December 13, 2015
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Carol Rosine
At the First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA
Last week when Elizabeth was lamenting my impending retirement she said that one quality that she likes about me is that I laugh quite easily. And so it is true. In fact for years I had a bumper sticker taped above my computer that read “She who laughs, lasts.” A pithy reminder for me when life is spinning out of control, when my worry gauge is broken, when the weight of the world is resting securely on my shoulders alone, when there is so much to do that I barely have time to breath, when I am grim and unable to laugh. And so it seems an especially good reminder right now, 12 days before Christmas when folks with furrowed brows maneuver their carts through crowded aisles, snapping at children who lag behind. When folks fidget in long lines approaching the cash register, obviously annoyed as they check their watches. That if we are to last, it is really good to retain the impulse to laugh.
One year as Christmas approached, I overheard an irate customer accuse a harried clerk of being lazy. This clerk had told the woman that the store was out of gift boxes. “You just don’t want to go into the back room and look for more,” the customer snapped. And I thought to myself, “Oh dear, I think it’s time to lighten up.” I was next in line and had only a gift card for the store in my hand, so I leaned over and whispered to the clerk, “I won’t be needing a box.” We looked at each other and both of us burst out laughing. Tension? Gone.
Often at this time of the year with Christmas approaching, I will write a sermon about Jesus in order to talk about our Unitarian Universalist understanding of him as a historical figure—as a teacher, a prophet, an exemplar for how to live. Well, I confess that this sermon is about Jesus as well, but instead of talking about Jesus as a liberal scholar of the Bible might, I’m going to talk about a Jesus who very possibly could have said, “A birthday coming up? Holidays? Time to eat, drink, and be merry!” I’m going to talk about a Jesus who drank wine and told stories while sitting at the table, eating with a wide variety of people, even women. According to some of the non-canonical Gospels, those that didn’t make it into the official canon found in the Bible, this is a Jesus who danced. A Jesus who laughed. Did you know that if you google, “portrait of Jesus laughing,” several will pop up? Try it sometimes. I especially like the full belly laughing Jesus with eyes flashing and head thrown back.
Several years ago Thomas Moore gave me a copy of his recently published book, Writing in the Sand, which is a commentary on the Gospels in which he offers an image of Jesus that could be startling for those of us who grew up with, what Thomas calls, a vanilla Jesus. I preached out of this book once before, but this morning I’m going back to it so that as Christmas approaches when we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, you might have a different image of the man that this baby grew into.
You may have heard of Thomas Moore who is the author of the best-selling book, Care of the Soul. His credentials include being a Jungian psychotherapist as well as having a solid grounding in theology, world religions, art history, and ancient mythology. He spent his younger years in a monastery preparing to be a priest, and today calls himself a Zen Catholic, not a believer in the Jesus who was what he calls “the bland moralist offering pie-in-the-sky rewards for good living,” but an admirer of the earthy Jesus who “lived the good life of friends, loves, community, and a fascinating original philosophy.”
Thomas says, “When I was ten years old, I saw the sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s about a man who comes to Earth in a spaceship to tell the warring governments of Earth not to bring their conflicts out into space. Like a Gnostic messenger, he travels here to warn human beings to change their way of life. This movie… draws parallels to the story of Jesus… whose mission was not to draw attention to himself but to transform the way human beings live. … It’s as though Jesus descended from another planet to tell us where we are going wrong and how our basic assumptions are off base. That is why we are so caught up in wars and injustice and inequalities. We assume that these gaps in human intelligence are natural and inevitable. Jesus talks as a visitor unfamiliar with this reasoning and offers a way out of our stupidity…. His purpose for being here was not to form a religion, but to transform the world, not to exploit this life for a heavenly reward but to establish heaven on earth.”
Those of us who are familiar with Jesus will know the story of his birth. We know that it is said that he could perform miracles, that he could heal the sick and raise the dead and turn water into wine. We know that he taught in parables, confusing, paradoxical, thinking-outside-the-box parables. We know that he had a lot of followers, most of whom didn’t understand most of what he was teaching. We know that he defied conventional practices and assumptions. That he gathered all kinds of people around his table, saints and sinners alike. We know that he got angry, that he was quick to forgive, that there were times when he was afraid, when he felt abandoned. We know that he experienced pain and that he suffered. All this we know about Jesus because of the stories told about him.
But so often the Jesus portrayed by True Believers is not this complex, earthy Jesus but the perfect Son-of-God Jesus, the fair-skinned Jesus with silky tresses, eyes cast piously toward the heavens. It’s the Jesus with clean feet and fingernails, staff in hand leading his sheep or sitting with children surrounding him. At least this was the Jesus portrayed in my Sunday School classroom when I was a child and in the pictures hanging over my bed.
Well, the Jesus that Thomas Moore talks about in this book is a deeply spiritual Jesus, a talented teacher with an extraordinary way of looking at life and offering alternatives, someone who was very serious and who paid dearly for it. But he was no ascetic like John the Baptist who lived in caves, wore tattered garments, and refused to eat bread or drink wine. Jesus was deeply spiritual, it is true, but he was also earthy and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. In fact, Thomas goes as far as calling him an Epicurean. Today we think of an Epicurean as being someone who loves fancy food and drinks way too much. But the philosopher Epicurus taught that life’s deepest and most lasting pleasures must be enjoyed in moderation. He taught that food and fellowship were important ways to care for the soul but he was not a hedonist.
And so it was with Jesus the Epicurean—neither ascetic nor hedonist, but someone who drank wine and gathered with friends and strangers around the table, obviously taking delight in the fellowship and the food which not only keeps the body healthy, but the spirit and the soul as well.
There’s a story told in the book of Luke in which a Pharisee asks Jesus to eat with him, and so Jesus went into his house and sat at the table. A woman who had a bad reputation in town heard that he was having dinner at the home of the Pharisee and brought an alabaster jar full of oil. As she knelt, she began to cry, her tears wetting Jesus’s feet. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the oil. The Pharisee host said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him, that she is wicked,’ The Gospel goes on to say:
Jesus said to him, “Simon, I want to tell you something.”
Simon said, “Teacher speak to me.”
“Two men owed money to a tender. One owed five hundred dollars, the other fifty. Neither could afford to pay him, so he canceled both their debts. Now, which of them do you think will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who was freed of the larger debt.”
Turning toward the woman, Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you didn’t offer me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn’t kiss me, but this woman hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I arrived. You didn’t offer me oil for my head, but she has poured oil on my feet.
“I’m telling you, because she has so much love, her many acts of wickedness are forgiven. Whoever has found forgiveness for something small doesn’t love as much.”
Then Jesus told her, “You bad behavior is forgiven.”
This is a story of forgiveness, of course. A story about transformation in a person who needs it the most. But it also shows how much Jesus appreciated a degree of sensuality and physical care. Washing, oil, a kiss of greeting– Jesus affirms these simple, sensual acts of kindness and civility. The excessive purity and moralistic judgment of the Pharisee, Simon, have no place in this story.
Jesus taught that we are to love ourselves and love our neighbors. Not an abstract, bodiless love, not a love that has no need for friendship or physical warmth. Thomas Moore says, “Having good friends, treating people well, operating in every instance from a rule of love rather than judgment—this is the soul of the Gospels. Living from the heart, enjoying life, seeking the deep and ordinary pleasures, eating in such a way that everyone is invited to your table—these are the soulful rules of conduct demonstrated in the Gospels.”
Another gospel which did not find its way into the Bible is the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel says this: “His students asked him, ‘When will the kingdom be here?’ Jesus answered, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ No, the spirit of the father is spread out on the earth and people don’t see it.” The blessings, the beauty, are spread before us, this passage says, but we don’t see it.
I know that some of you are seriously worried about things that are happening in your lives, that some of you are in pain, that some of you wonder if life is worth the struggle. I know that some of you worry about the world we’ve created for our children and what their future may hold in store. I know that some of you are just pre-occupied right now with long lists of things you have to do in the next 11 days. That you’re exhausted, short-tempered, stressed. Our souls may be pretty frayed right now and in need of some tender loving care.
Recently I ran into a family that hadn’t been in church for several months. They were quick to apologize saying that they were just too busy to take time out to come here on Sundays. I must have given them “The Look” because they quickly added, “Oh we know. It’s when we’re the busiest that we need church the most.” And it’s really true. Maybe not church every Sunday, although that would make me happy, but other ways in which we can pause long enough to keep things in perspective. To actually notice the feast spread before us. Worries yes. Fears yes. Anxieties yes. But oh, my friends, life is offering us much more than this. We don’t have to look very far or very hard to find those things for which we can be grateful, those things that will nourish our souls.
We’re in the midst of holidays right now. Hanukkah, the Solstice, Christmas, New Years. What better time to gather with those we love and may even like. Family, friends, and perhaps even strangers, sitting together at the table, eating, drinking, perhaps playing games. But always talking with each other. And laughing, of course.
So take a deep breath. Find ways to lighten up a bit. Remember the Jesus portrayed by Thomas Moore who had plenty to worry about, who was deadly serious, and yet this Jesus could also laugh and dance. Don’t let these moments slip away unnoticed and unappreciated. Make merry in the coming days.
Singing Together: “Deck the Halls” # 235
© Carol Rosine, 2015