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When each of my two daughters were in High School, they went through a phase that many people experience at some point in life. They rebelled. They defied the cocoon of suburban morality and safety that their mom and I had tried to create for them. At an early point in their high school years they each began to hang out with the allegedly bad kids, the different kids, the ones who did not fit into the well-scrubbed, preppie, rich, blonde and beautiful group. My daughter Amy’s new friends were comprised of the outcasts – the ones who dressed in black, the artistic and theatrical kids, the rebels, the not so beautiful, the ones who smoked behind the gym, even one brave young man who had come out as gay.
For me, a Pastor in a local church, this was alarming stuff. And their mom was concerned too. We saw little evidence that our girls were doing anything significantly bad. There was no evidence of drugs, no hint of early sexual activity, no school skipping. But they did sneak out of the house a few times. They admitted to some smoking and some drinking. They got angry at our rules and my expectation that they attend my church’s weekly youth group. There were the normal parent-teen fights. Overall, it was their new friends that alarmed us. It was guilt by association. Our girls would be supposedly bad girls just because of the kids they hung out with.
I talked to Amy this past week – first asking permission to talk about her today and second asking about that period in her life. During her junior high years, Amy experienced a medical condition which caused much of her hair to fall out. For a young teenager, nothing worse could have happened. She wore hats and we arranged for hair pieces to try and cover up the condition. But, her appearance was still very different. Amy became anxious, upset and shy. Sadly, as she now tells me, many kids at school were horribly cruel to her because of her strange appearance. Some of her former friends – those in the so-called “in crowd”, immediately turned on her. To those kids, she was no longer the vivacious, happy and pretty girl. She was different, sullen, and someone who wore hats and wigs.
As Amy told me this past week, it was the outcast kids, the Gothic ones, the rebels, the smokers, the geeks who embraced her and befriended her despite her appearance. The so-called bad kids were the nice ones. And Amy found something wonderful and surprising in them……as bad as they seemed on the exterior, they were the most generous to her, the most willing to understand and help, the ones who accepted differences in others more willingly. They weren’t saints and they had their issues of anger, intolerance and self-destructive behavior. But for Amy, these were kids who did not care about her hair, her clothes, or her parent’s lack of high status. Unknown to her mom or me, Amy was learning from this group of kids the values which make her a kind and compassionate person today. We’re all different in our own ways. We all occasionally break rules of good behavior. We all want many of the same things in life – love, happiness, security. But the greatest gift we can offer others is the gift of acceptance, appreciation and respect.
Most of us know the Good Friday and Easter stories. We see reminders of it outside many churches. Three crosses are lined up, the middle one usually a bit larger and draped with a purple cloth, to symbolize royalty. These symbols remind us of Jesus’ crucifixion as they also remind us that, according to the story in the Gospel of Luke, he was not crucified alone. He was executed in the company of two condemned thieves, two low-lifes, two of the baddest of the bad. This indicates that Jesus’ execution was not a particularly special event. The Romans crucified people almost every day – doing so along roadways in order to show the population who was in control. Jesus was just another outcast whom the Romans wanted to eliminate.
Luke tells us that as Jesus hung on the cross, as he neared death, one of the criminals began to derisively harangue him. “If you are so great and so powerful Jesus, why are you here? Why don’t you save yourself!” Importantly, however, the other thief tells his cohort to shut up. Jesus, this man said, was being executed for what he taught and not for any real crimes. He should be honored and not condemned.
Jesus praised the man for his words, implicitly thanking him for his words of support. And then Jesus acknowledged him as a person of goodness, as one whose heart was sincere and full of compassion. They would meet again that day in Paradise, Jesus said. This criminal, this low-life had understood Jesus and what he taught. And Jesus befriended him.
This last act of grace by Jesus has been long discussed. For many, it indicates that even a death-bed confession of sincere faith will be enough to get one into heaven. God judges the heart and not necessarily a lifetime of actions which may or may not be good. What is also striking is that Jesus would, at a moment of great pain and distress, reach out to one who was beneath him in stature and reputation. It is typical of how he apparently conducted most of his life. As the Bible explicitly states, Jesus was a friend of those who were deemed sinners and bad people. He was a friend and frequent companion of low-lifes, thieves, prostitutes, tax-collectors, cheats, and drunkards. And the Easter story of how he offered kindness to a dying criminal, proves it.
Many Christians, if they must admit it, do not like the Bible verse in the Gospel of Matthew saying Jesus was a friend of sinners. They take pains to re-interpret it and claim that he spent time with bad people only in an effort to change them. They point out that the Bible never describes Jesus as himself indulging in anything they would consider sinful.
But common sense and a basic understanding of human nature tells us that Jesus likely did drink and enjoy alcohol, that he likely enjoyed the attention of women, and that he clearly enjoyed parties in the company of people with bad reputations. He was more than their friend. He was one of them in that he grew up in a backwater town, hung out with outcasts, and he lived among street people – those who used any means to survive. Indeed, he too had bad reputation – a man who was followed by gossip that he was bastard child. Jesus is described as a man who frequently attended raucous parties – events where wine and very flirtatious women were present. His first miracle, as the Gospel stories report, was to turn several large vats of water at a party into wine – a story that indicates alcohol was important to him. Befriending a common criminal was therefore something typical of how Jesus lived and acted.
But what does this nuanced understanding of Jesus mean for us on Easter? What does it mean for us as an example of how we might live and act?
