Bright Sunday 2004 -- one in a series of 14 sermons in celebration of the Feast of Fools
Thomas B. Woodward
You know there are some stories of Christian heroism that should have made the Bible, but it was too late -- and there ought to be some way of passing these on. I think, in particular of a former parishioner of St. Paul’s who died and was appearing before St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven. Peter was talking with him. “Look,” he said, “before you meet with the Father, I thought I should tell you -- we've looked at your life and your really didn't do anything particularly good or bad. And, to tell you the truth, we’re not at all sure what to do with you. Can you tell us anything you did that can help us make a decision?"
Our former parishioner thought for a moment and then said, "Yeah, there is something. Once when I was driving through Gilroy I came upon this group of bikers who were harassing this young woman. So I pulled over, opened the trunk of my car, got out my tire iron, and went up to the guy who looked like the leader of the bikers. He was a big, muscular, hairy guy with tattoos all over his body and a ring pierced through his nose.
“Well,” he said, “I tore the nose ring out of his nose and told him that I was a Christian and that he and his gang had better stop bothering the woman or they would have to deal with me!" "I'm impressed," St. Peter responded, "When did this happen?" ”Oh,” the guy said, "About two minutes ago."
There are others, as well, who may be a little less than heroes; but their stories still need to be heard. It was at the coffee hour a few weeks ago when Arnold was talking with a couple of guys from the parish about married life. One of the guys was saying that he had had it. He said that he had been doing the cooking for too many years, that it was his wife’s job, and enough is enough.
“So I told her,” he said, “this cooking is not my job . . it’s yours. . .and I want you to start cooking good meals, from scratch, from now on. “Well,” he said, “The first day I didn’t see anything, the second day I didn’t see anything, but the third day. . and every day after it has been one great meal after another. I’m happy.”
The second guy said, “I know what you mean, only for me it is the housecleaning. So I told my wife, This sharing the vacuuming and all that? That is your work -- not mine, so from now on I want you to fulfill your responsibilities. And,” he told his buddies, “the same thing. The first day I didn’t see anything.. .the second day I didn’t see anything, but the third day and every day after that it has been a clean house, everything sparkling and I’m happy.”
So Arnold says, “Look, I know where you guys are coming from. I told Janet. This stuff about the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry? That is not my responsibility: you are a woman – it is yours. And,” he said, “the first day, I didn’t see anything. The second day, I didn’t see anything. But by the third day some of the swelling had gone down and I could see a little bit out of my left eye.”
I know we are all grateful for Arnold’s new found sight – and even more grateful for the vision we have each been given of the resurrected life intended for us all, regardless of who does the laundry, the cooking and cleaning.
Part of our celebration of this great season of Easter is the observation of Bright Sunday, a remnant of the Medieval Feast of Fools, the day when Easter was celebrated with all kinds of foolery -- ranging from jokes and stories to dressing the priest up in a donkey suit and chasing him around the sanctuary. Now that I am in my 60’s, we have wisely restricted the day to jokes and stories. So, some of the best, more of the worst, and a couple from the all time hits list.
But, to tell you the truth, last Sunday afternoon, following the Easter Service, I was thinking of preaching a regular sermon today.While Ann and I were out driving down River Road, I asked her, “Ann, how many really great preachers do think there are in the State of California?” She paused for a minute and said, “Probably one fewer than you think.”
Well, I’m used to that. Last week I asked Bruce Taylor how he liked the upgrade to our sound system. He said, “I don’t like it.” So I asked him why. He said, “Had I wanted to hear what you were saying, I would have sat up front.”
I did try to expand my awareness of things on the trip Ann and I took to Italy last Fall. In between restaurants, we did go to see some religious art. Sometimes that is not easy, because there are always people around talking. One of the most beautiful paintings I saw was Frescobaldi’s “Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden.” But, sure enough, while I was trying to soak in the meaning of the art, there were these three guys jabbering. The first guy, a Brit, was saying, “Look at their reserve, their calm, they must be British.” The second guy, a Frenchman, said, “No. No. That’s nonsense. “Look at them: they’re naked and so beautiful. They are so clearly French.” “You’ve both got it wrong,” said the third, a guy with a Slavic accent. "No clothes, no shelter, they have only an apple to eat -- and they're being told this is paradise. They’ve got to be Russian."
Former parishioner, Amy Nack, told me about the woman flying to France. Shortly after take-off, the pilot came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got some serious turbulence ahead so we are going to have to detour -- so our 7 hour flight will be more like 10 hours.” Well, the woman started going crazy, yelling “Let me off, let me off! I can’t take it!” When the stewardess arrived, the woman told her about her claustrophobia. She said she was prepared for the 7 hour flight, but there was no way could she handle 10 hours. The stewardess tried to calm her down. She said, “You’re going to France, right?” [Yes] “Do you speak the language? [No] So the stewardess said, “I’m going to give you a set of headphones. One of the channels has French lessons – and that may preoccupy you enough.” The woman said she was not sure, but she would try.
