Saturday, April 11, 2015

Complete Joy

1 John 1:1-2:2
Easter 2
April 12, 2015
William G. Carter

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us - we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

When I was a teenager, I think the strangest thing I ever did see was in our church. It happened in a funeral. I was old enough to attend with my parents. In fact, I had recently been ordained as a deacon, and it was one of our fellow deacons who had died. His name was Don Marshall and he was a very pleasant man. Everybody liked him. He was easy to talk with, always in a good mood, and it tore us up when he became sick and died.

I had not attended a lot of funerals at that point in my life. My folks had to instruct me in the proper protocols. “Wear your dark suit from J.C. Penney,” they said, “with one of your dark clip-on ties.” Keep your voice down and lower your eyes. Put a few tissues in your pocket in case you have to wipe your eyes or blow your nose. We will sing a hymn or two, but the music will be muted. And when you see Don’s widow, say, “I’m so very sorry” and not much else. I nodded in understanding; I figured that’s how you handled funerals.

So imagine our surprise when we got to church, took seat in the regular pew, and the organ cranked up with some music that sounded happy. The front of the church was decorated with a mountain of bright flowers, some of them heaped on top of the casket. Suddenly there was a burst of energy, the back door burst open, and the widow came down the aisle in a bright print dress and a big, floppy red hat.

I can’t say if it was the first time a widow showed up so adorned, but it might as well have been. A hundred austere Presbyterians gasped in unison. Clearly she had not received the same memo as the rest of us. Then we were surprised by upbeat hymns, which she sang exuberantly. And when the preacher told a story about Don, she was the first one to laugh.

At fifteen years old, it was a startling experience. I thought that funerals were supposed to be sad, and in my limited experience, I understood why they would be sad: somebody has died, somebody isn’t here anymore, the loss and the grief are real and they cannot be denied. But clearly something else was afoot.

Last Sunday we survived another Easter. We heard about the death of Jesus, and then the unusual announcement that he is alive and on the loose. The entire New Testament is written from the perspective.

There’s no question that Jesus died. He was not faking it. There were witnesses who saw him take his last breath. There was a burial in a donated tomb. There is no question that he died. Human sin conspired to nail him to the cross. He was innocent yet falsely accused. He did nothing wrong yet he was executed by people who didn’t want him around. The force of the world’s self-destructive tendencies put him on the cross and weighted him down into the grave.

And now he is alive again. Death was not the final word.  Some of those who loved him saw him again. Jesus showed up in rooms that had been locked out of fear. Frightened friends heard him speak of peace and forgiveness. They saw the nail prints in his hands and feet. They watched him eat a piece of broiled fish. They knew he could come and go with the freedom of God. Clearly something else was – and still is – afoot. These are the accounts of Easter.

Easter is remarkably open-ended. John concludes his Gospel (20:30-31) by saying Jesus did a lot of things which never gotten written down. Imagine that – the Bible is not complete! The Book isn’t finished! Because the Risen Christ did a lot of things – and still does a lot of things – which are off the page. No single author can tell the whole story or capture the main character, especially if He is bigger that whatever you imagined him to be.

That reminds me of the story I was recounting to some of you this week. Back in 1998, we were coming back from our first mission trip to Haiti, eight days in Port au Prince and the countryside. We had two wood carvings to bring home, statues really. One of them was a carving of Jesus with his arms around the disciples. His arms were shaped like the side of a fishing boat. The message was clear: the disciples are in the same boat with Jesus. My friend Nancy carried it through customs in Kennedy Airport. The agent looked at the statue, looked at the paperwork, and said, “Go on through.”

I had the second wood-carving, which now sits out there in our narthex. It is Jesus like a tree, with the disciples coming off of him like branches. I had the statue covered in a large white bath towel and a little duct tape. It was mostly covered, I think his eye was peeking through. The customs agent looked at me, looked at Nancy, looked at her statue, looked back at mine. Here is the Lord with one eye peeking through. And he said to me, in a Flatbush accent, “OK, how big is your Jesus?”

I can’t tell that story without still chuckling. The literal answer would be “about three feet tall and about twenty five pounds.” But the Risen Christ is a lot bigger than that. We honor him by speaking of him with some size. He is bigger than a statue. He is bigger than a young first century peasant. He is bigger than a single book. He is certainly a lot bigger than death.

I think that’s why the lady wore a red hat at her husband’s funeral. It wasn’t a fashion statement, it was a faith statement. Whatever loss she felt was not the whole story. There was something more, something greater – would it be too small to say there was Someone who was stronger than death? And she was entrusting her beloved husband into his arms.