One of Eugene O’Neill’s more obscure plays is entitled “Lazarus Laughed”. It’s described as a philosophical piece – one that is intended to teach a clear lesson, much like the morality plays of medieval times. As many of us know the Bible story of Lazarus, he was the first human to have supposedly returned from the dead. He was resurrected by Jesus in a miracle said by interpreters to foreshadow the Easter resurrection. The Bible story has Jesus coming to Lazarus’ tomb after he had been buried for four days. In an amusing exchange between Jesus and Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, they warn him not to enter the tomb. “He stinketh”, they say – in the King James Version of the Bible – a translation I find amusing.
At any rate, O’Neill describes a Lazarus who emerges from his tomb laughing uproariously. As crowds of people clamor to ask him what death is like, he reports that there is no death – only God’s eternal laughter. Over and over he is tested in his faith and questioned about his death experiences. But O’Neill’s Lazarus simply laughs all the harder in a joy filled way – one that shows he was not only happy to be alive but that he was exulting in its pleasures. No matter how much he is tested, tortured and put through miserable experiences – much like the Bible character Job – Lazarus does not wilt, but continues to laugh and be joyful. Brought before the Roman emperor Tiberius who cannot tolerate a message that tells people not to fear death, the play comes to its dramatic end. As Lazarus is threatened in the play with a horrible death of being burned alive at the stake, he repeats his mantra – “There is no death, only laughter and joy!” The curtain falls as flames hiss and burn a laughing and happy Lazarus.
O’Neill clearly wants his audience to reflect on the meaning of life and death. And such reflections lead us to what we might learn from the Easter story and from Jesus’ embrace of so-called sinners, raucous parties and joyful living. It’s not Jesus’ literal resurrection from the dead on Easter that has meaning and importance for us. Whether or not we accept his resurrection in deep faith or not, that’s not what ought to be important. Death might be the physical end of life but the fear of it can also be a symbolic diminishing of our life experiences. We can be physically alive but dead in spirit, dead in joy, dead in laughter, dead in kindness, compassion, service and love. As Eugene O’Neill shows us in his play, Lazarus refused to be dead in spirit due to a fear of death.
The important lesson of Easter for me is that Jesus was resurrected in the hearts and minds of his followers. His way of life, his teachings, his ethics, his modeling of friendship with supposedly bad people – these are the things that did not die. And his followers would not let them die but instead sought to retell them and spread the news of them as far and as wide as possible. This was a man, they implicitly said, who understood the heart of God, who understood the joyful and fulfilling way of life. It’s not about outward appearance, hypocritical moral piety, and a dour existence denying life’s many pleasures. Laugh! Love! Create! Serve! Embrace this gift of living and make sure to spread it and insure it for as many people as possible.
What my daughter Amy learned when, like Jesus, she began to hang out with people of bad reputations is that they often hold the keys to life that many of us never find. Too many of us are obsessed with how we appear, with acquiring things that show off our success, with serving the demands of our petty egos, and with looking down on or ignoring the outcasts in life – the poor, the addicts, the gays, the differently appearing, the unwashed, the ugly, the criminals, the homeless ones born on the wrong side of the tracks.
Such people understand what it is to be humble, to live without plenty, to be someone who is considered different, to be called a sinner. They have no masks. They have no appearances to keep up. More often than not, they understand what it means to accept others, to rely on faith, to give, to serve, to enjoy simple pleasures of friendship, parties, drink and fun. The earthy, dirty, and profane ones are often those who hold the keys to love and life.
Jesus did not call us to as much serve these people. He called us to join them and to BE one of them: to live without the small worries of property, to throw off the hypocritical standards of pious living, to let go of ego, to reject life diminishing fears of pain and death. The kingdom of God is here right now folks. Make it better. Enjoy it. Share it with others. Embrace it.
We had a party of sorts here last Sunday. It was a Passover Seder celebration and meal. I was acting my usual Martha self – trying to make sure all of the details were nice. Even so, I had fun too. I really enjoyed a service in which I could also listen to others, eat, laugh, party. What touched me at the time was how this congregation reacted to the guests in our midst. A new couple walked in a bit late, expecting a church service and instead found themselves quickly sitting at a dinner table – one they chose to sit at all alone. A homeless and wheelchair bound man came in too – wanting some food and to share our good times. So too did Adam, the homeless young man who has attended in the past. In the middle of our Seder event, members got up and purposefully went over to sit with and befriend the new couple sitting by themselves. Others helped the man in the wheelchair, got him his food and listened to his story of being an Iraq war veteran down on his luck. Others sat next to and welcomed Adam, once again into our midst.
These were small acts. But they were Jesus acts. Welcome new ones. Good to see you homeless guys. We’re having a party. Join us! I love and deeply admire this little, humble Gathering that does so much.
My friends, what was horribly displayed on that first Good Friday 2000 years ago at the three crosses was hate and death. Hate for the one who is different. Hate for one who advocates for the dispossessed. Hate for the criminal. Hate for those who break religious rules of so-called good behavior. Hate for one who hangs out with and is a friend of alleged sinners and bad people. Death, in all its manifestations of body and spirit, was on display.
What was resurrected three days later on Easter morning was love. Love for others no matter how different. Love for people with all their flaws, sins, diseases and issues. Love for life and its pleasures. Love for reaching out and serving family, friend and stranger. Love for peace and non-violence. Love for humility and generosity.
The death we must fear is not the end of our physical bodies. The death we should fear, instead, is the hate that can infect us and others: the hate that fears those who are different; the hate that wags its hypocritical tongue at the alleged sins of others – all while ignoring more profound sins in the heart, the hate that purposefully looks away from those who suffer in poverty, hunger and hopelessness.
May we, this day of all days, reflect on what it means to celebrate an Easter of laughter, an Easter of joy, an Easter of love and friendship with any and all people – no matter how coarse, sinful or dirty they might appear. For you see, my dear friends, there is no death, only eternal laughter and joy and building a new and better earth. Happy Easter everyone.