4th Sunday of Easter 2018
Pastor Marty Raths
I am a Minnesotan. Born and raised. We even spent four years in northern Minnesota, where winters are several weeks longer than they are here. So I have endured my fair share of winters. But I must admit that I grew a little weary of this past one, and I know that I was not alone in this. It is as if, with the snow storm two weekends ago, we all came to the same collective conclusion about this past winter. Enough already!
I was out walking last weekend when I came upon a man who was walking his dog. “Hi,” I said. “Hi,” he answered. “Great weather,” I said. And he looked at me for a moment and then said, “About time!” Now that about sums it up for this past winter for most of us.
But how about this past week! How about an “amen” to that! And inveterate preacher that I am, I just could not help but find a sermon illustration here. I mean the truth is that we cannot have an experience of spring without an accompanying experience of winter, and the longer and colder and snowier the winter, the more intense our experience of spring. Right. So in a very real sense the glory of this past week has been six months in the making./
And the promise of Easter is a lot like the coming of spring in Minnesota. It does not happen all at once. Instead it unfolds over time. Two pastors were talking once, the one new to the ministry, the other nearing the end of his ministry. And as they were talking, the older pastor handed the younger one a rose bud. “Unfold it,” he told him. “Make it bloom.”
So very carefully the younger pastor tried to peal open the delicate petals, and in trying he all but destroyed the flower. “Remember that in your ministry,” he told him. “You cannot force what God is willing. But you can work with it as it unfolds.”
And that is the way it is with the promise of Easter and with our experiences of new life. We cannot force these experiences, but we can work with them and with what God is doing in us. And this was true for the first followers of Jesus as well. Donna talked some about this a few weeks ago when she talked about the language of the wounds, and how the good news of Easter is always experienced in the midst of all the other stuff of life, including the difficult stuff.
In our gospel story Jesus came to the disciples again following his resurrection, and he reassured them and showed them his hands and his feet, just as he had done with Thomas. But then Luke uses this very curious phrase to describe the spiritual state of the disciples, “While in their joy,” he writes, “they were disbelieving and still wondering . . . “ So they were rejoicing and disbelieving and wondering all at the same time! But then is not that life most of the time. As the church historian Martin Marty once wrote, “Nothing in the faith is ever chemically pure.”
We rarely experience pure doubt or pure hope or pure love or pure anything in life or faith. But it does say something about the resilience of the human spirit that even in their disbelieving and wondering the disciples were still able to experience joy, and I want to say a little more about this resilience of ours and our capacity to experience joy even in the midst of life’s difficulties.
Like all deep emotions the experience of joy is a rich one with many aspects to it. It includes the ability to laugh, which is really quite something if you think about it. I mean one of things that distinguishes us from all the other creatures is our ability to laugh, and this really is a blessing. Laughter can lift our spirits. It can even heal us. Quite wisely the writer Ann Lamott, says, “Humor is a form of holiness.”
Now I am not one to want to change much in the scriptures, but I do wish that these two words were included somewhere in the gospels. Just these two. Jesus laughed. Surely Jesus laughed. The gospels show us a Jesus who loved the common life, who enjoyed the company of others, who delighted in the natural world around him. The scriptures also testify that Jesus was fully human, like us in every way except sin. So surely Jesus laughed.
Now humor is a funny thing. It comes in so many different forms. Some humor is intentional while other humor is quite accidental, like the church bloopers that grace church bulletins and newsletters and church signs. Here are a few.
Thursday night potluck dinner. Prayer and medication to follow.
The peacekeeping meeting scheduled for today was canceled due to a conflict.
Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.
For those of you who have children and don’t know it, there is a nursery downstairs.
(This one is for the choir) Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and the deterioration of some older ones.
(This is the weekend when we would have had our annual garage sale. So this may be a good reason to bring the sale back next year). Ladies, don’t forget the garage sale. It’s a good chance to get rid of some things that are not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.
Then there are all the Yogisms, sayings by baseball great, Yogi Berra, which were also accidental, and humorous, but also in a curious sort of way quite thought provoking:
You can observe a lot just by watching.
It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.
If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.
The future ain’t what it used to be.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
There are some sermons there. I am sure of it. Speaking of sermons, that reminds me of one of my real inspirations in life, Calvin, not the theologian, John, but the little boy and his stuffed tiger and imaginary, or maybe not imaginary, friend, Hobbes. Actually, there is a lot of good psychology and theology in that comic strip, wrapped in humor.
“Calvin,” his mother says to him. “Will you gather the trash, please?”
“Why should I?” Calvin responds. “What do I get in return?”
And in a very matter of fact way his mother says, “We will feed, clothe, shelter, and educate you throughout your entire youth.”
Calvin stands there speechless for a moment, and then he walks away carrying the trash and muttering to himself, “I really hate having things put in perspective.”
Calvin and Hobbes are lying beneath a tree on a quiet summer day, when Hobbes turns to Calvin and asks, “Do you think there’s a God?”