One of our scripture texts today was a letter that circulated in the early church. There is no recipient, so we think it was written to everybody. There is no address, so we believe it is aimed everywhere. And the writer – or writers, since the most common word in the first chapter is the word “we” – the writers are testifying to what they know:  

in a world of death, there is an abundance of life
in a world of division, there is the possibility of fellowship
in a world of darkness, there is the presence of light
in a world of self-deception, there is the power of truth
in a world of despair, there is the reality of joy

And life, fellowship, light, truth, and joy are available because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Thanks to God on Easter, there is something more afoot.

Today we spend a little time with joy. Joy is our witness that Christ is risen, God is great, and Easter is true. If life is difficult, and quite often it is, there is still, at the heart of it, the possibility of joy. Sometimes there is even a great clash between life and death, side by side, and something funny blurts. That’s how a lot of Jewish humor works. The Jews have a profound trust in the greatness of God, yet they see the irony and inconsistency of everyday life. For instance…

Maybe you’ve heard about the elderly Jewish grandmother who took her young grandson to the beach. She sat on a beach chair beneath an umbrella. She did her knitting while her grandson played with a small pail and shovel near the shore. He was wearing a sun hat.

There were many people at the beach - some frolicking in the water, some sunbathing, and some just enjoying the day. Suddenly, without any warning, a tsunami crashed ashore. It destroyed everything in its path! As the waters retreated to the ocean, all left behind was chaos and destruction.

Only one survived - the godly elderly lady. She was still sitting on her beach chair beneath her umbrella. Her unfinished knitting was on her lap. She was miraculously unscathed. She looked about, and then at the place where her young grandson had been just moments ago. She looked up to the heavens. With tears streaming from her eyes, she called out to God: "Why, Lord? Why? Why did you take away my beautiful grandson, who had his whole life before him, and yet left me, a pitiful old woman at the end of her life? Oh Lord, I would rather that You take me instead of him!"

Moments later, apparently in response to her petition, a second tsunami washed ashore. For a few brief minutes, all was chaotic as the wave pummeled the shore. But as its waters retreated back to the ocean, the elderly lady found herself sitting as before. To her amazement, near her was her grandson. He was still playing with his small pail and shovel, as if nothing had happened. The elderly lady looked up to the heavens, shook her fist, and exclaimed, "Lord, he had a hat!"

Some would claim a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence. That is, you can see contradictory things holding together. You see the irony, but you see through it. I believe a sense of humor is the evidence of faith. Even through the tears, you know there is something else. At the grave of somebody you love, you turst there is something more. The theologian Karl Barth said it this way:

If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a [person] who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would not look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not a Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind - and truly it is burning – but we have to look, not at it, but at the other fact, that we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in him.[1]

Joy is the work of the Holy Spirit. Joy is what the Spirit of the Risen Christ does in us by releasing us from the power of death, the destruction of sin, the emptiness of despair. Joy is the inner assurance that God is greater than all the ambiguities and difficulties of this life. Joy is the sign that we are free – free from fretting and worrying, free from obsessing about the stuff we cannot control, free from taking ourselves too seriously. Free for welcoming the power of Christ to raise us above all sadness and small-mindedness.

So did you hear about the minister who parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city? He was short on time and couldn't find a space with a meter. So he put his business card with a note under the windshield wiper that read: "I have circled the block ten times. If I don't park here, I'll miss my appointment. FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES."  When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note: "I've circled this block for ten years. If I don't give you a ticket, I'll lose my job. LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION."

Did you hear about the man, who after agonizing for decades, decided to pray to God. Kneeling down beside his bed he said "Dear Lord, you must know how much I have always wanted to sing and dance, but I have no pitch or rhythm. Were I so blessed I would gladly trade my pleasing personality and my good looks". After a pause, a sympathetic voice said, "My son, if it ever saw the water, that ship has sailed.”

Or perhaps my favorite for today:

During an extremely long sermon, a man got up and began to walk out of the church. The pastor called out to him, "Where are you going?" The man replied, "To get a haircut." The preacher asked, "Why didn't you get your hair cut before church?" The man replied, "I didn't need one then."

Perhaps it is true what they say about sermons: “a good sermon has a good beginning, a good ending, and not much in between.”

May the joy of the Risen Christ be completed in all of you. Happy Second Sunday of Easter.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved for that material which is original.

[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper and Row, 1959) 123.

Note: All jokes shamelessly lifted from other sources. Thanks, especially, to the Prairie Home Companion website at

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