XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

Goodtime Jesus

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Feb 26

The First Sunday in Lent
Lessons: Mark 1: 9-15 

Wilderness. Temptation. Thirst. Discipline. Sin. Repentance. Suffering. Mortality. Death.  With these words, and for those who were not able to be with us on Ash Wednesday, allow me to say -- Welcome to Lent!  Let there be no question: Lent is a serious season, with some very serious themes. It’s a time when we find Christians giving up or taking on any number of serious endeavors.  Truth be told, I love the seriousness of Lent, the focus and challenge it usually brings to my life and souls. This year is no different in that regard.  And yet, for whatever reason, I find myself drawn to a lighter Lenten starting point this year.

A writer friend of mine recently sent me a short poem by the Pullitzer Prize winning poet and UMass Amherst Professor, James Tate.  It’s called Goodtime Jesus. Lest we take ourselves too seriously on this first Sunday of Lent, check this out:

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau-
tiful day.  How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little
ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

A copy of it will be on its way to your mailboxes this week since its featured in my cover letter for our next newsletter. I couldn’t resist using it twice.  I’ve been pulling it out of my pocket for a few weeks now, calling it up on my iPhone and gleefully showing it to serious-faced colleagues and friends, most of whom had never heard it before. If you missed any parts, I’ll read it again to you at the end. The poem offers such a refreshingly light-hearted image of Jesus, doesn’t it?  It’s a Jesus some of us could never imagine on our own.  It also strikes such a starkly contrasting tone to our usual high-minded, deep-spirited and über-serious approaches to Lent.  In a few short lines, Tate manages to make Jesus and what it means to “walk with him” so much more accessible. And he somehow does so without pulling any punches.

First, if we can forgive Jesus for sleeping a little late (and God forgive us if we can’t), the poem starts with talk of a nightmare!  Jesus dreams about death! Its walking all around him. Pretty deep, right?  Maybe even serious enough for Lent!  Yet Jesus wakes up, unafraid, able to encounter the day’s beauty, cup o’ Joe and ready to go.  If we’re not careful, we might miss Tate’s next move.  Whether it was intentional or not, he foreshadows Palm Sunday, the road to Jerusalem.  Did you catch it?  Take a little ride on my donkey?  This cracks me up, and yet, we all know where that little donkey that Jesus loves is taking him.  On Palm Sunday, the donkey is what Jesus rides down the road into the heart of Jerusalem, where he will be persecuted, tortured, and sentenced to a brutal death.  Set in this context and given what we know of the story, the last line, and another laugh line, becomes the most poignant of all.  “Hell, I love everybody!”

Can you see why I love this poem and why I love it for Lent?  Our journey this season, should we choose to accept it, is one that will make us face grave trauma and tragedy.  It will invite us to take an unflinching look at our human condition, our mortality, our selfishness, our complacency, our sin against ourselves, one another and the planet.  Lent invites us to contemplate, and to sit still, for 40 days in those wilderness places where are hearts are most “tender, truthful and real,” as Kate Layzer so beautifully puts it in one of our hymns.  More than that, Lent welcomes us to ponder the inevitably of our death and the death of those we love.  In Lent, on our walk with Jesus, death is walking all around us too!

Though Mark gives us a much shorter version of the story than Luke, we can readily see the scriptural foundation for Lent. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.  Talk about stark!  Forty days, face to face with some life-defying force of evil, surrounded by wild beasts.  Doesn’t get more serious than that. Without wanting to soften impact of this template in this least, its fair to ask, how did he do it?  What life-affirming force sustained him in this time of trial?  How does Goodtime Jesus or Anytime Jesus for that matter find the resilience to see him through the six weeks of trial which prepares him for what is to come, especially his last week in Jerusalem.

The key comes, I think, in the far lighter starting point of our text.  The beauty of reading the two-sentence version of the temptation story in Mark is that it leaves us room to hear what comes just before.  When we more commonly read the story in Luke, which includes details about all three of the devil’s temptations, we miss the moment of visceral affirmation that Jesus receives from the Spirit at his baptism.  We miss those words that tell Jesus (and us) once and for all, everything he needs to know about who he is at the core of his being.  You are my beloved. With you, I am well pleased.  And with just that bread for the journey in his spiritual lunchbox, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the desert.  Indeed, he’s got exactly what he needs to be ready for anything.

