Monday, March 16, 2015

We Had To Celebrate

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 15:11-32:

On the day that Pope John Paul II died, he was greeted at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter, and is told that he has complete access to heaven and can go anywhere anytime that he likes, but first that God would like to meet him.  John Paul said he would love to do that, but wanted to know if heaven had a library.  Peter said, “Well of course,” and John Paul said “well there is something that I have been puzzling over for a long time and could never find a satisfactory answer in the Vatican’s archives, and so I wonder, before I go a meet God, could I go to the library first?” “Of course,” St. Peter replies, and so they head off to the library.  The Pope spends two years in solitary research, never coming out, never interacting with anyone else, and then one day, people hear a cry of anguish coming from one of the study tables.  When people rush over they find the Pope there, with a large book in front of him pointing to one line and crying out “there’s an r! There’s an r!  Look, there’s an r.  It says is celebrate not celibate!”

Today we continue in our series on the spiritual disciplines by looking at the discipline of celebration.  The two words, discipline and celebration, don’t really seem like they go together, after all that appears why some people aren’t having a lot of fun, or celebrating much, because they are being disciplined.  But celebration is a discipline because it is something we have to decision about; we have to choose to be joyful and to choose to celebrate.  In Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, he has celebration as the last item that he talks about because he says that all of the other disciplines put us in such relationship with God that they lead us directly to the practice of celebration, of making a joyful noise to the Lord as Psalm 98 and 100 both say.  And so as I was putting together this series, I originally had celebration as the last topic, which would then lead us into the celebration at the beginning of the service for Palm Sunday.  But today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, has some significance in the tradition and history of the church.

You may remember that during Advent, which are the weeks leading up to Christmas, that we have 3 purple candles and one pink candle, which is lit the third week of Advent.  If you were here in Advent, you might remember me saying that the pink candle actually is a carryover from a Lenten activity, and that is that the fourth Sunday of Lent was a break from the normal Lenten season, because the reading for today came from Isaiah 66, which says “Rejoice O Jerusalem,” or in some translations, “Be joyful O Jerusalem.”  And so on the fourth Sunday of Lent rather being the penitential pieces as normal, instead it was a day of celebration, even allowing for weddings to take place on this day, when they were not allowed during the rest of Lent.

But, while we talk about the 40 days of Lent, if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter you will find there are actually 46 days, and that is because Sunday falls “outside” of Lent, because we should be rejoicing every Sunday because every Sunday is known as a little Easter.  So the 6 Sundays of Lent don’t count as part of the 40 days.  Normally when I tell that piece of information someone will ask me if that means they get to stop doing their Lenten practices, to have a day off on Sundays.  My response to that is that these practices are not supposed to be disciplines the way we typically understand that term, and so if you are thinking of them that way perhaps you need to stop them altogether in order to reframe them and practice them differently, to in fact practice them with a little celebration in mind, because I think that is one of the messages that gets overlooked in the parable we heard this morning of the prodigal son.

A teenage boy approaches his father and asks to borrow the car.  “No,” his father says, “not until you cut your hair.”  “But,” the son replies indignantly, “Jesus had long hair.”  “Your right,” the father says, “Jesus did have long hair, and he also walked everywhere.”

When the younger, prodigal son finally returns home, the older brother is indignant and maybe rightfully so.  His younger brother first tells his father that he is dead to him, which is what he does when he demands his inheritance, then proceeds to fritter away everything he has through what would probably best be described as sins of the flesh.  Then once he has nothing left, he debases himself as a Jew by working with pigs, then he decides to come back home.  The older brother certainly must think that the younger brother might be turned away by the father, or at the very least would at least get a severe tongue lashing for what he has done.  Instead what the older brothers finds when he comes out of the fields is that his father is throwing a party for his wastrel of a son.  Doesn’t the older brother have the right to be upset?  Haven’t we been in a position where we have felt like the older brother?  But, what seems to be most galling to him is not just the younger brother’s prior behavior, but that he is receiving even more than the older brother as a result of his negative behavior.  What sort of standard is this setting up?  He has not squandered his inheritance, he has not been profligate in living, he has been the good son.  As someone in a Bible study one-time put it: Shouldn’t the father have at least bought him a box of cheese-its occasionally as a reward?  But, as it turns out, while the younger brother’s lifestyle was inappropriate, the older brother has been approaching his life and relationship with the father inappropriately as well.

Somehow the older brother, in his allegiance and love for his father, has turned his duties and responsibilities into a task and a chore to be undertaken.  He even tells the father that he has been obeying all of his commands and because of that has been “working like a slave.”  I’m sure this must come as somewhat of a surprise to the father.  Certainly the older brother has been working hard, after all he is out in the fields when the younger brother comes home, and he most certainly has been the most obedient son, but there is no indication that the father has ever told him that he must act like a slave or to be so obedient that he loses all sense of joy and pleasure in what he is doing or in his life.  This is something that the older son has taken on, not something required of him.  He wrongly believes that in order to be the good son he must work tirelessly and view everything as a task which must be undertaken, a chore which must be done, a responsibility that cannot be shirked.  And because of this, he has lost any sense of joy and pleasure which he may have had in his life.

After a long, dry sermon, the minister announced that he wished to meet with the church board following the close of the service. The first man to arrive and greet the minister was a total stranger. "You must have misunderstood my announcement,” the minister said. “This is a meeting for the board members.”  “I know," the man replied, "but if there is anyone here who was more bored than I was, then I'd like to meet them."

On one of John Calvin’s good days, and certainly he must have had at least one good day, he said that the sole purpose of our existence is to glorify God.  How do we glorify God by looking at everything as drudgery, a task that must be undertaken, or as a slave to our responsibilities?  How many people here have attended a worship service, or most certainly a church committee meeting, where we have walked out and felt flat because there was no sense of excitement or joy about anything?  Gospel literally means the good news.  Where is our sense of Joy?  When the angels appear before the shepherds they say “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.”  In his list of spiritual gifts, Paul says that one of these is joy.  And Jesus says that he has come to bring us life, but not just any life, but life abundantly, not a life of drudgery and joylessness, but life abundant.  One of the occupational hazards of the devout is to take ourselves too seriously, to think that our issues are all life and death, and therefore not enjoying and appreciating life.  But celebration, joyfulness, keeps us from becoming too serious, and of all people shouldn’t we be the ones who live most joyfully, the ones who are most free, alive and interesting?

Certainly, the father has already proven his generosity and willingness to see he sons be happy by answering his younger son’s unusual request for his inheritance.  He has already shown that he wants his sons to be happy in their lives and is demonstrating it, but the older son does not get the message.  He is upset because he sees the fatted calf being given to the younger son when he has not received anything for his hard work.  But the father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  All that is mine is yours.  The fatted calf was available to the older son the entire time, but he became so preoccupied, so serious in his efforts, that he missed it.

A man breaks into a house and in the living room he finds a parrot sitting on a perch who keeps saying “Brock, Jesus is watching.”  Everywhere he goes, the burglar hears, “Brock, Jesus is watching.”  Finally he walks over to the parrot and says “what’s your name?”  “Brock, my name is Moses.”  “What kind of people would name their parrot Moses?”  “Brock, the type of people who would name their rottweiler Jesus.”

I once attended a lecture entitled “Why doesn’t God have a sense of humor?”  There were many different reasons given as possibilities, one being that by having the power of omniscience God would already know all the punch lines and therefore nothing would be funny. But, he said, it is not that God does not have a sense of humor, simply look at the world around us, in particular the platypus, and you’ll see that God must have a sense of humor.  Instead it is as Voltaire one remarked “God is comedian who is playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.”  I think that hits the nail right on the head.  For some reason we have come to believe that in order to be obedient Christians, that in order to inherent eternal life, we need to remove all sense of joy and pleasure from our lives.  That we need to be dull, that we need to be worry warts, we need to be a bump on the log that sucks all the excitement out of the air.  We feel the need to be the person no one wants to invite to their party, for if you were to give a party who would you rather invite the older or younger brother?  We have wrongly come to believe that if we express our joy in life, if we express our love of God, in any exciting way that we have gone astray and are no longer doing the right thing.

The older brother could have been appreciating everything he had in life and giving praise, glory and honor to the father, but instead he was focused on being the good one, the honest one, the one who didn’t mess up, and he turned into the sourpuss, someone without any sense of joy in his life, and therefore he even misses the bounty that surrounds him.  He could have had a banquet but he never thought to ask.  He could have taken the fatted calf, but he never even considered it.  He could have been happy in the father’s house, and he should have been happy, but he pushed all the joy and happiness aside and instead felt like a slave.  In withdrawing and refusing to join in the banquet to welcome his brother back, he withdrew not only in celebrating in the joy of another, but he has withdrawn and rejected his own joy as well.

God does not want us to view our life or our service to God as drudgery.  God wants us to be joyful.  God wants us to be like Ickey Woods and celebrate everything.  God wants us to enjoy our lives, because, in doing so, we follow Calvin’s instruction and glorify God.  God is generous in loving, understanding, compassion.  God does not want us to view life as drudgery, something to escape, and one reason we can know this is because we have a sense a humor.  We have the ability to laugh, that in and of itself should prove that God wants us to be joyful.  Laughing is one the few things that we don’t have to be taught how to do.  We have to learn how to walk, or to talk or how to tie our shoes, but everyone knows how to laugh by nature, we don’t have to be taught, and laughing is good for us.

The simple act of laughing releases endorphins into our brains.  There is a very simple reason why we say laughter is the best medicine, because it is.  Of course, I can also say that  morphine is also pretty good.  But that’s the point, because the release of endorphins that we receive from laughing is the same as that which comes through the use of narcotics.  In other words, laughing produces in the human mind the same pleasurable response that we get if we take drugs, even if the laugh is faked.    Children seem to understand this better than adults and they have a joy and zest about life that most adults simply do not have.  Children laugh, on average, between 300-400 times a day.  Adults laugh, on average, 16 times a day.  As we grow and “mature” we inadvertently leave our humor behind.

Laughing is also contagious.  It is one of the things that gets multiplies by being shared, which is why we have laugh tracks on television shows that aren’t even funny.  The very simple act of laughing should prove that God wants us to enjoy our life.  God wants us to be joyous, because all that God has is ours already.  The fatted calf is ours for the taking.  We do not give glory and honor to God by frowning and acting as if we are slaves.  We spread the gospel, the good news, by being joyful about our lives, by being joyful about our relationship with God, and by being joyful with each other.  We should not be like the older brother who has become so wrapped up in being right, in being the good son, that he has missed the simple pleasures in life.  He has rejected the joy not only of his father and brother but also for himself, and he takes himself a little bit too seriously.  Instead we must recognize the bounty that is in our lives, take the fatted calf and celebrate, for God is good and generous.  Live well, love much and laugh often, and as the psalmist says, make a joyous noise unto the Lord!  Thanks be to God sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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