May 5, 2024

I’d like everyone to open up your bulletin and take a look at my sermon title.  That’s right: “flabber dabber.”  In fact, “flabber dabber, flabber dabber, flabber dabber.”  Think my elevator finally stopped going to the top floor?  Well, that’s exactly what they thought about the man who wrote those “flabber dabber” words.  His name was Christopher Smart, and all the way back in the eighteenth century he wrote an incredible poem about the “great Flabber Dabber flat clapping fish with hands!”  The line is from a voluminous work titled Jubilate Deo, which means “Rejoice in the Lord.”

I was first introduced to Christopher Smart and his “flabber dabber” language by Thomas Troeger, who referred to this extraordinary man and his mind-bending poetry in a sermon one day.  I have been fascinated by it ever since.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who has been intrigued by this bizarre poet who ended his life behind bars over two hundred and fifty years ago.  The modern composer, Benjamin Britten chose Smart’s words as the basis for an equally amazing cantata by the same name.  The cantata doesn’t actually contain the line about the “Great Flabber Dabber.”  It’s the 11th of 237 lines which comprise the fourth fragment of Smart’s poem . . . an epic work that took almost seven years to write.

What are we to make of a guy who writes something like, “The Great Flabber Dabber flat clapping fish with hands?”  It sounds like jabberwocky.  But Smart’s manuscript contains a note that says “vide Anson’s Voyage and Psalm 98th ix.”  Now, Anson’s Voyage is a natural history book of Smart’s time.  It contains pictures of flatfish and seals flapping their fins.  Psalm 98 reads in part: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it!  Let the floods clap their hands . . .”  “Flabber dabber, flabber dabber” – it’s the sound of seals and flatfish and oceans slapping out praise to the Almighty, who, as Christopher Smart saw it, was not only the recipient of such praise, but was also the conductor of the great universal symphony which itself is a song of praise.  The Lord not only hears the sound of the seas slapping their waves against the shore in time with the joyful leaping of fish, but is “the Great Flabber Dabber flat clapping fish with hands.”

Well, they locked up ol’ Christopher Smart for seven years.  He was committed to a series of mental institutions because he was a little too extraordinary for his time.  The official charge was “praying in public,” but it certainly didn’t help his cause any that over the course of those years in the asylum, he wrote such lines as these:

“Let Ishmael dedicate a tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which the Lord has let him at large” . . . or “consider my cat, Jeoffry.  For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him. . .” or “For the mouse is a creature of great personal valour.”

But if Christopher (or “Kit,” as he was called) was a madman, he was also brilliant.  His seemingly rambling words are, in fact filled with obscure references to biblical passages and natural events.  His poetry is written in doublets, and draws on the pattern of ancient Hebrew poetry, creating balanced sections that mirror each other.  One could write volumes about the cryptic allusions and deeper meanings of his verse.  But one theme recurs consistently and persistently.  It’s summed up perhaps most beautifully in the line Britten chose for the final chorus of his cantata:

“Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.”

That was his theme.  Shut up in Bedlam, scratching verses of poetry on the walls of his room with a key, cut off from normal social contact, not able to publish, alienated from most of his former friends, his poetry, from first to last, was his “Hallelujah from the heart of God!”

There was another man, many centuries earlier, who was also considered loopy for saying things like that.  His name was Jesus of Nazareth, and in the verses you heard this morning from the Gospel of John, he says that his whole purpose was “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” He said this kind of thing all the time.  In John chapter 10, it’s almost the same thing.  He says that he came, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly!”  People thought he was crazy.  Scripture says that many of the Jews thought he was, in the words of John, “out of his mind.”

All of which is entirely understandable.  “Hallelujah from the heart of God,” and things like “complete joy” and “life abundant,” are messages that sound absolutely crazy in the midst of the kinds of days and years and lives we lead.  We who stand on the outside of the asylum walls, know the world to be a far sadder place than Kit Smart realized.  We who have the vantage point of history from which to hear Jesus’ words about abundance in living, know the truth about life: that it can be sparse and lean.

Life gets pretty lean when, instead of Fred Flintstone lunch boxes, children bring guns to school.  Life gets pretty lean when everyone seems eager to line up and join demonstrations against either Israel or Gaza accusing one side of atrocities when both have an enormous amount of blood on their hands.  And every one here knows what I’m talking about when I say there are times when no one is in the mood to utter a “Hallelujah.”  I know what struggles many folks all around are dealing with.  I know about the fears for their children, and the daily stomachache from the crisis that won’t go away, or the one that seems to keep looming on the horizon.  I know about the times of such deep loneliness that you think you simply won’t be able to bear it any more.  I know about the wait for lab results, and the prognosis no one wants to hear.  I know about the daily agony over the fate of our country and our world.  I know about families and the families of families, about the marriage struggles, and the drug problems, and the brushes with the law, and losses – the losses that just seem to keep coming.  And there’s no one here who’s immune.  So you and I can have a bit of empathy for those who have considered it certifiably crazy to talk about “hallelujahs” and “abundant life.”

But, you see, it’s never been any different, not in the first century, and not in the eighteenth century.  Jesus was considered a madman, and Kit Smart was locked up.  Apparently, you do have to be a little off your rocker to live with joy that’s “complete.”  Apparently, your train has to be missing stops at a few stations to see the divine power at work in the heart of life and sing about it.  Apparently, your marble count has to be a little short to offer fullness and hope and abundance in living to another human being.

People in this congregation have given their lives to caring for others as a nurse, or have volunteered at Project Hope, tutoring and nurturing children in need, or preparing community suppers, or organizing food drives.  You have to be a little off your nut to care more about others than about yourself.  You have to have a few screws loose to greet every day with a wide smile when those days are filled with problems and pain.  You have to be little wacko to believe in children who are failing, and give your life and your time to them.  I think that’s exactly right!  Because Lord help us if we ever gain our right minds according to the standards of a world that so sanely teaches children to kill, politicians to lie, and millions to tune out with drugs, alcohol, or television.

I am so thankful for this community of people who’ve gone off the deep end!  I am thankful that here we come together once a week, dragging our hurts and fears and trauma and terror behind us, to sing “hallelujahs” and speak to one another of complete joy and abundant life!  It doesn’t come easily, but when it comes, it’s one heck of a testimony.  At times, just the act of declaring our belief in that joy, or repeating that hallelujah, can turn our heads and hearts around and help us to find the wonder and beauty of small things like Kit Smart found in his cat, a mouse, a flower.  Or it can help us to see more deeply into existence, as Jesus compelled us to do, and to discover there the trust in divine power that can change lives and change the world.

Joy is often suspect.  And perhaps rightly so, because the smiles are too frequently plastic, and the “hallelujahs,” transparently desperate.  But there is a better way.  When we come with our sorrows and hurts intact, bringing our tears and our rage, and stand together in the presence of love, every so once in a while we’re fortunate enough to lose our minds – and gain our hearts.

I believe there is a “flabber dabber” person in all of us, just waiting to find expression.  But we can become so constricted by our lack of vision that we withdraw from hope.  And then we become a little less alive with each day of quiet despair that we live.  There is complete joy and abundant life to be found!  It begins, even in the midst of pain, with an appreciation of the simple wonders and beauties of life; it grows to fullness in the presence of a loving community; and it finds fruition in a depth of understanding, trust, and praise that, quite frankly, is a little wacky in the context of a hopeless world.

So, my prayer for all of us is that we will be considered looney, that they’ll want to lock us all up for failing to grasp the true hopelessness of our situation.  May we forever be so out of touch with reality, and may we thereby hear the “Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.”


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