Perhaps the real test for Jesus (and for all of us) during this and any season in our spiritual lives is whether or not we will remember who we are, whether or not we will remember our baptism, remember that initial affirmation – not of our personality, our accomplishments, our striving, but that affirmation of the very essence of our being!   For it was only when he was filled with this knowledge, still wet behind his ears from the Jordan, that the Winds of the Spirit started blowing. Only with the precious knowledge of God’s love, could Jesus stand strong against those winds and whatever the devil threw at him. With this knowledge, Jesus was not swayed by power or freedom from being vulnerable nor freedom from death.  Where lesser souls would lose their minds, hearts and souls in such moments, Jesus could resist and endure because he could know and remember who he was.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Introduction to Thomas Merton’s last written work, simply titled “Contemplative Prayer”, the Tibetan monk quotes Thomas Merton:  “In the language of the monastic father, all prayers, reading, meditation, and all the activities of the monastic life are aimed at a purity of heart, and unconditioned and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and of our situation as willed by [God]!.  It means the renunciation of all deluded images of ourselves, all exaggerated estimates of our own capacities, in order to obey God’s will as it comes to us.”  A total acceptance of ourselves, he says, no exaggerations, no delusions, no self esteem issues, no control issues, no projections!

What’s more, a paragraph later, Thich Nhat Hanh writes of our tradition and Merton’s:  When John the Baptist helped Jesus touch the Holy Spirit, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.  He went into the wilderness forty to strengthen the Spirit in Himself!”

Leave it to a monk, albeit of another faith, to offer such an exquisite charge for us as we begin our Lenten experience together.  From those womb-like waters of utter security and divine confirmation of the essence of our being, we too enter into the wilderness of our broken hearts and our broken world to strengthen the Spirit that is already in us.   Consider Lent as a time to remember and strengthen your resolve to hear God’s love for you and for the world in spite of whatever aimlessness, whatever sin, whatever heartache, whatever self-deprecation, whatever circumstance you encounter.  When we strengthen the Spirit, or allow the Spirit to find its full strength in us, we too might find ourselves awakening to a new, and perhaps even more whimsical, fearless, curious, loving, grateful and goodtime life, even and especially when we find ourselves on a hard-time road.

Seen in this light, that poem I began with may start to make more sense.  Goodtime Jesus is so self possessed of knowledge of God’s love for him and love for others, that he can act as if he doesn’t have a care in the world! The fundamental baptismal faith that God offers to Jesus and each of us who are willing to enter those dirty river waters of solidarity with crowds of sinners, gives Jesus an unflinching faith that is no way forced.  Jesus surrenders himself to the truth of what the Spirit tells him in the river and rises to greet to the day, and every challenge ahead of him with grace and confidence and even, perhaps, a light and exuberant heart.  Sure, there are days ahead that will wear him down, but to remember who we are and whose we are everyday, to remember that God loves us and that hell, God loves everybody might make the serious pill of Lenten practice a little easier to swallow.

Imagine if this Lent, we sought to cultivate that exuberance, that joy, that pervasive love for all of humankind and all of the human condition, our own included, how much more could we take on, how much more could we move effectively and prophetically each of our days, responding to God’s call to do our part to help usher in the kin-dom and help God’s will to be done here on earth. Let this be a season in which we allow the Spirit to drive us and work within us, to remind us who we are and who we are called to be in the world.  We too can have the grace, courage and resilience whenever it feels like we are waking up from or living through a bad dream in our lives or in our world.  Just feel for that baptismal wetness behind the ear, God’s love and assurance that is waiting for us every day, as you prepare yourself for whatever the day or whatever these forty days may bring.  Or simply remember Goodtime Jesus.

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau-
tiful day.  How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little
ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

Lent can be for us too just that light and just that serious of an endeavor.  Amen.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...