There is a Peanuts cartoon strip by the late Charles Schultz when Snoopy is feeling particularly great. “In the first frame he says, ‘Sometimes life is so good I feel like dancing.’ In the second frame he says, ‘Sometimes I want to take into my arms the first person that I meet and dance merrily through the streets.’ In the third frame he meets grumpy old Lucy. In the fourth frame Snoopy says, ‘Sometimes I want to take the second person I meet into my arms and dance merrily through the streets.’” [told by Rev. Vernon Hunter]
Have you ever been feeling so good, enjoying life so much that you felt like dancing and taking the first person you met into your arms and dancing merrily down the street, only to find the first person you meet tells you they’re a Christian? For somebody who’s supposed to have the “joy, joy, joy, joy down in their heart,” there are some pretty sad sack self-avowed “Christians” out there, who, it seems, are afraid that somebody, somewhere is having a good time. Happy Easter. Bah humbug.
That’s why we’ve been looking at all those rainbow colors on the banner in Webster Hall this Lent and exploring what it means to “Be the Church.” Protect the environment. Resist racism. Fight for the powerless. Care for the poor. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Celebrate diversity. And today, Love God and Enjoy this life. Easter is not just about the life to come, though it transforms our thinking about that. It is first about this life and how to experience resurrected life here and now. Be the church. Love God. Enjoy this life.
If you happened to see a recent PBS special on “The Last Days of Jesus,” you’ll know that the latest Biblical and archaeological scholarship suggests that Jesus’ movement was much more political than some have thought; that Jesus was known and even seen as an ally by a number of political figures of his time, but as so often happens with politics, fortunes change and people fall from power. Jesus came to be seen no longer as an ally, and though he had time to remove himself from the midst of the conflict, as we know, Jesus chose to remain in Jerusalem and to trust his fortunes to God. Jesus was “calling for a revolutionary new government that would embrace all people as God’s beloved.” [cited by Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple, 9/2/17] Jesus was not just a “spiritual” teacher. The kingdom he taught about and gave his life for was a political vision as well as a way of life, here and now.
Sadly, the church, the Body of Christ, too soon became as corrupt as the political institutions around it, and over the centuries has engaged in anything but Jesus’ vision that embraced all people as God’s beloved–the litany is long and horrible–witchhunts, Inquisitions, endorsing slavery, the oppression of women and minorities, lust, greed, corruption, the whole human tragedy. But the church has also engaged in endless reformation, built hospitals, fed the hungry, opened schools, marched for justice, searching for new ways to proclaim the gospel of liberation. Be the church. We are trying.
Be the church. Love God. Enjoy this life. From as unlikely a source as the Puritan Jonathan Edwards comes this tip–”the way you can distinguish between a true Christian experience and a counterfeit one is to look for the joy.” [cited by Rev. Vernon R. Hunter, sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, NC, 12/12/1999] Hmm…just think about Puritan joy for a minute….! Of course, there’s a difference between joy and the pursuit of happiness, fun, excitement, and pleasure. One preacher described our society as a “joyless economy in which there is an accelerating standard of living and yet is leaving us empty.” [Hunter, op cit.] In the unvarnished version of Cinderella, the oldest stepsister tries to push her foot into that glass slipper and it won’t fit. Her ambitious mother hands her a knife and says, ‘Cut off your toes. When you’re queen, you’ll no longer need to go on foot.” How many abusive and soul-killing sacrifices have we made in the pursuit of happiness, instead of true joy? Looking for love and happiness in all the wrong places.
We don’t have to cut off our toes–though Jesus recommended it one time, when he said, with classic hyperbole, if your hand or foot is causing you to sin, cut it off. Still, “There is always a price to pay for Easter,” Nancy Rockwell warns. “Alleluias are not cheap decorations you can get at the dollar store. Alleluias emerge from the courage of the broken heart to remain faithful to its hope.” [Ibid.]
Our heart may hope for happiness, and rightly so, but also for joy. The great psychologist Rollo May wrote about the difference between joy and happiness in his classic book Freedom and Destiny.
Happiness is related to security, [he wrote] to being reassured, to doing things as one is used to and as our parents did them. Joy is a revelation of what was unknown before. Happiness often ends up…on the edge of boredom. Happiness is success. But joy is stimulating; it is the discovery of new continents emerging within oneself. Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers…. The good life, obviously, includes both joy and happiness at different times. What I am emphasizing is the joy that follows rightly confronted despair. Joy is the experience of possibility, the consciousness of one’s freedom as one confronts one’s destiny. In this sense despair, when it is directly faced, can lead to joy. After despair, the one thing left is possibility.”
We do not get to the joy of Easter without first confronting the despair of Good Friday, and there is plenty of evidence that we are currently living in a Good Friday world–deadly chemicals dropped from the skies on children and innocents, the Mother of All Bombs dropped in Afghanistan during Holy Week, mothers and fathers afraid for their black sons and daughters every time they walk out of the house, judges shot dead in front of their houses or found dead in the Hudson River because they are Muslim or black or just because…, the earth polluted and warming, truth still on trial.
So isn’t joy in the presence of such despair shameful, or blasphemous? Not if the joy is anchored in the Reality that is deeper, truer, more powerful than what we assume is reality, which more often than not turns out to be a dead end, a tomb, if you will. Not if we directly face the despair of Good Friday–when God faced our despair with us. Then we can get to the joy of Easter.
The empty tomb of Easter morning is witness to possibility, the possibility of new life, the possibility of the raising up of voices that say, “No more”; the possibility of hearts and minds changed by the pictures and lives of children; the possibility of hands joined and arms linked in solidarity; the possibility of joy. We can enjoy this life because we love God, because we can lean into the mystery that transforms an instrument of torture into a gateway for community, because we are all beloved of God and capable of being filled with God’s renewing, transforming Spirit; because “even in the midst of tough times there can be an anchor and a stability that cannot be taken away.” [Hunter] Be the church. Love God. Enjoy this life.
As you may know, the Bible has been translated into countless languages, and there have been countless scholars who have conscientiously, faithfully tried to find the right words or expressions that will convey the meaning of the scriptures. Vernon Hunter tells the story of some of the people who were translating the English version into the Eskimo language a few years ago [and since then, we have learned that the term “Eskimo” is regarded by some as demeaning, so pardon Hunter’s language, now some 18 years old]. The translators “found that there was no equivalent word for joy in this native language.
They came to that New Testament passage that said when the disciples saw Jesus, they were filled with joy. [Hunter writs] But there was no word for joy in [this] Eskimo language. They went to an Eskimo community and observed some corresponding experience or emotion. They came up with this discovery. At the end of the day in a small Eskimo village the sled dogs are fed, the dogs bark and yelp and furiously wag their tails. The children shriek and shout and the neighbors gather around. When the translators put it into the Eskimo language, they said that when the disciples saw Jesus, they wagged their tails!
…or they wanted to take the first person they met into their arms and dance merrily down the street, like that other dog wanted to do.
Enjoy this life. Love God. Dance and wag your tail. So may we Be the church. Happy Easter!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark