Smiling Church

Our lesson today includes a passage where the disciples of Jesus are having too much fun and Jesus gets criticized for this. But let’s face it: in the eyes of most people – including many Christians – being a good Christian and having a good time do not usually go together. In our country, the first Christians were puritans and

H.L. Mencken once described a Puritan as a person with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy.

To illustrate, humorist Erma Bombeck shares the following story: one Sunday in church she observed a small child who was not causing any trouble at all but was smiling at everyone she could. His mother finally grabbed him and said, “Stop that grinning! You’re in church!” This was followed by another forceful reprimand. Soon after, tears rolled down the boy’s cheeks. The mother said, “That‘s better,” and she returned to her prayers.

Knowing that religious people shouldn’t be grinning, people were curious about Jesus. They asked him, “John’s disciples and the Pharisee’s disciples fast and pray; why do your disciples eat and drink?” In other words, “Jesus, your disciples are not nearly serious enough about this religion thing. They’ve got to get the rules and observances down. They act like they’re celebrating all the time.”

Jesus responded by saying, basically, they are celebrating all the time. “You cannot make the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is with them,” said Jesus. He was, of course, speaking about himself. Jesus was the groom, but who was the bride? Everyone at the wedding feast! God was creating a new humanity through the presence of his son, Jesus. So, not only has God decided to “be with us” – Emmanuel – God has decided to create a new family that includes us, with Christ at the head. The marriage feast is one of the major symbols of celebration and of grace in the Bible. No wonder the disciples enjoyed their daily bread and adult beverages – they were at a perpetual wedding feast!

I can relate to the disciples being under fire. When Heidi and I were married, we, too, tested some long-held rules. For both of us, our parents and grandparents were raised in the Lutheran Free Church, a conservative and pietistic denomination. For instance, wedding receptions were in the church basement, with the cake, punch and coffee. No wine. No dancing. I think people always had a good time at these receptions, but they always repented later.

So, for our wedding reception, Heidi and I thought we would slightly change a couple things. We would have the reception at a reception hall, not in a church. We would serve wine and beer. And we would hire a DJ and have a dance. This was all Heidi’s idea by the way. Now, most people within our families were ok with all this, even kind of excited, I think. But one of my aunts was not pleased to learn of this, and she wrote a scathing letter to us, condemning the evils of alcohol and dance. Now, I’m well aware of what alcohol can do to a person if they abuse it. But, so can anything inherently good be used for bad. Besides, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding celebration, and it wasn’t for communion. So, we knew we were in good company.

And dancing? OK, we all know what dancing can lead to, but didn’t the Hebrew men, women and children dance for hours on the shores of the Red Sea after God had delivered them? Did they not dance and feast after the prodigal son returned? Does it not say in the Psalms to praise God with tambourine and dancing? Yes, yes and yes.

Our lives and the many blessings that God gives to us are manifestations of grace. When religion prevents us from receiving these blessings in joy and celebration, something has gone wrong.

Now, normally I’m not a big fan of arranged marriages, but when the bridegroom is God, and we are all the bride, well, that’s pretty cool. Think about it, God is supposed to be some humorless, somber old man with a white beard, waiting to judge us at the pearly gates and throw the book at us for our lack of goodness. And instead he’s down here, in our world, asking for our hand in marriage! This is good news. It is also unmerited grace, for we don’t deserve this invitation.

We know this because Jesus says in our lesson today that “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Think of who is at this wedding celebration. So far in Mark’s Gospel, there is the paralyzed man, now mobile and forgiven. There is the demon possessed man, now demon-free. There is the leper who is healed and restored to his community; the woman whose fever and isolation is lifted. Did any of these people merit having their lives transformed by Jesus? There is nothing to indicate that any of these people were righteous. But they are at the wedding. No wonder there’s a celebration going on! The people who are at the wedding, celebrating the bridegroom, are the recipients of pure, unmerited grace. In fact, the disciples themselves are not righteous. Levi – Matthew – the tax collector, for instance. He was widely considered evil, collecting taxes for the Romans while skimming a generous amount off the top for himself. He is now a follower of Jesus?!

In truth, we are being taught by Jesus that there is no such thing as “righteous people” to begin with – only those who think they are. And those people are definitely not fun. They think they have merited some special status because of their obedience. And that sense of superiority and entitlement has a dreadful effect on one’s capacity to show compassion and be gracious.

No wonder a little girl once prayed the following prayer: “Oh God. Make the bad people good and the good people nice.”

People who know they are sinners, who know they are broken, those are people Jesus came for. They are open to Jesus because they know that only grace will save them.

None of this means that fasting and prayer don’t have their place with followers of Jesus. Fasting can be a celebration of our dependence on God, not our stomach’s cravings. Prayer is obviously vital, too, and can be a form of celebration. Prayer and fasting, in the hands of some religious types, though, can be merely a joyless observance – a way of measuring our worth, not responding to grace.

So, why does being a good Christian often entail a sort of somber joylessness or suffocating judgmentalism? I think it happens when we think that being a Christian is primarily about rules. It is not. It is primarily about grace. Rules express our understanding of what we’re supposed to do. The Christian faith is always – always – founded upon what God does. And God gives us life and daily blessings, forgiveness, the promise of healing and wholeness.

It is no accident that the root meaning of the word grace comes from the verb “I rejoice. I am glad.”

But why do most people think of the Christian faith as laws rather than grace and promise? Perhaps because with laws we can then harbor the illusion that we are still in control, that we have earned our way into a special club and are better than others because of our obedience. We become the people who Mark Twain used to talk about who were “good in the worst sense of the word.”

Yet Christian theology is clear: rules and laws, while having great practical value and even being a gift from God, cannot bring life. In the end, the law brings only death because it brings judgment. Not just on the other guy, on you and me, too. It all comes down to God’s love that God chooses to share with us. “If not for the grace of God, so go I.” We receive one undeserved gift after another because it is God’s good pleasure to give them to us.

Isak Dinesen wrote a story in the 19th century entitled “Babette’s Feast” that is also a movie. It is about one marvelous feast of pure grace served to a group of people whose strict and spartan piety had choked the life out of them. One honored guest at this feast, who has regrets of his own, sees quite clearly the significance of the occasion. He stands up and offers a reflection…

“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything we have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together; and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

This is the new wine that requires new wineskins: when mercy is infinite, and righteousness and bliss kiss one another. So be grateful, my friends, and be humble. Our world needs more grateful and humble hearts. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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