At the end of the flight, the woman gave the headphones back to the stewardess and said, “I can’t thank you enough. I not only made it, but I know some of the language – and I know that because of that. . . I’m going to have a great vacation.” So, after she cleared customs and got into a taxi, the driver asked her where she was going and she said, “#%#*%#. . . . . .” (sound of static)
That was Amy’s joke, not mine – and Amy is now safely in Boise, Idaho. So, maybe it is time to move away from the jokes and into some history. I don’t know how many of you are aware of it, but before he got into movies, Clint Eastwood actually worked for Wells Fargo in a remote part of Montana where they still used the Pony Express. On one of his deliveries, he thought he heard something so he asked his partner to check. So his partner turned around to look and said, “Yeh, someone’s back there.” Clint said, “How far away. . . how big is he?” “He’s pretty far back: he’s only about this big.” (thumb and forefinger about an inch apart)
So the two upped their pace, but after about 10 minutes, Clint asked again, “How far back is he? . . . how big is he now?” His partner checked it out and said, “He’s getting closer. .he’s about this big.” (thumb and forefinger about four inches apart). Ten minutes later, Eastwood said, “I think I hear him – how close is he now?” His partner checked and said, “He’s real close. . . he’s almost as big as we are.” “Well,” said Clint, “Shoot him!” “Shoot him?” said his partner, “I can’t shoot him!” “Why can’t you shoot him?” asked Clint. “How can I shoot him? I’ve known him since he was this high!?!” (thumb and forefinger about an inch apart)
I know that by now you all are missing Howard Coe a lot. If you remember, one Bright Sunday, as I began my sermon by saying, “Well, where to begin? where to begin?” Howard said, for all to hear, “As close to the end as possible.” And we are getting close.
Toward the end of his life, when he was suffering from the accumulated effects of a lifetime of drinking, a very ill W.C. Fields was discovered by one of us friends reading the Bible. His friend, flabbergasted, asked: “What are you, an atheist, doing --.reading the Bible?” Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes. . . looking for loopholes.”
Over the years, we have had Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and atheist jokes, but nothing about Hinduism, so . . . Two Hindu swamis were talking one day. One said to the other, "How did you like my latest book, 'The Art of Levitation'?" ”It was incredible,” his friend said, "It kept me up all night."
Back to the Bible. Sometimes the Bible can get you in trouble. Like when the cake decorator in New Zealand was asked to inscribe I John 4:8: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” – on a wedding cake. Unfortunately he misread the verse – and when the cake arrived at the wedding reception it was discovered that not I John 4:8 ,,,,but John 4:8 was inscribed on the cake: “For you have five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Peter Demmon got called over the house of one of our teenagers. While cleaning the teenagers room, the girl’s parent had found this note, tacked up on her bulletin board: Job 7:11.
The girl’s parent had looked it up in the Bible and it read: “Therefore, I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”
Peter said he thought it might indicate a serious cry for help – so he asked me to come over. I arrived just about the time the teenager arrived home and I asked if we could all pray; so I prayed for reassurance, for trust and courage for the young woman, and most of all for a sense of hope for her. As the adults all said, “Amen,” she asked what that was all about. So I showed her the note and expressed our concern. “Oh, that,” she said, “that’s there to remind me that there’s a job opening at 7/11.”
As I’ve told some of you before, despite the rumors and what so many of you have said is your common experience, there are times when we clergy do make a real difference in people’s lives. Less than a year ago I ran into a fellow who seemed as depressed as anyone I’ve ever seen. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “It’s terrible. I’ve lost my job. My health insurance has run out. I’m about to lose my house and my car. My wife is going to leave me and I can’t afford to buy my children decent clothes so they can go to school.” I told him I might be able to help and asked if he had a Bible at home. He said he did. I said, “What I want you to do is to go home, take out your Bible, close your eyes and riffle through the pages of the Bible until God tells you to stop. Then, the Holy Spirit will guide your index finger to something on that page which will be the answer to your problems.” The guy said, “It sounds crazy, but I will try it.”
I didn’t see him for some time, but then, just a couple of weeks ago I saw him on Main Street and he looked terrific. He ran up to me and said, “Father, I can’t thank you enough. I don’t have a job yet, but I can keep my car and my house and my children are in school and I know we are all going to make it!” I asked him how all this came about and he said, “I did what you told me. I got out my Bible, closed my eyes, riffled through the pages and stopped when God told me to stop. Then the Holy Spirit guided my finger to the page – and when I lifted up my finger, there is was: the answer to all my problems!” “Really?” I said, “and what did it say?”
He said, “Chapter 11.”
Another family was at a restaurant. While his parents were having dessert, their son picked up a coin from the table and put it in his mouth. Before his father can warn him, he swallowed it and it got jammed in his windpipe. Well, his parents are frantic and screaming to the patrons that their son is choking on a coin stuck in his windpipe – can anyone help? A nicely dressed middle aged man about four tables away, calmly takes a sip from his coffee, folds up his newspaper neatly, stands up and moves toward the child. He then firmly grabs a handful of the boy’s crotch and continues to hold on tightly while the boy heaves and heaves and finally coughs up the coin onto the table. The father, so very grateful, begins to thank the man profusely. “You saved my son’s life,” the father said, “Are you a doctor. . . or maybe a surgeon?” “Oh, heavens no,” said the man, Nothing like that. . . I work for the IRS.”
One last story: A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing -- and his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls 911. He describes the scene to the operator and cries: “My friend is dead! My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's really dead.” There is a silence on the line, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?"
“OK, now what?” And that, of course, is the only real question for us in this glorious Easter Season. “Now what?” Now that we know – beyond any question or doubt that the light is stronger than death, that forgiveness is stronger than guilt, that resurrection is stronger than death and that our destiny as the children of God is utter bliss. . . .“Now what?” Do we live out our lives singing dirges of fear, hopelessness and worry or do we sing out, with every fiber of our being, “Alleluia.”
Satan thought that the light had been extinguished, buried in a tomb. But the joke was on Satan and all the forces of death, for Christ has burst that prison – and holds the door wide open for you and me. Alleluia.