And Calvin thinks for a moment and then he says, “Well, SOMEbody’s out to get me.”
Calvin and Hobbes are standing in the snow, and Calvin says, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings.” “I’m sorry I did it,” he goes on to say.
“Maybe you should apologize to her,” Hobbes suggests.
“I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution,” Calvin replies.
So there are those who have wisely seen that there is a religious aspect to humor, not all humor, and certainly not the humor designed to hurt and humiliate. But there is humor that heals, and healing was central to Jesus’ ministry. And there is humor that is holy. No less a theologian than Reinhold Niebuhr has observed, “Humor is, in fact, the prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”
And joy is meant to be at the heart of the gospel, and the good news that Christ is risen. John Wesley, the inspirational leader of the Methodist Movement, once wrote, “A sour religion is the devil’s religion.” Joy is a part of our faith, at least it is meant to be.
But it is an Easter joy, and that has its own unique quality. Some of this comes through in our scripture story. This is one of the appearance stories in the gospels, when Jesus comes to his followers after his resurrection. And as I said, in this story there are a lot of different emotions being felt by the disciples. Luke tells us that they are startled, frightened, and confused.
So again Luke reminds us that Easter joy is not something we experience in the absence of life’s more difficult feelings like doubt and fear and uncertainty. It is something that we experience in the midst of them, and even in spite of them at times. The disciples were feeling all sorts of conflicting emotions, even disbelief, Luke tells us, but in the midst of all that they were still able to experience joy.
If the circumstances of life and our reactions to them are the surface waves of the sea, then Easter joy is the deeper current beneath. And in our gospel story this deeper current of joy experienced by the disciples was connected to a couple of things. It was connected to a sense of belonging. In spite of all that had happened to them, and all that they were feeling, they still had each other. This may have been in doubt for a time after Jesus’ crucifixion, when then found themselves dispersed, but then slowly but surely by the grace of God they began to be reconstituted as a group following Jesus’ resurrection.
In one of his most famous poems, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” And this is a common experience in life. It happens in families and church families, and in other groups of which we are a part. I worry that it is happening in our national life. A wise commentator recently wrote that there seems to be little center left in our national debate. There seems to be only sides.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples had fallen apart as a group. But for them the center, in the person of Jesus, held, and in appearance after appearance Jesus came to his followers, to Mary in her sorrow, to Thomas in his doubt, to Peter in his guilt, and he brought them back together again. Going forward, they would be a community again. As followers of Jesus, they were bound together, they were brothers and sisters in Christ as Paul would later say, and they found joy in this shared sense of belonging
They also found it in a shared sense of purpose. The scriptures witness to this again and again. People are in some need, and God comes and gives them not an explanation, not an excuse, but a task. Noah, build an ark. Moses, free my people. Peter, feed my sheep. Paul, go to the Gentiles with the good news of the gospel. And when Jesus came to the disciples in our story, he reminded them of all that had happened, how he came to fulfill the scriptures, and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom. And then Jesus said to them, “You are witnesses of these things.”
He gave them a task, to be witnesses, and this became the overarching purpose of their life together. Witness to me, Jesus said, and to the kingdom, and to the reality of God’s grace. Few things have as much power to draw us out of ourselves, and out of whatever we are feeling, than a task that does some good for someone in our world.
There are many versions of this story, found in many faith traditions, which speaks to the deep truth of its message. The master was approached once by a grieving woman who had just lost her child, and she pleaded with him for a miracle. “Please bring back my child,” she begged. The master listened to the woman, and then he said to her, “I will be able to do what you ask if you bring me some mustard seeds from a home that has never known sorrow.”
Now in that place and time most every home had some mustard seeds, so the woman hurried off in the hopes of finding some seeds, and she went and knocked on the door of the very first home that she came to on the way. When a man answered, she asked him if this was a home that had never known sorrow. And the man answered with a weary voice, “No, I am sorry, but my wife has been sick for many years now. So there is sorrow here.” And at the next home she was told how hard it was for the family to make ends meet, how they often went hungry. And so it went as she went from home to home to home, for in every home she found hardship, or loss, or grief. No home, not one, had avoided the sorrows of life.
But something quite remarkable, even miraculous, began to happen to the woman along the way. With each home that she visited her own broken heart opened a little more to the sorrows of others. She began to stay a little longer at each home, to listen to the people a little more deeply, to console them a little more compassionately. Now along the way she did not leave behind her own sorrow, but it overwhelmed her less and less, and more and more she became for others an instrument of healing and peace. And the master smiled.
Jesus too knew the importance of a task to those who are struggling. So in their own fear and uncertainty and sorrow, Jesus gave his followers, just as he gives us, a task. Be my witnesses, he says. And when we are his witnesses, in word and deed, and in ways big and small, surely he smiles too. And we find the joy that is Easter joy.